If England is indeed a nation of shopkeepers — as the French have been saying with a sneer since the 18th century — then the keeper in chief should be Sir Paul Smith, who managed to transform a tiny, windowless shop in his native Nottingham into an international — and still independent — business with annual sales north of $320 million and double-digit profits.
This story first appeared in the August 26, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Smith, 69, achieved it all with no fancy investment (indeed, he was often the one investing, buying the real estate for his British shops), no grand marketing or advertising (he shoots all the campaigns himself), and no disproportionate reliance on fragrance or accessories to keep the ready-to-wear machine humming.
He has always been big in Japan — the country fell quickly for his charm and childlike imagination — and his licensed sales — separate from his own direct business — in the region total about $330 million annually. The brand has been selling there since 1982, and Smith said that even during the country’s lost decades of economic growth, volume never fell.
Smith’s commercial savvy, curiosity and creativity, inside and outside the luxury arena, have made him postwar Britain’s most successful independent fashion designer. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2000 for services to the industry, and remains an anomaly among his peers with a still-thriving business and a string of extracurricular activities that stretch from professional photography and home textile design to collaborations with sports, automobile and industrial design firms.
He also spends time mentoring young designers. His most recent protégés are Agape Mdumulla and Sam Cotton of the men’s wear brand Agi & Sam, which last month scooped the Woolmark Prize British Isles regional final for men’s wear.
“He told us that you can never be successful if you’re too creative, and that you need to find a balance with commerce,” says Mdumulla.
Others would agree: “Paul understands what the customer experience needs to be,” says Donna Loveday, who curated the 2013 exhibition “Hello, My Name is Paul Smith” at London’s Design Museum. “He has never forgotten those principles. They are embedded in him from so many years of shopkeeping.”
Now, 45 years after opening that first tiny Nottingham store — less than 150 square feet, which he could only afford to run two days a week — Smith is enjoying a resurgence. His most recent runway collections hark back to his Seventies origins in men’s wear, and were inspired by the era’s creative talents including David Hockney, David Bailey, Eric Clapton and David Bowie, whom he regularly dressed.
The fall collection was brimming with boxy silhouettes, double-breasted jackets with peak lapels, coats with the wider, built-up shoulders of the era, and patterns such as big, blurred-edge checks and Bauhaus-inspired boxes and geometric shapes.
His spring effort featured double-breasted jackets in a variety of proportions, ranging from boxy and cropped to loose, fingertip-length styles. Trousers came stovepipe-slim and cropped or voluptuously flared.
Smith credits his runway revival to the younger members of his design team.
“I’ve put a very young team in under me — and we have a very good Paul Smith archive in Nottingham. When I took some of the younger artists, who are 20 or 21, to the archive, they embraced the things that maybe my age group would reject because we’ve already done it. So you’re starting to see bigger shapes again, more relaxed jackets, wider lapels and double-breasted designs. That’s just the wheel of fashion rolling around.”
In March, he named his first creative director, Simon Homes, a longtime staffer who had previously been head of men’s design.
Smith has also reorganized his design studio so the men’s and women’s teams are now sitting next to each other, sharing fabrics and working in parallel. He believes he’s found the right chemistry, blending the experience and expertise of his generation with the fresh eyes of the younger one.
The new organization also enables Smith to spend more time doing what he enjoys. He regularly roves the stands at the European fabric fairs — admitting he loves discovering new textures and colors, and spending time with his staff outside the design studio.
“You can have a whole day with your team, have a coffee and say: ‘Oh, I really liked the yarn in that stand and that might work as an overcoat,’ so it’s part of the creative process,” says Smith, who’s dressed in one of his travel-friendly, windowpane-check suits in Loro Piana wool. His feet are clad in weathered white sneakers made from glove leather, and he shows off the waistband of his snazzy red-and-white-striped boxer shorts, all of which are from the brand.
“It is very easy for many designers to distance themselves too much from the nitty-gritty, and you can’t really do that,” he adds, noting his London headquarters, located on a quiet street in Covent Garden, is an efficient operation. “Everything’s under one roof here, so the joy is I’ve got marketing, social media, shop design, press office, sales, as well as all the design team. We do all our fabric design here as well.”
Smith remains the majority shareholder in the company, with a 60 percent stake, while Itochu, his longtime Japanese licensee, holds the remaining 40 percent. Smith says he has an easy relationship with Itochu, and they don’t get involved with the business.
While he may have rebooted the design studio, Smith has no plans to alter the company’s strategy. “I have no intention of selling the business, floating on the stock market or retiring. I have good people in place, so there is continuity in the studio, the financial aspect and the retail.”
In many ways, Paul Smith is still a mom-and-pop operation, albeit on a grand scale. The brand has 40 directly owned stores and 176 franchise shops and sells in 359 department stores and 1,247 multibrand boutiques worldwide.
In past years, the “mom” was Smith’s wife, Pauline Denyer, who helped to set Smith on his success track. He dedicated the Design Museum show to Pauline, who helped design Smith’s 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 and his Nottingham store open.
Smith believes one of the main reasons his brand has endured is because of his wife’s original insistence on quality.
“She trained at London’s Royal College of Art as a fashion designer when they were still teaching couture fashion,” he recounts. “So Paul Smith has been always been based on quality, the importance of beautiful stitching, nice quality buttons, and understanding cut, shape, and proportion.”
Pauline has also helped him remain grounded in an industry packed with high-strung personalities and the constant pressure to innovate and remain relevant. “With Pauline, I’ve got the stability at home, I’m not using energy on lots of networking or private views. I’m not worried about being famous. It’s about keeping your feet on the ground and just enjoying life for life’s sake.”
Smith has never been at the knife’s edge of design, nor has he pocketed hundreds of millions in stock options, as have some of his fashion peers. He has no problem with that.
“The main thing is I’m proud of our continuity and of the fact that we’ve always had a good standing. We’ve never been number one, but we’ve never not been in the top 10,” says Smith. “I mean, it’s extraordinarily dangerous to be number one, because there is only one place you can go — and that’s down.”
The designer also believes that size still matters in fashion, and overdistribution is a curse.
It’s sad to think that many of the big designer brands aren’t really exclusive the way they used to be.”
He believes the business is poised for a significant correction. “There is far too much product, far too many shops that have the same or a similar appearance, and I think in the next 10 years you will see big adjustments. If you keep blowing up a balloon, eventually it will burst.”