As the men's element of London Fashion Week gets underway with the launch of an exciting new initiative, London Collections: Men, we visited the office of one of Britain's most successful fashion designers, Sir Paul Smith, to gain some invaluable insight into the complex world of fashion.
We have some choice quotes and tips from Paul here, matched by images from his amazing office, and then below is an in-depth interview with the irrepressible designer, which delves into the details of his success and ask the question: could a young British designer coming through today follow in Paul's illustrious footsteps?
"I'm interested in life and I'm interested in people. I still have a very childlike approach to life. This room is full of things: things that cost nothing, things that really cost quite a lot of money, things which are beautiful, things which are kitsch. So, I'm very curious and being childlike is vital in our industry"
"I've been fortunate enough to not get seduced into thinking that because you've got pages in a posh magazine or you get on the telly that that pays the rent. It's about keeping your feet on the ground, remembering that fashion is about today and tomorrow, and that nobody cares how good you used to be."
"One of the points about fashion is that it should really be instinctive and very spontaneous. Real spontaneity can't be accomplished if there is too much to consider – what about brand image? What about the corporate strategy? Going back to my shop in Los Angeles, that is the opposite to a lot of my other shops, but because I am independent I could just go: 'let's make a pink box'. That's it!"
"As a creative person in reality you need to know a bit about business today. If you design the best dress or the best suit that's ever been in the world, but there's one ever so similar at half the price, or that's distributed far more than yours, or that's by a designer label that's going to get more attention than yours, then yours, unfortunately, will probably fail."
"I met Pauline [Paul's wife and business partner] when I was 21. We never wanted a yacht, or a private plane, or a chauffeur driven car, so it all just gradually, naturally grew. Unfortunately most people want to fast-track everything now, they want a short-cut to success and that is difficult."
"It's not just about your actual job it's about the stuff that surrounds it. It's about the aura that is around what you do. You've got to have more than just the clothes because there are a lot of good clothes out there."
"I think that if you could put Britishness in a jar it would be just a sort of inventiveness, a creativeness, and a quirkiness that is all embracing. I think that British Fashion Week is a goldmine of talent and openness - I think we just shoot from the hip and all sorts of stuff comes out"
"You've got to understand that nobody needs another fashion designer, so you've got to have a point of view. You've got to have things that people go away with and remember."
"If you're in the world of magazines, or television, or whatever, just live it. Live it, enjoy it, and embrace it. A lot of people live it for two or three years and then either get a bit complacent or take their eye off the ball and all those things, unfortunately, don't add up to long-term success."
At oki-ni we have always supported new fashion talent - British talent especially. Like proud parents watching their children move from school, to college, to university, we have seen the likes of Christopher Shannon and J.W. Anderson move from the MAN and NEW GEN initiatives to the London Fashion Week schedule and then out into the world.
For young designers there is no guaranteed formula for success, but if you are just starting out in the rag trade you could do a lot worse than follow the example of Sir Paul Smith. The 65-year-old knight of the realm is a walking, talking instruction manual, a living blueprint for anyone who has aspirations of one day seeing their name hanging from a swing tag or printed on the London Fashion Week schedule.
Since opening his first shop in Nottingham back in 1970, financed by his own savings, our best known fashion designer has slowly but surely built an empire that exports British eccentricity and Savile Row craft to the world -"Savile Row meets Mr Bean", as he once called it. Yet, with shops in 72 countries and sales approaching £200 million last year there's nothing slapstick about Paul's operation. His success is beyond dispute and, what's more, if you ask him nicely he'll tell you exactly how he has achieved it.
"Keep your feet on the ground, understand your trade, live within your means, and grow carefully", says Paul with a smile. It all sounds so simple and, in truth, it might just be. People talk about a "secret to success" as if there is a trick that successful people are privy to and we are not, but the reality is that success is a by-product of hard work and passion; if your goal is to be successful then you're looking at things in reverse.
"Unfortunately, so many of us are informed by success these days", says Paul. "We're so informed by what other people are doing – this footballer earns this much, that guy's got this car." These are unwelcome distractions. "Fashion is about today and tomorrow", says Paul. "Nobody cares how good you used to be. You've really got to know your stuff basically."
"Fashion is about today and tomorrow.
Nobody cares how good you used to be"
The great thing about Paul, however, is that he isn't content to just know his own stuff, he has a rapacious appetite for stuff of all kinds. We asked him what job title would appear on his business card below his name: designer, creative director, CEO? "Does stuff", he replies, with a humble grin.
Paul's office is testament to how much stuff he does do. If a man's office is an extension of his character then Paul's is an enchanting jumble of organized chaos. A long central meeting table is flanked on all sides by shelves and bookcases loaded with books on every subject - from art to advertising. Stacked on top of the books you find objects and curiosities beyond number, collected by Paul on his travels and sent to him by admirers and friends from across the globe (more on this later). For example, "Patti Smith corner", as Paul calls it, is dedicated to things sent by the celebrated musician, photographer, and poet, who Paul counts as a friend.
In the oki-ni office we acknowledge that mess is a by-product of hard work, but in Paul's office it is a consequence of limitless curiosity - an attitude exemplified by the question that Paul has been asking for much of his 40-year career: why?
"Why shouldn't I do that? Why's that man fat? Why's that man tall? Why can't I have a building in bright pink? What's the problem with that?" Paul asks in rapid succession. "That's why I suddenly have my Los Angeles shop as a bright pink cube, or I design a bicycle, or I take photographs, or I write a sports column for Le Monde every month and I don't know anything about sport; I've lectured at Apple's headquarters for Jonathan Ive and I never use a computer."
"I'm very curious and being childlike
is vital in our industry"
Paul's range is truly staggering, but while success can be fleeting his 40-year career is underpinned by an ability to engage with any subject with a childlike sense of wonder. That said, while Paul may have a childlike approach, you could never accuse him of being naïve. Savvy business decisions underpin the whole of his operation and allow him to work with the creative freedom that defines his label.
"One of my strengths has been to say no over the years", says Paul. You can imagine that one of the things he has said no to is large-scale corporate involvement in his brand. Young designers beware: investment brings money and security, but it also brings bureaucracy, restriction, and a potential loss of control.
"One of the points about fashion", says Paul, "is that it should really be instinctive and very spontaneous. Real spontaneity can't be accomplished if there is too much to consider – what about brand image? What about the corporate strategy? Going back to my shop in Los Angeles, that is the opposite to a lot of my other shops, but because I am independent I could just go: 'let's make a pink box'. That's it!"
But while independence has afforded Paul freedom, he is as much a slave to sales and profits as any other businessman, and when it comes to making money Paul repeats one word: balance. He goes on to demonstrate the balancing act of the modern fashion designer with what looks like a kind of quaint folk dance, holding one hand out in front of him while keeping the other tucked behind his back.
"Real spontaneity can't be accomplished
if there is too much to consider"
"That", he says, waving the hand in front of him, "is the purity of what you really want to do, and that", he waves the other hand behind him, "is earning money to survive so you don't compromise that", returning to the first hand.
"With Paul Smith", he says, continuing the thought, "we have a jeans collection that sells £32 million a year and I have a mainline collection that sells £10 million. That [the jeans collection/front hand] pays for 180 people in this building and 1,000 staff in Europe. If you have one without the other it wouldn't work, but if you can get the balance between the two, then it really works."
Paul leaves you with no illusion that businesses live and die by their balance sheets and that a young designer today must, at least, have a working knowledge of the industry – he has once quipped that the main reason for his success is that he knows that VAT means Value Added Tax and not vodka and tonic. Yet, Paul is also living proof that lasting success depends on more than just business smarts: his is an empire of character, built on the humour, charm and enthusiasm of the man who sits at the centre.
One of the stories about Paul that has become something of a legend is that he used to carry around a miniature briefcase-sized train set that he would break out during particularly long and protracted business meetings in Japan, and, sure enough, there it sits in the corner of the room.
"Things like that helped in those early days", he says, "having things that stuck in people's minds". This idea that you must create a memorable moment is one that Paul constantly returns to throughout our talk, he has even developed his own terminology for it. Ask any Paul Smith employee about "the squirt of lemon" and they will return your question with a knowing look.
"What I'm trying to say" says Paul, " is, you know when you might go on a lovely holiday and everything's perfect and then on the last night you're putting some lemon on your fish and some juice goes in your girlfriend's eye, then the thing she remembers about the holiday is that she got lemon in her eye. You've got to have something that people go away with and remember."
It is an interesting idea and Paul has been aiming squirts of lemon eyes for nearly 40 years. You can see it in the quirky details of his clothing – a bold print fabric used for the pocket lining or a single gold button at the collar – and in the curiosities that he sells in his shops: vinyl, posters, or a vintage pen knife.
Much of the zest of Paul's character comes from being British, making him a particularly apt role model for the young designers of London Fashion Week, but what does British Fashion mean to him?
"British Fashion Week is a
goldmine of talent and openness"
"I think that if you could put Britishness in a jar", says Paul, "it would be just a sort of inventiveness, a creativeness, and a quirkiness that is all embracing. I think that British Fashion Week is a goldmine of talent and openness." Set against the rigid structure of, for example, Italy, where people tend to follow tradition, British fashion, like the country itself, is defined by diversity. "I think we just shoot from the hip and all sorts of stuff comes out", says Paul.
In any ordinary instance it would be hard to quantify intangible qualities like character and personality, to measure their importance, luckily there isn't too much that's ordinary about Paul Smith and the physical evidence of his charm can be found all around his office: alongside the books, bikes, and bric-a-brac you find heartfelt letters and handmade objects sent by Paul's admirers from far-flung corners of the world.
"I've got a Belgian girl who's been writing to me since she was 11, she's 16 now", says Paul. "Her first letter said, 'I don't like fashion but I like you', and she'd never met me. Where does that come from?" Paul has another secret admirer who has been anonymously sending him unwrapped objects in the post for the past twenty years; Paul shows us a tree branch, a sunflower, and a manikin bust, each peppered with brightly coloured postage stamps. There are so many of these objects that Paul recently put on an exhibition of the objects in Singapore.
"I've got a Belgian girl who's been writing to me since she was 11,
she's 16 now. Her first letter said, 'I don't like fashion but I like you'.
Where does that come from?"
In another corner of the room there is an untidy pile of cycling jerseys that Paul is particularly proud of. His love of cycling is no secret and he picks one particular jersey out for special mention. "This is from Fabian Cancellara," he says, "the Swiss national champion. He was on the Champs Elysee on the last day of the Tour de France, and he went up to David Miller [the team GB cyclist], put his hand in his pocket, pulled this jersey out and said: 'this is for Paul' - in the race!"
For each of these stories there are ten more that we don't have the time here to tell, but each is an example of the tremendous emotional response that Paul Smith evokes. As he led us around his office, moving from one amazing object to the next, it was hard not to be moved by the goodwill and affection loaded into each item. You can't imagine, for example, strangers sending Karl Lagerfeld a handmade nativity scene crafted from peanuts (this actually happened to Paul), but this is all part and parcel for Sir Paul Smith.
Our final question was a key one: do you think a young British designer coming through today could emulate your success? "If they were patient they could", says Paul. That might not be the answer that the hungry young designers of London Fashion Week wanted to hear, but it is the truth.
"Andy Warhol said that everyone has their fifteen minutes", says Paul, "and the more I think about that little sentence I find it's so true. So many people only have that fifteen minutes of success and don't have 40 hours."
With a little patience and a great deal of hard work, Paul Smith has extended his 15 minutes to 40 years. Long may it continue.