Interview with Paul Smith

We spend the day with the British fashion icon himself to see him get his first dose of our city.

Nestled between “great neighbours” on the popular New Cathedral Street, is Paul Smith’s first Manchester store. As we arrive, Smith sits in a patterned fabric clad chair – one of his own designs – wearing a checked suit – another of his designs – in the corner of his new store. This particular corner is marked out from the rest of the shop with white flooring; it represents the size of Smith’s first ever ‘store’, a 3 x 3 metre space in Nottingham called ‘Paul Smith Vetements Pour l’Homme’. This small, white square is a reminder of how far Paul Smith, the man and the brand, have come. But with all the big businesses that have taken root in Manchester over the last few years, we had to ask, what’s taken Smith so long to get here. The answer’s simple. “We’ve wanted to have a shop here for a long time. It’s just finding the location really.” Every Paul Smith store has its own distinctive character – his bright purple LA store is now one of the most Instagrammed places in California – but for the Manchester store, rather than a quirky set up, it’s what’s on offer inside that counts. Smith says, “I like to find places with character, and if I can’t find places with character – like this one is a typical rectangle – then your character comes from objects and art, not just fashion.” When you visit the Manchester store, expect plenty more to tempt you than just the clothes. “For this one, I wanted to make sure that we got a selection of the clothes, but also artworks, objects, and books as well – like my cycle book.”

With stores across the globe, and a long-standing fashion career, if anyone’s ‘made it’, surely, it’s Smith. But as we’ve come to expect from his designs, there’s always a twist with Paul Smith. “I’ve made it in terms of down-to-earthness, continuity, love of life, but in terms of business, you’ve absolutely never made it because it’s always moving. You just have to understand that nobody needs you. You have to find a point, or a point of view, but in couple of years, loads of people will have imitated you, and then you have to change and start again. You’ve never made it – that’s the key thing.” He warns us, “Never put your BACK in the chair”, tapping the arm of a chair covered in fabric he designed himself.

This endlessly energetic approach seems to come naturally to Smith as he guides us and his team out of his new store and onto his next stop: The University of Manchester. As we wait for our taxi, Smith swings one long leg up onto a railing and stretches, seemingly limbering up for his next appointment whilst getting a good look at Selfridges and the Corn Exchange.

At The University of Manchester campus, in the Gothic surroundings of Christie’s Bistro, Paul perches in an armchair. Two white marble busts sit on shelves either side of Smith, looking on like the MBA students Smith has been invited here to address. Smith is quick to say that he doesn’t feel qualified to be giving such advice, but moments later dispenses gems to the Manchester students who dream of having businesses as successful as Smith’s own. When asked by one student how he runs his business, Smith simply says he and his team “know how to say please and thank you”. He gives a glimpse into this relaxed, collaborative world when describing what was up to the day before: “I got all my main designers in one room, put on Joy Division, opened a box of chocolates, got about forty books out, and we just started coming up with ideas. That really wets the appetite.”

An idea that keeps cropping up throughout the day is that “nobody needs another designer”. Smith quickly clarifies that this isn’t a negative but a call to action. He tells his listeners: “You’ve got to immerse yourself in the industry – photography, journalism, whatever it is. You’ve got to really understand that just because you’re successful now, doesn’t mean you’ll be successful tomorrow. You have to flow with the river. You have to keep readjusting.”

And Smith has done just that. “Over the last two years, we’ve had to do quite radical things to the company just because e-commerce is a lot more popular than it used to be. A lot of the little shops that I used to sell to across Europe have closed down because of big, fast fashion companies coming to their town.” Despite the changing fashion climate, Smith’s famed suits are still selling incredibly well. He puts this down to the suit being “very practical.” Smith taps his suit pockets in turn “spectacles, phone, notebook, house keys.” Smith was “ahead of [his] time in making the suit look more casual” in the 1980s by creating a softer, comfier version. He references a suit he designed in 1982 paired with a white t-shirt and tennis shoes that’s on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Some of the students listening to Smith were likely looking for a step-by-step guide to success, but Smith champions a willingness to reinvent above all else. As Smith modestly puts it “so far, so good”.

It’s from one huge Manchester institution to the next as we head a little further up Oxford Road to The Whitworth Art Gallery where Smith is giving a talk about his fashion career. The hall is full to capacity with aspiring designers, Manchester creatives, and fans of the brand and the man himself. As Paul gives an oral history of his career, gesturing wildly, and at one point even getting down on all fours to impersonate a Merino sheep, it seems that the playfulness and humour in Paul’s designs stem naturally from the man himself; however, Smith admits that his trademark “classic with a twist” style was “never a big plan”, but was actually born out of insecurity. “Originally, I didn’t feel very confident about my design work,” he says, “If somebody wanted to look nice in a simple suit, I thought, ‘How can I make them feel a bit special?’, so I put in a flowery lining or a different coloured cuff on the shirt.”

Smith goes on to talk about the oversaturation of the market: so many fashion students, so many designers, so many collections, but that doesn’t seem to have affected his design process too much. He tells his captive audience, “You have to be very aware of what other people are doing these days. In my case, you don’t take influence from other people, but you need to know what they’re doing.” His designs come from “the head and the heart, but it’s very much based on practicality, paying the rent, so you have to have good, basic things, as well as things that are more intriguing, more special.” Even the move towards gender neutral clothing hasn’t phased Smith as he feels it’s something his brand have “always basically done without any effort. I’ve always liked that sort of androgynous look.” He wonders whether other designers who create gender neutral collections are motivated by “making cash, or whether it’s something that comes from the heart and will stand the test of time.” We’ll have to wait and see.

Despite the gorgeous dressers, blouses and heels currently on sale in Smith’s Manchester store, he says womenswear has been “very tough” for him. He attributes this to the fact that his “interests are mostly in architecture, sports, graphic design, [and] photography” and he “doesn’t have a very strong feminine side”. He credits his team for the success of his womenswear. “I’ve got a girl from Céline, and another girl from Balenciaga who work with me. They help me out on the bits I’m not so good at”.

Another woman who Smith credits his success to is his wife, Pauline. Having been there since the start of his career, Pauline’s influence is described by Smith as “massive”. Simply put, he “wouldn’t be here without her”. The couple have been together since Smith was twenty-one and married on the same day that Smith was knighted. Of Pauline, Smith says, “She’s very well read. She’s helped me with understanding architecture and art. She’s studied History of Art as well, so I can stand in front of a painting in The National Gallery in London, and she’ll know the iconography of that painting. That makes you feel special.”

Smith is always on the look out for something special to inspire a new design. During his talk at The Whitworth Art Gallery, he explains how various photos he’s taken (take a look on Instagram @paulsmith) have translated into new designs: a colourful set of ink pens becomes a striped sock; traditional Guatemalan dress becomes a patterned jumper.

As Smith heads BACK to London for more brainstorming with his design team, he tells us he’s working on “something like spring 2019 – if you can believe it,” adding, “It’s all about tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. Waking up every morning being really positive, and just getting on with it”. All day long, Smith has been taking photos of Manchester: a few snaps of Deansgate from the taxi as we wait at traffic lights; the autumn leaves outside the expansive glass windows of The Whitworth Art Gallery, taking a little bit of our city home with him. We hope Smith found Manchester as inspiring as we do, and who knows, maybe the Paul Smith 2019 collections will have a touch of Manc about them.

Words by admin

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