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With almost 50 years under his belt, he’s one of the most revered elder statesmen of the fashion industry. As Sir Paul Smith looks back on his career with EDGAR, the British icon says he always has an eye on the future.
Had Paul Smith not suffered a terrible cycling accident aged 18 which put him in hospital for six months, we may not have enjoyed his huge contribution to the fashion world. The crash ended Smith’s dreams of becoming a professional rider and instead led him to a job at a clothing warehouse in his home town of Nottingham, England. He opened a tiny fashion store in 1970 and then launched the Paul Smith label in 1976 with a menswear show in Paris. Knighted by the Queen in 2000, Smith, now 72, has more than 300 shops and franchises worldwide; not bad for a kid who left school aged 15 with no qualifications.
Are you nostalgic about clothes?
Nostalgia is quite difficult in this industry. I always say ‘fashion is about today and tomorrow’ and by that I mean you have to always be looking forward to the next thing. The second you stand still, whether to take a breath or look at what someone else is doing, then you risk being overtaken. You have to keep moving forward and keep innovating. That’s not to say I’m not proud of many of the designs I’ve done, I just try to stay focused on the future.
Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed with the relentless fashion cycle?
It’s always been a very fast-paced business but it feels more so like that than ever before. It was very different starting a creative business in the 1960s compared to now. There were a lot fewer people fishing from the pond that is the fashion industry. Now it’s incredibly competitive. But I wasn’t thinking about that when I started out.
So what were you thinking about?
Nothing was ever really planned. I worked as a shop assistant and then opened my own small shop, but only two days a week at first. It was a slow progression but always self-financed and I’m very proud that we’re still an independent company now. To be honest I just wanted to earn a living in a world of creativity.
When you opened your menswear shop did you ever think about calling it something that wasn’t your name?
At the very beginning back in sleepy Nottingham in the 1960s it was called Paul Smith Vetements Pour Hommes. I thought that by giving it a French name people might think it was a bit more posh!
Do you remember a piece of menswear you bought when you were younger that made an impact on you?
I haven’t kept much but one thing I do keep and collect a lot of is vintage cycle jerseys. I don’t have a particular one from when I was a teenager when I had dreams of being a professional cyclist, but I am lucky to have lots of beautiful ones, often given to me by friends who are professional riders. They’ve inspired my work in lots of different ways from the combination of colours to details like the zips or the back pockets.
We're told you like to visit your stores. Is that right?
I’ve always loved spending time in my shops starting with me running my tiny 3m by 3m windowless first shop in Nottingham. I’ve never lost sight of that. Staying in contact with the people who pay my wages and never losing sight of what the customer wants is such an important part of what I do. I’m not a designer who vanishes into an ivory tower, I’m passionate about being in my shops and soaking everything up.
The typical description of your menswear is ‘classic with a twist.’ Do you agree with that?
When I started making clothes, I was very aware that I wasn’t classically trained. I had learnt bits and bobs from my wife, Pauline who was trained in couture and from a ceremonial tailor who I went to see every now and again. But because I had no formal training I knew I had to make do with what limited design ability I had, which meant adding little unexpected details to otherwise very classic and familiar designs.
Like adding contrast colour hand-stitching to the button-hole of a very classic white shirt or using neon pink instead of white in a chalk-stripe suit. That was my point of view. That hasn’t really changed today. Of course, we do lots of interesting things that don’t have to have an unexpected detail or a twist, but I know that’s what lots of people think of when they hear ‘Paul Smith’.
You’ve always played with motifs on your menswear – ice lollies, octopus, cacti, monkeys, strawberries, ants. How important is humour in your work? And do you think fashion can get a bit serious sometimes?
Absolutely. I’m a very down to earth person. It goes back to what I was saying about not vanishing into an ivory tower. I’m lucky that my wife Pauline has always kept my feet on the ground and has never let me get carried away or have an ego or anything like that. I’m also a very positive and optimistic person so the humorous details and prints and the bright colours and stripes are really a reflection of that.
What do you want men to feel like when they wear your clothes?
Comfortable and confident. I don’t design clothes that only look good on a coat hanger or that you need an instruction manual to put on. I design clothes to really be worn, used and loved, clothes that people can live their everyday lives in.
Do you have mates in the fashion business who you share ideas with?
I definitely make sure I’m aware of what everyone else is doing. I encourage my team of designers to never follow others because if you’re following then someone else is already doing it, so what’s the use in that? But I do think it’s important to have an awareness of what everyone is doing. Having worked in this industry for nearly 50 years I can safely say it’s never been more competitive, but that just means it’s so important to be focused on your own unique point of view. That’s what I try to do at Paul Smith and not get too preoccupied with what’s going on around me.
Are your clothes English or British? And is there a difference?
I hope they’re international. Paul Smith is sold in over 70 countries so hopefully they’re relevant to people in all those places. In the past I’ve been very inspired by aspects of British culture but I’ve also taken inspiration from my travels all over the world. Today it’s very difficult to define British style. Previously it was about Savile Row, country tweeds and a very regimented way of dressing. Probably the only thing that survives from that time is the idea of ‘the dandy’ or people that dress in a more individual way. Britain is so full of different inspirations now so it’s much harder to define.
Do you feel optimistic about the future of Britain?
I think it’s impossible to say what the future holds for British trade in light of what’s happening with Brexit. Nobody really seems to know!
Are you confident about British creativity at the moment?
I think it’s certainly still thriving and that won’t change. We have several of the best art schools, museums and much, much more all in the UK and the whole country is a melting pot of different cultures and different forms of creativity. I believe that won’t change.
I’ve seen some good fashion documentaries lately on Raf Simons, Dries Van Noten and Manolo Blahnik. Dries Van Noten said in his documentary, “I’m always looking, it never stops.” Can you identify with that? Are you always looking at what people wear?
I’m not sure if I’m always looking at what people are wearing, but I’m certainly always looking in general. I often say, ‘You can find inspiration in everything and if you can’t, look again,’ and by that I mean inspiration is all around us.
Can you give me some examples?
For me the different bright colours of huts on a sandy beach could inspire the colours I choose for a piece of knitwear. Or seeing something rough next to something smooth could inspire the way I might show a fluffy mohair sweater with a soft leather trouser on the catwalk. So everywhere I go, I’m always looking for inspiration and if I see something that grabs me, I’ll take a quick photo and then share it with my design team.
Your love affair with Japan is well documented. What it is that captivates you about the country?
I’ve been going twice a year for as long as I can remember now. I’ve been more than a hundred times. I have a real love and admiration for the Japanese attention to detail and their work ethic. It’s certainly inspired what I do in many different ways.
Do you have any travel tips for first time visitors?
I’d suggest you take a very good guide-book! It’s an overwhelming place to go to for the first time but it’s so wonderful.
What should we do in Tokyo?
My favourite area of Tokyo is a neighbourhood called Nakameguro – it’s by the canal and is filled with fantastic shops selling everything from vintage clothes to books to records and in the cherry blossom season it’s a very special place to visit.
Sorry to be a killjoy but can we talk about retirement?
Retirement? What’s that?! The simple answer is ‘no’, I don’t think about retirement. I just look forward to waking up every day and going to work. It really is a joy.
END OF INTERVIEW