We speak with Sir Paul Smith about his new foundation, the greatest lessons he’s learned and what’s in store for the next 50 years
“People tell me this is the good one,” laughs Sir Paul Smith. The legendary designer is casually remarking on the Companion of Honour award that, on the same day as his brand’s 50th anniversary, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed upon him – a rare distinction limited to only 65 Britons at any time. “It includes David Hockney, Sir David Attenborough, and Dame Judi Dench…” he explains. “Good company, eh?”
This year marks five decades since a 21-year-old Sir Paul grew his business from a three-by-three-metre shop in his hometown of Nottingham into hundreds of stores across the world. Today, Smith is recognised globally for classic cuts with whimsical, vibrant motifs and many-colored stripes, and inspiring generations of menswear designers. Anyone else might want to rest on those shiny laurels (even for a moment) but Smith isn’t one for stasis. On the very day the Queen’s honours arrived, he revealed Paul Smith’s Foundation, a digital resource that gathers his decades-worth of advice to support people in the creative industries.
It is just the latest in Smith’s career of ever-inventive moves. Another example: if you’re cruising down Melrose Avenue and spot a large, bright pink box dazzlingly sat between the drab buildings, that’s Paul Smith’s LA flagship. “We had to decide how to stand out,” he laughs. “You know, it’s one of the most Instagrammed buildings in the whole city?” Smith attributes such ideas to his interest in “lateral thinking”, something he traces to a lecture he saw by British philosopher Edward de Bono. “This advice took me from a small, provincial town shop owner to my first Paris fashion show.” Now, he hopes visitors to his foundation will be able to apply his advice to their own careers.
We speak with Smith about the new foundation, the greatest lessons he’s learned and what’s in store for the next 50 years.
How has the past year been for you? Quite a year to celebrate an anniversary…
Rubbish! Usually, our HQ is full of people, but I’ve been here alone. I miss the atmosphere. Thankfully we had a fashion show in January and we were able to celebrate the 50th anniversary in Paris. The party was lots of fun. Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, Bill Nighy and many others were there…Then, of course, October 9th was the anniversary, and on the very day, Phaidon released a Paul Smith commemorative book and I got another honour from the Queen! There is lots to reflect on, but I haven’t changed much after all the success. I’m still the lad from Nottingham who would cycle home to eat my beans on toast.
You didn’t always set out to be a fashion designer. How did that happen?
Right. I wanted to be a professional cyclist. I’m still immersed in that world, actually. [Tour de France winner] Bradley Wiggins was here just the other day. The room I’m currently in has five bicycles, and there are more next door. But after an accident at an early age, life took a new direction. My entry into fashion all started when I was 21 years old, after meeting my current wife Pauline in 1967. She was training as a fashion designer and would teach me how to make clothes in the delicate manner of the Parisian couturiers – how to properly cut a garment, and the way it drapes on the body. These are things they don’t teach you today, and she gave me a masterclass on our kitchen table.
How did the idea for the foundation come about?
I’ve seen a lot of innovative designers crumble because the ideas were great, but the product or thinking wasn’t right. They didn’t push or do more on the business side because no one told them. 10 years ago, the thought came to me that I’d like to help young creatives in some way to learn these things. And to be honest, I’m excited to see what the foundation can become. It’s still new but there are lots of plans for travel scholarships and mentoring ahead, so it’s worth keeping an eye on. I just love building strong connections and supporting creativity; we already train or give work experience to students from the likes of Saint Martin’s and various other schools, so why not share the advice with more people?