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Sir Paul Smith: Quirk Is The Word

British fashion icon Sir Paul Smith on the changing face of fashion, and what keeps him going even after 50 years of being in the business. Kamna Malik finds out more

By Kamna Malik  January 19th, 2021

It’s been five decades since Sir Paul Smith opened his first store in a windowless room in Nottingham. The brand has come a long way since then. An avid cyclist, he was 17 when a road accident put his competitive dreams to an end. From thereon, Paul embarked on a life-long journey of discovery and exploration in fashion, design and music. The legendary British designer, who likes to keep things fun and quirky, was introduced to the world of visual arts and cinema by his wife Pauline, whom he met at 21. His biggest influence and cheerleader, she was instrumental in developing Paul’s understanding and skill of tailoring and garment design.

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Individuality is the key to Paul Smith’s ethos. Over the years, this theme has been translated and redefined through all his collections and products. He has collaborated with an impressive list of brands, designed custom suits for Tom Cruise, held Andy Warhol, David Bailey, and Hockney exhibitions in his first shop, and been knighted by the Queen of England for his services to fashion.

To celebrate his 50 extraordinary years in the business, the brand recently launched an eponymous book, which celebrates Paul’s varied inspirations through 50 objects and also weaves together quotes and contributions from many of his friends and collaborators. A capsule collection of casual menswear and womenswear has also been introduced that looks into the vast back-catalogue of photo prints Paul Smith has created over the years. 2020 not only sees the 50th anniversary of Paul Smith, but also the launch of Paul Smith’s Foundation. Initiated in September 2020, the digital foundation is designed to be an interactive platform for young creative people.

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Despite the success, Sir Paul Smith remains level-headed when considering his achievements. For ELLE India’s 24th anniversary issue, we reached out to the legend to tell us more about his journey and the way forward. Here are a few excerpts:

Kamna Malik: From starting as a small shop in Nottingham to growing Paul Smith into a global business, which now sells across five continents, in over 61 countries and 3000 shops when you look back on your journey, how does it feel? What have been your lessons?

Sir Paul Smith: I’m very happy with what we have achieved over the last 50 years. Growing from a 3×3 sq m shop to being present across the globe, it feels incredible! I had never imagined so much success when I began. When I look back, I know I wouldn’t have done anything differently. We grew very slowly but steadily and always did business within our means. My biggest lesson is to never assume—it has saved us so many headaches, money and organisational problems over the years, just by double-checking every little thing. We have always done what felt right to us. We make clothes, and people seem to like it. We are still an independent company, which means we can make our owns decisions; a rarity these days. We’ve never been the number one brand out there and never will be that brand, and that is just the way we like it. When you’re number one, there is only one direction to go, and that’s down! We have learnt a lot over the years and have been through different phases but have kept the same strategy to keep on doing what we are doing.

KM: How do you manage to stay creative and relevant after so many years? What is it about fashion and design that still excites and inspires you?

PS: I love my job and what I do. Being able to work with a great team of young creatives really keeps your spirits up. I find inspiration in anything and always look out for unusual details or colour combinations.

KM: You always emphasise on individuality and honest creativity. What are your views on the younger crop of designers? How do you think the world of fashion has changed with regards to creativity and individuality?

PS: There is so much young talent coming through, and it’s a real joy to see. Everyone has their own strengths and talents, and I love seeing this in any generation. I’m really fond of Grace Wales Bonner and Priya Ahluwalia, both are London-based, and I have had the pleasure to meet a couple of times. The fashion industry is ever-changing, there hasn’t been a decade or even season that has been the same.

KM: Everyone is talking about the impact of the pandemic on the global fashion industry. How do you think the world of fashion is going to change?

PS: I hope the fashion industry slows down. We don’t need as many seasons as there were. I would like it to go back to a couple of years ago when there were two seasons, and in between those, you would have a one-week sale period. Clothing wise, I think silhouettes will change to softer and more relaxed fits. During the lockdown period, I was in my London studio for 16 weeks all by myself, where there are usually around 150 members of staff. The whole SS21 collection was designed over the phone and video calls, this really inspired us to make garments loose and comfortable but still presentable and of course, well made.

KM: At 74, are there any unfulfilled dreams or ambitions? What are the next big plans for you on a personal and professional front?

PS: I have launched the Paul Smith Foundation to mark our 50th anniversary this year. The foundation is created with an endeavour to give something back to a younger generation. At the moment, it is an online platform where people from all different professional fields can come to find inspiration. I hope to expand this over the years to come.