Text Angelica Carrara
Paul Smith collects bunny rabbits. During a trip by train with a female friend of his, looking out of the window, he hoped to see one. “If a rabbit should ever pass by, it would be a good omen.” But that rabbit did not pass by. His friend gave him one by Tiffany as a gift. Before each fashion show, his wife Pauline places a rabbit on his pillow.
I arrive at Paul Smith’s showroom holding a rabbit in my hand. “Sir!”, I say. Paul runs up to me, and throws himself down on his knees. “Oh, there they are.” He was looking for my feet, hidden under my bell bottoms, perhaps poking fun at me.
Paul Smith / Sir Paul Smith
Paul Smith has never given his brand to the luxury giants. “We Cancerians want everything for ourselves, we do not let anything go.” Queen Elizabeth II was the one who, in 2000, knighted and distinguished Sir Paul from the eponymous brand: “I found the letter in the post-box, together with gas bills and the Amex bank statement.”
#takenbypaul – is the hashtag with which he posts one photo a day on Instagram. ”When I was eleven my father gave me a bicycle and a camera. Thanks to photography I learned to see, to observe. This is how I got a good eye.” Though he is now a fashion designer – “So far so good!” – it was Sir Paul’s ambition to become a professional racing cyclist until a serious biking accident. Racing in a team taught him teamwork. His brand employs more than a thousand people. “We’re a nice company” – he really likes the word nice. Of course there’s complaining, “one’s stomach hurts when you laugh so much.” Playlist. “Van Marson took me around the world, Imagine by John Lennon makes you cry.” The Lumineers, Jake Bug, Jack White. He worked with David Bowie, Pink Floyd. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, “Jimmy Page – 24-inch waist – I designed trousers for him when I was eighteen.” Paul Smith believes it’s all about looking at the future. “I do not want to be number one. From that place you can only go in one direction: downwards.”
Good manners. It is hard to talk about good manners in fashion. A logo, for example, a winning branding strategy. Once upon a time there was a Nineties philosophy that banned it, as it was considered as a vulgar form of self-celebration. “A logo is dangerous. Insecure people make comparisons.” Emulating the past is not enough. One must move forward, always. “You need a head that can change hats every hour.”
“Creativity is the present and the future.” In the Sixties, there were the Mods, the Rockers, the Punks. “I knew many of them who used to hang out with Vivienne (Westwood) – nice people. We Brits, have always liked expressing ourselves through the way we look. In France young people took to the streets, in England we dressed stupidly – it was a non-violent revolution.”
The suit, a constant. “In the Fifties, all the men worn a suit, even children at school. A sense of union, of team. It’s nice.” Paul wears a suit every day, even at the weekend. He has a suit theory. “It is like a frame to a photo. Your choice is the image in the middle. Dress it up or down.” A suit makes you feel good, it changes your posture and the way others see you. “If you got on a plane and the pilot came out in a t-shirt, would you fly with him?” The suit and women – thinking back to Charlotte Rampling in a photo by Helmut Newton. “My wife has the last tuxedo couture designed by Yves Saint Laurent. Three fittings at his house, in Paris. Yves recreated the same model he designed the year when Pauline and I met. Pauline was 27 and I was 21.” Pauline. “Kind, shy and sound. She keeps my feet on the ground. She reads Proust, she is my intellectual side. She waits for me at home. If you leave a little bird free to fly away, it will always return to its nest.” His soul mate since 1976, “She told me I was not that handsome, but I made her laugh,” whom he did not marry until 2000, “Our wedding was the only private party at the Tate Modern ever allowed.”
Nowadays, there is too much ‘attention-seeking’. Let’s call it cultural energy – streetwear seems to be the latest business model to be in the spotlight. “Individuality. One needs to know exactly what one wants to be. Sunday’s fashion show in Paris will be a mix of tailoring and sportswear.” Too much of everything. “Twenty years ago a big brand owned twenty stores, now four hundred. At the time, there were just three of us fishing in the same pond, now there are thousands.”
Besides a wrong logic of the real estate market, which sees a yearly increase of rents by 3%. People do not consider how business has changed: Paul Smith’s online sales have increased by 30% compared to last year. Paul is almost nostalgic about this, “Online is too easy. Shopping used to be conversation, friendship, familiarity.” His first shop in Nottingham, three square meters, a Wunderkammer full of memorabilia, has today been recreated in the basement of Dover Street Market in London. “In such a small space I could be close to people.” Twelve in-house architects have been recruited, as all the stores around the world are different. Stores with character. Once again it is all about individuality: “It is important to have a point of view.”
The first store in Covent Garden was all wood. The shop in Melrose Avenue, a modernist cube in shocking pink, is the most Instagrammed building in Los Angeles, while more than two-hundred stores are located in Asia. “That place called Japan. I was first invited there in 1982. I returned four times a year for ten years, alone. If you go with your heart, then you will build.”
Taken by Paul and Harold
Soundtrack: Big Audio Dynamite, Rebel MC and Neneh Cherry. At the Élysée Montmartre, the Paris music hall, under the iron structure designed by Gustave Eiffel, Paul Smith’s co-ed Spring Summer 19 show is taking place.
Fluid – the genre, the fabric, the suit. Not everyone gets on the streetwear bandwagon, not Paul Smith who revisits his archive, his story, and reconfirms the suit in a game of proportions. Faded urban sunsets, two deckchairs under a palm tree at the seaside, Paul printed his father’s photographs on silk shirts and trenchcoats – Taken by Harold. In the Eighties Paul Smith finetuned the photographic print on fabric. Wide trousers, wide shoulders. Double breasted blazers and frock coats. Pastel colours and checked fabric. Cyclist jersey. Memorabilia.