FASHIONABLE FOR FIFTY YEARS. British designer Sir Paul Smith, born in 1946, founded his fashion company in 1970. He was made a Royal Designer for Industry in 1991, the highest accolade for designers in the UK. Primarily known for men’s clothing, today the business of Paul Smith has expanded into over 70 countries.
Paul Smith, why did you go into men’s fashion, a business in which you have been successful for fifty years?
It happened completely by chance. Cycling was my first passion. I was in hospital in Nottingham because of a cycling accident, and became friendly with other patients on the same ward. When we were released from the hospital one of them suggested that we meet up for a drink at a pub that the young artists, designers and fashion students happened to go to. They were all very creative and I enjoyed their company. I helped one student open her clothes shop, but I had nothing to do with the design. I was 18 then, and my personal turning point was three years later when I met Pauline, a visiting lecturer from London who taught design at the Royal College of Art. We fell in love and she came to live with me in Nottingham, where I wanted to have a shop that sold unusual clothes for a provincial town. We didn’t have enough money to do so for more than two days a week, and did other jobs to earn money during the rest of the week.
How did you make your mark?
In 1976 Pauline and I moved from Nottingham to her hometown, London. The clothes I was doing were quite classical, not attention seeking clothes, like Jean Paul Gaultier for instance, but slightly more unusual every day clothes, always with an unexpected surprise but still very wearable. We eventually had the confidence to make a tiny men’s clothes collection that I took to Paris, where I slept in the hotel room from which I also sold the clothes.
When did you open your first shop in London?
The first London shop opened in Covent Garden in 1979. It was minimalist in style, with a concrete floor and white walls, and attracted a creative demographic such as the young architects Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, and the advertising genius John Hegarty.
Why did your clothes become very popular in Japan?
In 1980 I met a Japanese man who was based in Paris and looking for young design talent in Europe. The one he chose from the UK was me, and I signed an agreement to have a business in Japan. At that time international designers were all looking to expand to Japan, and so I took it very seriously and was very humbled and excited. But the other invited designers were too arrogant in my opinion. They didn’t put a lot of effort in and just wanted to make money. I went four times in eight years, and slowly there was real press and public interest because I was embracing Japan and interested in their culture, history and food.
“The secret of my success is making very wearable clothes with an unexpected surprise.”
Paul Smith Autumn/Winter 2020
Paul Smith, why did your British style appeal to the Japanese?
It was very wearable. Japanese designers were designing extreme fashion, very wide trousers with a low crutch or oversized, kimono shapes. They provided the more typical avant garde. Paul Smith products were modern but very wearable. They had colour and unusual lining, and that really appealed to them in Japan, as well as my regular visits and press interviews and being seen in magazines and on TV.
Nowadays China seems to keep the fashion industry alive. Are you present there?
My shops are very popular in Hong Kong, which is more international, but in mainland China we do not do more than OK. There they like logos and luxury brands because their wealth is quite new money, so they like fashion which equals a symbol of their success. Paul Smith is more just nice clothes, not a status logo.
How do you position your suits and jackets in the market?
We are not low cost and we are not an elitist high cost luxury brand either.
What is the average age of your clients?
Nowadays the average age is older and we celebrated our 50th anniversary this year with customers of incredible loyalty, a more mature customer of 38 to 45 years old. But we started selling online in 2004, ahead of others, and a lot of people in their twenties buy from us online. We have a label called PS which definitely attracts the interest of millennials.
Do you sell more from stores or online?
Right now, with the dreadful virus , our online is 50% higher than last year, but unfortunately that does not compensate for most of the European and Asian shops being closed. Normally the shops’ contribution is higher than online, but not now. As well as our own shops we also have 110 franchise shops, as well as a substantial wholesale business where we are very proud to sell to online companies like Mr Porter in the UK for example, and other big international customers.
Are the clothes you make for women and children also a big success?
In the 1980s and 1990s Vogue Magazine were using men’s clothes on women, especially in the era of the supermodels like Linda Evangelista and the famous photographers like Peter Lindbergh and Bruce Weber, who liked the masculine look on women. I was persuaded to start womenswear, but it is still only 20% of our business. Children’s is only about £5 million a year; a very nice, humble business, but not a big contributor to the sales amount.
“There will always be unusual pockets or a different coloured waistband, something to make you smile. “
Paul Smith, do you sell more clothes or accessories?
We are a very unusual company. Most of the big brand companies like Prada are predominantly accessory companies, women’s bags in particular, but at Paul Smith we sell lots of clothes. We are not reliant on handbag sales.
What do you sell the most?
In normal times it is our tailoring business: suits, jackets, trousers, and especially coats. But in lockdown many people who normally wear suits are at home, and online they buy sweatshirts, hoodies, pants with a drawstring, casual jersey trousers of knitted fabrics, more comfortable home clothes. We have developed a very soft construction for jackets in a modern casual style, with almost no shoulder pads and very soft interlining. Almost like wearing a cardigan, they are very comfortable, and our modern fabric tailored jackets are a big success in lockdown.
Where are your clothes manufactured?
Most of our clothes are made in Italy. There is beautiful tailoring in the Naples area, and our shoes are made either in Tuscany or in the Marche area near Ancona. We would love to make more in England, but in the 1970s and 1980s manufacturing in England went down in favour of service industries. In Scotland, Ireland and Yorkshire we still make knitwear, socks and some shoes and leather goods, but only a very small proportion of our products are made in the UK. Our trainers are made in China, like everybody’s, because they have all the modern technology.
Why are you known for your colours?
The first collections were designed by my wife Pauline between 1976 and 1982, and then she decided she wanted to stop doing fashion and study history of art and architecture. Eventually she went to the Slade School of Art. I took over as designer and was nervous about being too extreme. I lacked the confidence to design clothes that were too complicated, so I added two unexpected things: unusual linings or buttons, and then colour. Adding colour became my handwriting more by chance than organization.
Which are your favourite colours?
As a designer I don’t have a favourite, but I like dark navy blue, and red which is like an English telephone box, and then more seasonal colours which could be pastel, primary or muted depending on the season.
Do people still want to wear suits?
The younger generation of 18 – 20 years will have seen their older brothers and parents wearing loose sports and casual clothing. Once we are out of lockdown they will want to look different from their siblings and parents, so there will be a bright future for tailored clothes.
Paul Smith with his bicycle
Pauline and Paul
“We are always excited to design things in a new way, but we never move quickly. Often we just nudge.”
Paul Smith, what do you wear yourself?
Today I am wearing my very comfortable suit with a blue check. Because of lockdown I have been sitting alone in my building for twenty weeks, a building which has normally got 200 people in it. Your readers won’t believe it, but even though I am here alone in lockdown I wear a suit almost every day. I love suits. They are not complicated, but practical pieces of clothing with pockets for notebooks, keys and credit cards.
How many suits do you have?
Twenty, with four more on the way – tartan, plaid, navy blue and check. The joy about my suits is the amazing comfort.
What about shirts?
My preferred shirts are white. They work well with everything, especially if you have a good complexion. And after that blue, probably in a chambray fabric, which works particularly well in the summer when it makes you look very healthy. Italian people often wear the blue, and I always think it looks fantastic. We still sell a lot, but younger customers are not wearing traditional shirts because they need washing and ironing, a very practical reason. They wear T-shirts and lightweight merino wool knitwear with a crew neck or round neck. Today I am wearing a roll neck with a suit. Polo shirts, knitwear and T-shirts will be the way to wear a traditional suit in the future.
Are ties still an important part of a man’s wardrobe?
Less and less now – especially during lockdown. But recently I have been doing Zoom interviews and live TV, and I’ve been wearing a tie and people comment and say it looks great. I wear a looser knot than a Windsor with a softer collar shirt, so it still looks very modern.
What is the secret of your lasting for 50 years?
I love life, so I am interested in everything. I am a very curious person, and I always add a surprise, even to a more classical suit or a good pair of pants. There will always be unusual pockets or a different coloured waistband, something to make you smile.
Is fashion capricious?
There is arrogance, greed, ego, over-expansion, not being able to reassess the times. At Paul Smith we are always reassessing the way things change, and we run our business in a humble and down to earth way. “Nobody cares how good you used to be,” as the sentence goes at Paul Smith. We are always excited to design things in a new way, but we never move quickly. Often we just nudge.
Do you need to be tall and thin to wear Paul Smith clothes?
Not at all, that’s a myth. A lot of people think that, because I happen to be tall and quite slim. We have both bespoke and made-to-measure business, and we can easily sell to a size 54 or 56 chest. We sell in 70 countries, and in Germany and the US a lot of our clients are bigger people.
Are you optimistic about your future?
Yes, I have really good young people around me. The future is with the fantastic young team.
How do you spend your holidays?
Pauline and I love our home in Italy, near Lucca. We spend five weeks there every summer and have had it for over thirty years.
If you were packing a suitcase what would you put in it?
For one night I would wear the same suit for two days, so I would take a spare shirt, underwear, new socks, a notebook in my pocket and a charger for my phone. Very simple.