It began with a jam jar.
Paul Smith, one of postwar Britain’s most commercially successful independent designers, built — and continues to run — his fashion business with his grandmother’s jam jar in mind.
“It was on the mantlepiece and when my granddad earned money, it used to go in there. And that was how you paced yourself with money for the week, for the month. There was nothing called borrowing,” said the 73-year-old Smith from his maelstrom of a conference room, where books, handmade gifts, paintings, and stuffed animals jostle with piles of cycling jerseys, toy cars, and the odd musical instrument.
“My dad worked for himself, so it was very much about being down to earth and living within your means,” added Smith who grew up in Nottingham, England, and left school at 15 with the dream of becoming a professional cyclist. But life took a different turn.
One of the wealthiest people in Britain, with an estimated net worth of 250 million pounds, according to the annual Sunday Times of London Rich List, Smith has an art collection filled with works by Banksy, David Hockney, Marc Quinn, and a bulging, international real estate portfolio.
Yet success has done nothing to change his approach to life, his phenomenal work ethic or the joy of rising early every day and going to work. He’s up before dawn and at his Kean Street headquarters by 6, having already had a quick swim at his London club.
“I like early nights, and I prefer the day,” said Smith. “The morning is absolutely magical. There’s no traffic; sometimes I go stand on Waterloo Bridge and take a photograph — and turn it into a scarf.”
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All-around creative, shopkeeper, retailer, salesman, designer, photographer, and joker-in-chief at his company — which has more than 1,000 employees, and had turnover of 215 million pounds last year, with profits of nearly 4 million pounds — Smith is foremost an old-school entrepreneur, a can-do character who was always going to do something big.
Having dedicated 50 years to building his business, he’s ready for more. Retiring is not part of the plan, and neither is selling his majority stake in the company. Itochu, his longtime Japanese licensee, owns a minority, and that’s just how Smith likes it.
The lean, athletic Smith, who was a racing cyclist in his teens before an accident ended his career, describes work as a joy, “full of fun and energy and creativity, camaraderie and friendship.”
He knows every staffer’s name, and often their kids’ names, too. He manages to run his multimillion dollar business, and be his naturally silly self, often greeting visitors with a click of the heels and a salute, or introducing them to two of his favorite stuffed animals, the subject of his children’s book, “The Adventures of Moose & Mr Brown,” (Pavilion, 2019).
Ask Smith about an upcoming store opening, and if he’s not sure of the date, he won’t hesitate: “It will open in Novembruary.” In 2005, Smith greeted guests at his new Nottingham store with a, “Good morning! Have you seen the kangaroos?” He was referring to the topiary animals in the garden and was convinced they’d multiplied during the day.
The jokes didn’t stop with marsupials: Smith had invited the Nottingham sheriff and his old teachers to the opening event and reminisced about his school days. “I wore green tights and carried a bow and arrow,” he said, referring to the city’s other famous son, Robin Hood.
And like the hero Robin Hood, Smith made up his own rules: An entrepreneur to the tips of his leather lace-ups, he worked hard, followed his instincts and managed his money with the jam jar in mind.
While he insists there was never a grand vision or strategy, Smith has become a case study in how brains, grit and humility can result in success, even when that jar is near-empty and no one knows what a seed or angel investor is.
Smith just did what he loved, and fell in love at an early age with Pauline Denyer, a Royal College of Art fashion graduate, mother of two and teacher at the art school in Nottingham.
After recovering from the cycling accident that put an end to his plans, Smith started hanging around with Nottingham art school students, which is how he met Denyer.
“I became fascinated by the world of creativity, and wondered if I could actually earn a living doing something that was creative,” he recalled, admitting that, at the time, he knew nothing about art. “I thought the Bauhaus was a housing estate.”
Around the same time he started running a small clothing boutique for a friend in Nottingham and zipping around the country to buy stock. He also began shooting pictures for Arena magazine, having been given a camera by his father, an amateur photographer, when he was 11 years old.
It was Denyer who suggested they have a shop of their own in Nottingham. “It was so small, three meters by three meters [32 square feet]. And it was run by an Afghan hound, a dog called Homer. And so it was me and him, and it was always crowded,” said Smith.
It opened in 1970 and was called Paul Smith Vêtements Pour Hommes. Smith laughs when he thinks about that name because he didn’t speak any French, and he was trying to sound sophisticated.
Denyer helped to design the first collections — bell-bottoms, jackets, frilly and flowery shirts — while Smith studied tailoring at night and consulted for various stores and fashion labels to keep the cash flowing.
Unlike today, having a shop was an early step in a London designer’s career, the window on their world: Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, Zandra Rhodes, and Terry de Havilland were all shopkeepers early in their careers before the advent of the fashion runway, the magazine shoot and the ad campaign.
Shops ruled in those years, and the quirkier and more individual they were the better. Carnaby Street was hopping, and Biba, which opened in 1964, was selling everything from cheap fashion and accessories to makeup, home ware and food. Nottingham, however, was far from Carnaby Street and the King’s Road in London, making Smith’s early success even more remarkable.
Four years later, he moved a few doors up the street to a bigger space where, alongside his gray flannel suits, he sold Hawaiian shirts, Ben Sherman shirts and that rare commodity — Levi’s 501 jeans.
“You couldn’t get them here, so I would fly to New York with an empty bag and come back a day later with the jeans,” said Smith. A lifelong art lover and collector, he set up a gallery in the basement of the Nottingham building where he displayed paintings and prints by Andy Warhol, David Hockney and David Bailey.
The latter two, in addition to musicians including David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart, already had become friends during Smith’s frequent trips to London, which was even more of a melting pot than it is now.
Young aristos and artists, writers and shopkeepers all mingled on the party scene, and the store quickly became the hangout for Nottingham’s artsy set. Denyer would later study painting at Slade School of Fine Art, and the couple fully immersed themselves in the worlds of art and architecture.
Six years after opening the first Nottingham shop, Smith and Denyer made “a tiny little collection that we took to Paris to see if we could try to sell it,” said Smith, who at the time had been working for the trailblazing London retailer Browns on South Molton Street as a designer a few days a week. There he got to know people from Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York and the big American department stores, making connections that would serve him well in the future.
That first collection had a few shirts, knits, jackets and trousers. The shirts had little checks, small collars, a big fit, and a straight shape. “It was classic with a twist right from the beginning,” said Smith of the phrase that would later be used to describe his design aesthetic. So often repeated, it has almost become a cliché.
And so it began: Smith channeled his charm and skills as a salesman to sweet-talk clothing factories and suppliers.
“So you go to a shirt factory in Derby pretending you’ve got an order for 50 shirts when you’ve only got an order for 18 shirts, and they say: ‘We only make a minimum of 2,000 shirts,'” recalled Smith.
“Eventually, through conversation, through character, through whatever, they make them for you. And then you persuade the suit factory in Leeds to make eight jackets for you. So much of it has to do with your perseverance, your character, your determination to make it work. It’s just something that I don’t think exists as much as it used to. So much of it has to do with lateral thinking and getting on with it,” he said.
Born in 1946, a year after the end of World War Two, when Britain was still rationing clothing and food, Smith was part of an extraordinary generation that didn’t have much growing up. But they were resourceful, learned to keep a stiff upper lip stiff and persevere.
In the early years, Smith did everything in the business, even the accountancy.
“I had to realize the VAT didn’t mean vodka and tonic,” he admitted. “Ordering fabric and invoicing, packing goods and doing work dockets, packing the boxes, ordering the cartons, shipping things. There was no DHL, no FedEx. There was no fax machine, it was Telex in those days.”
He persisted, with support from Denyer, and the business grew: The first London shop opened on Floral Street in Covent Garden in 1979 at a time when the area was scruffy and best known for the flower market that had closed five years before. He signed a license for Japan with Itochu in 1983, which gave him a steady income for the first time in his life.
Smith bought the Floral Street property on his father’s advice: “He said it was a good thing to do,” recalled Smith. “That way you can control your own destiny and don’t have to deal with the rent.”
He loved the fact that the area was rundown, and empty. “I thought it would help my cool, and it had a bit of similarity to SoHo in New York [where he also would later open a store] or the Rambla in Barcelona. Nothing had shop windows because they were all fruit and veg stalls, so they had shutters that pull down. It was quite hard to find a shop. I used to come in the evening after work and all you could see were shutters.”
He finally found the concrete shop he was looking for (he loved the Bauhaus movement) and made a deal with its owner, a retired baker who lived in the countryside. “I asked him if I could buy it and he said yes and he wanted 45,000 pounds for it and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s fantastic.’ But I didn’t have any cash and I had to work out how to get the cash.”
Smith borrowed a bit from a tailor in Yorkshire, with whom he was making clothes, and a bit from the bank, but he still couldn’t put the money together. He told the baker the truth, that he only had 25,000 pounds, and the man accepted it, and agreed to lend him 10,000 pounds over eight years, at 1 percent above the bank’s interest rate.
“I never met him. I promised I would write to him about the progress of my brand. He was in his late 70s or early 80s, and he said, ‘All I want is to know how you’re doing.’ He was nice,” recounted Smith, who became emotional as he told the story.
He and Denyer build the business slowly and steadily. “We just sold a bit more every season. And because of the jam jar, we survived. We sold a bit, and then, wherever possible, we bought [property]. Slowly, we established, and we never overdid it,” said the designer.
Smith added: “I suppose it was never a vision. In the beginning, it was just about owning a shop focused on self-expression and quite a lot of the clothes were made by Pauline or myself. We were blessed with being together, and being at ease at home. We have never been people who aspire to jets or chauffeur-driven cars. We’re just very at ease with life, and love and health. Just doing normal things.”
He still works on the shop floor at his Albemarle Street store in London every Saturday, schmoozing, selling and learning about his customers.
Although the business has grown, Smith’s mentality has remained the same: Create, sell, expand, invest, work hard, pursue creative interests, enjoy life and family — which included Denyer’s two kids, whom Smith helped to raise, as well as the dogs and cats.
His approach to design hasn’t changed either.
“I like fashion that you can wear and you don’t feel silly in; it’s not attention-seeking fashion but something that people want to buy. And so that’s where ‘classic with the unexpected’ or ‘classic with a twist’ came from.”
Ever the shopkeeper — and marketeer — Smith paid as much attention to retail as he did to his designs. His stores mirror his passions, eclectic interests, and merchandising flair. Before Colette, before Dover Street Market, there was Paul Smith, whose wunderkammer stores were always about more than just fashion.
He believes that having objects in a shop — not just clothing — is a good way of starting a conversation and getting close to the customer.
“We sell ceramics. We sell vinyl. We sell weird objects and each shop is different. Our physical retail is very much about people wanting to go shopping in a shop — because you never know what you’re going to find.”
Now Smith has a full-time staff member who sources furniture and paintings and an in-house shop design team based at his London headquarters.
Smith’s business remains instinctive — for better or worse. He is the first to admit that he can be his own worst enemy, and he has had his share of business woes over the years.
“To the detriment of the business, I suppose — but not for me personally — was that I stopped doing things that I didn’t feel were relevant anymore,” he said, pointing to the photo prints on bags and the original vertical multistripe, which became a brand signature.
He stopped the stripes for two years because he felt the colors weren’t quite right, and then reintroduced it in a different palette. “I’ve always believed you have to go backward to move forward sometimes. And because we didn’t have shareholders, we weren’t part of a big group, I was always free to make that decision.”
His finances haven’t always been rosy either: In fiscal 2019, the company returned to growth after a bumpy patch.
Two years before, the company shut its New York press office, which had been operating for more than two decades; let go of employees, and streamlined its various secondary lines and denim collections into just two labels, Paul Smith and P.S. Paul Smith.
It also shifted to a coed show format in Paris and quit the London runway altogether, tightened operations and consolidated systems and warehousing.
At the time, streetwear was the rage, and Smith’s tailoring-focused business suffered as a result. Suddenly, as younger streetwear brands popped up, Smith seemed less relevant. Those changes also came in the wake of broader industry shifts, such as a focus on online sales and own retail and a steer away from wholesale.
As always, Smith took those challenges — and changes — in stride as it was his choice to remain an independent company.
Twenty years ago he flirted with the idea of selling his company in the go-go days of fashion and luxury M&A. He even hired Morgan Stanley to identify the possible alternatives for the future of his company, including a partnership, joint venture or even an outright sale.
He spoke with most of the world’s leading luxury and fashion groups, and there were media rumors, which the company denied, that Smith was close to selling 25 percent of his company to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
“We looked at it around a table, my guys sitting opposite potential buyers,” recalled Smith. “I remember after one meeting I said, ‘Actually, we know more than them, and we have more experience.’ Selling just didn’t work for me.”
The idea of cashing out and — heaven forbid — retiring or doing something else, still does not appeal. “I have no intention of changing my mind. But who knows?” said Smith.
He does acknowledge that it’s a lot more complicated to be an independent company today, “because the big guys have so much power and they’re quite bullies, a lot of them. It’s always surprised me that there’s not some sort of commissioned report on monopolies, not just in fashion but in many industries because the world is run by about 40 companies,” he said.
Asked about succession plans, Smith is quick to answer: If he suddenly couldn’t work for whatever reason, there’s a structure in place to keep the company motoring ahead.
“Of course it would change. If you look at Chanel — or any of them — of course it changes from the vision of the original person. And it would probably be a lot more successful.”
There are times when he has trouble grasping all that he, Denyer, and the company have achieved over 50 years — the collections, collaborations, international showrooms, and 166 stores worldwide. “When I stand in that warehouse in Nottingham, I just think, ‘Is this anything to do with me?’ Did they send me in the wrong door?'”
He then quickly adds, “It’s a big jam jar.”
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