Britain’s Most Successful Fashion Designer on how he built a muti-million pound fashion brand

There isn’t time, here, even to begin to scratch the surface of what astounds me about the fashion business as portrayed by popular scripted US television shows, but my behind-the-scenes visits to British designer Sir Paul Smith over the past few seasons who now has many US outlets in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York was more entertaining than any of them – the real life story of how a multi-million pound fashion business was built and exported from the UK. So wait, perhaps we can spend, just a little time being proud of this. After all, the hours I spent behind the scenes shadowing him, his stories are better then any fictionalised TV.

If  I could succeed with stripes (and rabbits) someone else can

He funded his first shop by scraping together £600 over two years. ‘I did loads of different small jobs,’ he said. Believing you’ve got to look a business problem squarely in the face in order to overcome it and despairing at his finances he sold screen-printed t-shirts at intimate music gigs in London (to a fledgling Eric Clapton, Rod Stweart, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd). Each weekend’s t-shirt money would help him cover his petrol from London back to Nottingham to stock his first ‘shop’, a windowless 12ft-square space.

Talking with him these days, he sounds genuinely awestruck at the current financial status of his business while remembering how he ‘held an Andy Warhol exhibition in my basement in Nottingham a long time ago.’ Wow! And? He laughs, ‘No-one came’.

Business writers now report only on Sir Paul Smith’s successes. His fashion house, still independently owned has revenues now past £400 million from 48 different countries. Over the past six years Paul Smith has seen group turnover increase from £77m to £150m and has more than doubled export sales from the UK where he employs over 630 staff. Only recently he received The Queen’s Award for International Trade which recognises companies that have demonstrated significant growth in overseas earnings. Looking good isn’t it?

But I mustn’t be sycophantic. For there is nothing more annoying than an over-excited enthusiast banging on and on about a new pet subject; a new flavour, a new health-kick, a new designer and everyone else just wants to get on with their day. Thing is though he’s not a caricature of the fashion world. He’s just like the rest of us although a walking contradiction – a multi-millionaire businessman in fashion who isn’t motivated by money or its trappings.

Consider this: he might have a summer home in Lucca in Italy but neither he nor his wife has an answering machine, a computer or a mobile phone even though his friend and Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design ‘Jonathan Ive sends unique items now and again’. Also proud that ‘we don’t use email at home and Pauline my wife only ever handwrites letters, ever.’

Avant-garde? ‘I don’t see myself that way. Quirky, eccentric, a bit mad? Yes. A good mad. And free! That’s important, to be able to make your own business decisions.’ Later he repeats the importance of this freedom ‘freedom and time it’s my luxury’.

Paul Smith started to walk freely a long time ago carrying nothing but an empty suitcase. He’d return to England from trips abroad with that suitcase stuffed with his international finds; pencils from old hardwarde stores, some exercise books found while on holiday on a Greek island, leather bags from Italy, Levi’s 501s, fishermen’s jumpers, antique furniture from Paris, Mexican printed shirts and ties. His knack for collecting and then curating a whole bunch of ‘stuff’ (his word) became his ‘thing’ (his word too) and is still the hallmark of every one of his 2000 outlets worldwide (including 120 stand along shops).

Pausing just for a moment my mind drifts to two shops I visit myself without fail a few times a year when I’m working at the fashion weeks; Milan’s Corso Como and Paris’s Colette. I’d always thought that there was an obviously similarity to Paul Smith’s ‘stuff’ collecting and curating in their displays. You’ll find a painting next to a good book, next to a great new fragrance, next to music hard to find elsewhere. If you’ve never been, they’re nice to see and a unique browsing experience.

Subsequently Paul Smith explains that Carla Sozzani of Milan’s Corso Como (sister to Franca Sozzani the Italian Vogue editor) and Sarah Lerfel of Colette Paris both credited the Paul Smith Covent Garden store in the past as inspiration for their concept stores. And to think that when he first opened his Covent Garden store in 1979 from which many concept stores have been inspired ‘for a good while nobody came at all’.

He goes on to say ‘I’d like young designers, business people, musicians to know how poor some of the greatest artists, designers, actors, musicians were starting out in their careers. Back when I opened the Covent Garden store this young Peruvian photographer starting out in London with very little money would visit me and just browse.’ That photographer was Mario Testino.

So, after 2000 successful Paul Smith outlets, after 14 different lines to his name, (including licensing and limited edition deals with Evian water, Cross pens, luggage, Barneys New York, furniture, a few bicycles (his first passion)), after a swim and then Marmite and toast every morning, his energy is directed towards the next thing, the next chair, the next book, the next market, the next adventure. And in that relaxed, inclusive, idealistic way of a child that I love he reveals he ‘stays inspired in business by being childlike. Not childish but childlike. Taking in everything around me like a child, I let it inspire me’. (Note he added that ‘this should never include other people’s creative work’).

I had a photographer and a camera crew with me (there’s a film below) but by the end of our visit, I had drawn up a precise and, if I may say so, rather useful page of business notes in my own notebook, with space after each for ticks. It even ran over onto a second page and I don’t think it’s what Paul Smith really had in mind somehow. Most importantly he said plaintively ‘Never be motivated by money: money isn’t and shouldn’t be a designer’s motivation (it clouds judgement). And money and success should never consume and change you etc.’ My favourite!

And then ‘Realise that if you’re selling something/anything you work in service. Be friendly and helpful. Don’t forget. Think Service! Service! Service!’ And ‘try and have stability and support at home it limits fear and makes for brave business decisions.’

Around about this point he stopped, but I was having none of it so I urged him to go on ‘keep a healthy routine. Exercise (he swims at 6.30 every morning), relax and enjoy the joy of conversation with family and people outside of your chosen industry (he talks to everyone he meets).’ And….. ‘treat everyone equally. Everyone is interesting and inspiring in some way.’

I think my essential problem with all of this was, well, how can I put this…? This will do nicely: Paul Smith is way smarter than me. Naturally I didn’t admit that to him at the time.

‘Overall the thing I can’t understand Paul it that you work in fashion,’ I said ‘and you seem to have stayed very normal through it all.’ After that we talked for a minute about the struggle of young fashion designers and how pressure can change creative personalities. ‘Staying true to who you are is essential from the beginning.’ What else? Oh yes. Time, Take as much as you must to make something unique and original (while respecting professional deadlines of course).’

And young designers take heart, competition may be fierce (more fashion graduates, a dominant high street, online retail) but Paul Smith believes. Cue shocked silence. ‘If  I could succeed with stripes (and rabbits). Someone else can.’ (The rabbit bit is in the film).

‘I started with nothing. I had no money, I couldn’t even go to the big fabric mills to order fabric so I had to work with stock houses where you could only ever get white fabric for shirts or striped fabric.”

‘But you’re not just a fashion designer Paul are you?’ ‘No! I’ve never understood why there had to be such a strict category. I appreciate and work with lots and lots of ‘stuff.’

I realized that I was excited. Excited that he was so normal, having created a multi-million pound business. Plus having stuck with the stripes in fashion, he added his ‘Classic with a twist’ concept (very classic fabric tweaked by ‘adding a little secret, a coloured button-hole, three different coloured buttons, an unusual lining’) and it started to do really well. ‘Slowly’, he adds.

So what was his brand’s identity/logo? ‘I used striped fabric from my very first collection and then eventually I’d used every permutation of stripe and then in the early Nineties I thought let’s do the definitive stripe so we came up with the twenty eight colours. People loved it so it just kept going and going and going.’

And I could just keep going and going and going on here but maybe it’s best that he explains the rest of this to you himself.