Sir Paul Smith: the last of the great indie designers
Sir Paul Smith is almost the last of the great indie designers. A gentleman who has built a global brand on style, cool clothes and a unique amount of energy; and still controls it himself.
With luxury conglomerates, hedgies, vulture funds and Middle Eastern and Chinese state-run groups on the permanent prowl for luxury brand names, it’s increasingly hard to think of independent runway brand designers who still control their own destiny. So, fashion’s most famous knight is a little sad that his could be a disappearing métier, especially after his pal Dries Van Noten sold control of his company this month.
“What’s great, and I don’t mind saying this, is that we are one of the few independents left. Sadly, we lost Dries this month,” Smith tells me over lunch in his Paris headquarters.
“I know Dries and I am sure it will work out for him. He has got a beautiful home, and garden and very nice husband and dogs. Maybe he will enjoy a different type of life. It’s interesting because, Paul Smith and Dries are often put in the same category. There is a certain sense of playfulness and color that links us, even if Van Noten has a far more ethnic DNA. I think we are only ones left who still go to the actual fabric fairs!” says Sir Paul, in the wake of Van Noten’s decision to sell the majority of his house to the Catalan clan Puig.
Even Armani, the greatest independent of them all, has placed the ownership of his giant fashion house inside a foundation. Fashion has made Smith a wealthy man by any standards, and a significant property owner. He owns his Paris headquarters - a beautiful, cut-stone 17th century building with six upper floors, two basement levels and a garage of 23 cars - in an atmospheric street in the Marais. “It used to be a family house, amazing really!” chuckles Sir Paul.
His portfolio also includes: two buildings (with flagship) in Albemarle street in affluent Mayfair; two building in Covent Garden and a huge showroom on Drury Lane; warehouses and a mega flagship in his home town of Nottingham; and a classic five-story wrought iron building in Soho, where his New York flagship is located. Never mind his Georgian townhouse in elegant Holland Park, and a farm outside Lucca in Tuscany. Not bad going for a guy who set out to be a cyclist, but ended up running his own shop aged 24, opening on October 9, 1970.
Today he boasts 46 directly owned shops; 190 franchise stores; and retails in 962 department stores and 846 multi-brand boutiques. A remarkable 2,044 sales points worldwide, in 73 countries.
“And we are opening eight new shops in Korea this year; four already and four coming. There’s a new one in China, Copenhagen and we plan a big opening in October in King’s Cross,” referring to the much-anticipated Coal Drops beside the new Central St Martin’s, where Britain’s most radical architect Thomas Heatherwick (famed for the Routemaster Bus and the Seed Cathedral) will “place this spaceship on top!”
“We are really bricks and mortar. In these odd times we managed to stay independent and have a certain stability. My show on Sunday was about maybe not having to worry about the relevance of our fashion. I think that what is happening to so many brands, is they are all sucked into a whirlpool. Sportswear, sportswear, sportswear; trainers, trainers, trainers; And I know that the core of Paul Smith has always been tailored clothes,” says the 71-year-old Sir Paul.
And in a menswear season that saw the debut of two logo-obsessed designers at both Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton, Smith is dismissive of logomania.
“I think logos are a sign of personal weakness. That you need to wear a brand name in order to show who you are, or stand for something. Logos are basically like a crutch,” sniffs Smith, who was knighted by the Queen in 2000.
Sir Paul still owns 70% of his fashion business, the rest is held by Itochu, his long-time partner in Japan. Business remains buoyant. Last year, company operating profits grew 45% to £5.7 million, while turnover advanced 3.5% to £184.8 million. His wife Pauline and former CFO each owned 15% stakes but sold their shares to Itochu, guaranteeing their families' financial futures.
“But I didn’t get any money at all!” he cackles.
Smith actually started in ecommerce relatively early, in 2004, and now claims to be one of the top 10 suppliers for Mr. Porter and Matches; while also selling on Zalando in Germany; and Asos for his jeans line.
“We live in weird times – our footfall through our shops is down 11precent, but our sales in retail shops are up 11%. We pride ourselves on all our shops being different,” argues Smith, who leads the concept of differentiating all his shops worldwide.
“The original Paul Smith brand was based on wholesale. We used to sell to 80 shops in Italy alone, even an order of £5,000 and you’d be happy. What they call mama and papa shops. Second or third generation shops in places like Padua or Bologna or Mantua. Fantastic boutiques and the saddest thing is many of those shops have fallen by the wayside,” laments Smith, recounting how the arrival of a Zara or H&M megastore in provincial Italian cities have decimated local fashion boutiques.
Smith has had a home in Italy for 30 years near Lucca; “an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere down a bumpy road,” says Smith who spends several months a year in Italy, driving his classic black Range Rover Defender between shoe and apparel plants in Tuscany, Veneto and Le Marche.
“I’m useless at languages, don’t speak Italian, but I love Italy. The Italians work to live, rather than live to work. That’s the big difference,” insists Smith, who followed the Giro d’Italia and his Brit racing pals this year for one day around Lake Garda.
“I know Chris Froome pretty well; and I personally think he is clean. I trust him on instinct. I know Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins well too. As far as I know they are all good guys. Especially Cavendish – he just loves to ride. I got a text from him once on Christmas Day and he was out on his bike. On Christmas Day! You know!” giggles the designer, who years ago authored his second book, Paul Smith's Cycling Scrapbook.
“I left school to be a racing cyclist. I still want to be one! From 12 to 18 I was one. I never did that well; my best place was sixth in mass starts. I was never got enough to do the Milk Race. There was no money in it. You used to ride 40 miles to just get to the race. And then you’d race for 110 miles and hope you didn’t crash and then have to ride home! Now they are all in posh cars,” he laments, albeit with his trademark giant grin.
Most designer success stories require a partner, a Pierre Bergé or Giancarlo Giammetti, and Smith has one too. Pauline Denyer, his partner whom he met when he was 21 and she 27.
“Pauline trained at the Royal College of Art as a fashion designer, so she was my teacher at home. Since Pauline’s training was in couture, she taught me about the importance of proportion; the skill of making something beautifully, the roll of a lapel, the pad, the importance of the pitch of the sleeve. She lived in London and was married with two children and came to Nottingham two days a week to teach fashion and in those days, you couldn’t afford a nanny. Well, I was living at home with my mum and dad. And, all of a sudden, I had an instant family. Two Afghan hounds, two long-haired cats and two kids – a boy of five and a boy of eight!” says Smith, marveling that his wife's grandson is about to go to university.
Refreshingly modest, yet always proud, Smith has never been known to exaggerate his own talent.
“I was blessed by the fact that I seem to be able to do things. John Galliano is a genius designer, but probably cannot do the things I can. Whereas I was never a great designer, but perfectly good. But I also could pack boxes, write invoices and run a shop,” says Smith.
“It all started with just some small savings, opening a little shop two days a week in Northampton. Three square meters; no windows and only opened Friday and Saturday. The manager was an Afghan hound and I worked there too! The space was so confrontational – the customer that close!” he says leaning into my face.
“So, to break the ice – I’d go a good street market in Nottingham where I’d buy lots of Victorian and Art Deco cigarette boxes or lighters. And have them as an ice breaker. It was never what they now call lifestyle – just a way to make people relax!” says Smith.
“I became a very influential designer. What is sad is that so many things people now consider the norm – like a patterned lining, or a contrast cuff; or unusual buttons, they think that’s always happened. But we were really the ones who first thought that up,” underlines Smith.
Why his continued popularity?
“Luckily, I have never been number one because if you are there is only one way you can go! Down! I think I’ve always been relevant – moving with the times. Like our bigger silhouette this season – after all that skinny, skinny, skinny,” says Smith, whose June Paris menswear featured images taken by his father, an amateur photographer, who taught him to take photos. Smith’s photography has since appeared in Arena; Icon in Germany and Casa Vogue in Italy. His Instagram account is no slouch either.
Over his near 50-year career, Paul has designed furniture for Cappellini; a motorbike for Bonneville; Evian water bottles; Burton snowboards; Leica cameras; David Bowie tailoring; Rapha cycling gear; London Olympics stamps; a bespoke Land Rover; recent New Balance sneakers and even the pink leader’s jersey of the Giro d’Italia. Versatile has nothing on Paul.
In a British way not given to gushing exaggerated adjectives, but respectful of his peers. Asked about his favorite designers, he responds:
“Probably not living ones. What is really sad about a lot of the great labels that have been reinvented it’s that the original people were so skillful and elegant and particular. But now the name is just being used as a name – and not having any relevance. Probably only Karl Lagerfeld really respects the label that he works for. If I had to choose, I’d say Yves Saint-Laurent in the 80s when he was so creative and ahead of his game, or in the '60s with his first tuxedo and trouser suits for women. Balenciaga with his beautiful draping; and the elegance of the little black dress by Givenchy. Those are the ones I respect.”
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