It says a lot about the fashion designer Paul Smith that one of his staff, commenting on his forthcoming retrospective at the Design Museum, asked, “But will it have any clothes in it?” It’s a fair question. At 67, and the chief executive, principal shareholder and chief designer of the label that bears his name – a global concern spanning 82 countries, 537 shops (including franchises and shops in shops) and 1,461 point of sales – Smith is more than a mere fashion designer.
Since his first shop opened in Nottingham in 1970, the world of Paul Smith has expanded to become a byword for British creativity, equally celebrated for his product design – cars, stationery, textiles, rugs, cameras, bicycles – as his boutiques, where vintage records and rare books sell alongside stripy socks and pinstriped suits – socks and suits that played a large part in netting the company a turnover last year of £202m. As the Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic says, “Paul has become the most successful British designer of the past 50 years.”
Not that you would hear such grandstanding from the man himself. If an impression can be formed of Smith from his output – the “classic with a twist” men’s suiting worn by prime ministers, architects and CEOs, witty, well-made clothing with sleek lines concealing quirky details (the cheerful axiom “Take Pleasure Seriously” can be found sewn into women’s jacket linings) – in person he does not disappoint. He is almost professionally self-deprecatory and immoderately modest. A long, lean, imposing six-foot-two, topped with floppy, silver hair, he is a very physical presence – all rangy limbs, pouchy eyes and playful geniality. “Do you want a Theo? That’s what we call fennel tea around here,” he says, grinning.
We are at Paul Smith HQ, a former factory in Covent Garden where over 200 staff occupy five floors. It is the very opposite of an intimidating fashion environment. “The building is Paul,” says Sudjic. “There’s no one taking your photograph at reception or giving you a security tag to wear. It has a sense of accessibility.” Smith collects me himself from reception, leading me to his office – a spacious, rectangular workroom furnished with bookshelves and a long wooden table for meetings.
But this is where all similarity to regular office aesthetics ends. Every surface and shelf is crammed with stuff: books, mechanical toys, paintings, cycling jerseys, a giant iPod, papier-mâché rabbits, a nativity scene made from peanuts (“I’ll warn you, baby Jesus has lost an eye”), a flock of origami cranes, a watering can covered in postage stamps, a box of framed photographs (Smith with Daniel Day-Lewis, with Gary Oldman, with Princess Diana), a corner devoted to his friend Patti Smith, including a fabric bag she gifted to the designer, inscribed “To PS from PS”. The place resembles an installation of outsider art, a show of cultivated, curated, fascinating oddness.
“The girls were saying the other day that it’s getting out of hand,” Smith sighs happily. “But at the very moment I was telling them it wasn’t my fault – people just send me stuff all the time – Richard from reception came in with five boxes full of spinning tops from an Italian fan, with a note that read ‘I know Paul Smith likes things’.” It is certainly a curious phenomenon, and one – within the spectrum of fashion designers – specific to Paul Smith. (One can’t picture, say, Tom Ford receiving too many peanut nativities.) A complete stranger recently chose to send him “two of only three paintings he’d ever made”. Then there are the boxes and boxes of “lovely, mad letters” (all of which he responds to by hand). Famously, one fan has been sending objects – a pair of skis, the aforementioned watering cans – anonymously for over a decade. Not to mention the rabbits. “I made the mistake of saying once, ‘If I see a rabbit it’s great luck for my next collection.’ Now I get sent between six and 20 each week. I’ve got 80 cartons of rabbits.”
He’s not complaining. “I don’t understand how it happened,” he says, “but it’s magic.” Perhaps it has less do with magic and more to do with sheer force of personality. Informed by his grounded, Nottingham childhood, and his insistence on normality, Smith is a highly democratic judge of creative value; his 2003 fashion book was titled You Can Find Inspiration In Everything*: *And If You Can’t, Look Again. People respond to him because he is what he seems. (As Sudjic says, “There’s no back and front to Paul.”) Which explains his cross-generational appeal. He has over 60,000 followers on Instagram (not that he knows how to use the app), where his team posts his photographs, from pastel-coloured scooters to Milanese airport officials – everything worthy of attention.
As he puts it, “I think I have a reputation for being someone who’s approachable.” To stretch this point to absurdity, when we meet he’s due to take a group of 30 10-year-olds from his former school on a personal tour of London. His office is always full of visitors, not least professional cyclists, for whom Smith, himself a keen cyclist since childhood, is an unofficial fashion patron. (Victoria Pendleton is due in for work experience shortly. Bradley Wiggins is a friend, and gifts him bikes: they’re about the same height.) “People are always dropping by. I can’t get rid of them,” he smiles.
“There is something about how Paul cares that’s way beyond any functional imperative,” says his friend, Apple’s senior vice president of design Jonathan Ive. “I remember being with him in his Covent Garden shop once when it was pouring with rain outside. Someone came into the store and, just as we were chatting, Paul went over and took this customer’s umbrella from him, shook it out and put it to one side. It was a very human gesture. He couldn’t have done it if he hadn’t noticed, but Paul notices. And he pays attention to what he notices.”
This “childlike but not childish, and always curious” approach to life translates into a company – from the business structure to the clothes themselves – that is a highly attuned reflection of Smith’s personality. “He’s managed to make his brand him, which is a really extraordinary achievement. And he’s kept that as he’s grown and grown,” says Sudjic. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine Gallery’s co-director, says, “People identify with him, they feel connected to him, through wearing his clothes but also through encountering his shops. That’s why they send him things. He has always had a unique dialogue with his customers.”
Smith has a shopkeeper’s mentality and an eagerness to serve his clients that makes him rather unusual in the exclusive, often excluding world of fashion. Whether by strategy or default, these same qualities have made him a commercial, global success, a knight of the realm and a multimillionaire. For all his humility, he’s clearly an astute businessman. But, according to Smith’s world view, fashion design, and his success, can be summarised as: “Doing a nice job and letting people buy your clothes and enjoy them.”
Born into a middle-class family in Nottingham, “a gentle little world, with a mum who had a lovely voice and a dad who was very charismatic”, there was little in Smith’s childhood to hint at his later career: “The house wasn’t painted pink, there was nothing that went, ‘Ping!’” After leaving school at 15 and his dreams of becoming a professional racing cyclist were cut short by an accident, Smith apprenticed in a clothing warehouse. It wasn’t until he started working in a boutique at 18 that he began to take an interest in fashion. Even then, the “unlocking in the morning and locking up at night, and learning how to talk to customers, body language, eye contact and doing the displays” made just as much an impression as the clothes.
When, at 21, Smith met his now wife, Pauline Denyer, a fashion-design graduate of the Royal College of Art, six years his senior, she encouraged him to open his own shop: a tiny, 12ft square space. He credits Denyer as “the unsung hero of the story. Pauline taught me how a garment is sewn, how it’s created, what a dart does, and about proportion and scale.” It wasn’t love at first sight, he says, “but over time”. Eventually, she came to live with him in Nottingham, with her two sons, to whom Smith became stepfather. “Pauline is very calm and steady. She’s an artist now,” he says. “She opened my world to art and architecture, to the rhythm of a building, the perfect proportion of Palladio – things that I would never have understood without her.” The pair married on the day of Smith’s knighthood and a wall at the Design Museum exhibition will be dedicated to her.
By 1976 Smith was showing his menswear collection in Paris; by the mid-1980s he was a hit. “I managed to break through by doing something as simple as a suit in a Prince of Wales check with just a little yellow over-check. It was a gentle nudge at the boundaries, not a shove.” This describes his design strategy over the years. Instead of a rush of high-impact fashion moments, Smith has gone for the slow and steady approach – one that hasn’t always excited the fashion press, but has played well with the buying public. “I’ve always wanted people to feel safe with Paul Smith,” he says.
Safe but not bored. The current menswear collection features a bold take on suiting, teaming teal jackets (£749) with mustard-yellow trousers (£339). The autumn/winter womenswear takes a similar approach to colour, with electric-blue, voluminous trousers (£495) paired with silk blouses in jewel hues (£435). “I’m wearing a navy-blue suit today, but if you look in the pocket you’ll see it’s lined with polka dots, or if you look at the buttonhole, it’s done in purple. I want people to feel special,” he says. It’s an idea that feeds into the experience of shopping at Paul Smith. “I like to make people feel at ease. That’s how all the props in the shops came about. My first space was tiny so I used tools to make people relax. If I’d bought a funny rag rug, I’d say to the customer, ‘Hi, how are you? Now, look at what I found on holiday.’” His boutiques – and his office – perform a similar function today. “It’s always been about, ‘I don’t want to buy anything from Paul Smith, but let’s have a look in his shop because it’s interesting.’”
It’s a challenge. “Making every shop different is tough,” he continues. “It’s much easier just to have a formula, but that has always filled me with horror.” In doing the opposite Smith has struck upon the zeitgeist, the post-recession appetite for authentic experience in everything from coffee shops to clothes boutiques. “I think it’s really interesting how Paul has negotiated the relationship between the global and the local,” says Obrist. “He is very connected to his local context – he’s extremely British – but at the same time he’s developed a truly global dialogue.”
Already huge in Japan – the site of more than 500 Paul Smith points of sale and an early adopter of his Brit-wit style – this year Smith is entering newer territory: China. Teaming with ImagineX, part of the Lane Crawford group, the brand will open 25 stores in five years. Smith is being cautious about the expansion – another ingrained trait. “We grew our business really slowly. Pauline and I never aspired to great wealth. We’ve never borrowed any money. Each year we’ve done a bit better in terms of profits and sales. My very first accountant, John Morley, who I went to for help in the 1970s, is now our MD.”
In 2005, Morley and Pauline sold a 40 per cent stake in the company to Smith’s longtime Japanese licensee, Itochu, leaving Smith with a 60 per cent stake. “People have been trying to buy us out for years, all the obvious candidates, but I thought, how could that make any difference to my life? It would just give me less flexibility, less spontaneity and more meetings. I loathe meetings.” (Indeed, in his early days in Japan, Smith expedited the boredom of contract negotiations by producing a toy train set concealed inside an attaché case.) Aptly for a man who sometimes rides a bicycle to work, he is hardly flash with his cash. “I have very nice pieces of art, a nice home in Italy, a nice home here, some nice pieces of furniture, but most of my money has gone back into the business. I drive a Mini.”
Morley is not the only member of staff to have stuck around for decades. Loyalty is important to Smith. For all the departments devoted to social media, a 1950s gentility pervades Paul Smith HQ. “I was interviewing a young man once,” he recalls, “and I said to him, ‘Just so you know, if you come to work for us, we ask we don’t tell. We say please and thank you. We open doors.’” The whole place hums with the sort of emotional intelligence that corporations spend thousands trying to engineer.
No wonder Ive brought his Apple design team to have a guided tour of the office. (And this despite the fact that Smith doesn’t even own or use a computer – “not because I’m old-fashioned. I just don’t want to fill my head with junk.”) “The whole team had a fabulous time,” says Ive. “It wasn’t simply about observing his particular way of working, but being with him, listening to him, seeing his surroundings and the world through his eyes.”
Now the paterfamilias of British fashion, how has Smith seen the industry change in 40 years? “The impact of technology. And the growth of the big brands.” The financial crisis, he says, was a drain on authenticity. “Fashion brands financed by hedge funds; they’ve taken a brand, rolled out a number of shops, and promoted it in a huge way, maybe with a celebrity designer. Sometimes it worked, but often it didn’t, because it was never quite real. And then, of course, there’s the culture of celebrity front rows, which are often paid for.” David Bowie, he’s proud to note, buys his own Paul Smith clothes.
Is he still excited by design? Recent collaborations include a camera for Leica (£2,000) surfboards for British company Swami’s (£1,200), a scooter for Swifty Scooters (£599), and bicycles for Pinarello – to be ridden while wearing the cycling jerseys he also designed for the Giro d’Italia race (£59.95). “I like the process of having an idea and then turning it into a reality.” Surely, there’s little left for him to turn his hand to? “I was offered a hotel, but I turned it down – what if the room service was awful?” For the moment, his job involves a lot of “plate spinning”. A typical day starts at 5am with a swim at the Royal Automobile Club, followed by an hour spent on correspondence, then meetings about new shop openings, a run-through with his design teams – Smith oversees all 14 annual collections, including menswear, womenswear, accessories and products. Then there are talks at colleges, or a 24-hour visit to Delhi or Beijing. It sounds exhausting. Is retirement on the horizon? “Me? Retired? I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.” Obrist adds: “The secret of Paul’s longevity is that he never stops.”
In other words, fashion designing is what Smith does, but isn’t what he is. “I think he finds the idea of only being one thing limiting,” says Sudjic. “Because he’s got a never-ending curiosity about the world and he’s always wanted to share that.” That curiosity can be experienced firsthand at the Design Museum retrospective, where there will be a room representing – through video screens and projections, music, images and films – the inner workings of Paul Smith’s brain. “They’re going to call it, ‘Inside Paul’s Head’,” says Smith. “I said they should give free paracetamol on the way out,” he grins. “They’ll need it.”