Paul Smith: \"I am not interested in symbols of wealth\"

Paul Smith: "I am not interested in symbols of wealth"

You need a position

Text: Shannon Wylie

From wealth to position, Paul Smith talks fashion, film and why he won't be called "Sir" with Buro 24/7 Middle East...

T he number of people who prefer bicycles to cars, sans the Middle East, is growing. It's also no surprise that designer Paul Smith fits this profile. With both a bike and car designed in his trademark stripe, the British designer is championing a change in the industry that is speeding along much faster than the climate of clothing.  

He is not interested in the symbols of wealth and by his own admission he feels that, "you should get satisfaction from slow growth". Here Buro 24/7 speaks to Paul Smith about his life behind bars (the ones attached to the two wheel variety), his position in the fashion industry and his obsession with photography...  

We've heard that 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 people are given titles for the 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 just call me 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. We had a big event at 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 Great Britain. Then I was awarded an honorary fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects. So it seems I get plenty of different rewards.

Do you have a special place for all of your awards?

Oh, no (laughs). It would be too odd.

Before you started in fashion you were a professional cyclist. But you were in a traffic accident, which changed all your plans and your sporting career. Tell us about that...

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 was came in after a motorbike accident and another was in a car accident — and we became friends. We decided to keep in touch after we left 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 art school went there every day. So after visiting this pub a few times I became interested in the people there and started asking them about what they were doing. And that was how I discovered architecture, fashion designers and photographers. This whole new world of creativity opened up to me and I thought: "Wow! It's possible to earn money from doing something creative."

Paul Smith

Have you ever regretted not becoming a cyclist?

I don't think I would have 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 finance. And so we did. Then eventually I started my own shop and slowly I got to where I am now.

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 to them. When you ride a bike, it's all about you. When you put your foot on the accelerator everything is about the car. But I don't reject cars. I drive a Mini, which is so convenient in London. In Italy I have a Land Rover and that's all. I think I'm a very modest guy and I'm not really interested in all of those symbols of wealth.

It seems that 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 they became the symbol for the whole brand...

Oh yeah, those stripes! Actually now we have stopped using them. We use them only in wallets, scarfs and other small things but not in shirts or bags. Why? Because it is very distinctive for the brand and it's became too popular. Today I find it's also not modern enough. But getting back to your question about coincidences, well, that accident from cycling can probably be called momentous. And these stripes, which were made for only one season, they too could be called some kind of luck. But actually that's all it is, I can't remember anything else that can be viewed as a lucky coincidence.

Paul Smith Stripes

You once said that if you weren't a designer you would become a photographer. Where did that passion come from?

When I was 11-years-old my father bought me a camera. He was an amateur photographer himself. Now it's all digital but he used a film camera. In the attic of the house he built a laboratory for himself where he kept all of the chemicals, film and other equipment. He also started the local camera club in our town and when I was 12 or 13 I started going to the meetings. Here I learnt about lighting and composition. Now I shoot a lot of my campaigns and shoot stories for magazines. So photography is still a part of my life. But besides that I have my "day job".

You have just published a book with your photographs called Paul Smith: From A to Z. Can you tell us more about it? And do you have plans for more books in the 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 (by the time this interview was published the book had already been launched. Devoted fans of Paul Smith or cycling can buy it on Amazon). My book Paul Smith: From A to Z is interesting because it was made literary in one hour! It came about following a TV documentary, which was created 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, that's too much information!". And the idea to make an A to Z book came to my mind: A is for... B is for.... C is for... So then, in about 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 not one I've read recently, but it's the story that helped me when I was at the start. It was interesting to see how he and his team found the right balance between business and creativity. Sometimes things become complicated because I not only discuss design with my team but I also have to think about business. So reading biographies like Saint Laurent's biography 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 statement: How did you manage to prevent your business from becoming part of a big group like LVMH?

That's unusual nowadays, isn't it? Today every brand is either very small or a part of a big group. The answer to your question about how to keep your company yours is, be patient and don't try to work like a rocket. You should get satisfaction from your slow growth. As I said earlier, I don't desire 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. I am interested in other things.

You said once that you prefer doing men's clothes because they're easier. But today there are a lot of lines under the Paul Smith brand. So my question is: How do you manage to control all of the processes?

Every week we get offers to design something. It could be a design of a car, a hotel, furniture... And normally I reject all of the proposals because frankly speaking, I am so busy! And I don't give projects to someone else because I prefer doing everything myself, especially something challenging. If I say "yes" it normally means that I have some sort of a link with it. I hate things that are untruthful. I couldn't resist working with Leica Cameras because I remember my father dreaming about one day owning a Lieca. And the approach was very exciting. I am so familiar with designing clothes and I can do everything really quickly without fittings 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.

You are a famous collector and you collect many different things. Do you have a system for all of the items you collect?   

(Laughs) No, there's no any system at all! One of my friends said to me recently: "Oh, you are a great collector" — and I was really surprised by that. I don't think of myself as of a collector. But I really do have a lot of things.

How do you think being a designer today differs from being a designer when you started your career?

Well, I think everything has changed, literary! Things are so instant now because of e-commerce and social networks. We also have a lot of low-cost brands like H&M and Zara, which copy the clothes from the fashion shows faster than we manage to produce them. Now as a fashion designer you have to have a clear point of view, you have to have a strong concept and think about what surrounds your brand. Fashion is not enough — you need a position.

Paul Smith then and now

Paul Smith flagship stores are located across the Middle East.

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