Paul Smith – A Series of Encounters

After more than five decades in the clothes game, Sir Paul Smith shows no signs of slowing down. Last month, we caught up with Britain’s foremost male fashion designer to ask among other things, what keeps him going?

There’s a moment during his talk to fashion students at Manchester’s Whitworth gallery when Sir Paul Smith, the iconic one man international fashion b(r)and, turns into a sheep. A merino sheep, to be precise. The transformation is only brief, a quick drop to all fours, hand gestures to indicate an especially long coat of wool and then back to his feet to explain the intensive weaving process, but the transformation is rather telling. In part, it illustrates how at a grand old age of 71, Smith is still extremely nimble, but also at the grand old age of 71 he is still having fun.

The first time I encounter Paul Smith, he’s in his new Manchester store, a bright glass-fronted space, with trinkets galore and a host of garments for men and women. More precise details stand out too. On the wall opposite the till is a grid of shelves each exhibiting a Paul Smith designed Anglepoise lamp. Spread across the interior walls are a collection of works by Jean Basquiat and stacked up on one of the tables are a curious set of wooden cubes, glass fronted, with small delicate models inside. Twist a handle on the side and the model moves. Everything in the store, from furniture to artwork as well as clothes is for sale. A feature of Paul Smith stores that has continued from the early days.

Those early days, or the Paul Smith story, is one well known. Lad from Beeston near Nottingham, a serious cycling enthusiast, has a serious cycling accident. Whilst in hospital, befriends the local art kids and is introduced to the world of art and fashion. Takes evening classes in tailoring and moves in with the love of his life, Pauline (Royal College of Art graduate, couture fashion enthusiast), whilst working in a clothing warehouse showroom.

His window displays impress and soon get him a job as a buyer. Joins Lincroft Kilgour of Savile Row, where some of his designs are worn by George Best. His first shop, Paul Smith Vêtements pour Hommes launches in 1970 in Nottingham and it’s all up from there. Smith now sits upon a fashion empire that has 39 directly owned shops, 180 franchises in over 60 countries and 250 stores in Japan. In 2015 the brand had a turnover of £192m.

Speaking of George Best, that’s where our conversation begins. Well, sort of. I come to the interview bearing gifts, one of which is a bar of Romanian chocolate and immediately, Smith has a story. “I’ve got his [Nicolae Ceaușescu, infamous Romanian dictator] old tracksuit.” He says. “A friend of mine who visits that whole area, he did a really lovely book called ‘CCCP’ it’s all on Soviet architecture. He’s called Frederic Chaubin. He’s instantly got this tracksuit. So I got it in this funny old equivalent of a Tesco bag. Anyway, I’m a big chocolate fan, thank you.”

When asked about Manchester, for Smith, George Best comes to mind. He mentions coming to Lancashire when he was younger, buying fabric from merchants and later it was all about the clubs, notably the Hacienda, “Peter Saville, he’s a mate of mine, I see him most weekends for a coffee”, but it’s the world’s first real celebrity footballer that seems to stick. “My boss used to say, ‘Paul, George has done a runner again. take the Roller’, because they had two Rolls Royces at the time, ‘go pick him up from the Heathrow lounge.’ Rest of the day we’d hang out.”

“Then I’d be trying to get up to Nottingham, and he’d be like ‘which club we going to?’. He used to just get on a plane to London. I had a flat in Putney and he used to stay at the flat, we’d get something to eat. I think he was fascinated. We got on really well because I never talked about football. He was just fascinated with lateral conversation, about architecture. Stuff I was interested in. He’d never had a conversation about architecture in his life. It wasn’t heavy. I’d say like, ‘Oh I like the simplicity of that building, or that Gothic building.’ Then he’d be like, interested. It was a release.” At a time when the tabloid headlines were ablaze with stories of George Best going missing, it’s funny to imagine the two pootling through London together, pointing out buildings under the nose of The Sun.

Smith has admirable patience. As I ask him two duff questions about books and films, despite not being much of a reader or watcher, he makes the effort to give a relevant answer. “I’m not a big reader, because my mind is very active, very all over the place.” He says.

“On holiday I’ll read. I quite like biographies or autobiographies because I can draw parallels with them. I’ve read obvious things, Yves Saint Lauren, Dior. I’m a big mate with Hanif Kureishi, so I’ve read most of his books because he gives me them and then tests me when we go for a coffee. I think, fuck, I need to read this book. So normally I read about four pages, get the drift and then go ‘it’s fantastic, I love that bit where…’ I’ve got thousands of books, but they’re nearly all graphic design, architecture, photography, art, so I give them to my studio.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t try.

“I was on holiday, pretending to read because my wife reads a lot, and she said, “Darling, you know you’re holding the book upside down.” I was like, ‘Ah, yeah.’ I was trying to be all cool.”

As we sit in the corner of his store, I quiz him on a variety of topics and the answers are always informative and amusing, his conversation free-flowing and animated. He still keeps in touch with everyone that has passed through the brand, “It’s really lovely with Paul Smith because you never really fall out of contact with anyone,” and as far as cycling routes go, he’s a big fan of Richmond Park and a hilly slog near his house in Lucca, Italy.

Travel has been key to his success and although there’s still places he would like to see – Patagonia is up there – his ‘visited’ list is long. You name it, he’s been there, whether for a week, hour or even a day. “I flew from Shanghai to Beijing on Air China. A very long long time ago. And they took off as people were still getting to their seats which was quite interesting and one man next to me had a chicken with him.” He quips.

Our chat in his Manchester store comes to an end with a classic dose of Smith positivity and humour. I ask him if he’s ever had a particularly bad trip and he says never. “I’ve never really had a bad day, I’m very privileged. I’m really privileged. I’m a very positive person, I think every day is a new beginning, I just think one day a very large double decker red bus will fall on my head, which will be, obviously a freak.” Everyone in the vicinity quickly collectively touches wood. I depart for his talk at the Whitworth Gallery and as I exit, Smith hoists himself up onto the till for a doting photographer.

The second time I encounter Paul Smith, it’s at the Whitworth Gallery and he has just tripped over a speaker as he waits to be introduced ahead of his talk to fashion students and the public. Nobody really notices, but he styles it out well. Today, Smith is being introduced by former Labour MP for Rochdale, Lorna Fitzsimons. She reveals that she attended a Paul Smith talk when she was an arts student. Another notable name in the crowd that day? One Lee Alexander McQueen.

Paul Smith is a very good public speaker. He’s articulate, funny, charismatic and knows how to work a crowd. As he talks about his early years and the enlightenment that came with befriending the art school kids after his cycling accident, he quips about his previous naivety. “I thought Bauhaus was a housing estate near Nottingham.” He talks about the importance of meeting his future wife Pauline and moving in with her two kids, two long-haired cats and two Afghan hounds, the latter he related to. “We both have long hair and big noses.” Pauline taught him the basics of making clothes at the kitchen table, her expert knowledge of the flowing and elegant proportions of couture proved vital to Smith’s education. As did night classes in tailoring, courtesy of a tutor with a past in military clothing.

Introductions and life stories aside, Paul Smith continues his talk with probably the most memorable part. Standing parallel to the front of the stage, Smith takes up what can only be described as the ancient Egyptian stance. Arms in a ‘Z’ shape, palms flat and fingers wiggling. The hand pointing backwards, as Smith explains, is “Monday to Thursday”, while the other hand, forward-facing, represents “Friday to Saturday”. The hand facing backwards represents the realities of earning and surviving, the forward facing hand being the fun of creativity, and both have to be balanced. “I had to realise that VAT didn’t mean vodka and tonic.” He says.

From thereon it’s a mixture of life lessons and insight, all highly quotable. “Make room to break the rules.” “You can’t do it without doing it.” “Do things that are right, not things that are easy.” It’s an inspirational and revealing talk. It’s clear that Smith thinks the creative world is over-saturated, whether with designers, photographers, magazines, clothes brands, shops or even just choices, but that’s not to say he doesn’t think people can make something of it, it’s just more difficult than when he began and it requires more of the familiar basics: humour, ingenuity and of course, effort. “You have to push yourself to think differently.” He says.

Creativity is also explored, specifically the power of the camera viewfinder and its ability to inform his work. ‘Work’ being a vast term in this case, including everything from shop fronts to the presentation of a belt in a store to the tearing of a few sheets of Paperchase tissue paper informing the design of a rug. This is Smith at his most fascinating, a theatrical recreation of ‘classic with a twist’, explaining how often unassuming features of daily life have inspired a particular piece. A beach hut morphs into a jumper, a bunch of flowers to a dress. It’s around this point that Smith asks the audience if they would like him to be a merino sheep. “Be child-like, but not childish” he says, as he finishes the talk.

The third time I encounter Paul Smith, he’s greeting me at the reception of his London HQ. Spritely as always, clad in the same blue check suit, white shirt and white trainers (albeit different socks) as previous encounters, he leads me to his office via a four story staircase that doubles up as a gallery. The walls lined with photographs and artwork. Most notably, attached to the staircase wall is a display case exhibiting a half bitten shoe and a small picture of the dog that was responsible. Smith chuckles as he points it out. I get to the top floor and make my long-awaited entrance into the office of Paul Smith.

Walking into Paul Smith’s office carries a feeling not too dissimilar to walking into the Houses of Parliament for the first time. If you’ve never visited parliament, perhaps swap it out for say, Grand Central Station in New York, or The Vatican or a notable tourist attraction. There’s a familiarity, you’ve seen this place on television or in a magazine countless times, you’ve heard other people describe it, but there’s unfamiliarity too, you’re seeing it from different angles, you’re suddenly hyper aware of detail and there’s also a level of disbelief. Am I really here? It’s a place to soak in.

All soaked in, Paul walks me around the two rooms of his office. It really is an astonishing space, a collection like no other. Despite being a mass collection of ‘things’, it feels curated as opposed to hoarded. All the famous landmarks are there, the endless books, stacked up as far as the eye can see, the windowsill full of analogue cameras, the meeting table he described in his talk, where he and his staff “sit down with lots of naughty chocolates, loads of books, some Joy Division on the speakers” and riff through future projects. There’s the artwork, the massive Anglepoise lamp, the pile of cycle jerseys many of which are signed by household names and of course the bikes, of which there are many.

There’s also things that you might not necessarily ever think of, but exist. For instance, Paul shows me a mechanical hand that when turned on, methodically drums its fingers on the table. He jokes that he puts it up his sleeve in meetings and turns it on when he gets bored. Next he pulls out a small box. Inside? The peanut nativity (as in all the characters made out of peanuts and their shells). A child called Margo sent it to his office years ago. “She used to send a lot of stuff.” He says. What happened to her? I ask. “She works at the UN now.”

It has no doubt been said before, but the penny doesn’t drop until he points out a sketch of the office’s resident toy gorilla, George. “Quentin [Blake] dropped by the office not long ago and drew it for us.” Paul says. Willy Wonka. He’s a fashion Willy Wonka. His slender frame (like one of Blake’s illustrations), his eccentricity, his creative imagination, his charismatic nature and as he leads us through the floors of his buildings, there’s a chocolate factory feeling of curiosity and excitement as to what’s behind the door.

Smith takes in every floor. The pattern department, the leather department, even the architecture department, in which they run a ‘material of the month’ competition. Previous samples are all laid out on a table; wall tiles made of compacted pencil shavings; walls covered in dominoes and film negatives combined to give a stained glass window effect. We go from showroom to showroom, marketing and PR to design. Smith always excitably greeting a member of staff or showing off a particular detail.

At the end of the tour as we walk back up the stairs to get to his office, I steal the chance to ask him a few final questions before I depart. Why, despite being in the position he’s in, does he remain so friendly, so grounded, so approachable? In a field where so many people at his level are the exact opposite, unapproachable, not grounded, unfriendly – how come he is different? His answer is simple and sincere. “At the end of the day, it’s only clothes.” My final question is even simpler. What keeps Sir Paul Smith going? He chuckles.

“Love of life is the answer. Being positive. I swim every morning around 5ish. Go to bed around 10ish. If I’m at home I’m happy to go to bed early. The missus is reading and I’m there holding my book upside down.”

Words – Davey Brett.