Sir Paul Smith’s first West Coast store, in Los Angeles — rectangular, concrete and unabashedly bright pink — will no doubt be a rubbernecker’s delight.
But the 5,000-square-foot store at Harper and Melrose Avenues is more than mere eye candy. It is the first U.S. door to carry Smith’s women’s, men’s, accessories and homeware lines under one roof. The store was designed by Smith himself in the style of the late Mexican architect Luis Barragan, who is famous for colorful, graphic shapes.
As for the pink, “I wanted it to be a landmark,” Smith said in an interview at his Covent Garden headquarters. “L.A. is a car city, and it’s a way to get people to recognize the store quickly. There can only be one bright pink store near Fred Segal.”
Smith plans to open pending a city building inspection, and a premiere party is planned at the store on Dec. 8.
This is a watershed moment for Smith, who in 30 years of business under his label, has never seriously courted the U.S. market. Smith sees it as an opportunity for his women’s lines, especially.
“There is a big potential here for the women’s lines,” said Smith, who is better known in the U.S. for his men’s wear. “I think if retailers can see the Blue Label line [in place] it will open up a lot of opportunities,” said the designer, referring to his catwalk collection, which he shows during London Fashion Week.
“Although we have a loyal base of retailers in the U.S., I’ve always felt slightly disappointed that U.S. stores in general haven’t taken the women’s line very seriously. Hopefully, this will be a turning point.”
Smith still shows all of his women’s lines in London — although most other English designers of his stature left long ago for Paris, New York or Milan — and he does not advertise the women’s collections in the U.S. In the U.S., the women’s collection sells at stores including Barneys New York, Traffic in Los Angeles and Fred Segal Flair in Santa Monica, Calif.
“Fifteen years ago, the way the U.S. department stores worked didn’t fit with my production schedule,” the designer said. “Now, we’re far more adaptable. We can meet the stores’ earlier delivery deadlines and offer the fit and fabric selection they’re looking for.”
In the U.K., the collections are sold at Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and the Paul Smith stand-alone stores. Smith plans to continue showing in London because he’s loyal to Britain.
Smith’s New York store at 108 Fifth Avenue is his most profitable unit worldwide — although it only sells men’s wear. He’s also doing a vigorous men’s wear business at Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York and independent specialty stores.
Smith has designed the interior of the Los Angeles store, a former framing and graphic design shop, to resemble a Hollywood film set, with different backdrops and props for each collection. The main Blue Label women’s line will be housed in a white wooden room that Smith rebuilt after taking panels, a fireplace, mirrors, doors and parquet floors from an 18th-century French chateau. His more classic men’s line will be housed in a room made from mahogany brought from a 19th-century French apartment, and recycled stone.
He has also applied a something old-something new strategy to the merchandise. In the women’s area, shoppers will not only find pieces such as classic Paul Smith suiting, button-downs in bright stripes, cheery argyle sweaters and tartan plaid skirts. They will also find one-off vintage gems, such as a Rudi Gernreich suit for $1,500 and a Twenties beaded dress for $2,600.
“It looks like a Hollywood stage set and there are a lot of visual jokes,” said Smith, who is known in Japan for painting dollar bills onto the floor of his stores and watching customers try to pick them up.
Managing director John Morely said the Los Angeles store may eventually do $2,000 per square foot in sales.
There are also a parking lot with 13 spaces — almost unheard of amid the congestion of Los Angeles.
And while he may have been thinking of Hollywood with regard to the store design, Smith said he has no plans to start courting film stars. “We’ve never been driven by the celebrity thing.”
Women’s makes up just 14 percent of Smith’s global wholesale turnover of $465 million, with 54 percent coming from men’s wear, 28 percent from accessories and 4 percent from shoes. Smith’s direct sales, not including those of his Japanese manufacturing and distribution partners, are $175 million. Profits in the year ended in June were $26 million, a company spokesman said.
Geographically, 53 percent of his business comes from Japan, where Smith has longstanding licensing agreements with Itochu for his men’s wear and Onward Kashiyama for his women’s wear, and where he has a cult following. In March, Smith will open his first shop in Tokyo to carry the full range of men’s wear, women’s wear and accessories. The new store, which has a bamboo garden in the back, will be called Space.
After Japan, Smith’s biggest market is the U.K., with 21 percent of sales, followed by Europe with 18 percent, North America with 3 percent and the rest of the world with 5 percent. Outside Japan, the men’s and women’s signature collections are produced by Gibò, which is partly owned by Onward Kashiyama. The secondary Black and Pink labels are made in-house by Paul Smith Ltd.
Although Smith won’t say how much he wants to grow his North American business, he intends to maximize the potential of that market. “It’s the right time to look at the U.S., after having concentrated on Japan for so long. I don’t know if we’ll be as successful there as we are in Japan, but we are taking the U.S. very, very seriously,” Smith said, adding he’s never thought or acted like the big luxury brands.
“No, we don’t have a multipronged plan of attack on the world, and we don’t have unlimited resources. We’re very tiny compared with the big brands, and we move forward at our own pace. If you look at the business over the years, we’ve had very gentle growth and no borrowings. We have always worked within our means.”
Smith’s company has no debt, and he owns the property on which his 15 U.K. stores stand. He was unable to buy the Los Angeles store’s property. “I’m not so happy about it. I normally buy, but in this case we had to do what felt right,” he said. Smith is close to signing a deal for a 5,000-square-foot space in Manhattan’s SoHo to open next year.
Like many self-made, entrepreneurial designers, Smith, 59, has no plans to retire or sell the company. “I’ve pulled the drawbridge up and put the crocodiles in the moat,” said Smith, whose net worth has been estimated at $315 million, or 180 million pounds, by the Sunday Times Rich List.
Smith owns 60 percent of the company, and his wife, Pauline Smith, and Morely own the rest of the shares.
“At the moment, we’re happy to stay as we are,” Smith said. “There is no plan at the moment to sell to anyone, but if we eventually do sell, it will be to an unlikely candidate. One who is passive and long term.”
In that regard, it’s easy to compare him with Giorgio Armani, who at 71 years old, has no intention of retiring — or selling — the successful company he founded on his own steam.
“Giorgio and I were both born under the sign of Cancer — and Cancers cling onto things,” said Smith with a smile, adding that he respects and values longevity. “It’s one reason I admire Giorgio so much. You can have success fairly quickly in this business, but keeping that success going is a lot tougher.”