Paul Smith picked an unlikely venue for his first international collection in 1976: an unglamorous ground-floor hotel room in Paris’s Latin Quarter.
“I laid some black fabric over the bed, laid out my shirts, and two pieces of knitwear and two jackets in the wardrobe, and sat there, and nobody came!” recalls the designer with a laugh. On the last day, “one person came at four o’clock in the afternoon, and I was off. That was the start.”
Today, Smith, -- 60 percent owner of a fashion house with sales of 178.8 million pounds ($288 million) in the year ended June 30, 2012 -- has a solo show at the London Design Museum that includes a handpainted cardboard replica of that Paris room.
Also on view are rows of colorful jackets; designs for the Mini car, the Evian bottle, and the new David Bowie album; a wall of multicolored buttons; and a central hallway filled with pictures he owns, including black-and-white photographs of sculptor Alberto Giacometti.
Jovial and eager to show he’s still a “down-to-earth” guy, Smith leads me into a replica of his real-life office, cluttered with teapots, a green bike (he loves cycling), old books and a fake spaghetti plate. He rearranges the display, taking magazines off an old wooden chair he sits on.
Smith opened his tiny first store (also recreated for the show) in Nottingham back in 1970 with future wife Pauline, a Royal College of Art graduate who became a lifelong influence. His first London shop opened in 1979.
“In the early ’80s, I managed to nudge rather than push the British male into realizing it was OK to wear a bit of color,” says Smith, wearing tortoiseshell glasses and a jacket over his patterned green shirt. “I’d do a Prince of Wales check, but instead of it having a burgundy stripe, it had a lemon stripe.”
What’s it like to be a luxury logo now? “I think it’s really odd. People talk to me about the brand, and I’m looking around thinking, who are they talking about?” he says. “It doesn’t feel right to me, I’m still Paul.”
Smith owns art by Giacometti and Hockney, as well as three works by the street artist Banksy -- a stencil of a rat with a ghetto blaster, a copy of a Constable print that Banksy has turned into a congestion-charge sign, and a painting: “It’s Van Gogh’s ’Sunflowers,’ but they’re all dead.”
Banksy is “very alert: He’s very understanding about the dreadful things that go on in the world,” says the designer. “And he’s a real good commentator on that which, in a very modern way, the youth can identify with.”
One dreadful event was the April death of more than 1,100 people in the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment-factory complex in Bangladesh.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people are still working hard at their profit margins at the expense of labor that’s probably not paid correctly and fabric which is not maybe as good as it should be,” Smith says.
That’s not the case with him, as he charges much more. “We personally still work very hard at beautiful quality, and the bulk of Paul Smith is made in Britain or Italy.”
The company is in good shape, he says, because it never borrowed money, owns most of its buildings, and “we’re not the slave of shareholders.”
What if his company were bought by a conglomerate such as LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA (MC), which has acquired Bulgari SpA, Loro Piana SpA, and stakes in fashion designer J.W. Anderson and shoemaker Nicholas Kirkwood?
The thought “appalls me,” he replies. “How would it make any difference to me? I’m a very happy man.”
“Hello, My Name is Paul Smith” runs through March 9, 2014 at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD. Information: http://www.designmuseum.org or call +44-20-7403-6933.
To contact the writer on this story: Farah Nayeri in London at Farahn@bloomberg.net.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.