Paul Smith is a tastemaker – a leader of British and international design trends. With an enthusiasm for eclectic cultural references and idiosyncratic combinations of pattern and color, applied with understatement, the brand has shops globally – including in London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, and Tokyo – and stages fashion shows on the catwalks of London and Paris.
What’s your first fashion memory?
I think it was when I was about 16, when I was working in my first job and my boss asked me to put together some displays. I did them and he was quite pleased with them and then I realized I could do creative things which ‘enhanced’. And then I never set out to be a fashion designer, but after a bicycle accident put me in hospital for three months, I discovered my local art college and fell in love with creativity.
In business for over 40 years, Sir Paul Smith. How do you see the brand from the past, the present and the future? And what about your evolution in the business of fashion?
I’ve worked in the fashion industry for over forty years. There has never been more people fishing from the same pond, the market is more competitive than ever before. Whilst you have to stand out and design pieces that get attention, it’s also vital to get the basics right. You show a bright red suit on the catwalk, but it’s the same suit in navy blue that you sell in large quantities. It’s all about striking the right balance. The consistency of getting that right is what I’m most proud of with Paul Smith – we combine the classic ‘heritage’ pieces with the more attention-grabbing pieces.
What made you want to become a fashion designers?
After several years of hoping to be a professional cyclist, I had a bad crash and then by chance met lots of art students in a local pub, near to my hometown of Nottingham. They were all creative people, painters, graphic designers, and the world that they were aspiring to was so interesting and I thought to myself, “I wonder if I could work in the creative world?” And luckily, I did!
Why do you like colour so much?
Black and navy will always be very popular in terms of sales and commerciality, but fortunately, we’re very famous for our colour and people come to Paul Smith to buy something exceptional and often colourful. I think it would be quite a shock to everyone if one day we showed nothing but black on the catwalk! We’re an optimistic company and colour cheers people up!
Can you describe your design studio and the creative team working with you?
Anyone that’s seen photos of my office will know that it’s a pretty mad place. The office is really full of an enormous quantity of things so there isn’t really a dominant colour or texture. I suppose what influences me the most is the fact that things constantly move around. Somebody once described the office as being like a beach where the tide comes in and goes out and things are always changing, which I think is a very true observation. It’s that juxtaposition of one thing with another and the way that constantly changes, that I find very inspiring. There’s a surprise on a daily basis, seeing something rough next to something smooth, colourful next to something more muted, and so on.
What do you think of social media, because you are very active on it, and your next steps for the brand?
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult communicating our personality online through social media. What makes Paul Smith different is the individuality and the eclectic mix of high culture and low culture, rough and smooth. Communicating that on a computer screen is not easy, but we do our best and we’re getting better and better at it!
What has changed the most in the past since you’ve been designing?
The speed with which everything is changing now is a little scary, but we’re definitely embracing it instead of running away. We’re aware that fewer people shop in actual shops now, choosing to go online instead, but whether they experience Paul Smith in our shops or online we try to give them the best experience possible.
Are stores still essential to the luxury experience?
I’m fortunate enough that Paul Smith is still an independent company and so I have the freedom to do things differently to everyone else. There’s no corporate rollouts, my shops are all designed in-house by my own, very talented shop design team. As a result of this, my shops really stand out in this very homogenised world and hopefully people enjoy spending time in them! For me, effort is one of the most important ingredients in making something feel ‘luxury’. I always like to have something in the shops that demonstrates effort. In my shop in Mayfair at No. 9 Albemarle, for example, it’s the room covered entirely with individual dominoes.
What is your ultimate signature style?
I dress in a very simple way. I think worn with the right attitude, the simplicity of something that we all wear a lot of, a white shirt or a navy blue suit, can be very stylish.
What is the best part of your job? Media and shows have been so central at Paul Smith – how do you do it and is it a challenge?
Every day is completely different and involves lots of plate-spinning! I’m involved in every aspect of the business, from finance meetings to shop design to marketing to, of course, designing the collections. But I also started out as a shopkeeper, and so I never lose sight of who the consumer is. I love spending time in our shops and meeting the people who like our kit.
Your collections are beautiful and wonderfully unique; what inspires you as a designer to be strong and strong every season?
I often say, “you can find inspiration in everything, and if you can’t, then look again.” If you keep that in mind, finding inspiration is not that difficult!
We adore the looks of your Spring Summer 2017 collection; how would you describe the collection and theme?
As you might expect from Paul Smith, it was a very colourful an optimistic collection. The colours and prints were inspired by a visit I made to the Hilma Af Klint exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Hilma Af Klint has a wonderful way of mixing colours and incorporating hand-drawn elements which I tried to explore in the collection. At the show, we had the most beautiful meadow flowers as part of the set, they contrasted with the very industrial and raw venue we had, which was an old train storage space.
How do you keep your ideas and the creative dialogue fresh?
I’m blessed with getting up every morning and enjoying life from the minute I wake up to the minute I go to sleep. Creativity is never forced for me, I find inspiration in everything that surrounds me, whether it’s the colour of a book spine inspiring the colour of a little leather wallet or a garden in Chelsea Flower Show inspiring the print on a dress in my women’s catwalk collection.
Who is your muse today?
My wife Pauline, who I’ve been with since I was 21 years of age. She dresses in a very simple way but has an ability to combine textures and colours in a way which is very creative.