Sir Paul Smith on his new foundation; skipping runway seasons; mentoring Lee McQueen and his latest book
Nobody could accuse Sir Paul Smith of slowing down, even in the year he celebrates his 50th anniversary.
Despite spending almost all of spring practically alone in his Covent Garden headquarters – which normally houses over 200 staffers - fashion’s only knight has still managed to produce a series of men’s and women’s collections. Plus, he has just opened his own foundation, a novel organization designed to guide creative spirits on the right path, and help them avoid career roadblocks. Something Smith has considerable experience doing, as he was a part-time private tutor to Alexander McQueen back in the '90s.
Smith was pretty avuncular already by that date. He opened his first signature store in his native Nottingham in October 1970, where in typically eccentric Brit fashion he made his pet Afghan hound the boutique manager.
Smith, 74 in July, has also found time to produce a new book, marking his half century in fashion, edited by Tony Chambers, with a forward by Jony Ive, which makes double sense when you consider that it recounts Smith’s life in fashion via 50 of his favorite objects. Most of which sit in his famously packed office, with a humongous table and scores of shelves for his treasure trove of memorabilia.
In the end, the book includes everything from the Kodak Retinette camera his dad gave him and his insane matchbox collection to the beloved linen prover magnifying glass and this cycling nut’s Paramount bicycle. All kept in central London, which is where Sir Paul found himself this weekend.
FashionNetwork.com (FNW): Hello, Paul, how are you?
Sir Paul Smith (PS): Very well, and calling from Covent Garden. I spent 16 weeks here on my own during in the last lookdown. I’d say today there are about 20 people, as we rotate staff, while before there were normally 200 people in this building.
FNW: How is business?
PS: Terrible! But we are all in the same boat these days, whether we are Louis Vuitton or Marks & Spencer.
FNW: Tell us about your new foundation?
PS: Well, we have been working on the idea for a few years and putting a little money aside every year for the Paul Smith’s Foundation. It’s not a huge sum, and we’ve been working with agency that handles our app and website and a lady to answer questions. I just thought that in our 50th anniversary year it would be nice to put some of the experience back into youth. I’d say, pre-Covid, at least once a week a school comes around to this building. Like the Art Center from Pasadena. They often come in April; a great graphic design school with amazing kids, who do a project for us and I critique it for them.
FNW: What’s your goal with this foundation?
PS: It’s so fascinating to demystify how you start something and how you get into a particular world. How you demystify an approach to a career – by simply asking, have you tried this college? Or tried out this idea one weekend? This is not a prize nor a travel scholarship. There is not enough money for that. It’s about helping people have clarity about where to direct their energy.
FNW: When did you first personally lecture on fashion?
PS: Years ago in the back of the Odeon in Marble Arch, after Terence Conran and a lady called Jean Muir. I popped my head into the room and there were 800 people and I was shitting myself! Plus, I realized everyone was reading their speech and I can’t work from an autocue as I have dyslexia.
When Terence Conran said, “Any questions?” nobody responded. So, I asked if I could put up photos and then the talk became very visual and then at the end I said ‘Any questions, and I will give you a prize!’ and about 80 hands went up. So I always take a few gifts when I speak - scarves and socks and stuff.
FNW: Will there be mentoring?
PS: We don’t really do that, though we will respond to all questions left on the foundation website.
FNW: But have you mentored personally?
PS: Yes, informally, with young designers like Grace Wales Bonner or Priya Ahluwalia who does great recycling. I even helped Alexander McQueen out – when Lee was at St Martins and he was a bit lost and Suzy Menkes told him to see me. I got to know Lee quite well, and I remember he once said, ‘People want to do something under my name,' and he asked me, 'what’s a contract?’ No reason why they should know. They are designers! Smith laughs out loud.
So, it’s not intellectual advice nor supersonic high finance, but a little pushing in the right direction. Wales Bonner I’ve met three times and we just chat and she comes with a little notebook with questions and I answer the questions. When we meet for coffee she is always very organized.
FNW: Why did you pick an unusual form for your new book?
PS: It was Tony Chambers, who used to edit Wallpaper, who suggested not to do another load of pictures, like look 15 from 1982 or look 33 from 1983. He said why don’t you choose from your crazy office - 50 objects and write a page-long essay on each – camera, chair, drinking glass, whatever.
Mine is not your typical formal business story. How a young designer starts out and is taken over by a hedge fund and then they open lots of shops. I still own about 80% of everything except in Japan, because my wife wanted to sell her shares. It’s for her grandkids. I don’t think they even know yet! Smith cackles.
FNW: How is 2020 going?
PS: We start showing pre-coll for winter next week. Dare I say, I give us a pat on the back since we managed to pull a proper collection together from here by working with my team long distance. Quite a few buyers were complimentary as many designer have just sketches and swatches. Now, we are already working on spring 2022.
FNW: When do you expect to stage another live runway show?
PS: We are not sure if it feels right anymore and we are reassessing the delivery cycle. Maybe it will be more like seasonless collections to ensure fewer mark-downs. Look, the whole industry is in turmoil, and no one is brave enough to do brave things. Even the big guys. But we do have a beautiful showroom in Paris so if we are allowed to move next year despite Covid we will show there end of January. And then consider the future again.
FNW: I know you love Italy. Did you manage to go there this year?
PS: I managed to get Italy for three weeks starting on July 8. And I would love go back for my factory visits in Veneto and for shoes in Tuscany and the Marches, but sadly this year I cannot really, as you have to isolate both ends.
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