The Mainstay

Paul Smith

The British designer shares the secrets to his longevity in fashion

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With almost five decades in the business, Sir Paul Smith is designer with serious staying power. After opening his first shop in Nottingham in 1970, Smith laid down roots in London's Covent Garden, where his flagship store still stands. Fiercely independent, honesty and integrity are at the core of Smith's ever-relevant designs. Here's his story, from then to now…

Who would you say the Paul Smith customer is now? Has this changed from when you first started out? That's always a pretty impossible question to answer as the great thing about Paul Smith is we dress everyone from seven-year-olds to 77-year-olds - as well as doing lots of collaborations and special designs. I approach every design completely differently but try to make sure everything is well-considered and has a detail or element of the unexpected.

What do you think has contributed most to your label's longevity? "Never assume" has been my motto throughout my career. It just means always double-check everything - it's saved both me and the business from a lot of scrapes!

What advice would you give to designers hoping to start out on their own now? To get as much hands-on experience as possible. Whether that means working in a clothes shop, helping out at a local tailor or anything along those lines, just try and get experience of what it's like working with clothes. That experience is really invaluable.

The Mainstay: Paul Smith
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"I approach every design completely differently but try to make sure everything is well-considered and has a detail or element of the unexpected."

When you started out, what were your expectations? Have you met them? I've never really expected anything. I almost literally fell into fashion when a bad accident ended my dreams of becoming a professional cyclist. In hospital, I made new friends from the local art school who introduced me to this world of creativity. From working as a shop-boy to now selling in more than 70 countries the business has grown very steadily and naturally.

Why did you decide to open your flagship store in London's Covent Garden? When I moved into Covent Garden in 1979 the market had closed seven years previously and so it was vast and empty - but you could tell it had the potential to be amazing. It was my second shop, having opened my first in Nottingham in 1970 and so I didn't have the means financially to open in a busy neighbourhood. I liked the feeling of Covent Garden and I found this little spot on Floral Street, it's been home ever since! Back at the start, there were times when I could stand on Floral Street and shout "Hello, is there anybody out there?!" and nobody would be there to hear me.

How has the area changed between then and now? Oh enormously. It's completely unrecognisable. When I first opened my shop in Covent Garden we thought it was almost on the outskirts of the city, but in the years since the boundaries of London have just gone further and further out.

Where are your go-to places in Covent Garden and Soho? From the roof of my studio in Covent Garden there's a fantastic view of the Civil Aviation Authority building. Designed in the '60s, it uses the same concrete cross frame as Centre Point. I really love a visit to Arthur Beale, the ship chandlers in Covent Garden. I'm no sailor, but it's such an unexpected place, slap-bang in the middle of the city selling all sorts of specialized stuff for boats. In the past, I've bought these amazing aluminum clips from there which I've used as a key-ring hanging off my belt-loop, or lengths of rope which I've used as inspiration for bag handles. When I'm in London I usually have lunch at the big table in my studio with my team but if there's time to run-out I'll sometimes make a quick visit to The Delaunay which is just around the corner from my office. Or if I have time to go a bit further afield I might head to Brindisa in Soho.

The Mainstay: Paul Smith
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"Liberty has always had real significance for me. It was a dream shop when I was starting out as a designer and a shopkeeper because it sold such an interesting and eclectic mix of things. "

Do you reference street style as inspiration? Absolutely. I always say, "you can find inspiration in everything and if you can't, look again". What I mean by this is that inspiration really is all around you, from the painted colours of the huts you pass on a walk down to the beach to the clashing prints you see when you're visiting an exhibition at your local art museum. Anyone who follows my Instagram will know that I find inspiration in the most unexpected places!

How do your designs fit within Liberty? Hopefully we're both offering something unique and something exciting.

Can you share a Liberty memory? Liberty has always had real significance for me. It was a dream shop when I was starting out as a designer and a shopkeeper because it sold such an interesting and eclectic mix of things.

I had a tiny little three metre by three metre shop in Nottingham and always looked to Liberty for inspiration. I was a huge fan of the founder, Arthur Lasenby, because he was such a pioneer and such a lateral thinker, to build a Tudor mansion in the middle of London is just extraordinary and takes some confidence! He was such an appreciator of craftsmanship and was a really strong supporter of the arts and crafts movement.

One of the first things I ever did to earn a little bit of money was buy quarter yards of Liberty print fabric from a shop in Nottingham, sew them into little ties with my Mum's sewing machine and sell them to my mates. That must have been aged around 18. I've been working with Liberty fabric in lots of different ways in my designs ever since.

What's your take on the current fashion landscape? Fashion has always been competitive but it's more competitive now than it's ever been. There are so many people fishing from the same pond. And the speed is so much quicker. It's very difficult to juggle all the different aspects, especially when you're an independent business like Paul Smith - but I still love coming to work every day and that's why I do it!

The Mainstay: Paul Smith
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