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Paul Smith: Fashion of the future should look at volume, manufacturing, sustainability

The British designer on completing 50 years in the fashion industry, his business mantra and learnings from the lockdown

Paul Smith says the success of his brand 'comes down to being independent'.
Paul Smith says the success of his brand 'comes down to being independent'. (Courtesy Paul Smith)

For the past half century, Paul Smith has been serving the classic with a twist—combining quintessential British tailoring with modern, playful motifs and colours. So deep has been the designer’s influence and contribution to the global fashion scene that it perhaps doesn’t instantly strike that he has as many business lessons up his sleeve as artistic ideas.

While growing up, Smith dreamt of a career in competitive cycling, but a road accident shifted his focus to the fashion world. A journey that a 24-year-old Smith and Pauline, his wife, started in a tiny, windowless shop on Nottingham’s 6 Byard Lane in the 1970s, selling clothes made by them and others, has now reached over 100 stores, offering Paul Smith creations, in 70 countries. His sharp suits and iconic rainbow stripes have found a niche but loyal following over the decades across age groups, with personalities like Harrison Ford, Daniel Day-Lewis and Susan Saradon being among his biggest fans.

This year, Smith, 74, has many reasons to celebrate. He’s marked 50 years in the industry with the launch of an eponymous coffee table book with Phaidon that describes his work through 50 presented objects. There’s also a special capsule collection for men and women, which revisits archive prints from his career, such as sweaters adorned with 1994’s famous spaghetti print and trainers with the rose print; and the launch of a namesake foundation to support young artists, which is centered on archives of all the advice he’s given and received over the past 50 years. What’s more, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed upon him the Companion of Honor award, recognising his contributions to the arts.

Lounge spoke to Smith on completing 50 years in the fashion industry, the reason behind his success and how he spent his lockdown. Edited excerpts from a Zoom and email interview:

How did you celebrate your 50th anniversary?

Celebrations started in January. I hosted a special dinner for friends and industry people after presenting my Autumn-Winter 2020 collection in Paris. Even the show started with a video, featuring archive material of catwalk shows and look books, and the collection featured archive prints that were significant throughout the years.

Paris has a special place in my life. My first ever show was held at a friend’s apartment in Boulevard de Vaugirard in 1976. The models were either friends or models paid with a very modest fee. Our biggest expense was hiring gold chairs with red velvet cushions. There were only 30-40 people in the audience and everyone had to ring the doorbell to get in.

When I recently spoke with my friends about our January party, they all said it was the only bit of fun they had since the lockdown period started.

What did you do during the lockdown?

Work! I spent 16 weeks by myself in the office, creating the Spring Summer (SS) 2021 collection. Usually there are about 150-plus members of staff in the office, but then it was just me. Being alone every day did give me the chance to look through my collections, my books and artwork and really sort of take stock of things. I got quite a lot of time to find new inspiration. The majority of the SS21 collection was created over the phone or Zoom with my design team, which was totally new, some of those meetings took hours. It is incredible how easily you can adept to such big change.

From making £35 on the first day at your Nottingham shop in 1970 to a business that had a turnover of £215 million last year—did you ever envision this kind of success?

Never. My first shop was just a 3x3 sq. m room with no windows, and we were open only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We sold a mixture of our first tailoring pieces made by Pauline and me, along with items that we found on our travels. On one of my early trips to New York in the 1970s I remember I bought trunks full of Hawaiian shirts sourced in SoHo. The shapes and colours were very popular with our customers; there wasn’t anywhere else you could buy such a product. We never thought we would become a global brand one day.

Paul Smith at his first shop in Nottingham in the 1970s.
Paul Smith at his first shop in Nottingham in the 1970s. (Courtesy Paul Smith)

What has kept you motivated all these years?

I enjoy what I do and try to not take myself too seriously. I’m not childish but I do have a child-like approach to everything. I’m fortunate to have a positive outlook. And I am very curious; I find inspiration everywhere.

This one time, we had designed our shop at Melrose Avenue (one of Los Angeles’ hippest streets), which was previously all pointed and wooden, and we figured we needed something very distinctive to stand out on such a long road. I was at that time, and still very much am, in love with the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragan, having many of his buildings in Mexico. So we decided to use his love of colour on our Melrose Avenue shop. The bright pink works brilliantly against the bright blue LA sky. Going back to the Hawaiian shirts that I brought back from New York City, they inspired me for my SS18 collection, which featured my version of the Hawaiian shirts. All of my designs are inspired by something.

And the secret to your success?

I think the success of Paul Smith more than anything comes down to being independent; decisions can be made quickly because there aren’t hundreds of people involved. This has meant we can change quickly when we need to.

What's the most cherished item you've ever made?

It’s actually something my wife Pauline created—a toile on a miniature mannequin. It has a special place in my very busy office. I also chose it as one of the 50 objects in Phaidon.

You are known for redefining menswear. The playful, colourful designs, often even gender-fluid, have a cult following though restricted to a section of people. Have you seen any change in response over the years?

We have always had a very loyal customer base from the beginning. We grew very slowly but steadily and that has made us into the global brand we are today. When I first started out, I wanted to set myself apart from what the rest. I managed that by adding humour and colour into my designs. Our customers are looking for the little details that make a garment Paul Smith, which has been the same from the beginning—now it’s just on a bigger scale.

As the fashion industry rebuilds itself as a more sustainable sector to suit the growing demands of the conscious millennial and post-millennial, what are your hopes for the future of fashion?

There are a lot of areas I think companies could be looking at, seasonality, volume of collections, manufacturing processes and sustainability. I do hope that out of this crisis some good, positive and lasting changes are seen.

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