LONDON — “I’ve put a 500 quid Paul Smith voucher into the raffle, and I’m even giving you my watch. It’s fairly new – and worth 450 quid. But I’m not taking my trousers off!” said Sir Paul Smith during a speech on Thursday night hosted by the Foreign Press Association in aid of Japan.
Smith gave a short, lighthearted talk about his first experiences as an emerging designer in Japan – and had the room laughing for 20 minutes.
He recalled his first trip there, in 1982, and at the behest of a Japanese businessman who wanted to promote him. “The beds were too short for me, and when a very small woman came to give me a massage, she looked at the size of me, and must have asked for double time,” he said.
“It was a time when many Japanese people had never seen a Westerner. Pity their first look had to be of me,” he deadpanned, adding that he didn’t speak the language and the local businessmen spoke little English.
“Body language, humor, and the right timing were a massive help for me there,” said Smith, who said that as he tried to establish his business in Japan, he would often visit the country 25 times a year.
“At the time, there were so many greedy Western designers who were very disrespectful of the Japanese. They thought they could do the minimum, and make lots of royalties,” said Smith, adding that he worked hard in the early years. “You get out what you put in.”
Smith has 200 shops in Japan, 1,000 employees in the country – half of his staff work there – and his wholesale business there turns over 165 million pounds, or $267.3 million, annually. “It’s the number one country for Paul Smith, Britain is the second biggest,” he said.
Smith holds a 60 percent stake in his fashion comapany, and his longtime Japanese licensee Itochu, the trading and textile giant, holds the remaining 40 percent stake.
His company said earlier this week that they have been in daily contact with the Paul Smith offices in Tokyo and with the Japanese partners.
“Obviously, business is affected in the short term, but we remain fully committed to all our operations in Japan and to helping our licensees in any way we can,” Smith said.
The designer is headed back to Japan on April 2, for trip he planned earlier this year to launch the fall 2011 collections. “I’m not worried about anything,” he said. “I just want to go and give my staff a big hug.”