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

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

Zero to hero

Andrea Sim

Image: Buro 24/7 Russia

Getting to know Paul Smith, the humble designer who hates being called 'Sir'

The number of people who prefer bicycles to cars may be on the rise, but in the case of designer Paul Smith, a trusty two-wheeler is a symbol of his roots. Despite the success and means his eponymous label has afforded him, the once aspiring competitive cyclist prefers keeping his feet planted firmly on the pedals. "I like riding bicycles because there is something personal," he explains. "When you ride a bike, it's all about you."

As we delve into the curious mind of Britain's menswear doyen, the inimitable Smith reveals many hats — cyclist, photographer, collector and, of course, designer. In an interview with Buro, he reveals the challenges of keeping a global brand independent, and how a label has to offer more than just fashion in this digital age.  

Now as a designer, you have to have a strong concept and think about what surrounds your brand. Fashion is not enough, you need brand positioning.

I heard you dislike it when people call you 'Sir'. Why is that so?
(Laughs) Well, I think it doesn't really suit my character. When I was knighted, I wasn't entirely sure whether I should accept it. Sometimes it happens that people get titles for wrong reasons, but my staff said, "Yes, of course you should accept it!" — and so I did.

Do your staff call you Sir?
No, they call me Paul which is just perfect.

Before you started in fashion, you were a professional cyclist but a traffic accident changed the course of your sporting career...
That's right. But thanks to this accident, I've discovered a whole new world of creativity. I'd been in hospital for three months and there I met two boys — one was after a motorbike accident and another was after 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 started getting interested in people there and was asking them about what they did. That was how I discovered architects, fashion designers, and photographers. A whole new world of creativity opened up to me and I thought: "Wow! It's possible to earn money from doing something creative."

Then and now: Smith at 11 years old, 1957 (left)

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, and I met a girl who asked if I could help her start a little shop, and so I did. Eventually, I started my own and slowly worked towards where I am now.

It seems serendipitous that fashion is now such a great part of your life. Even your famous bright stripes were supposed to be a part of only one collection but has become a symbol of the brand.
Yes, those stripes. We've actually stopped using them except for wallets, scarves and other small items, but not on the shirts or bags. This is simply because it's become very distinctive of the brand while I find that it's not modern enough today. Getting back to your question about luck and coincidence, I think that accident I got into while cycling can be called a momentous occasion now. And those stripes which were intended for only one season was requested to be reissued by many people — they too, can be chalked up to some kind of luck. Other than these two occurences, I can't remember anything else that can be termed a lucky coincidence.

Do you 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. That said, I definitely don't reject cars and I drive a Mini in London as it's convenient for parking. In Italy I have a Land Rover, but that is all. I think I am a very modest guy and I am not really interested in all those symbols of wealth.

When I make a little bit of money, I put it back into the business.

You said once that if you weren't a designer, you would become a photographer. How did you find your passion for photography?
When I was 11 years old, my father bought me a camera — he was an amateur photographer himself. Now, it's all digital but in the past, he used a film camera and the attic of the house was equipped with a laboratory where he kept all the chemicals, film rolls, and other things. At the age of 12 or 13, I used to develop photos with my father in this room. He also started the local camera club in our town and I used to go to the meetings where I learned about lighting, composition, and so on. Now, I shoot a lot of my campaigns and stories for magazines. Photography is still a part of my life in this way.

You've just published a book with your photographs titled
Paul Smith: A to Z. Can you tell us more about it? Also, do you have plans for other books in the future?
My book Paul Smith: A to Z is interesting because it was made literally in one hour! There was a documentary made by TV network, ARTE, called Paul Smith, Gentleman Designer (which 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, "Wow, that's too much information!" — and that's how the idea to make an A to Z book came to mind. In about in one hour, we created the whole book. It was really spontaneous!

The next book is going to be about my collection of cycling memorabilia. It might be boring for the average person, but for me, it's really meaningful. I have many jerseys signed by famous cyclists, and various 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*. 

I know you have a great collection of books in your office and i
t's said you prefer reading biographies. Whose biography is your favorite?
I love the biography of Yves Saint Laurent. It's not the one that I've read the most recently, but it's the story that helped me when I was at the start. It was interesting to see how Saint Laurent and his team got the right balance between business and creativity. As you may know, Paul Smith is quite a unique company as it's totally independent and doesn't belong to any big group. 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 learn how things work in different situations with different people.

How did you manage to prevent your business from being a part of a big group like LVMH, for example?
That's unusual nowadays, isn't it? Today, every brand is either very small, or part of a big group. The key to keeping your company yours is being patient. You should get satisfaction from slow growth. 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 and 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 anything like that. I am interested in other things.

Smith in his first store in Nottingham, 1970s

You've mentioned before that you prefer designing men's clothes because it's easier. But today, there are many lines under the Paul Smith brand and my question is: How do you manage to control all the processes?
Every week, we get offers to design something. It could be a car, a hotel, or even furniture. I normally reject all the proposals because frankly speaking, I am so busy! Also, I don't give projects to someone else as I prefer doing everything myself, especially something challenging. Usually, I can answer immediately whether I'll take the project or not. It's always very instinctive. If I say 'yes', it normally means that I identify with the project. I need to do things with integrity. I couldn't resist working with Leica because I remember my father dreaming about owning his own Leica one day. I am so familiar with designing clothes and can do it 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 around the time when you started your career?
I think literally everything has changed. Things are so instant now because so much is online — we have e-commerce and social media platforms. We also have a lot of low-cost brands like H&M or Zara, which copy clothes from the fashion shows faster than we manage to produce them. Now as a designer, you have to have a strong concept and think about what surrounds your brand. Fashion is not enough, you need brand positioning.

You are a famous collector with an interest in many different things. Do you have a system for all the items you collect?
(Laughs) No, there's no any system at all! I just buy things spontaneously.

*Paul Smith's Cycling Scrapbook has since been published. Click to purchase. 

More interviews with designers here