Paul Smith
Photo by Bloomberg

Paul Smith: “I’m happy to talk to anybody”

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Short Profile

Name: Sir Paul Smith
DOB: 5 July 1946
Place of Birth: Beeston, Nottinghamshire, England
Occupation: Fashion Designer

Mr. Smith, I’ve heard that you play music in your office every morning from 6 until 8 before everyone else shows up. What did you listen to today?

This morning I was listening to a little English singer called Jake Bugg, who sounds a bit like a young Bob Dylan. He’s actually from my hometown Nottingham, so I know him and he’s a very nice lad. I love my two hours of peace in the morning. It’s heaven.

How do you pick what music to listen to?

It completely depends on my mood and how late I got to bed or what type of day I’ve got ahead of me.

What would you listen to if you have a hangover?

Something very gentle, like Dave Brubeck. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz, which I haven’t done for years. I still quite like Van Morrison as well. The album Astral Weeks has helped me get around the world so many times. It’s very easy to listen to. In general it’s really varied. It’s music from 30 years ago to a brand new band. Luckily I get sent a lot of music from a lot of the record companies because they know I like music and also because we dress a lot of the bands.

When you listen to music do you listen to CDs or to vinyl?

I’ve got both at my office.

You have practically everything at your office…I’ve seen pictures of how packed it is. It looks amazing and a little bit insane at the same time.

Yeah, the insane part is definitely true. If my wife comes here, she almost immediately has a nervous breakdown. “Oh my god, Paul, how can you let it get like this?” And then she goes to the girls in the office and says, “You have to do something about it! Because it’s a disease!” (Laughs)

A true collector just can’t help it.

Yeah, I definitely can’t help it. (Laughs) But so many people know that I enjoy interesting things, quirky things, beautiful things so I get sent a lot of things too. That doesn’t make it easier either. Some of the girls in the office were saying to me, “Paul, you have to try and control the office more because we have so many meetings and the table is always so full of things.” And I said, “What can I do? People send me things!” And at that moment, the door opened and five huge boxes arrived from Italy with about 30 spinning tops inside. And I said to the girls, “Look! I never did anything, they just arrived!”

So it’s other people’s fault that your office is overflowing?

Exactly. Don’t blame me! (Laughs)

What’s the best thing and what is the weirdest thing you’ve ever received?

I have a fan that has been sending me things covered in stamps for over 20 years. I don’t even have any idea who it is, there’s never any letter. Around my desk at the moment I have a red watering can for the garden, a yellow sunflower, a bowling pin, a boat-shaped birdhouse, a yellow chicken and a long piece of wood, all covered in stamps with the address on it. So that’s just one crazy thing. But I get all kinds of things - I just had a little book sent to me, a story about me by a 10-year-old schoolgirl.

A 10-year-old wrote a book for you?

Yeah, it’s remarkable. I’ve got a jacket from Usain Bolt and I’ve got a bag here that says “To: PS, From: PS” and that’s from Patti Smith and inside is a little marionette. So I get beautiful things from famous people and amazing things from strangers, anything really. We’re constantly astounded, all of us in the office.

“Humility these days is really considered cautiously by people.”

Can anything surprise you guys anymore?

Richard from the reception is not at all fazed by anything anymore because he’s seen so much madness – including a live rabbit and two pigeons, you know, strange things. This morning I read a sign that said the word items to be sent to Italy and I read it as hens – you know, like a chicken – and I said to one of my assistants, “Are we sending some hens to Italy?” And she said, “No, that says items. But to be honest, Paul, if you said that we were sending some hens to Italy we wouldn’t be surprised!”(Laughs) I’m getting goose bumps just talking to you about all these things. Even though they happen very regularly they still surprise me.

Do people ask for anything in return when they send you stuff?

Everything we get, nothing is about asking for something. Humility these days is really considered cautiously by people, because they think if you have humility then there’s an ulterior motive – which is so sad! If you’re just a nice person and you say please and thank you and open doors and you’ve got old fashion values and communications skills and you’re helpful, people don’t believe you anymore! But somehow we seemed to have bypassed that here in this lovely building.

Do you think you get these things sent to you because of your positive attitude and the way you treat others?

I really hope so, yeah. I’ve always been a very easy to talk to person, which I inherited from my father. He passed away when he was 94 and he still had lots of young friends because he was just a simple man. And I’m a very simple guy. The first person I talk to most days is the road sweeper outside the swimming bath where I go swimming at 5 o’clock every morning – a road sweeper, the Prime Minister, the Queen of England, a rock star…

Is it difficult to be viewed as the “nice guy” in the fashion industry because a designer is supposed to have a big ego?

Well for me personally it’s a lovely thing. But I think if I were more of a distant person, more aggressive or more precious, maybe from a business point of view we’d be seen in the same category as other people who are revered as being top design brands. But we sell our clothes next to all the big design brands like Prada and Balenciaga, we just don’t promote ourselves in that way.

How do you go about it?

The company has a real reflection of my own personal way, you know? Years ago in Japan there was a designer who was having a party one evening for a new shop and he told me, “You don’t act like a designer.” He’s no longer in business, in my opinion because he was too distant from the people that he wanted to sell clothes to.

You have over 200 shops around the world. What is your secret?

We’ve never gone backwards as a company and we’ve never borrowed money, ever. We own the building where I’m sitting right now. It started very modestly with my wife and I, with a small amount of savings, and it’s always just grown very organically and now we employ a thousand people just in Europe. The clothes sell and people like them and not just because we give them away or because we have celebrity front rows or because we spend 80 million Euros a year on advertising. We just do what we do and luckily people like it and hopefully it continues to do well.

I love the consistency that seems to manifest itself in many different parts of your life, like the fact that you’re still with the woman that you’ve been with since you were 21.

That’s right, absolutely. And we still love each other and we’re still very intrigued and she’s still inspiring. She’s got a nice way of thinking about things. And I can tell you from my heart that we, Pauline and I, have never sat down and tried to create anything. We just met, I was a shop assistant, she was a teacher, we fell in love, and she said, “You know, you’ve got so much energy and ideas, why don’t you try to have a little shop?” And then we had a little shop and then we thought, “Oh let’s make a small collection of clothes and see whether people want them.” So it was never a plan or a big meeting. It always just very gently went along.

Were the 1960s a particularly good time to start a creative business in the UK?

I do genuinely think that the 1960s was a very creative period in Britain. I suppose it was after the horror of world war and the repression and depression of all that horrible time. It was the first generation that had the opportunity to really express themselves without any strings attached. But most human beings on the earth would say that their youth is the most exciting time because it’s the first time you experience certain things like falling in love, going to music, or being away from your parents – so it’s exciting for everybody.

How do you think growing up today differs?

I worry that today’s younger generation are sort of living life as a business plan. It’s all very predictable and very cliché and not very spontaneous because they’re very self-conscious about how things should be. And in the ’60s there was never that because these young artists were just trying to explode out of parents that had been repressed and go, “Come on, let’s do it! Whatever! We can do it!” You know?