Paul Smith is one of the most influential names in British fashion. In the last 50 years, he has grown his namesake brand from a tiny shop in Nottingham to a global behemoth, collaborated with an impressive list of brands from Leica to Landrover, designed custom suits for David Bowie, held Andy Warhol, David Bailey, and Hockney exhibitions in the “smelly basement” (his words) of his first shop, and been knighted by the Queen of England for his services to fashion. Add to that the fact that he pretty much taught British men how to dress properly, and it’s not surprising the brand’s popularity shows no sign of waning 50 years on. When you meet the man himself, you understand why.
In early March, Smith was in Berlin for the launch of a capsule collection he’d created with celebrated illustrator and close friend Christoph Niemann aka @abstractsunday and we took the opportunity to interview the legendary designer at Highsnobiety's HQ on the occasion of the brand's 50th anniversary. He arrives at our Berlin office straight off a 6 a.m. flight from London wearing a polo neck under a cashmere corduroy suit, all in navy, his appearance every bit Sir and nowhere near flight casual. After all, he is used to early starts, most mornings he is awake by six for his daily swim before heading to the office. He is visibly excited to be here and as we walk around the office he stops and greets everyone with a beaming smile and chirpy “Hi, I’m Paul”. He takes the time to talk to everyone with the same attentiveness and interest, and it’s easy to see how he’s attracted such a wide range of collaborators over the course of his career.
I start by asking him how the brand has managed to achieve such longevity, and he raises his hands to the sky gesturing vigorously in a prayer motion and exclaims, “A bloody miracle!” He laughs and continues “I mean, curiosity. I'm a very curious person and I'm a very lateral thinker. I will say, ‘What if? What if? Yeah, let’s try this. Let's try that.’ I love life, I think that's important. I think if you're a lover of life, then you are interested in things that happened yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And so you're always keeping up because you want to, because you enjoy it, because you're interested in it.”
I love life, I think that's important.
Smith is now 73 and one of the most successful fashion designers in Britain. As a teenager though, he considered himself “smart” rather than fashionable and only started to make clothes after breaking his femur in a cycling accident at 17, forcing him to give up his dream of becoming a professional cyclist. Suddenly finding himself with more time on his hands, he began hanging out at the local art school where he met his now-wife Pauline, a couture fashion graduate from the Royal College of Arts. Over their kitchen table, she taught him the fundamental principles of fashion, and how to cut patterns, sew, and tailor clothing.
“We just wanted clothes that we liked and that were a bit more interesting. Back then, the thing about the design process was that it was about designing from your head and your heart and hoping somebody liked it. There was no other reason to design clothes. Now, you'd never do that. You sit around a table and have a business plan and a brand concept. It was a completely different way of working and it was absolutely delightful.”
[...] it was about designing from your head and your heart and hoping somebody liked it. There was no other reason to design clothes.
Equipped with his new-found skills and a penchant for the off-beat, Smith began making suits. But they weren’t the stiff, traditional two-piece ensembles worn by most men at the time. They were supple, playful, and modern. He eased the suit out of its conservative connotations and gave it a new lease of life. Cuts became looser and he experimented with traditional British fabrics sourced from local mills, using them in unexpected ways. Smith also firmly believed that men should wear color, and he added splashes of vibrant shades to linings, buttons, and pipings, and also played with color in stripes, now a signature of the brand. This was the beginning of the ‘classic with a twist’ principle that still guides Paul Smith today.
Aside from what Pauline taught Smith, he had no formal education in fashion design and instead learned the trade by working as a shop assistant and a photographer (he brought his very first camera to our interview). Once he'd saved enough money, he opened his first shop, a three-by-three-square-meter windowless space in Nottingham, which opened two days a week and was managed by an Afghan hound called Homer (you read that correctly).
“The original shop, if you can imagine, was so tiny that when you walked in, the customer was right there. It was very confrontational. So every time I went on holiday somewhere, I'd always come back with pen knives or a fishing sweater or notebooks from a kid's shop. That way you could just say, "Have you seen this? I found it when I was on holiday in Greece." It was a way of just making people relax and then they became engaged and then they came back. Then, the next time they came there would be a poster from a Corbusier exhibition in Paris or a fisherman's sweater from Milos, and they thought, "Wow, where's that from?" Then I'd say, "Oh, go downstairs," and they'd see an Andy Warhol soup can, signed by Warhol.”
Then I'd say, "Oh, go downstairs," and they'd see an Andy Warhol soup can signed by Warhol.”
Kanye West once said Colette was the internet before the internet. In that sense, Smith's first store was Colette before Colette. It was a concept store and a pop-up store before the terms even existed. But he didn’t curate it for hype, likes, nor engagement rates. Filling his shop with cultural paraphernalia and hosting exhibitions was just a practical approach that resulted from his fascination with pretty much everything and a desire to support his friends’ work. He created experiences for his customers to remember his store by and a reason to come back and, hopefully, buy a suit. There are now over 2000 Paul Smith stores around the world, but he still takes the same approach. Each one is designed to complement the surrounding city and decorated with its own unique selection of objects, giving customers a reason to visit. With its hot pink facade inspired by the book Casa Luis Barragan: Poetry of Colour, the Melrose avenue store is now a cultural landmark and one of the city’s most Instagrammed spots.
Whether he’s talking about his stores, suits, or himself, this need for individuality comes up time and time again. It's for this reason that Smith is still the brand's majority shareholder – he wants to assure creative control. “Everybody knows everything straight away now”, he explains, “When I started, the only way to know about what was happening in Paris or Milan were newspapers that only reported on fashion twice a year. Now it's just so much harder to be different or to do things that surprise you.” Smith is quick to recognize the advantages of increased access to information but, as someone who's always sought to use fashion to do something different, he laments how it has homogenized the world.
In France '68, the students were rioting. In England in ’68, we were growing our hair long and looking a bit odd. Self-expression came in a way that was different.”
“One of the keywords then, and sadly it doesn't really exist like it used to do, is individuality. You wanted to be different.” I ask him how he thinks people express their individuality today, “I don't think they do hardly. Actually, it's disappointing. Because I think it's all from insecurity now, today. Lots of people like to wear branded merchandise because it makes them feel like they're part of a group or a type of person who's doing the same thing. We had it, of course, because we had Dandies, we had Punks, we had Mods, we had New Romantics. But it was a lot more focused then. It wasn't really across the world. It was a very London thing. And it was a statement. It was about trying to establish your group and it was rebellious. In France '68, the students were rioting. In England in ’68, we were growing our hair long and looking a bit odd. Self-expression came in a way that was different.”
Smith has a point. Expressing individuality through fashion is harder today than it was in the '70s. We're exposed to thousands of images and messages a day and they influence our style choices whether we like it or not. Subcultures used to exist in a vacuum affected more by political and social movements than brands and celebrity culture. When Smith started out, society was riding off the liberation of youth culture set in motion in the ‘60s and people were looking for ways to define their individuality. In the early ‘70s, Britain was hit with a drastic economic crisis, causing wide-reaching social unrest and young people, in particular, began challenging social structures and the upper class. This was the backdrop when Smith first cut his teeth in fashion, and he still often refers to his clothes as being classless. The purpose of the suits he first created was to subvert their traditional implications. Today he continues to intentionally reject the elitist side of fashion, mainly because he’s never aspired to the concept of luxury.
“There's a lot of overused words now, aren’t there? Like luxury. Authentic. Vintage. Almost certainly if you go to the supermarket you’ll see ‘luxury’ on a toilet roll or a piece of soap.”
“It’s odd, luxury. When I first started out, luxury, for me, was something that you couldn't really find very easily. It was the luxury of rareness, the luxury of artisan, the luxury of space, of wildflower fields, the luxury of a walk on an empty beach. Luxury now is a material thing and that's fine, because if it's beautiful and made in marvelous leather or cashmere. But if that same product is available at 4,000 shops across the world, that's really odd. It's still a luxury product but it's not a luxurious thing in terms of rarity. So, it depends on how you define luxury, really. Is luxury just something that costs a lot and is a status symbol or made out of material which is very precious? Or is luxury, to you, the fact that there's a rareness to it.”
Smith is frank but not pretentious, and he recognizes that times have changed and things have to be done differently now. Although his business model isn't one that's easily replicated today, there's a lot for anyone building their own brand to learn from his passion, modesty, and honest approach to business.
“You can still do it from modest beginnings, it’s just different. I was blessed by meeting a lady I liked at 21 and I'm still with, so security at home, feet on the ground, no hype, very happy to grow the business gently. No borrowings, just doing it in a completely old fashioned way.”
And for the rest of us, if there's anything to learn from Paul Smith, a man that at 73 seems more optimistic than everyone under 30 put together, it is that we should never stop being curious, and probably also take ourselves a little less seriously.