“Hold on,” says the British designer who launched a thousand stripes, reaching awkwardly into the back of the crisp white shirt he is wearing.
“Sorry, I don’t have a business card but you can see my name written on the label — Paul Smith.”
The unconventional business greeting, delivered with a huge smile within seconds of meeting, is typical of Sir Paul Smith.
Friendly, funny and engaging in person, the 65-year-old designer has come a long way commercially since opening his first tiny shop in his native city of Nottingham in central England in 1970.
Today, the name Paul Smith is synonymous with timeless, wearable, well-tailored designs — often, but not exclusively, emblazoned with signature stripes (on the day we meet, he wears discreet stripy socks).
So busy is Sir Paul that he spends eight months of the year traveling the globe — designing, taking pictures at photo-shoots, opening stores, holding business meetings, trawling through global flea markets, and more.
And in between? He can be found at the London home he shares with his artist wife Pauline, whom he married in 2000 and has been a driving force in his business since the pair met in 1969, along with her two children.
During the interview in an Ebisu tower-block office, Sir Paul is down-to-earth (the girl who brings a glass of water receives a wide smile and a very polite thank you) and eternally optimistic (he swears he has “never ever” had a bad travel experience).
But beneath this British eccentricity and laid-back charm there is clearly a canny business mind at work — as evidenced in particular by his ever-growing success in Japan.
Nowhere, it seems, is as unconditional in its affection for Paul Smith as Japan, and his love affair with his number-one market spans three decades. Indeed, he now has more than 200 outlets across the country — compared with 15 stores in England.
His relationship with Japan was deepened further this month when the designer showed his menswear and womenswear collections in this country — in a Tokyo Fashion Week show aptly titled “I Love Japan” — for the first time in his career.
Here, Sir Paul talks about Japan, fashion, the future, and why he never wants to own a private jet.
Japan is your biggest market and the Paul Smith brand has been here since the 1980s. Why are you only now showing your collections in Japan for the first time?
Because I was asked. (Cue huge grin). I was sent an invitation. That was very special for me as I’d never shown before in Japan. We had thought about it now and again but we have a fashion show in Paris for men twice a year and London for women twice a year, so as such there’s not really a need to have a show here because luckily our business is continuing. Even during this more traumatic year, business has continued to do really well here.
Japan Fashion Week — this year renamed as Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tokyo- often appears a little off-radar compared to Paris, Milan, London etc. How do you think it compares with other global fashion events?
The principle is the same I imagine. But I think Tokyo is probably more comparable to the London and New York fashion weeks, because Milan and Paris tend to be very international. New York, London and Tokyo tend to be more about designers from their own country showing to press and buyers from their own country.
What is unique about Japanese fashion?
The big established designers like Issey Miyake, Comme des Garcons and Yohji (Yamamoto) have a very specific look that is unique to Japan. Their design work, generally speaking, is more extreme in many ways than a lot of European design. It doesn’t feel the need to change as radically as a lot of European designers or American designers, who feel the need to constantly update and do new things.
I think the young people are very creative in the way they dress. They put things together. They’re quite brave. Also I think Japan is a real consumer society, so they love buying things. There are a lot of brands, a lot of products here.
This is the first major fashion event since the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11. How did the disaster impact you?
I came here alone in April. At that time, it was two weeks after the tragedy. Most foreigners were leaving, not arriving. I was the only foreigner on the aeroplane.
I came here for one simple reason — because I wanted to give everyone a hug. I have such a lovely staff here and such a lovely loyal group of customers, I wanted to come here to offer them support.
What was it like?
It was sad, quite like a lost feeling. But a lot of confidence has returned.
One of the positive things that has maybe come out of the tragedy is that it makes people really aware of the continual fight for more and more things. If you have a tragedy or a personal illness, often it makes people reassess the importance of companionship, family, love, touch, communication. All these things, which are so normal but have been overlooked in favor of the commercial.
What brought you to Japan for the first time?
I first came here in 1980. Just me then. It’s a bit different these days. I’ve brought over 39 staff from London to Japan this time. I came very humbly in the Eighties and I took it very seriously as a designer.
I think the reason we’ve been successful here is because of my hard work and regular visits — wanting to not just do business here.
I know so many designers who come here over the years and they’re always complaining about the jet lag and complaining about the food or the work schedule or the language barrier, whereas none of that has ever been a problem for me. I’ve always just come and enjoyed the challenge of building a business here.
And how much Japanese have you picked up in the process?
Um. (Pause. Followed by loud laughter). At least three words: Dozo. Domo. Sumimasen. Oh, and kawaii. The essentials. [Respectively: Please. Thank you. Excuse me. Cute]
You design clothes, you open stores, you manage the business empire, you take photographs, you hold exhibitions, you travel. How would you define yourself creatively?
I define myself as “confused!” (Cue more loud laughter). Like a food mixer. I have a blender head.
One of the unique things about me is — I’m not saying it’s a good thing, just truthful — because I’m actually the boss of the company and also the designer and the creative force as well, I have a strange position where I have to be able to wear many different hats.
So in London I go from working at a meeting about business, to one about colors for the next season, to one about the design of a shop in Australia, and then to a two-hour photo-shoot. It’s very, very diverse.
How do you find the time?
I do things quickly. This shoot in (fashion magazine) Numero took two hours (he flicks through the eight-pages he recently shot). I like photography because it’s scary. I like the fact it’s frightening. I can do my clothes, not “easily”, but I’m very relaxed about that. But when you’ve got such a short amount of time to do things, and when it’s quite a big responsibility, that’s quite scary. There’s a lot of pressure with photography.
You blog regularly: How media savvy are you?
I’m not at all new media. In terms of the blog — I do that myself, but not physically. I write it myself and take the photograph myself then one of the girls at work puts it on for me. In relation to Facebook and tweeting, that’s done by her. Personally, I don’t use a computer at all. Obviously I have an email address to do with work but it’s not my personal email. I find that, unfortunately, my life is so busy, I think if I was on the computer all the day, I’d never get any of my jobs done.
So I come to Japan like on this trip, and all my emails are picked up through the office here and given to me when I arrive. I don’t have a computer but I always have a Rhodia notepad and pencil in my pocket.
Your stores in Japan aren’t just about clothes: There is the art gallery in Tokyo, a converted machiya (traditional wooden townhouse) with a garden in Kyoto. How important is store design?
I think the reason why my shops are averaging a 5 percent increase a year is because there’s always something interesting in them — there’s a picture on the wall, some objects. It’s not just clothes.
Also, we design all the shops in-house. We have two full-time architects and we have interior designers working in the building. So all our shops are unique. The one in Los Angeles is different to the one in New York to the one in London. I think that stems back to my very first shop in my home town of Nottingham which was very small — 12 feet square (3.7 meters square) — and had no windows.
I learned a lot from that shop — when you walk in, it’s so confrontational as it’s so small. I really developed the idea of objects and unusual things, so when people come in I have a useful tool: “Have you seen this? I got this on holiday in Greece” — or “I picked this up in an old flea market in Paris.”
Have you picked up anything on this trip to Tokyo?
Yesterday morning, I went to Meiji flea market. I picked up a fire engine and a bus — not real or life-sized of course. I’m always looking for interesting things for window dressing.
And how is business in Japan today?
In the case of Paul Smith, it’s fantastic. We have a huge business now, 200 shops in streets and department stores. I think if you can get it right in this country you do have a really good chance, because it is a consuming society. Our sales orders for spring next year are 10 percent up and retail is currently 5 percent up too.
But generally speaking, it is very depressing for a lot of people. A lot of people are very nervous because of all the cutbacks the British government is making because of the mess we’ve been left in due to the greedy bankers and the previous government not taking control of the situation earlier.
A growing number of luxury goods companies and designers are looking East as the European debt crisis continues. What are your plans for Paul Smith in Asia?
We’re doing really well in South Korea. We opened a huge flagship last year in Seoul, with four more shops due to open in the works in South Korea. We already have around 20 there. I think there’s a lot of potential there and also in Singapore and Taiwan. But my key thing has always been control. Not overexpanding. Keeping the product always moving and changing and the shops interesting.
Paul Smith is in Hong Kong but not mainland China. Why?
I’ve held back on mainland China. As you know, a lot of the money in China is new money. When money is new, often the person wants to show that they’ve got money. That’s the use of holding a handbag which has a big logo on it. So I thought for Paul Smith, it was a bit early to go to China. We don’t really have logos or a strong visual identity on each item of clothing.
However, next year, we’re entering the Chinese mainland market and we’ll have more chance. We’re opening a store in Shanghai in winter next year and we’ll take it from there.
And what about the future for Paul Smith himself?
I’m passionate about continuity. It is relatively easy to build a successful business but keeping it going is very different. Longevity is key. The business has always gone up, we have ever since the eary 1980s. I’m just very happy refining, adjusting things. I’m not a financially motivated person. I don’t have any desire to own a private jet.