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Sir Paul Smith on how he's stayed at the top

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As part of our 'Greatest'-themed 400th issue we spoke to the man who transported British cool to the rest of the world

From shop-floor boy to owning his own global fashion enterprise, Paul Smith is one of fashion’s longstanding heroes. After opening his first shop in 1970 in Nottingham, he started showing in Paris just six years later and now sells to more than 70 countries, dresses A-list celebrities, has been the subject of two exhibitions at London’s Design Museum and has won more Designer Of The Year gongs that you can shake a stick at. We find out how he managed to keep his feet on the ground…

What does it take to get to the top of the fashion industry? 
The differences between when I started and now are huge because of online, e-commerce and social media. But it’s about the product, having a point of view, hopefully having good organisation in business. I’ve seen lots of really good designers fall by the wayside because they can’t deliver on time or they run out of money. Sadly, a lot of the survival is very practical. I am blessed at being OK at design and OK at business but not great at either [laughs].

When you started the label, did you ever imagine that it would become so huge?  
I was a shop assistant working in Nottingham’s first ‘boutique’. Then I met my girlfriend Pauline and she said, “Why don’t you open your own shop because you’ve got lots of lovely ideas and good energy.” Pauline was a designer. We started selling to other stores in France and London. But really it was a job to earn a living, a lifestyle that was ours instead of working for someone else. There was never a big break. It’s been a nice, organic growth, so I never had a big ambition of having a business in 73 countries.

Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the few men who can wear a necklace without looking silly

Remind us – how many shops do you have now? 
I don’t know exactly, but there are well over 100 in the world, about 50 owned by me and 50 or so franchises. Then in Japan there are an astonishing 265. There’s 1,000 staff in Europe, 3,000 in Japan. We’re still small in comparison to the big luxury brands, but we’re privately owned, I’m the boss, we’ve never borrowed any money, we own most of our freeholds. That is just ridiculous.

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What do you think have been the key ingredients to maintaining such longevity in the industry? 
I’d say it’s a love of life, keeping your feet on the ground and not worrying how other people are doing because so many people become so full of envy. For me, I’m still with Pauline, the atmosphere in the building [the London HQ] is always lovely, very gentle and I’m my own boss. The shop in Los Angeles is bright pink. If this was part of a big company I would have had to have had about 47 meetings to paint a shop bright pink. I just said, “I know, let’s paint it bright pink!"

I am blessed at being OK at design and OK at business but not great at either

What is the secret to remaining relevant in fashion?
It’s so intense now. But you’re only as good as today and tomorrow. Nobody cares how good you used to be. Clothes are key, key, key, but it is also boring things like the right price. I’ve had so many people asking me about how to stay relevant. Keep reassessing and never put your back in the chair thinking you’ve made it because you’ve been on the cover of Vogue or been on the TV. They don’t pay the bills. In my case, I think I’m just blessed with being a curious person.

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You’re a keen cyclist, an early riser and a fan of swimming. Where do you get this energy? 
Pauline has kept my feet on the ground. She’s a really bright woman, well read. She’s one part of me. And my father had this very charismatic character, which hopefully I’ve inherited some of. He passed away when he was 94 and he still had all these young friends. He was an amateur photographer, and I started taking pictures at 11. I swim at 5am, am in the office at 6am and work until 6pm. I think it’s just what I’ve learned to do.

What is your earliest clothing-related memory? 
At the age of 12 I got a racing bike [Smith wanted to be a cyclist before he had an accident at 17] and I was stylish on the bike. I remember having a maroon crew neck, not a V-neck as you wore those at school, and that was so racy at the time. At 16 I got a suit – three- or four-button – in green with skinny trousers.

Where do most men go wrong with clothes? 
The hardest thing for the average man is thinking that buying into a certain label is going to make you fashionable. You have to know your lifestyle, your body shape and your character. 

I’m my own boss. If this was part of a big company I would have had to have had about 47 meetings to paint a shop bright pink. I just said, “I know, let’s paint it bright pink!"

Men’s fashion is going through a particularly buoyant period – why do you think this is?
The average man now feels more relaxed about wearing clothes that express their personality.

Which men do you think know how to dress well? 
I like people who dress with character, like Daniel Day-Lewis. Because he rides a motorbike a lot, but he gets his bespoke suits made at Westbourne House [a Paul Smith location]. He’ll wear a tweed suit with a denim shirt, and he’s one of the few men who can wear a necklace without looking silly. Then he’ll have his motorbike boots. It’s just totally him.

Paulsmith.co.uk

[Images: Andrew Shaylor]

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