Sir Paul Smith has be­come an icon of Bri­tish style, but still has plenty of tricks up his well-tai­lored sleeve.

Esquire (Philippines) - - CONTENTS - IN­TER­VIEW BY Tim Lewis PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY Jooney Wood­ward


head­quar­ters of the Paul Smith fash­ion brand—is housed in a hand­some, red brick ware­house on the edge of the long­gone fruit and veg mar­ket in Covent Gar­den. From the ex­te­rior and the smart but un­showy wait­ing room there is lit­tle in­di­ca­tion of the build­ing’s ec­cen­tric owner: not his dis­tinc­tive cur­sive sig­na­ture; nor the thin, bright stripe pat­tern he cre­ated that be­came so pop­u­lar he had to kill it off. Not even a rab­bit, an an­i­mal that, in var­i­ous forms, has been a lucky charm for much of his ca­reer and which must be do­ing a job be­cause the 70-year-old Smith has clung on at the top, or near it, of a no­to­ri­ously greasy pole for the best part of five decades.

The ab­sence of brand­ing on the build­ing could be taken as a re­flec­tion of its ego­less, don’t-call-me-Sir-Paul pro­pri­etor. But, in truth, you wouldn’t have to be much of a de­tec­tive to work out that this is Smith’s place. Behind the re­cep­tion desk, there’s a cabi­net full of tell-tale cu­rios: an Eddy Mer­ckx poster, mini-ro­bots, David Bowie mem­o­ra­bilia. Climb the four flights of stairs to his of­fice—the lift, as usual, is bro­ken—and you pass hun­dreds of framed pho­to­graphs, many of which were taken by him or have a per­sonal res­o­nance. Then, slightly puff­ing, you are in front of the man him­self: you might need a few sec­onds to catch your breath, but that’s OK, be­cause Smith starts talk­ing and pretty well doesn’t stop.

“Tea, cof­fee?” he asks, lead­ing you into his of­fice, the Not­ting­ham earth­i­ness in his voice gone nowhere. “Ba­con, eggs, beans?”

I’m not the first vis­i­tor or jour­nal­ist to have a pop at de­scrib­ing Smith’s man­cave and I’m al­ready re­signed to not quite do­ing it jus­tice. There are wob­bling high-rise tow­ers of books every­where, so many that Smith has found that the only way to keep track is to op­er­ate a mi­cro lend­ing li­brary. On walls and in piles, there are art­works, many of them very valu­able: a Le Cor­bus­ier paint­ing, an Yves Saint Lau­rent sketch, a Ce­cil Beaton pho­to­graph. Bi­cy­cles are piled up, as if dumped by stu­dents late for their 9 a.m. lec­ture, ex­cept these ma­chines used to be­long to Bradley Wig­gins, Mark Cavendish, and Chris Froome. “A lit­tle girl was in here the other day and she counted 20 bikes,” says Smith, waft­ing a hand. “But then I think she might only have been able to count to 20.”

Best of all, though, is the ex­otic junk that Smith hoards and cu­rates like no one else on the planet. One ex­am­ple: for over 30 years an anony­mous fan—he doesn’t even know if it’s a he or a she, only that

‘I don’t think I’m re­ally com­pet­i­tive but I do have a sur­vival in­stinct, which is, “Well, we’ll just work it out then”’

the post­mark is from the United States— has been send­ing him odd keep­sakes. They ar­rive un­wrapped, with the stamps stuck di­rectly on to the ob­ject, which might be a snow­board, a fluffy chicken, a lad­der, a seven-foot sun­flower. A re­cent gift that ar­rived was a fe­male torso, which— im­por­tant de­tail, this—was made from bright pink plas­tic.

“The post­man wasn’t quite sure where to hold it,” Smith chuck­les. “And the re­cep­tion­ist just said, ‘Oh, for Paul, right?’ It’s be­come like a per­for­mance art and it’s an ab­so­lute de­light in to­day’s greedy, ho­mogenised, cor­po­rate world. There’s no de­mand: I love you; I hate you; I want money. Noth­ing. It’s just a thing that some­body does.”

Smith has gone se­ri­ous, at least for a mo­ment. We are meet­ing at the tail-end of the year, one of those murky De­cem­ber days when it feels like the sun has pulled a sickie and stayed home. And 2016 has been a chal­leng­ing year for Paul Smith, both the man and the brand.

“Yes, it’s been quite trou­ble­some,” he ad­mits. “Ob­vi­ously we have had Brexit, we’ve had Trump, we’ve had the ref­er­en­dum in Italy, we’ve had ter­ror­ism. Places like France, 30 per­cent less peo­ple are go­ing to Paris so that’s a very prac­ti­cal prob­lem. The world­wide re­ces­sion has never re­ally gone away. It is just that peo­ple have been in quite a lot of de­nial. So for us, we’ve got a sta­ble-but-flat busi­ness, which is bet­ter than a lot of oth­ers out there that are not sta­ble and not flat. And they are hav­ing to cut down staff or close shops. Luck­ily, we’re not cut­ting down on staff or shops at the mo­ment.”

In this cli­mate, the Willy Wonka-es­que Smithyland—which he de­scribes as “child­like” but res­o­lutely not “child­ish”—has be­come some­thing of a sanc­tu­ary from a cruel world. “We just had some peo­ple here for a sand­wich at lunchtime and they were say­ing”—Smith ex­hales—“‘Oh thank good­ness for this of­fice and thank good­ness for this con­ver­sa­tion be­cause it’s just so light-hearted. And so re­fresh­ing.’ I had my busi­ness when there was the coal min­ers’ strike in the Eight­ies and the three-day week, when you had to have a gen­er­a­tor for the rest of the week. And I man­aged to al­ways do well through these things. So, we’re not go­ing any­where in­ci­den­tally, we’re very solid, it’s just you’re wit­ness­ing a time which is dif­fer­ent to what you’ve wit­nessed be­fore.”

It’s a grim pic­ture, but Smith, an in­vet­er­ate en­ter­tainer, never al­lows the mood to sink for too long. “I get to work ev­ery morn­ing at 6am and I have this won­der­ful re­la­tion­ship with the clean­ers,” he says. “It’s a bit of a skill clean­ing in here: she puts the vac­uum cleaner on blow, which you can do, you turn it the wrong way round. So she goes, ‘Pffffffff!’ Then she turns it to suck and col­lects all the dust in the air.”

A lean, hand­some man, Smith is the best ad­ver­tise­ment for his own clothes: to­day, a denim shirt with pearl but­tons and in­digo chi­nos. Sud­denly, he springs to his feet, with the zeal of a lep­i­dopter­ist chas­ing a rare species with a net. “So she goes ‘Pffffffff!’ And then ‘Ckck­ck­ckk!’” It’s a very funny lit­tle skit, as he leaps around the room try­ing to tame the noz­zle of an imag­i­nary vac­uum: who knew Paul Smith, knight of the realm, was such a clown? “And it works!”


in fash­ion, the story of Paul Smith is a fas­ci­nat­ing, and per­haps un­re­peat­able, busi­ness case study. How did a one-man brand turn into a global mega-em­pire with a turnover, in 2015, of £192M? How did some­one who started in a win­dow­less broom cup­board in Not­ting­ham grow that into 39 di­rectly owned shops, 180 franchises in 60-odd coun­tries and a scarcely cred­i­ble, looks-like-a-typo 250 stores in Ja­pan? And all of this has been achieved with cur­sory tai­lor­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, dys­lexia and while still re­tain­ing a ma­jor­ity stake—a rar­ity in the in­dus­try these days—in the com­pany that bears his name.

Smith opened his first store, the grand­sound­ing Paul Smith Vête­ment Pour Homme, in 1970 in his home­town, when he was 23. It didn’t fea­ture his own de­signs yet, but it al­ready had some ele­ments, in minia­ture, that would later be­come his trade­marks. While most re­tail­ers aim for a fixed sales re­turn per square foot, Smith’s bou­tiques have al­ways been more fo­cused on cre­at­ing a “spe­cial feel­ing.” In its orig­i­nal in­car­na­tion, this meant of­fer­ing records and mag­a­zines along­side the clothes. The am­bi­tion has since in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly: at No 9 Albe­marle Street in May­fair, his flag­ship store, there’s a room with 26,000 domi­noes cov­er­ing the walls, mainly to stim­u­late con­ver­sa­tion be­tween staff and cus­tomers.

“The own­ers of both Co­lette in Paris and 10 Corso Como in Mi­lan have both in­de­pen­dently said that our way of run­ning a shop was the in­flu­ence for their shops, which was hav­ing not just clothes,” says Smith. “So I sup­pose, with­out real­is­ing it, I was the ab­so­lute pi­o­neer of all that, re­ally.”

Smith started mak­ing his own clothes in the mid-Seven­ties. Aged 21, he’d met a girl from Lon­don, Pauline Denyer, a Royal Col­lege of Art fash­ion grad­u­ate five years his se­nior. She taught him sewing and pat­tern cut­ting on the long pine ta­ble in their flat, and he sup­ple­mented these lessons with night-school classes from a man who hap­pened to spe­cialise in mil­i­tary tai­lor­ing and cer­e­mo­nial dress. These two ap­proaches fused Smith into an ap­proach of­ten called “clas­sic with a twist”, though I pre­fer Smith’s de­scrip­tion: “no-bull­shit cloth­ing.” Along with Gior­gio Ar­mani, he led the trend to re­lax the lines of the suit in the Eight­ies, and he is also cred­ited with re-pop­u­lar­is­ing boxer shorts.

Like many read­ers, I’d guess, Paul Smith has been part of my wardrobe for all my adult life. It started with the lit­tle things I could af­ford, mainly box­ers, and handme-downs from my older brother. Lat­terly, Smith’s clothes have proved time­less and near-in­de­struc­tible, bet­ter-made than makes any com­mer­cial sense. I have a red and black checked shirt by him that must be the old­est, most-worn item in my wardrobe. It’s not crazy-ex­cit­ing to look at, but it has horn but­tons and sub­tle con­trast cuffs. Smith seems to know in­tu­itively that while most men don’t nec­es­sar­ily want oth­ers to com­ment on what they’re wear­ing, that doesn’t mean it should be bor­ing. Or that it shouldn’t fea­ture de­tails that only they know about.

When Smith met Pauline, she al­ready had two young chil­dren, and to­gether they had two Afghan hounds and a pair of long-haired cats. (Smith jokes that he and his pets were hard to tell apart: flow­ing locks, big schnozzes.) That sounds like a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity for some­one who left school at 15 with no qual­i­fi­ca­tions, I sug­gest.

“Well, I did any­thing that came along to earn money, which I think has given me the skill of do­ing lots of things,” he replies. “I was a rac­ing cy­clist from the age of 12 to 18 and you learn that you do have a com­pet­i­tive spirit and you learn about team­work, which has helped me enor­mously hav­ing 180 peo­ple in this build­ing. I don’t think I’m re­ally com­pet­i­tive but I do have a sur­vival in­stinct, which is, ‘Well, we’ll just work it out then.’”

In a tough time, this re­silience has been called on again. “Paris has got a lot less peo­ple, so let’s try and sell to more of them on­line, which is what we’ve done,” says Smith. “It makes you dig deep. In cy­cling, they al­ways say you dig deep when you’re feel­ing tired and dur­ing the 2008 re­ces­sion and things like that, you think, ‘That’s not do­ing so well, so let’s try…’ Then we opened three shops in In­dia, for in­stance. So you just sort of work it out some­how.”

For a man who turned 70 last May, Smith is cer­tainly not re­sis­tant to change. His col­lec­tions have al­ways been known for their al­most-ADHD va­ri­ety of ideas: per­haps 1,600 items in a sea­son, pro­duced in small runs, whereas other de­sign­ers might typ­i­cally de­sign, say, 600, but in much big­ger quan­ti­ties. The goal, he al­ways said, was that his cus­tomer should

never go into a pub and see some­one wear­ing the same shirt. But in De­cem­ber 2015, Smith an­nounced that he would be stream­lin­ing his busi­ness—in line with sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives from Burberry and Marc Ja­cobs—from 12 of­fer­ings to two: Paul Smith and the more af­ford­able PS by Paul Smith; Paul Smith Lon­don and Paul Smith Jeans were among the lines ei­ther trimmed or in­cor­po­rated. The move came fol­low­ing re­sults that showed the group turnover was down by 8.4 per­cent, though e-com­merce rev­enues were up 12 per­cent.

No one is about to call Smith cut-throat, but he is clearly ca­pa­ble, when needs be, of tak­ing hard de­ci­sions to se­cure the fu­ture of the busi­ness. I re­mind him of an old quote from his wife Pauline that hints at a steely qual­ity to the jovial, avun­cu­lar de­signer. “We have al­ways de­scribed our projects as ‘keep­ing plates spin­ning’,” she said in 1995. “Has Paul ever dropped a spin­ning plate? No. But he has, on rare oc­ca­sions, dis­posed of one, usu­ally due to mis­trust. Then the side of Paul that peo­ple rarely see is ex­posed.”

Smith laughs, “Ho-ho, that’s very good. I didn’t know she’d said that.”

Does he have a tem­per? “No, not at all,” he replies. “I don’t think I’ve ever lost my tem­per, prob­a­bly twice in my life, it’s very un­usual. Pauline and I never ar­gue at all and we’ve been to­gether since 1967.”

The fa­mous Paul Smith stripe is an ex­am­ple of his prag­ma­tism. It was never meant to be a re­cur­ring fea­ture on his cloth­ing and ac­ces­sories. In fact, Smith was al­ways wary of such things: he doesn’t do T-shirts with his name writ­ten on them (“I’ve al­ways worked hard at no-brand,” he says). But the stripe sold so well he had to bring it back the next sea­son and then the next and then the next. Be­fore he knew it, it was ubiq­ui­tous on boxer shorts, wal­lets, even his car­rier bags. So, about three years ago, he dropped the stripe en­tirely from his de­signs.

“It cost mil­lions of quid to do that,” Smith con­cedes. “But we had to be brave. Isn’t there that funny ex­pres­sion where you have to go back­wards to go for­wards? Some­thing like that. Over the years some of the de­ci­sions I’ve made have been not that wise and prob­a­bly some of the staff would think, ‘Oh gosh, I wish he’d not done that.’ I’m not au­to­cratic and I do try to get opin­ions, but at some point you have to make a de­ci­sion, be­cause you can’t keep beat­ing around the bush. You have to say, ‘We’re stop­ping that for the time be­ing. And let’s think about it.’”

‘Re­spect the peo­ple who pay your wages. Many de­sign­ers build up a rep­u­ta­tion and then sur­round them­selves with sub­servience in their ivory tow­ers’

The stripe, mod­estly re­designed with a nod to ex­pres­sion­ist artists such as Frank Auer­bach, has now re­turned and ap­pears spar­ingly on a hand­ful of items in the cur­rent col­lec­tions. “We’ve taken a breath and we’re slowly in­tro­duc­ing it again,” says Smith. “If you have some­thing that is too pop­u­lar, you find even­tu­ally the young per­son comes up who is search­ing for their own iden­tity and doesn’t want some­thing that was worn by the guy who reads the sports news or by their older brother or their dad.

“In your life, you must prob­a­bly have 20 bands, 20 restau­rants, 20 fash­ion la­bels that were im­por­tant when you were 18 and ei­ther don’t ex­ist or they’re less im­por­tant now,” he goes on. “We’ll all ex­pe­ri­ence how fickle it can be. So, by just keep­ing your head and keep­ing very solid, that’s why, luck­ily, we’re do­ing OK.”


to Smithyland to meet Smith at the end of the work day. Most evenings, he drives his Mini Cooper from Covent Gar­den to his home in Not­ting Hill, stop­ping in at No 9 Albe­marle Street to check in on busi­ness and show his face. Tonight, I’m com­ing along for the ride. He bounds down the stairs at his HQ, pauses (for rea­sons best known to him­self) to lie down and stretch out his six-foot-plus frame on the re­cep­tion counter and then we’re out, like Bruce Wayne be­com­ing Bat­man, through a back door and onto the road.

At a time when bricks-and-mor­tar stores are be­ing over­taken by on­line sales, Smith’s de­ci­sion to ex­pand No 9 Albe­marle Street, an op­u­lent re­fit com­pleted in Septem­ber 2013, might seem like an odd one. Why did he do it? “I adore shops, I’m a mer­chant,” says Smith. “I like peo­ple.”

We whizz along nar­row streets, par­al­lel to the Strand. “This is a lit­tle rat run,” Smith com­men­tates. “Of course, when I did ‘The Knowl­edge’… I was a taxi driver for 25 years—but only at the week­end!” He laughs and toots his horn at no one in par­tic­u­lar.

Smith is sin­cere in his af­fec­tion for shops. There can’t be many big-name de­sign­ers who pace the floors of their own es­tab­lish­ment, but he can be found most Satur­days at No 9 Albe­marle Street for at least a cou­ple of hours. “You re­spect the peo­ple who pay your wages,” he ex­plains. “So many de­sign­ers build up a rep­u­ta­tion and then sur­round them­selves with sub­servience in their ivory tow­ers, with their chauf­feur-driven cars. And they have a great suc­cess for eight years or some­thing and sadly start to go into de­cline. So by go­ing out there, a) I love it and it’s nice to meet your cus­tomers. And b) you learn as well: ‘Why don’t you do big-fit­ting suits?’ Or, ‘Why don’t you do long-fit­ting?’”

He spots a park­ing space and swings the Mini in. “Nei­ther of those things are true in­ci­den­tally,” Smith says.

A true desti­na­tion ex­pe­ri­ence, No 9 Albe­marle Street chan­nels the spirit, if not the chaotic mess, of Smith’s of­fice. Clothes are perched on a slab of 250-yearold burr oak from Devon; shop­pers gawp at a set of resin-cast fingers at­tached to a bat­tery made by the me­chan­i­cal sculp­tor Nik Ra­m­age. There’s a one-off bi­cy­cle from Mer­cian in Derby that has been sprayed in mul­ti­colours and is priced at five grand, a fig­ure, Smith ad­mits, set be­cause part of him hopes no one will buy it and he will be al­lowed to keep it.

Strid­ing into a Paul Smith shop with Smith him­self is a sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence. He must be con­fi­dent in the qual­ity of his prod­ucts, I say, be­cause oth­er­wise he’d end­lessly have cus­tomers com­ing up to him to com­plain. “You’d get a black eye!” he replies. “But peo­ple will say they bought shoes 20 years ago and they are still wear­ing them. They are too well made!” Smith might not con­sider him­self a celebrity, but the dou­ble-takes from Ja­panese tourists are es­pe­cially pro­nounced. He has vis­ited Ja­pan more than 100 times since 1982 and the country ac­counts for nearly half of his com­pany’s sales.

‘In your life, you prob­a­bly have 20 bands, 20 restau­rants, 20 fash­ion la­bels that were im­por­tant when you were 18 and ei­ther don’t ex­ist or they’re less im­por­tant now’

“Peo­ple al­ways ask why I’m so pop­u­lar in Ja­pan and I al­ways cite the rub­ber chicken,” says Smith. “When I first went I was on my own and it was 18 hours via An­chor­age, econ­omy class. You’d go for two weeks and you’d get re­ally tired and hardly any­one spoke English. So you’d be in a meet­ing and some­times, if the tim­ing was right, I’d just go into my bag and go, ‘Bleurgh!’ and pull out a rub­ber chicken. They’d go, ‘Whooor!’ Then of course, the next time they’d want to know where it was. It was one of those things where it just breaks the ice, makes peo­ple re­lax and makes peo­ple re­alise you’ve got a sense of hu­mour. And they could never knock it be­cause I was al­ways so cor­rect.

“I’m the king of bad jokes,” he goes on. “I’m very po­lite, very well man­nered, very cor­rect, but odd and un­funny and sort of cheeky; some­times a bit the­atri­cal. I re­mem­ber sit­ting down for a break­fast or some­thing at Down­ing Street and I had Jony Ive from Ap­ple next to me, and he said, un­der his breath, ‘Paul, no muck­ing about, right?’” Smith laughs, “Be­cause he knew that I’d prob­a­bly get a nap­kin and pre­tend to sneeze or some­thing. Do some­thing funny.”

It’s al­most 6 p.m. and a day that be­gan, as it al­ways does, with a swim at the Royal Au­to­mo­bile Club at 5.15 a.m. is start­ing to wind up. These are long hours—for any­one, let alone a sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian—but Smith wouldn’t have it any other way. And, even though these are com­plex, chal­leng­ing times for his busi­ness, and for all com­pa­nies in the fash­ion in­dus­try, one sus­pects that he will be able to pull a rub­ber chicken or two out of his bag when he most needs to. You wish him well, too: in these of­ten bleak times, it is heart­en­ing to know there are still peo­ple who take the busi­ness of whimsy and silli­ness very se­ri­ously.

“I do put the hours in,” he says. “There was a guy I liked on tele­vi­sion years ago and some­body said, ‘How well you’ve done with your ca­reer.’ And he replied, ‘I ad­mired this chap once and I thought, I can’t be bet­ter than him but I can work longer hours than him.’” Smith guf­faws and heads for home and a quiet night in with “the mis­sus.” “So I thought, ‘I’ll try that!’ Just work longer and harder than ev­ery­one else. Get more hours in and see if that works.”

Right: Paul Smith pho­tographed in his first shop in Byard Lane, Not­ting­ham, 1970. Below: a 13-year-old Smith on his bike, 1959. As a teenager, he hoped to be­come a pro­fes­sional rac­ing cy­clist

Left: with Pauline Denyer, 1972. The cou­ple have been to­gether since 1967 and mar­ried in Novem­ber 2000

Clockwise from top: on the run­way with the Paul Smith mod­els dur­ing Paris Fash­ion Week menswear SS ’17 col­lec­tions, June 2016; Smith sign­ing au­to­graphs for a horde of fans, Ja­pan, 2013; the fa­mous rub­ber chicken that proved a use­ful tool for Smith when first start­ing out in Ja­pan

Clockwise from top left: the pink Paul Smith store at 8221 Mel­rose Av­enue, West Hollywood, Los An­ge­les; Smith pho­tographed for Esquire in his Covent Gar­den of­fice, Lon­don, De­cem­ber 2016; mod­els back­stage at the Paul Smith AW ’17 show in Paris this Jan­uary;

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