Savile Row Meets Mr. Bean
Sir Paul Smith had a chat, as he himself called it, at the V&A Museum this past Tuesday. It was one of the best “chats” I have ever listened to. Sir Paul was genuine and real, humorous and inspirational. The audience loved him – not least because he gave little presents to everyone who asked a question at the end! With my hand eagerly raised, I failed to get a turn in the sea of keen fashionistas, but it didn’t take away from the man and his thoughts and ideas.
Known for his unique flare for detail and the colourfully striped Mini Cooper’s, Paul Smith describes his designs as “Savile Row meets Mr Bean.” He loves heritage and he loves tradition, and whilst there is a very strong sense of Britishness in his work, he bases his success on individualism. His brand is based on individualism; from small details in his designs; a colourful buttonhole here or a different type of button there, to his concept stores around the world. This individualism has made him one the biggest and most successful brands in Japan with 265 stores around the country.
The Paul Smith individualism is carefully applied to shape the in store experience as well as the design of his stores. “People have too much choice,” Paul says. “You need to understand how you can make something feel more special. You need to ask yourself the question – how do you stand out?” He says he often looks around the different colourful fruit stalls around Soho and while one of them is really organized with fruit stacked in neat piles, another stall is really messy – even that is a differentiating factor. “Window displays shouldn’t be underestimated.” The Paul Smith brand now employs 11 full time staff to work on store design. “I think it’s really sad when so many designers make all their shops the same,” Paul says. It’s disappointing that so many give up the amazing opportunities that come with owning spaces around the world. You need to do the “fuck you” to the corporate world and all the places that look the same, he says. “You’ve got to build the Eiffel Tower, something that sticks out.” Nowhere is this ethos applied better than in his LA store – a huge pink box that most definitely sticks out.
“Everything we do is done with effort. Effort is free of charge,” Paul says. His label doesn’t just make clothes – they make accessories, home ware and even more recently bikes. “We need to make and do things that can enhance the business,” he says. “I started selling objects to break the ice in my first shop,” he says. By having something to show and talk about, something people could fiddle with, made customers feel more comfortable and relaxed in a small space. He is still constantly finding new ways to enhance the brand – he even works as a freelance journalist writing articles and taking photos, most recently shooting the June Jubilee cover for Tatler magazine. “I write a weekly blog on the website but it’s not always about fashion. I write about things I find interesting – a real cocktail of things,” he explains.
The importance of doing “many things” is key not only to Paul’s personality, but his business. “Design of course, communication, individualism, personality and quality,” he lists the crucial elements of life and work. You should never assume anything, Paul says, but instead always check things out. This personal mantra – “Never assume” – is even written on his coat of arms.
Inspiration is all around according to Paul; “You can find inspiration in everything, if you can’t then you’re not looking properly.” He says you simply need to be aware of it; “Look around, but don’t follow.” It’s evident that where most of us might se ordinary things, Paul seems something more magical. Sometimes his inspiration from the surrounding environment can become very literal; Paul has made unique fabrics from photos he has taken at the Chelsea Flower Show, he has created a Union Jack design made with old postage stamps, and after looking at colourful bath houses in Suffolk he transformed the colours into stripy jumpers.
A Nottingham lad, Paul started out as a racing cyclist, but after a bad accident he started hanging out at the local Bell Inn and got to know young designers and art students. This made him more interested in a creative career. Humorously he talks about his introductory days into the creative world; “I started going home and telling my dad that I was really interested in Bauhaus. He asked me what it was and I just said how interested I was in Bauhaus. I didn’t even know what it was, the whole world just fascinated me.” He then went on to work for one of the student designers and together they opened a shop; “My first job was being a shop assistant. I didn’t know anything about shops – I said I did, but really I didn’t.”
Paul kept in touch with the art school friends he had made and started dating one of the teachers, Pauline. Pauline is now his wife; “She was my teacher. She taught me everything I know about designing and making clothes,” Paul says. Through Pauline’s expertise in the world of couture Paul says he learnt to make everything properly – the importance of making things by hand still lives strongly in his work. Pauline encouraged Paul to start his own shop – his first shop was a 12 square foot room with no windows. “I only opened the shop on Fridays and Saturdays, and Monday-Thursday I worked doing any job that was available to provide for my family,” Paul says. This gave him clarity in what he was doing; “Life and work is definitely about balance,” he says, “between things that are your aspiration and the things that pay the bills.” A lecture by Edward de Bono he once heard really hit it home for Paul; “The job always changes you, you never change the job.”
Lateral thinking is the foundation of Paul’s life; “I always talk about making room to break the rules,” he says. “I always turn things around and ask – what if we do it this way?” He says it’s important to always ask “why” and “what if” – “I am curious – childlike, but not childish.” To think in this way he says he has to remain free in his head and not let it get too cluttered. He never looks at magazines; “It’s important to know what’s out there but I don’t want my brain to get too cluttered with information.” Keeping his mind free and open is very important. “I don’t have a computer and I don’t have an email address. I understand the modern world but personally I don’t clutter my head with information,” he says. To this the audience applauds. Who hadn’t wished they could switch off like that! There is a lot to learn from Sir Paul Smith and the balance he strikes in life. “Make room to break the rules” may be his motto, but Paul Smith creates his own rules.