British fashion designer Paul Smith has built a 45 year reputation around classic tailoring with an idiosyncratic British twist. After opening his first shop in 1970, these days his eponymous brand boasts over 200 stores worldwide. Here, he chats to Dean Silin about cycling, longevity in the fahion industry and his two books.
I heard you dislike it when people call you Sir. Why?
[Laughs] Well, I think it doesn't really suit my character. When I was knighted Sir I wasn't entirely sure whether I should accept it. Sometimes it happens that people got titles for wrong reasons. But my staff said: "Yeah, of course you should accept it!" - and so I did.
Do your staff call you Sir?
No, they call me just Paul which is perfect, I think. By the way, two or three weeks ago I was given France's highest honour - the Légion d'Honneur. And we had a big event in the French Embassy in London dedicated to this. I also have the CBE which is the Order of the British Empire and it's the most excellent order in the Great Britain. And I was awarded an honorary fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects. So it seems I got plenty of different awards.
Do have a special place for all your awards?
Oh, no [laughs]. It would be too odd.
Before you went into fashion you were a professional cyclist. But you had got into traffic accident and that changed all your plans...
That's right. But thanks to this accident I discovered a whole new world of creativity. I'd been in hospital for three months and there I met two boys - one who'd been in a motorbike accident and another in a car accident - and we became friends. We decided to keep in touch after we left the hospital. Luckily for me one of them chose a very extraordinary English pub in our hometown for the meetings. This place was special because students from the art school went there every day. So after visiting this pub for a few times I got interested in people there and started asking them about what they were doing. And that was how I discovered architects, fashion designers, photographers. The whole new world of creativity opened to me and I thought: "Wow! It's possible to earn money for living from doing something creative".
Have you ever regretted that you didn't become a cyclist?
I think I would have never been good enough at it. It was just a dream for me. But then I met a girl who asked me if I could help her start a little shop because her dad gave some finance. And so we did. Then eventually I started my own shop and slowly I got where I am now.
It seems that lucky coincidence is a great part of your life. Even your famous bright stripes were supposed to be a part of only one collection but then became a symbol of the whole brand...
Oh yeah, those stripes...Actually now we stopped using them. We use them only in wallets, scarfs and other small things but not in shirts or bags or something big. Why? Because it is very distinctive for the brand and became too popular. Today I find it not modern enough. But while getting back to your question about lucky coincidence, well, that accident I got into while cycling probably can be called momentous. And these stripes which were made for only one season and then everybody started to ask me to make them again - they too can be called some kind of luck. But actually that's all, I can't remember anything else that can be viewed like lucky coincidence.
Are you one of those people who prefer bikes to cars? I know you still ride a bike...
Yeah, I ride a bike. I like bicycles because there's something... personal. When you ride a bike it's all about you. When you put your foot on the accelerator everything is about the car. But definitely I don't reject cars and I drive a Mini which is absolutely convenient in London where you always have troubles with parking. In Italy I have a Land Rover and that's all. I think I am a very modest guy and I am not really interested in all those symbols of wealth.
The whole new world of creativity opened to me and I thought: "Wow! It's possible to earn money for living from doing something creative".
You said once that if you weren't a designer you would become a photographer. How did you discover this passion?
When I was 11 years old my father bought me a camera. He was an amateur photographer. Now it's all digital, but he used a film camera, so in the attic of the house he equipped a laboratory for himself where he kept all the chemicals, films and other things. At the age of 12 or 13 I used to make photographs with my father in this room. He also started the local camera club in our town and I used to go to the meetings of this club where I learned about lighting, composition, etc. Now I shoot a lot of my campaigns and shoot stories for magazines. So photography is still a part of my life. But beside it I have my "day job".
You have just published a book with your photographs called Paul Smith: A to Z. Can you tell more about it? And do you have plans about some more books in future?
The next book is going to be about my collection of cycling memorabilia. It might be boring for you, but for me it's really meaningful. I have many jerseys signed by famous cyclists, many magazines and tickets from championships. One of my friends is writing the text for this book. It will be called Paul Smith's Cycling Scrapbook [editor's note: by the time this interview was published the book had already been introduced. Devoted fans of Paul Smith or cycling can buy it from paulsmith.co.uk). Paul Smith: A to Z is interesting because it was literally made in one hour! There was a TV documentary made by ARTE called Paul Smith, Gentleman Designer (you can find it on Netflix). When the ARTE team came to interview me about what to put on the cover of the DVD, I told them so many things that one of the guys was like: "Oh, God, that's too much information!". And the idea to make an A to Z book came into my mind: A is for... B is for.... C is for... So about in one hour we created the whole book. It was really spontaneous!
I know you have a great collection of books in your office...
Oh, yes, an enormous collection!
It's said you prefer reading biographies. Whose biography is your favourite?
I love the biography of Yves Saint Laurent. It's the story that helped me when I was at the start. It was interesting to see how he and his team got the right balance between business and creativity. Paul Smith is quite a unique company as it's totally independent, it doesn't belong to any big group - it's just my company. And sometimes things become complicated because I not only discuss design with my team but also have to think about business. So reading biographies like Saint Laurent's can be very helpful in this aspect: you just learn how things work in different situations and with different people.
That's actually an interesting question: how did you manage to prevent your business from being a part of a big group such LVMH?
That's unusual nowadays, isn't it? Today every brand is either very small or a part of a big group. It's about being patient and not trying to go like a rocket. You should get satisfaction from your slow growth. As I said earlier, I don't desire a great wealth. When I make a little bit of money I put it back into the business. For instance, this building we are in now, is my own, we don't rent it - I bought it. My shops are also located in my buildings. I don't put money in private airplanes or something like that. I am interested in other things.
You said once you prefer doing men's clothes because it's easier. But today there are a lot of lines under the Paul Smith brand. How do you manage to control all the processes?
Every week we get offers to design something. It could be a design of a car, a hotel, furniture, etc. And normally I reject all the proposals because frankly speaking I am so busy! And I don't give projects to someone else since I prefer doing everything myself, especially something challenging. Usually I can give an answer whether I'll take the project or not immediately. It's always very instinctive. If I say "yes" it normally means that I have some sort of a link with the thing.
I hate things that are untruthful. I couldn't resist working with Leica Cameras because I remember my father dreaming about one day he would have a Leica. And the approach was very exciting. I am so familiar with designing clothes and can do everything really quickly without fitting or measurements. But designing a camera was something absolutely new. When you dive into a new sphere the process is always long because you are learning and you want to understand every detail.
How do you think being a designer today differs from being a designer when you started out?
Well, I think literally everything changed! Things are so instant now because of e-commerce, social networks, etc. And we have a lot of low-cost brands like H&M or Zara, which copy the clothes from the fashion-shows faster than we manage to produce them. Now as a fashion designer you have to clear your point of view, have to have a strong concept and think about what surrounds your brand. Fashion is not enough - you need a position.