WHAT ELSE? is a series for Highsnobiety by writer/director Paul Black. What’s it all about? Call it the “What Else Factor,” a person with something else besides the thing(s) he or she is usually known for. What else is on the cards? What else should we know? The style of each piece is spontaneous and intuitively responsive to the Voice of its subject at the time of the interview. Next up, Sir Paul Smith.
When it comes to Paul Smith I’m totally biased. It’s personal. He’s one of my real-life heroes, along with Neil Young, Muhammad Ali and my wife. Neil Young and Muhammad Ali began in the seventies, Paul Smith in the early nineties, my wife in the two-thousands. My wife keeps getting better and better, and I can’t say enough. Talented doctor, fantastic mum, gorgeous wife. But this is about Paul Smith, and he is everything I had hoped he would be: sharp, funny, big bright ego, humble, straight-forward, full of beans, a bit silly, young as ever, and lots of great stories.
My connection to Paul began a little more than a few years ago when, leading up to my 30th birthday, I read an article about him that said he was born on the same day as me, July 15th. At least that’s what I thought it had said. In reality he was born July 5th, as I later found out when he replied to my fan letter and included a birthday present.
I’ve written three fan letters in my life. Two replied personally: Dudley Moore and Paul Smith. You can imagine, Paul gets a ton of stuff sent to him, and you wouldn’t fault him for being far too busy to reply. But he does reply. He starts every day putting pen to paper to show gratitude. The way he sees it, a simple thing like a nice postcard sticks to a man’s heart and mind. People write because they’re obviously fans, and he doesn’t need to convince them to buy more. But the secret of his success is the personal touch that comes through in every aspect of his world.
It all starts from the top. The boss is real. He’s human. He’s an old-school gentleman. No computer, doesn’t email, welcomes all the flaws and mistakes that come from work by hand. He’s analogue + instagram. He serves in his shops. His employees are always nice. You never feel pressured to buy. You’re always welcome.
Back in the day I wrote telling him I was approaching my 30-year milestone, that I was about to direct my first little film, that it reflected back on a difficult moment on my life. I told him one of my passions was his shop on Floral Street, that it was a mecca of inspiration, on many levels, with its old-world design and gorgeous goods therein. I told him how I went frequently and saved my pennies for what was becoming a large collection of Paul Smith gear. He wrote back and included a pair of socks. I wore those socks like I’d never owned a pair of socks before!
I have an Indian bracelet of sterling silver and red jasper that literally hasn’t left my wrist for fifteen odd years. My sugar is dispensed from a Paul Smith for Thomas Goode bone china bowl, with his classic stripes. I wear his underwear most days. My daily about-the-house winter sweater is one of his. There are shoes-a-plenty, hats, socks, ties, glasses (by Oliver Peoples), cufflinks, suits. My favourite man-bag is one of his, still in rotation after seventeen years. I tried to find a new suit for my wedding, but I kept coming back to my worsted wool suit by Paul Smith. When I mention this to him he tells me that when he travels the world people always say two things: My first suit was a Paul Smith, and I got married in a Paul Smith suit.
I had the feeling Paul was a good man before I had any contact, not just because of the letter and the socks, though that did blow my mind. I just knew. You hear things. There is never a bad word spoken about him. That said, I was nervous the day of the film. I’ve directed famous people, but not one of my heroes. He arrived on time. He was totally prepared. He knew the backstory. He didn’t directly remember the letter I had sent, but he knew exactly who I was and he was ready for anything. He made me feel totally at ease. My shooter Jon (Mortimer) and I had about forty-five minutes with him. No pre-light, nothing fancy, totally spontaneous. It’s no surprise that I have at least forty minutes of good material! He’s awesome.
I could go on and on about my personal take. The thing that struck me the most was this 68-year-old man still had the spring and enthusiasm of someone fresh out of art college. And he loves a yarn (excuse the pun). He tells a great story about a Japanese teenager, the kindliest of stalkers. It seems Paul was on one of his whistlestop tours. He does this often, like Delhi for a day. Literally. I digress. This trip was several European cities in as many days, then jetting off to Japan, as he does twice each year, where he is a serious icon, with thirty-five stores to stay in touch with.
Paul tells the story because we were talking a lot about how people just seem to feel like they know him. For example, he and one of the guys in his team tell the hilarious story of the guy’s dad, a perfectly normal, sane, professional man, who has been Paul’s ‘friend’ for years. The thing is, the guy’s dad had never met Paul, not until the guy went to work for Paul! That was very funny.
Cut to the Japanese teenager. Paul stopped in one European city, and the kid was there, just waving hello. He stops in the next European city, the kid is there, just waving hello. He goes to Tokyo, the kid is there. He gets on a train to visit one of his shops in Osaka. He decides to jump off the train spontaneously at Kyoto. It’s pouring with rain. He arrives at the shop and the kid is there, in the rain, just waving hello. Why? Because people love this man! Guilty as charged your honour.
Paul is one of those guys who you feel happy for his great success. Why? Because it’s personal. He keeps it that way for a reason. For one, it’s just him. You can tell from the film you’re about to see. The other, he’s nobody’s fool. You don’t do a billion dollars a year turnover by accident.
In 2000 Paul Smith became Sir Paul Smith, only the second fashion designer to be knighted by the Queen, after Hardy Amies in 1977. There’s basically no one with more significance in contemporary menswear than Sir Paul. He has brought a manner of consumable elegance to the streets that has been copied by many, equalled by few, surpassed by none. But hey, I’m biased.
Enjoy the film, and check out Paul’s world at www.paulsmith.co.uk