Sir Paul Smith isn’t one to mince words, especially when he’s in one of his favorite cities, Los Angeles, where his 11-year-old Melrose Avenue store, known as “that pink box,” is the most Instagrammed one in L.A. — “or so Instagram tells me,” he laughs.
Smith was in town for another one of his 48-hour jaunts, during which he created bespoke suits for actors Dan Stevens and Édgar Ramírez, as well as other loyal customers. He sat down with WWD at Chateau Marmont to mull over “celebrity” dressing, longevity, and why he doesn’t have an e-mail account or a computer in his house.
WWD: What do you say when people describe you as a celebrity brand?
Paul Smith: What’s honestly nice is we’ve never really forced it, whereas lots of brands, what they aim for is to have celebrity front rows at their fashion shows. What’s nice is our continuity. Especially in today’s world, where it’s up, down, up, down. In the last year how many designers moved from company to company? It must be very difficult for the independent shop owners because you might have really great success with one brand and then the next year a different designer and the collection goes down a totally different route. Just in practical terms of buying, budgets, customer lists, it’s very confusing.
WWD: How did you first start designing for celebrities?
P.S.: When I was very young, by chance, I was close to the music industry so I worked with David Bowie for many years. Not for his stagewear, for his personal clothes. I worked with Led Zeppelin when I was 21 making crazy velvet trousers. We had to buy upholstery fabrics because then they didn’t make suiting in those crazy colors and prints. Now I work with the American band The Lumineers and actors, too.
WWD: Why do you think celebrities are attracted to your clothes?
P.S.: My business is incredibly personal. I think that’s why it’s had a lot of longevity, because people realize it’s a business that does well; we are in 73 countries and have about 110 franchise shops, 60 directly operated shop and 260 licensed shops in Japan.
We are not a pushy brand. It’s not about trying to get celebrities to wear our clothes, it’s the fact so many of them enjoy the clothes. Normally, they are people with character, so there’s a magnet attracting them to a brand that’s got character. With so many of the big financial brands it’s all about marketing and networking and association.
WWD: You mentioned you get a lot of fan feedback. How do you respond to them?
P.S.: I don’t have an e-mail. My wife doesn’t even have a cell phone and we have no computer at home. I have three people who work with me and they get about 600 e-mails a day from around the world, but if I had my own e-mail, I’d never get any work done. But I’m not a Luddite; we are totally modern as a company.
I still write letters every day and people send gifts and letters from around the world. I swim every morning around five o’clock, and I get to work at six o’clock every morning and I work until six at night, and the first thing I do most mornings is write postcards to people. It could be a six-year-old who sent some drawings or it could be an 80-year-old who said how much they love the clothes.
WWD: What else do people send you?
P.S.: People know I have this office full of stuff, so we get stuff all the time. I once said in the Nineties that rabbits were good luck for me so I get between six and 20 rabbits a week. Ceramic, glass. Once about four minutes before my show started, a lady arrived with a real rabbit in a box, which we gave to one of the dressers who took it for her children. I also once had 700 old cell phones arrive in a box and the note just said, “I know Paul Smith likes things.” We made an entire wall in one of our Paris shops with them.
WWD: What do you make of all the luxury brands moving into sportswear?
P.S.: I can’t imagine the dress code becoming very rigid again. We do a lot of that in our PS line and we’ve found a niche in our main collection doing sport pieces in luxury fabrics.
What’s interesting is our suit sales haven’t deteriorated. Maybe because we construct them in a soft way. The suit they have in the Victoria and Albert Museum is a traditional navy pinstripe with a white t-shirt and tennis shoes and it’s from 1982.
WWD: How do you expect your brand will carry on when you’re gone?
P.S.: You hope it will still be around. Who knows if it will? Chanel, Dior, many of the brands are. You hope that the young men who are here with me, pick up your way and then pass on your way to the next generation. It will be different, it’s bound to be because the world will be different. You hope the principal will still be there of classic with a twist.