I’m not one of those fashion designers who disappear into an ivory tower and lose sight of who’s paying their bills!
This is a special year for Paul Smith. The designer celebrates in 2018 the 25th anniversary of his first Parisian boutique, located on 22 Boulevard Raspail. Paris’ 7th arrondissement was a bold choice at the time for it wasn’t part of the the city’s “fashionable” area. But for Paul Smith, instinct and passion have always come before calculations and trends. With a successful career spanning over nearly fifty years, the designer has established himself as one of the greatest fashion icons of his generation. He was notably knighted by Queen Elizabeth II and was made Legion of Honour Officer in 2016. Right at home in Paris, Sir Paul Smith talked to Say Who about style, inspiration and, above all, about passion.
Your first Parisian store celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. How much of a breakthrough was it to open in Paris then?
I think I’m right in saying it was a big breakthrough! I had spent a lot of time in that particular part of Paris when I was visiting the city and I just really loved the neighbourhood. I wasn’t able to afford to open a shop in one of the more established and more fashionable areas of the city, so instead I trusted my gut and opened in Raspail and it’s been wonderful.
Your style is the embodiment of British elegance and irreverence, to which you add your sense of fun and attention to detail. Still you presented your first show in Paris, and today your combined men’s and women’s collections are shown here. Can we say you are the most Parisian British designer there is?
Well that’s very generous and very flattering! I’m very proud to have been showing on the Paris fashion show schedule for so long and very grateful to all the Parisians for making me feel so welcome. I think my Légion d’Honneur helped with that too!
How much of the Paul Smith style is inspired by your own style and experiences?
An enormous amount. I really do design from the heart, I want my clothes to be beautiful of course but also practical and wearable. That’s very much the spirit of Paul Smith. I also work in my shop almost every Saturday so I speak to the customers constantly, I listen to their feedback and I take it on board. I’m not one of those fashion designers who disappear into an ivory tower and lose sight of who’s paying their bills!
You say you can find inspiration in everything (which is the title of one of your books). Does that include people for you? Are there people that truly inspired you?
My wife Pauline is my biggest inspiration. Without her there’s no question that I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Photography has been a big part of your life, and so has music (notably David Bowie) and cycling. How much of that do you put in your collections?
Have you seen photos of my office?! It’s an Aladdin’s cave of inspiration – shelves packed with books, floors stacked high with records and lots and lots of bicycles! All of that surrounds me every day when I’m working and is the source of so much inspiration for me and my team.
You often say you became a fashion designer « by chance ». Why is that?
Growing-up I had dreams of becoming a professional cyclist. They ended when I was a teenager as a bad accident landed me in hospital and meant I couldn’t cycle again. It was in hospital that I met some local art students who introduced me to a world of creativity that I knew nothing about. I really did fall into fashion!
How different is your work from when you started? Obviously social media plays a big part in fashion today. Do you chose to embrace it? How do you make it your own?
Fashion has always been competitive but it’s more competitive now than it’s ever been. There are so many people fishing from the same pond. And the speed is so much quicker. It’s very difficult to juggle all the different aspects, especially when you’re an independent business like Paul Smith but I still love coming to work every day and that’s why I do it!
Do you believe in the idea of being « fashionable »?
I always say style is about a state of mind, not what you’re wearing.
What would you say was the biggest milestone of your career?
Well, the thing I’m proudest of is my consistency. I’ve been in business for nearly fifty years and the growth has been very steady and organic, there’s never been this one moment where it’s gone off like a rocket. I actually think that’s why Paul Smith has stayed successful for so long, if you have rapid growth it leaves you very vulnerable to rapid decline.
In times where customer experience is everything (through social media, eye- catching fashion shows…), what can one expect from a Paul Smith store?
Something different! I started my career running a tiny three meters by three meters shop that was only open three days a week. I’m passionate about shops and I always try to make each one of my shops individual and different. From a bright pink cube on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles to a changing room filled with thousand of Japanese Yen coins in my new shop in Kings Cross, London, every single one is totally unique!
There wouldn’t be Paul Smith, the brand, without Paul Smith, the man. How do you envision the future or Paul Smith?
More of the same, please!
Interview by Maxime Der Nahabédian
Portrait and photos: Pierre Mouton