What starts an intrigue with a brand? I can’t remember exactly what pricked my interest in Paul Smith – perhaps when my daughter’s English beau introduced his Paul Smith socks with their trade mark slim discrete barcode stripes and bright colours, or was it when Paul Smith first landed in South Africa and opened a store in a converted house on 4th Avenue in Jo’burg’s trendy Parkhurst.
“You can find inspiration in anything” – Paul Smith
I know for sure intrigue turned to full-blown fan when I watched a documentary on the designer and man behind the brand, on a flight to London. It was his specific mention that a source of his inspiration was the markets in London, where he often trawls looking for original articles of clothing for their tailoring and cloth. He mentioned Portobello Road Market, in Nottinghill. Now I was born in the “Raw Burra” (Royal Borough) of Kensington as my Dad used to say, in Cambridge Gardens, off Portobello Road. I have subsequently walked the streets to the market. Another hook.
What strikes you about the Paul Smith label is its tailoring. His suits for both men and women are styled to perfection. To all intents and purposes, they are quite straight up and down, until you come to the lining. There English stiff upper lip and PC breaks its cover, revealing a discreet spot in an accent colour or small floral sprigs.
“Key thing about creativity is spontaneity”
I imagine that’s why he’s so loved by his fellow countrymen. They can maintain their safe conservative exterior, and let their wild side hang in, or let the lining doing it for them.
The same goes with his socks – bright and cheery yet artfully restrained by the narrowness of the stripes. Classic: but unexpected. I kind of like that. It is the secret of humour – you think it’s one thing and then it has a twist. Like his socks, Paul Smith himself is an original.
He is quirky, with a distinctive approach – take the location of his shops/stores for example. For the most part he eschews the big shopping centres or retail spaces in the high street, looking instead for quaint original locations . His Parkhurst store in South Africa is typical of this.
The first Paul Smith store, opened in Byard Lane in his hometown of Nottingham tucked down an alleyway. Just three metres square, the store is still there to this day.
“I’ve always been passionate about individuality”
Smith attributes the success of his stores, particularly those in Japan, to the objects of interest that intersperse the shelves of clothing. These may range from quirky tea cups, to unusual chairs and quirky toys. He describes them as ‘icebreakers’ – aids to make customers feel relaxed and at ease when they go to his shops.
He has attributed this approach as contributing to the high sell through of goods through the stores. Indeed, Smith’s refreshing openness and distain for pretentiousness so prevalent in the fashion industry may account for the popularity of the brand. Behind the quirkiness, is a shrewd business head
“I’m an OK designer and I’m an OK businessman. However, a lot of people in this profession forget the second half of the equation,” he says.
Today the Paul Smith enterprise has an annual turnover of £200 million and over 300 stores around the world – 200 in Japan alone. Each one opening as cash allows.
It’s heartening that in these times in which shareholders routinely make aggressive demands for growth and return of investment, that Paul Smith believes in growing organically.
“We build really really slowly – not fast but gently and we’re still seeing growth,” he says.
Paul is a principled man who knows what he wants. He is, for example, quoted in The Guardian newspaper as saying: “It’s not impossible to succeed in business and still try to be a nice person. Some people in fashion seem to think you need to have endless shouting matches and constantly whip up the drama, but that’s ridiculous. I never seem to lose my temper. Good manners cost nothing.”
Maybe that’s why we want to wear Paul Smith – when we put on his clothes (which are beautiful anyway) we put on a really nice guy! And that’s a great feeling.
Behind the Throne…
Paul Smith met his wife, Pauline Denyer in 1967 and the two have been together ever since. An artist, Denyer trained at the Royal College of Art and taught Smith about sartorial proportion, construction and fabric. “In fact,” notes Sir Paul, “she’s the key to everything I’ve ever done. I couldn’t have done anything without her.”