Paul Smith On 50 Years In Fashion
Paul Smith apologises for standing me up.
“Sorry about yesterday—that was a nightmare!” he says, palming his hands together in a prayer position. “It never happened to me before, but we were doing live TV to Russia and their technology was—I don’t know what happened. I was horrified when I had to cancel on you. I’m so sorry.”
Smith, as his legions of friends and fans know, takes good manners very seriously. The legendary 74-year-old British designer, renowned for his impeccably tailored suits imbued with a touch of humour, beams at me through the screen behind his tortoise-shell spectacles, wearing a navy turtleneck under a windowpane check suit jacket of his own creation.
Chances are, most men have owned something—be it a sharply cut suit with lime-coloured stripes, or a cardholder or a pair of socks with his iconic rainbow stripes—by Paul Smith, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. “Can you believe it? 50 years!” he exclaims. “It’s amazing to have 50 years in fashion; even many bands, musicians, restaurants, designers might have two or three years’ success, and suddenly people are not so interested in them any more.”
In the Eighties, Smith pioneered a technique of using photographic prints on fabric, so to mark this milestone, he brought back his most popular, and quirkiest, prints of spaghetti and green apples in a capsule collection, adapting them to modern shapes like bucket hats and hoodies. Though Queen Elizabeth II awarded Smith, who was knighted in 2000, a Companion of Honour—one of the highest honours in the land, only given to a maximum of 65 people—in October 2020 was hardly the best for celebrating a jubilee.
"The sad thing for me is this is the first year in 50 years that we’ve lost money—it’s unprecedented times,” he says during our Zoom call in November, noting that people working from home in their sweats has made a dent on his livelihood, and that of the designers known for tailored suits. But he shrugs, refusing to let circumstance soil his mood. “I think it’s just temporary; it’ll go back, I’m sure. I think when people want to go out again, they’ll want to dress up and look special.”
Reaching the half-century mark inevitably leads one to ponder his legacy. In December, Smith launched Paul Smith’s Foundation, a digital destination where he shares his nuggets of wisdom, or, as Smith puts it, “boring stuff I’ve said over the years that someone’s written down”, hoping to invest more energy into mentorship. (It’s not the first time he’s invested in young artists; he also funds a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Arts.)
“The idea is that [the foundation] will provide advice for creative people, whether you’re a young graphic designer or a chef, even,” he says. “Over the years we’ve had so many people come to this building thinking that they want to be a fashion designer and I say, ‘It’s lovely to be a fashion designer, but it’s a very oversubscribed job.’ My approach has always been to demystify the job and make it more understandable and, in a way, more accessible.”
Smith is troubled by the attitudes of a new breed of designers, deploring the pressure luxury conglomerates place on them to drive sales at the expense of creativity. “It’s extraordinarily disappointing that a lot of people are relying on a logo for turnover; it’s almost a cop-out. I’ve never done it because I know when a 14-year-old boy grows up, he won’t want to wear it if he remembers his brother or father wearing it, while if it’s just anonymous, nice clothes, it wouldn’t matter,” he says, opening his jacket to show its plainness.
“Now, so many famous designers are doing so many lines; I just worry about their health,” says Smith, who makes a point to swim at 6am every day and be at home for dinner with his wife, Pauline Denyer, whom he met at 21, every night. “Thankfully we’re still independent, so we don’t have this monster behind us going ‘More! More! You must sell more!’” he says, making T-rex claws with his hands. “The only person I have to have a discussion with when I make a decision is me when I’m having a shave in the morning.”
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Learning is Forever
His independence has allowed him to decide on the many opportunities that have come his way over the years—collaborations with companies from Leica to Land Rover—not purely based on dollar signs. “Actually, I do something rather naughty,” he says, lowering his voice and cupping his hand to his mouth as if to share a secret. “I think: Do I want to see this person again?” He bursts into a chuckle.
Mostly, Smith just wants to be able to learn something new. He suddenly whips his watch off his wrist and pushes it into the camera. In November, he lent his playful touch to German watch brand Braun to create a special timepiece, a monochromatic face with a rainbow second hand. “I love working on things that are solid or that have a longer process of design, like spectacles or watches or bicycles, unlike clothes, where you can just take some scissors and make a form quite quickly,” he says. “With Braun, though, they’re famous for minimalism, so I wanted to do something tiny, just enough, just a touch, without the danger of overwhelming it. Each collaboration, you have to remember to think about the history of the product.”
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At this point our call drops out for nearly five minutes, and when the picture resumes, Smith has disappeared temporarily, leaving me with a clearer view of his office, or “Paracetamol Room” as his staff call it because of its chaotic, headache-inducing state. Hundreds of books on art, design and photography are sandwiched on shelves and wobbly towers of papers and paraphernalia, like a plastic plate decorated with noodles and robotic bears, line the foreground. A known magpie, Smith famously collects seemingly random objects from his travels that he then showcases at his stores, located in more than 70 countries, painstaking curating displays in each space.
A Phaidon book featuring 50 objects from his treasure trove came out in October. Having been to Japan “more than a hundred times”, thanks to a loyal fanbase, it’s unsurprising that some of his favourite items come from there. He bounds out of shot to the left, returning with miniature vintage Japanese encyclopaedias filled with intricate drawings and sashiko fabrics, old indigo blue work cloth with distinctive white stitches.
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Fame & Glory
The space is a fire hazard, we joke, but if it really were to be set ablaze and he had to select a few choice items to save, what would they be? “Oh my God,” he starts to say, then exits stage right and returns with a box full of frames. “I’d take this box of photographs of visitors who’ve come to this building, like Harrison Ford or Bill Nighy,” he says without hesitation. His famous friends have run the Hollywood gamut—Gary Oldman, the late David Bowie and Daniel Day Lewis, to name a few. Prince Charles and Princess Diana wore his shirts in their engagement photograph.
“Then Pauline sometimes makes things for me by hand, like this embroidered box that holds a porcelain tape measure, so I’d take anything she makes, and I’d take my dad’s camera from 1958.” Like his father, who was an amateur photographer, Smith takes his camera with him wherever he goes, believing that “you can find inspiration in anything. If you can’t, you are not looking properly.”
This determined optimism saw him through times of struggle in his youth, like when his professional cycling dreams were dashed in an accident at age 15, or when he juggled odd jobs as a stylist or photographer to keep the lights on in his first Nottingham store in 1970, and it continues to fuel his childlike curiosity.
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It’s so important that if you go onto great fame, or I go onto great fame, to always remember, it’s not heart surgery; it’s just fashion. Just keep your feet on the ground
— Paul Smith
“Oh, and I’d take him!” Smith declares.
A red plastic dog comes into view, its side plastered with stamps. It was a gift from an anonymous fan who has been sending Smith objects for decades, always covered in stamps. “This dog’s name is Cedric.” Smith then points behind my head to the pictures hanging on my wall, asking me for a show-and-tell, as if we’re friends casually chatting and he’s not one of the most beloved designers in the world.
“It’s so important that if you go onto great fame or I go onto great fame, to always remember, it’s not heart surgery; it’s just fashion. Just keep your feet on the ground,” he says.
“Pauline has never let me be anything else other than the man she met when she was 21. She always tells me ‘You weren’t good looking but you always made me laugh’, and that always keeps me grounded.” I’ve come to learn that Smith likes to ends every solemn statement or pithy thought with a punchline, perhaps to illustrate the advice he most loves to share: don’t take things too seriously.
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Paul Smith tells the stories behind some of the nuggets of wisdom he shares through his foundation.
"We have a little expression about collaborations: we always say, do things that are right and not just because they’re easy. You can do things just for the money but they might be detrimental to your image or end up not being something you enjoy. I’ve done some collaborations that I think I should have said no to, not because they were bad, but they just used up a lot of my energy and time. I don’t make that mistake any more, though, because of my experience. So I just mostly say no. It’s easier!"
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On Leaving An Impression...
"I call it the squirt of lemon because the idea is if we were having a lovely meal together and I’m squirting some lemon onto my fish and it goes—blip!—into your eye, you’d cover your eye and scream, but the next day when you have dinner with your friends and they ask how it went, you’d say, 'It was lovely but he squirted lemon in my eye!' And it’s the thing that you’ll remember strongly from our encounter. It’s about doing things that are memorable and more special."
On saying no...
"When I started in the 1970s, I was doing lots of odd jobs to keep my business going, like freelance styling or photography, and I was designing fabrics for a company in the middle of England. I distinctly remember that the guy who owned the company taught me: when someone offers you something, give yourself time to think about it overnight, because you may not want to do it or you’ll find another way you want to do it and it will end up being more evenly balanced as it’s more on your terms."
"When I first started making shirts, my orders were for 28 shirts when they said the minimum order was 2,000, and then through conversation—by telling them I was a young designer and that I was just starting out, and asking nicely if they’d please help me—they eventually came around. I later went and got a little gift for the man to say thank you for giving me my start. You get so much more if you’re just polite to people.
And just before lockdown in the UK back in November, I hired a boy and told him, 'I’d like you to come work for us, but just so you know we say please and thank you here, we open doors for people and we ask, we don’t tell.' And he burst into tears, telling me that the people at the job he just came from swore and shouted all the time and he ended up having a nervous breakdown. Hearing him say that brought me joy to know I can give him a different environment. Being well-mannered isn’t being uncool."
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