NOTTINGHAM, England — “Good morning! Have you seen the kangaroos?”
The perpetually lighthearted Sir Paul Smith is taking the edge off a bleak and windy morning, proudly welcoming customers to his first flagship here in his hometown in the Midlands.
Smith, 58, may be postwar England’s most commercially successful — and canny — designer, with global sales of $350 million annually and a bulging commercial property portfolio. But the one thing about Sir Paul is that he never lets the serious stuff get in the way of the silliness.
“There were only two kangaroos yesterday,” he said, gazing through one of the store’s shiny Georgian sash windows toward a clutch of topiary animals in the back garden. “I think they’re breeding.”
It is the day after the store’s opening party, where the guest list of 300 included European style journalists, the joiners and electricians who worked on the store, Smith’s old schoolteachers and Nottingham’s sheriff.
“I wore green tights and carried a bow and arrow,” said Smith, referring to Nottingham’s other illustrious son, Robin Hood, during a walk-through.
It took the designer 18 months to restore Willoughby House, the 18th-century home of a gentleman called Rothwell Willoughby. The 2,000-square-foot store, which spans two floors and had a soft opening on Dec. 14, has a mix of original walnut and oak parquet and flagstone floors. The walls are covered in Forties flower-printed wallpaper, shades of dark mint, ballet-slipper pink and green crocodile skin. The elevator has black ponyskin walls and a parquet floor.
Smith designed the interiors in his typical curiosity-shop style: There are Sixties pink-and-blue Murano glass chandeliers and fixtures, framed vintage Patti Smith and Rolling Stones album covers, photographs by David Bailey and Bruce Weber, a hot pink lounge that originally belonged to a brothel and hand-carved wooden mirrors.
In addition to his men’s and women’s clothing and accessories lines, Smith is selling his usual mixed bag of objects he finds and restores — gardening tools, watering cans and vintage books. “It was a labor of love,” said Smith. And it was clearly worth the wait: Smith said the store is turning over sales of $66,000 a week.
Smith, whose company headquarters and warehouses are just outside of Nottingham, may have traveled far from his days of growing up in the city, but he has never forgotten his roots. The designer opened his first store around the corner from Willoughby House in 1970. His wife, Pauline, a graduate of London’s Royal College of Art, helped design his first collections — bell-bottoms, jackets, frilly and flowery shirts — while he studied tailoring at night and consulted for various stores and fashion labels to keep the cash flowing. Smith could only afford to operate two days a week, Friday and Saturday.
The 12-square-foot store was roughly the size of a walk-in closet, and outside, there was a sign that read: Paul Smith, Vetements Pour Hommes. “Because, of course, I spoke French at the time. That sign was so kitsch,” said Smith with a big laugh during a walk through town.
A lifelong art lover and collector, Smith set up a gallery in the basement of the building where he displayed paintings and prints by Andy Warhol, David Hockney and David Bailey. The latter two already had become friends of Smith’s during his frequent trips to London. The store quickly became the hangout for Nottingham’s artsy set.
Four years later, Smith moved a few doors up the street to a bigger space where, alongside his gray flannel suits, he was selling Hawaiian and Ben Sherman shirts that he bought for the store as well as 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, who by that the time had befriended and dressed Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and David Bowie. That same store is still standing and now sells the Paul Smith jeans collection.
Smith showed his first men’s wear collection in Paris in the winter of 1976, and Barneys New York was the first customer — he sold it 300 shirts. He eventually moved into categories including women’s wear, accessories, fragrance, eyewear and furniture. And he’s always been an entrepreneur at heart.
Even when he was running his shops, he was silk-screening Union Jack designs on T-shirts to sell at clubs and consulting for stores such as Browns, the iconic London retailer. Before opening his first store, he had a shop with a friend called The Birdcage, and he brought in men’s clothes and worked the floor.
“When I was a teenager, my first job was in a very old-fashioned company that used to save old string and paper. My father was a self-employed salesman, so I was always in a very commercial environment, and I was always very aware,” said Smith, who left school when he was 16.
“I’m not a designer who lives in an ivory tower. I think a lot of designers lose their sense of reality about clothes. Clothing is not about art and theater. It has to sell,” said Smith, who is perennially on the lookout for ideas — from the wacky to the insightful (he writes interesting thoughts and facts down in a black notepad he always carries in his suit jacket pocket). Smith’s company has no debt, and he owns the freeholds of his 14 stores in the U.K. A few years ago, during the luxury acquisitions spree of the Nineties, Smith flirted with the idea of selling his company to one of the fashion conglomerates. In the end, though, he decided that independence is what suits him best.
Next up for Smith is a freestanding store in Los Angeles — his first in that city (he also has a men’s wear store on Fifth Avenue in New York). The L.A. unit is a 4,000-square-foot unit that will open in a former graphic design store in the early fall and is set to sell his entire collection, including women’s wear — the first time the line will be fully available in the U.S. — and his home furnishings. Later this year, he plans to open his first home furnishings store in the former GulfAir offices on London’s Albemarle Street.
Smith is particularly proud of Willoughby House, not only because it’s making money, but because of the attention it’s getting from the town. “The people here in Nottingham seem pleased and proud about it. I think I’ve set a standard. It’s an aspirational store. It shows I haven’t given up on the city.”