Earning his stripes
A 'normal guy' from Nottingham, Paul Smith has built his fashion empire with quiet dignity and an all-seeing eye. Jing Zhang reports
''Not only is he very clever and very talented," says Christopher Bailey, chief creative officer of Burberry, "he is such a nice gentleman as well."
The gentleman in question is menswear icon Sir Paul Smith, who began his career in a factory in Nottingham, central England, 50-odd years ago, and is now based in London's West End.
Despite there being 180 people working in his impressive Covent Garden headquarters, it is Smith himself who answers when I ring the doorbell. He is friendly and familiar, coming across more chatty patriarch than head honcho.
Pointing to a jumble of brightly coloured jerseys stacked on boxes in front of his desk, he tells me they're from famous cyclists. "There's a yellow Tour de France one," says the designer, a cycling fanatic. I don't ask whether it belonged to Lance Armstrong.
Smith's large office has an ordered chaos about it. Apart from the long table in the middle of the room, all surfaces are cluttered with his collections: plastic dolls of Queen Elizabeth, who knighted him in 2000, sit beside a curious set of pastel Easter eggs and a stack of teacups. On the opposite side of the room there's a collection of hats, from Canadian mountie to British military.
The 66-year-old is clearly something of a magpie, and a man who likes to fill his time. Besides collecting things, he designs seven adult lines (four men's, three women's) each season, and is involved in countless collaborations. His current projects come on the back of the 2012 London Olympics, which he helped promote - producing a series of posters and signs for the city, as well as a compendium of stamps to commemorate the Games for the Isle of Man post office.
Next year, Smith will open his first mainland store, in Tianjin, with one in Shanghai following soon after (he already has several stores in Hong Kong). So it's little wonder his central hub is a hive of activity.
Adding to the clutter, thousands of books are stacked on shelves stretching across entire walls of the office. Toys and animal figurines (everything from zebras to rabbits) perch precariously. Paintings hang around the room; some are of him.
"My missus is an artist and we offer scholarships for artists who haven't got the money to go to school," says Smith, in his soft East Midlands accent. "Some [of those] I've put through school give me paintings as a pressie."
"You need to lift the bike - that's compulsory!" he gushes, walking over to a pink racer resting against a bookshelf. "It's light isn't it? That's a special project I did with a Danish charity for kids with cancer. I designed seven of them and they sold them for about 16,000 quid [pounds; or HK$200,000] each; they were so delighted that they gave me one of them as a present."
Since opening his first store - in Nottingham - in 1970, Smith's business has grown into an international brand, with womenswear, a line for children, shoes, accessories, perfume and furniture supplementing his adult apparel.
"I was useless at school because I just wanted to cycle," he says. "So at 15, my dad put me in a clothing factory warehouse as a runner.
"When I was 17, I had a bike accident and was in hospital for three months."
If that was a setback - Smith broke his femur, ribs, knee, nose and collarbone - it was also a turning point. In hospital, he made friends; and after he was discharged, one of those new acquaintances invited him to the Bell Inn, the watering hole of choice for the local art college.
"I was just wowed! I had been so disciplined on my bike, doing strict regimes, certain diets and 50 miles a week," Smith recalls, "then suddenly I was in this pub drinking something called alcohol!
"There were lots of nice young people, cute girls and boys, a lot of energy and stuff that I had never heard of. People talking about the Bauhaus, or pop art, Andy Warhol, Peter Blake and Kandinsky - I thought, 'What is this amazing, fascinating world?'"
Smith left his warehouse job to run a fashion shop with a friend and started to take evening classes in tailoring. Three years later, Paul met Pauline, who was teaching fashion and would become his wife.
"Pauline was a Londoner, trained at the Royal College of Art as a fashion designer. She taught me everything I know about design," he says. "She's very smart, got honours, taught couture fashion, so she really understood not just drawing but how to make things, proportion, construction and the importance of quality."
It was Pauline who encouraged Smith to start out on his own. With a few hundred pounds saved from working on his days off, his eponymous label was born in 1970. His first premises consisted of a tiny room down an alleyway, Byard Lane, only three metres squared, with no windows and just a door. From there, he sold a few pieces of menswear.
"I called it a shop, but it was really a room," says Smith.
The London rock scene was in full swing at the time, and he would travel down from Nottingham to see bands.
"You'd see Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin with 200 other people, and you often had the opportunity to talk to them," he says. "With my little chatty way, I got to know Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, and made clothes for them."
His quirky take on British menswear was of its time, often incorporating unique detailing and rock 'n' roll influences. Smith did his first showroom presentation in Paris, in 1976, calling on contacts at the famous Browns boutique and Japanese department store Seibu. Nonetheless, it was a slow start. Nobody came until 4pm on the last day, he recalls, but the person who did show up thankfully placed an order.
"The next year, I did it from a friend's house, serving cheap champagne from the supermarket. In a way, I'd love to do that again, because it's so charming, so non-corporate and so from the heart."
From there, the Paul Smith brand grew and grew.
In 1998, he started a womenswear line and in the past decade has opened stores in the United States, the Middle East and Asia, and across Europe.
"Paul Smith is still from the heart," he says. "It's very successful but a relatively small company in world terms. It's still very honest and down to earth. Growth has always been gentle and slow, and I like that."
The iconic Paul Smith stripes became so popular that they were put on a hiatus, for much the same reason that Burberry curbed the use of its signature check. Smith then redesigned the stripes with muted colours, for a more sophisticated look. And in the past five years, the brand has employed more luxurious fabrics, such as those from Loro Piana and Ermenegildo Zegna, in a move upmarket.
With the tide turning towards classic menswear, and revived heritage houses again finding success, Smith's aesthetic is back in vogue.
"If you go back 20, 30 years, London was cutting edge in terms of ideas and was this goldmine of talent and fantastic designers," he says, "but unfortunately so much of it was frivolous … and a lot of young designers thought that they should do a lot of crazy things to get noticed.
"What happened was, they did get noticed but they didn't have a business."
In the past few years, however, British fashion and its institutions have come to understand the balance between design, organisation and marketing, Smith says.
Paul Smith, the label, has a following that spans continents, cultures and ages because of its quality, wearability and off-kilter classicism. The brand has done very well in Asia, for example, with Japan having been a huge market since Smith first visited, in 1982. Despite such success, however, Paul Smith, the man, remains well grounded.
"I'm a normal guy," he says, "I'm a regular, married guy, and I think that some guys will identify with that. My wife always made sure I didn't think I was better than I was.
"Some people, whether it's finance or fashion, start believing their own press. They get on the front cover of Vogue or on the television and sadly it's the old Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame thing."
Smith claims to know all his staff by name: "I like them, I'm interested in them and what's going on in their lives. It's just normal stuff. I think people can sense that.
"Even the character of our shops is friendly and not snobby," he adds.
Having run his own brand since his early 20s and built it up slowly, Smith has evolved into a practical designer, rarely courting celebrity or media attention.
"We have a lot of famous people who wear the clothes - but they buy them," he says. "We don't give clothes away. I want people to wear my clothes because they like them."
Smith's success can be linked to his retail experience, and an understanding of how to market classic tailoring and jeans in addition to the high fashion lines. Nearly every show outfit translates from the catwalk onto the street - a rarity today.
"Pauline and myself have always enjoyed nice clothes," Smith says, "well cut, good quality and not particularly attention seeking, but just having that detail, a little secret that just you know about."
With his many ongoing projects and a 42-year back catalogue, one wonders whether Smith ever runs short of ideas or inspiration. He claims not to.
"I've always had this boundless energy and enthusiasm, love of life and positive spirit … Well, this room for a start gives me constant inspiration," Smith says of his office. "It's a pretty wild room.
"I think, just to answer in a very honest way - and this might sound stupid to your readers - but I've got eyes that see. A lot of people have eyes that look but don't see.
"I'll see something light next to something dark, or something smooth next to something rough, or Harris tweed next to silk and that means something to me. I can look at architecture and the proportions of doors and windows and see pockets and the openings of a jacket. Or I listen to music that is very calm but has a very bright bit and that can be a navy blue suit with a flowery shirt to me."
He may see clothes in passages of music, but Smith is a rare straight talker in an industry where people all too easily descend into florid metaphor.
Smith cites Pauline, whom he married only in 2000, as a great influence and a partner in the success of the label. It seems that her technical background and knowledge remain fundamental in allowing Smith to translate the world around him into his collections.
"We can go to the National Gallery [in London] and she can tell you about the iconography of a painting," says Smith. "I'm very privileged to have a wife who can talk about a Titian, or the architecture of Palladio in the Veneto district, and perfect proportion … and then my head has this way of filtering it down to window, window; pocket, pocket."
And stripes … never forget those stripes.
Ensembles from the Paul Smith spring-summer 2013 collections.