Paul Smith: ‘I literally fell into fashion’
As his Dubai shop prepares to celebrate 10 years of business later this month, the designer Paul Smith talks to Helena Frith Powell about how he started in fashion, the Arab Spring, what makes a snappy dresser and why he almost refused a knighthood
One is never sure when interviewing fashion designers what to expect. Some are aloof, bordering on rude, and some don’t even turn up. I guess with a phone interview the chances of a no-show at least are lessened, but there are still plenty of things that can go wrong.
My call to the iconic designer Paul Smith at his London headquarters is scheduled for 9am local time. I don’t for a minute think he’ll be there – which self-respecting fashionista is at his desk at 9am, for heaven’s sake?
I am wrong. Not only is he there, but he is impressed by how “marvellously punctual” I am, and adds that he has been in the office since 6am, signing 200 limited edition prints for charity.
Paul Smith is, he explains in his friendly, melodious voice, an early riser. His accent contains just a hint of his northern roots, and during our chat he comes across as extremely down to earth, gentle and confident.
Smith, whose empire now includes more than 200 shops in Japan, as well as stores in Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, Antwerp, Las Vegas, Moscow, Dubai, Beijing, Bangalore and – wait for it – Leeds, to name a few, did not set out to become a fashion designer. He wanted to be a racing cyclist, and although his first job was in a fashion warehouse, the only thing he really enjoyed was the ride to and from work.
“I competed well into my teens but that all ended when I had the accident,” he says, referring to the day he was out training when he hit the back of a car and was catapulted over it. “I’m one of the few designers who literally fell into fashion.”
During his convalescence Smith hung out with friends in a pub where a lot of art students in Nottingham used to congregate. This was where he met his future wife, Pauline, and where his interest in design began.
“Pauline gave me encouragement and training, she was my teacher at home,” says Smith. “I saved up some money and opened a little shop, and Pauline designed the first few collections.”
Smith, 65, never trained as a designer, but is now dubbed “the man who launched a million stripy shirts”. He describes his style as “very simple and classical with a touch of the unexpected, such as differently coloured buttons on the cuff or some other little secret”.
He is friends with the likes of David Bowie and Eric Clapton, but feels his clothes are as appealing to rock stars as they are to the more conservative members of society. “My work is embraced by a wide range of people, from 16 to 60, because it has that simplicity,” Smith says.
To what does he attribute the longevity of his label, which has now been running since 1970 (he celebrates 10 years in Dubai this month)?
“I think it was a really honest, slow growth, the fact that it didn’t happen that quickly,” he says. “I started with just one small boutique, worked as a shop assistant, was very hands on, and I still am. I think the fact that I’ve been through it and understand all aspects of it has helped. And we have been extremely fortunate in that we have never had to look elsewhere for financing, so we are still privately owned.” He pauses. “Being together with Pauline has helped me enormously too. We have been together since I was 21, and it’s a very honest existence, very down to earth.”
If you were to describe Smith, you would have to say he comes across as a “proper bloke”, a very English expression that means he is a man you can rely on, not a flaky type, and a man of his word. It is also clear that he is not motivated by money.
“The financial aspect is great in that it gives you freedom,” he says. “It is so exciting to have an idea and then have the ability to turn it into reality like opening a new shop somewhere and designing its interior. Being self-employed and being able to work from instinct and not having to debate everything with a committee is great. But the money is not a passion. The passion comes from enjoying life, from talking to you now, from enjoying the diversity of life and the challenges of my job.”
His wife, Pauline, is no longer involved in the business. “She felt that working and living together was very dangerous,” Smith explains. She is instead developing her own passion for art and the history of art, and has studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Smith is obviously still deeply taken with her, citing her as one of the things that makes him happiest. He describes a recent experience with her at the National Gallery in London:
“It was very crowded and we saw one boy who looked a bit wobbly, so we started talking to him. Turns out he was from Newcastle and had only just come in to shelter from the rain. Pauline started to explain the painting we were standing in front of and it was amazing to see his reaction. It was as if a door had been opened, he had never thought about a picture meaning anything or being a story.”
What does Smith think makes a well-dressed man? “The most important thing is to know yourself and your lifestyle. your social life and your work,” he says. “You must dress in a way that is appropriate to your age and what you do, as well as your character. But to be honest, I’m not a very critical person, I am far more interested in people’s minds and behaviour. I’m a great believer in good manners, for example, and they have deteriorated, just as the use of language has deteriorated. Everything just gets abbreviated.”
Does he link this sort of deterioration to the recent London riots?
“I was just horrified,” he says. “But you can see their point of view. These people come from extremely unstable backgrounds, they are brought up by single parents and there might be drugs and alcohol involved. Although it is very different, I think you can actually draw parallels between what happened in London to events in Bahrain, Yemen and Tunisia. With the social networking sites something that just starts off as a gathering on a street corner can turn into something enormous very, very quickly and then become a firecracker ready to explode.”
Smith still has a slight anti-establishment edge to him. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2000, but wasn’t altogether happy about it. “In some ways I was delighted,” he explains, “but wasn’t sure it was entirely me. It doesn’t really suit my character. I did think about whether or not to accept it – there are so many people who have been knighted who shouldn’t have been. It seemed a bit inappropriate. But my staff were so excited I decided to accept. It also happened to coincide with the day we had chosen to get married. So it was Buck House in the morning and Brompton Oratory in the afternoon. I never use it, though, apart from on my passport, which is obligatory.”
And moving back to fashion, and bad manners in the industry, I ask him what he thinks of John Galliano’s recent sentencing for racism and verbal abuse (he was given a suspended fine of US$8,500).
“He shouldn’t have done it and he got away very lightly,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s a conveyor belt and you watch your suitcase going round and round and round, and that’s what our industry is all about. Galliano would have been producing two couture shows a year and two ready to wear shows and his own line as well, along with fragrances and more. The financial institutions that are backing some of these designers demand more and more, they give it three years to work and expand for all the wrong reasons, putting huge pressure on the designer.”
Smith doesn’t feel that pressure, he is still his own boss, and he relishes the workload.
“I like it when it’s really busy,” he says. “I work really hard, normally I start around 7, but I go swimming before that. I’m not a good swimmer, it is more of a centring of myself and giving myself a nice stretch. You’ve got to have a shower anyway. It is a way of opening up your body and preparing your head for the day.”
Does he feel that now, with hundreds of shops around the world and a multimilllion-pound fashion empire comprising both women’s and men’s lines, as well as accessories, that he has finally made it?
“Not at all,” he says. “In fashion you’ve never really made it, because it’s always about tomorrow.”
The Smith file
BORN Beeston, Nottinghamshire, July 5, 1946
SCHOOLING Not much; see below FAMILY Wife Pauline Denyer, two stepchildren, three grandchildren
FIRST JOB Errand runner at a clothing warehouse
WORST JOB See above
LAST BOOK READ I have dyslexia so don’t read very often, but I loved Racing Through the Dark by my friend the cyclist David Millar
BIGGEST REGRET My lack of education. I left school at 15 with no qualifications, not even the 11-plus
FAVOURITE QUOTE “You can find inspiration in everything and if you can’t, look again!”
CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT The Beano
SECRET PLEASURE See above
CAN’T STAND Bad manners and litter
CRAZIEST THING EVER DONE I jumped into a swimming pool with suit, shoes, tie, shirt, the lot
PERSON TO BE STRANDED WITH ON A DESERT ISLE Guess who! Begins with a “P”
Tinker, tailor, soldier… designer?
Paul Smith gets asked to collaborate on lots of projects.
“We get offered things all the time,” he says. “I react very quickly, go with my gut instinct, and opt for the things that appeal to me.”
One of Smith’s most recent projects was a collaboration with the director Tomas Alfredson in the early stages of the film based on John le Carré’s best-seller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The designer gave the director his thoughts on the mood, colour and photographic approach to the film to help him evoke 1970s London.
To mark the film’s release Smith also created four limited edition silk-screen posters to be sold in aid of Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres, and available to buy exclusively online (www.paulsmith.co.uk) and at Paul Smith shops. The film, the release date of which is still awaited in the UAE, includes Gary Oldman as George Smiley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and John Hurt.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019