For Sir Paul Smith, the secret to success is simple: just have a distinctive point of view.
Over the past four decades, the British fashion designer has created a successful business built on the premise of being “classic with a twist.”
In an entertaining and self-depreciating presentation, Smith showcased his colorful and quirky personality — traits that shine through in his clothes, as well.
One thing he’s perhaps most proud of, he said, is being independent. After being introduced as the chief executive officer of the Paul Smith brand, he said: “I didn’t know I was a ceo, I’ve always just been known as the boss. I have a tiny business in comparison to most of you guys out there. We do sell in over 70 countries, but the delicious thing about Paul Smith is we’re still independent. In the morning when I shave the only guy I have to answer to is the guy in the mirror.”
As a result of this independence, Smith said he can “be very spontaneous. I’m very happy to run a relatively small business.”
The magic behind that business begins in an office in Covent Garden that is jam-packed with so many knickknacks, toys, books and memorabilia that the desk is not even visible beneath it all.
“That’s my executive suite where I work,” he said with a laugh. “There is a desk under there, but I’ve never sat at it. I’m very aware of what all the major brands around the world are doing because it’s important to know what not to do, and this room is just full of fantastic ideas and energy.”
Smith said his artistic bent was honed at an early age by working with his father, who was a photographer. Smith started taking pictures when he was 11 by “looking through what used to be called the viewfinder and using something called film. It was all about really getting the picture right. That taught me to look and see.”
His career in fashion started after a horrific bike crash put an end to his dreams of being a professional cyclist. He met his wife Paulina when he was 21 and her background in fashion opened up a new world to him.
“She was my teacher, at home, I never went to fashion school,” he said. “We cut the pattern out on the table, I learned to sew from her since she studied at the Royal College of Art doing couture fashion.” And together, they created a business. “We thought: why don’t we have a little shop and why don’t we start a little wholesale business, and our business has just grown, that’s it. It comes from the heart, not the wallet.”
He credits Paulina with being his muse and the love of his life, drawing a sigh from the audience by saying: “I got married to her eventually — I got knighted on the same day, it was a busy day. She became a lady, but she was a lady anyway. I still love her, very much, she’s the reason I’m here, honestly, she keeps my feet on the ground, tells me, remember it’s only fashion.”
Also keeping him grounded is the fact that he realizes nobody needs another fashion designer.
“Nobody needs any more of anything,” he said. “Now obviously, I don’t mean that literally, but brick-and-mortar retail is going through a rough time, online is doing really well, and there are masses of clothes everywhere in the world. Thirty years ago, you might have had two, three, five or 10 shops, and fishing for business was a lot easier because it was a smaller place. Now we all can sell anywhere in the world immediately and a lot more people are fishing for that business. It’s pretty crowded.”
So standing out from that crowd requires a point of view, he believes. Because so many brands offer similar products, everyone has the same chance to succeed. But to have consumers really connect with your product, he said, it takes more.
He illustrated his point by showing slides of a vegetable market in London where dozens of stands sell the same produce. Using tomatoes as an example, he said, some were simply laid out in rows, while others were jumbled in a mound. Still others were merchandised on the vine, were organic, or placed on tissue paper. “Suddenly, you’ve got a point a view,” he said.
The same holds true for something as simple as a needle and thread. As an example, he said a traveler may have just arrived in town and is ready to head out to dinner when he realizes he’s lost a button on his shirt. He starts rummaging through the hotel room looking for a mending kit and finds one where the needle is already threaded. “It’s fantastic,” he said. “Even with something as simple as a sewing kit, someone has found a point of view.”
This logic can be applied to everything from white shirts to cars: brands need to offer some sort of differentiation. “It can be anything that draws attention to your shop,” he said. “That’s what we all need to do. The world is so crowded and everyone is fishing for cash. So all I’m saying is: it’s all there if you want it. It can be as tiny as you want, but that can give you the edge.”
In his own business, Smith said when he introduced a travel suit about five years ago, he brainstormed on how to best market it to customers, especially since the initial product was offered in only navy blue.
“I could have put it on a mannequin with a sign that said ‘travel suit,’” he said. But instead, he hired a burgeoning gymnast, dressed him in the suit and videotaped him doing a routine.
“Look at William Shakespeare, who used to play with sentences,” he said. He said words such as luxury, vintage, limited-edition and heritage have become so overused, so to stand out, you need to “create a sentence and a way to use language in a different way.” That translates into the words themselves or the images associated with those words, such as the use of the gymnast.
The difference between just showing a mannequin with the words “travel suit” and posting a video of the gymnast online was remarkable. “We got an enormous amount of ‘likes’ and sold a lot of suits, which was fantastic,” he said.
“In my business, because I don’t have 100 million pounds to spend on promotions or the means that many other brands have — I’m independent and it’s my money — I’m just looking for marginal gains and steady growth. And that’s fine with me.”
Although his cycling career may have ended, he remains an avid recreational rider and is still immersed in the sport. He said the manager of the Skye team once told him that success derives from “doing 100 things 1 percent better — that’s marginal gains. It can mean anything, and if we do that, it’s a big difference.” For the cyclists, that means traveling with their favorite pillows or chefs — and fashion brands need to seek out their point of differentiation as well.
For Paul Smith, it’s certainly not logomania. That strategy can help a brand stand out within a large company where one label can do well for a few years and when it starts to fizzle, the focus turns to the next big thing.
“But as a single brand, using the logo is a very dangerous thing,” he said. “It’s fantastic for short-term gain especially if you back it up with millions of pounds of advertising, a celebrity designer and a fashion show — you will get growth quickly.
“But for a brand like mine where I’m the owner and I want to stay around a long time, if you use the logo too much, the 11-year-old, by the time he gets to 20, says he doesn’t want that because that’s what my dad wore. So you see Paul Smith written on things, but not a lot.”
In fact, this dependence on logo represents what he sees going on in the world today. “There’s a lot of insecurity, people needing a quick fix, the public wanting to say, ‘I am fashionable’ or ‘I am wealthy.’ So I get it, it’s just not for me.”
Rather, he’d prefer to offer products that have a soul rather than those that are mass-produced.
Smith pointed to craftspeople who can only physically produce a limited number of products. “We’re all wanting more and more all the time, but with a silversmith, an embroiderer, a saddle-maker, a carver, when you say limited-edition, it’s true because it’s all their hands can do.”
Another way Smith stands out from the crowd is his distinct retail presence.
“A lot of my shops around the world have got interesting things or rooms. I’ve got 12 architects who work in-house, which financially isn’t very sensible, but it means every shop around the world is different and has its own character.”
That includes shops in historic homes rather than traditional retail spaces and interiors that include 58,000 postage stamps “all hand stuck,” in one location, another with 97,000 coins or 26,000 dominos on the walls.
“It’s intriguing and special and it’s not just cookie-cutter,” he said.
“My exhibition is still traveling since 2014 and one wall has 50,000 buttons on it, all put up by hand. And people absolutely love it because they can’t believe it’s not a photograph but is actually real.”
At its store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, Smith wracked his brain for a way to set the unit apart. “Los Angeles is flat and 40 miles across, so you’ve got to build the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, something that really sticks out.”
His solution? Paint the exterior pink.
“What I didn’t realize is that it would become the most Instagrammed shot in all of California. I think 400 people a day are photographed outside it,” he said.
This same logic can be applied to design as well. “Don’t lock yourself into doing things that you’ve always done,” he said. “Don’t be too proud to change your fashion sometimes because if you get formulaic, you’ll die.”
But don’t get carried away trying to always create something new and different. Instead, seek a balance between novelty and the tried-and-true.
“We have a big business in jeans, trainers, and socks and lots of things that pay the rent and then we do two fashion shows a year in Paris. It’s all about balance,” he said.
“The main point of view with Paul Smith is classic with a twist, it always has been since I started,” he said. “That carries through if I design a Pinarello bicycle, a Leica camera or an angle-point lamp — it’s always got that little tongue-in-cheek twist and that’s the point. It’s not about shoving your business, it’s about nudging it forward and marginal gains.”
Looking back over his career, Smith said there’s really nothing else he feels he needs to achieve.
“I’m very content. I don’t need anything. I’ve got a lovely lady, I’ve got my health, I can ride a bike, I’m independent. So many people forget that life on earth is short and it should be about friendship, love and health – as well as cash.”