50 years ago Paul Smith opened a small boutique in Nottingham which sold established clothing labels, alongside pieces that he had designed himself. Knighted in 2000 for his services to British fashion, Sir Paul Smith is one of the country's greatest designers. A man who famously finds inspiration in everything, he's also a huge music fan and a big fan of wheels. Of any kind… We celebrate his 50th anniversary in fashion with this interview published in Tofm's issue 36 in 2017
I had arranged to meet Sir Paul at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London. This cunning plan would enable us to both carry out the conversation for The Official Ferrari Magazine, take some pictures, and allow him a preview of the exhibition Pink Floyd:
Their Mortal Remains, the band’s 50-year retrospective. He wanted to view it, and I very much valued the opportunity to get his feedback. Rather alarmingly, it soon became clear that Sir Paul knew far more about me than I did about him! All too often a photo of a specific show at a specific venue would be greeted with an exclamation from him of ‘Oh yes, I was there!’ Having said that, one of the most endearing characteristics of this man is his ability to engage with people and put them at ease, and he maintains that this valuable attribute is one of the secrets of his success. Enjoying dealing with customers has to be a considerable advantage.
He also acknowledges that, as with many of the creative industries, however much talent you can muster, you still have to get the timing right. It is extraordinary how often chance events and meetings lead us along completely new paths. In Sir Paul’s case, the accident that forced him to give up his aspirations of becoming a professional cyclist indirectly led to an art school training.
I see a similarity in my own life in meeting my fellow band members at college when I was set on a career in architecture. But for a quirk of fate, he’d be that man on the bike whom I was designing a conservatory for…
We are both of a generation where opportunities seemed endless, and I enjoyed hearing the story of a company that slowly and methodically went from very small beginnings to having more than 300 shops worldwide, without ever needing to bring in big investors with their own inevitable influence; or indeed cashing out too early and living with that regret. Sir Paul still appears to have both the appetite and enthusiasm to continue on his own path.
I’d like to mention here that it was only a particularly unusual English heatwave that prevented me from pitching up in a rather fine Paul Smith overcoat that has given good service for the past 30-odd years. I also decided against one of his suits on the basis that my wife maintains I can make the finest tailor’s work look like an unfortunate choice in the charity shop.
I should also add that I was only too aware that both the recent David Bowie and Rolling Stones exhibitions had been awash with glamorous clothes. On a count up, the best we could manage was a couple of shirts and a trenchcoat – oh, and Johnny Rotten’s infamous “I hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt.
Time was short – I should have worked out a way of speeding up the headphone commentary to allow him to see the whole exhibition, but he’s assured me he’s coming back for a second look, which would seem sensible, since, with at least two exhibitions of his own at the Design Museum (in 1995 the True Brit show marked 25 years of his company, while 2013’s Hello, My Name is Paul Smith celebrated his career to date), he must be due for another. By the time we parted I felt we should consider this a work in progress to be picked up again in a year’s time…
The Official Ferrari Magazine: You started off as a designer in the 1960s. Why was that particular decade so creative, particularly in the UK Sir Paul Smith: We were the first generation after the horror of war, so for the first time we could say ‘I’ll paint the wall pink… I’ll grow my hair long…’ Whatever it was, you looked around and there was nobody there to say no you couldn’t. What was so joyous about that whole period was that it was self-expression through creativity, rather than 1968 in Paris where they were burning cars and so on, which was just a different way of self-expression, more political. Whereas we were all just happy to dress up and look silly. There was so much going on. [nods to Nick] There were you guys, all these fantastic bands everywhere, and then in my world it was all about suddenly selecting fabrics that would have previously been considered only for women – floral designs with ruffles that you probably hadn’t seen a man wear since the days of Oscar Wilde.
TOFM: I read somewhere that originally you had ambitions of becoming a professional cyclist.
PS: Oh yeah, that was my big dream from 11 to 18. And then after a bad crash I ended up in hospital for three months. I got quite friendly with some guys in the same ward as me, all laid up in traction after accidents. A couple of them were discharged around the same time as me, and one of them said, ‘Oh, we should keep in touch, we all got on so well’ and they chose a pub in Nottingham for us to meet up in called the Bell Inn which, by chance, was where all the art students went.
So suddenly this whole world of creativity opened up. I remember having conversations with some of the students. They were talking about things like the Bauhaus and I just thought it was a council estate near Nottingham or something! [laughs] I’m sitting there saying, ‘Oh yes, the Bauhaus…’ with great authority but not having a clue what any of them were talking about.
Nick Mason: There’s a mechanical elements theme in some of your designs. Is there a link between that and your love of cycling?
PS: Yes, absolutely, and I always loved stuff by Heath Robinson [the eccentric English cartoonist and illustrator of fantastical mechanical designs]. My father was a big amateur photographer so he had his dark room in the attic. He really was a hands-on sort of man: I don’t think he ever employed anyone to do anything. He painted the house, he did the electricity, repaired the car. He was a big influence on me, really.
NM: What did your mum think of the dark room? We had one, my dad was just the same…
PS: Mum was always asking, ‘Where’s your dad?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, he’s in the dark room.’ [laughs] He was always in trouble. It’s funny really, with modern technology we’re just not as creative in many ways. Of course, we’re very creative with computers, but in other areas we’ve lost that ability. Anyway, luckily for me, one of the students I met at the pub became my girlfriend and then my wife [Pauline]. She studied couture and I got really interested in it all and attended night school.
My teacher was an army tailor, making ceremonial uniforms for Trooping the Colour and stuff like that. So it was all about how the cut made people look important, how it made you stand up straight and made your legs look slim, just by the way you cut things. That was really helpful. If you have that sort of traditional training you can play around with it.
TOFM: Was it around this time that you saw Pink Floyd play live?
PS: Yes, I used to go to this place called the Boat Club in Nottingham and see all these bands. You could do that in those days, go and see Pink Floyd in this tiny place with only about 150 people standing there. [to Nick] Do you remember playing at the Boat Club?
NM: I remember that we played Nottingham University…
PS: I definitely saw you there. And I saw Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. When I saw you guys, you arrived very, very late at night and just went straight on stage, I think you were all wearing overcoats. The stage was so small, you were almost on top of each other. How you ever got the drum kit up there…
NM: If you look at the cover of Ummagumma  where we laid out all the bits of equipment, it seemed magnificent at the time. Now it looks like some bits from an old stereo.
PS: That sleeve’s probably one of the most memorable pieces of graphic design, of photography, ever. It’s absolutely lovely.
TOFM: You got to know some musicians quite well.
PS: I got to know Jimmy Page when I was 18. I made him some trousers. I always remember he was a 24-inch waist, but the bottoms were 28 inch. They were like upside-down trousers, almost. I always used to have a few T-shirts that I’d printed. I remember being at a Yardbirds gig, chatting with the band afterwards, then whipping out these T-shirts from my bag, trying to sell them. But that’s how I got to know Eric Clapton and Jimmy and Pete Townshend. And then later on I got to know people like Patti Smith quite well. And now a lot of the young bands come to see me. It’s ever so nice for me, it’s really humbling.
NM: It’s slightly weird when you realise that you’re not cutting edge. I mean [waves arms around], this place. You start to feel like you belong to the National Trust or something…
PS: [laughs] There’s an exhibition of my work over in Taiwan at the moment actually, and yeah, you do go there and think ‘I am now an institution.’ But what’s nice is showing people simple, down-to-earth things and then they think, ‘Actually, I could do that.’
NM: That’s one of the things the V&A was really good about with us, they weren’t just interested in this trip down memory lane, they wanted to show the opportunities that there could be for young people. That it’s not just music, it’s staging, graphics, lighting
PS: [nodding enthusiastically] That’s fantastic. When I walk schoolkids around my offices in Covent Garden, I say to them, ‘You might love design, but there are lots of other really nice jobs: you could work in a buying office, a press office, merchandising, window dressing…’ I just think today that sadly it’s all about what you should be doing and what you should look like, about what’s acceptable in terms of career progression. Sometimes I tell my design staff, just go and do anything, don’t worry about it, let’s look at velvet, let’s look at flowery suits. And then they come back with 40, 20, 10 things and one of them will work. But you won’t know unless you push things. So many young people seem to be living life like a business plan these days.
TOFM: You’re credited with revolutionising how we shop, with creating stores that were never just about clothes. How much of a challenge is online retailing?
PS: My biggest shop now is online. Which I suppose I understand, but it’s just disappointing because I love shops. And I love body language, communication, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and all that. And my shops, because they have a lot of product like pictures and ceramics, you can start a conversation with people and make them feel that it’s a nice experience. I used to use all these things like posters on the wall and toys on shelves as icebreakers, and then that became the formula for Paul Smith around the world, really. I buy a lot of old vinyl and frame them on the walls. But the trouble is that people always want to buy them! I’ve got a very nice Pink Floyd picture disc and one of you is wearing a Paul Smith shirt, a flowery one. I can’t remember who it is. Syd, probably.
TOFM: Italy’s always been an important source of inspiration for you.
PS: I’ve had a house in Tuscany for over 30 years. There’s a real passion in Italy that I connect with, a mindset. And I’ve always really loved Ferrari designs, the lovely lines of the cars. Whenever I’m in London, first thing in the morning I’ll swim in the pool at the Royal Automobile Club, where I’ve been a member for a long time. At 5am when I’m just arriving for my swim, they’re often bringing these very expensive, very rare and very delicate cars in to be shown at the Club. Recently I saw them moving the most beautiful 1956 Ferrari Scaglietti Spider into the Club. It’s such an amazing piece of engineering. It looks so timeless. I remember once in Italy, I went to the Lingotto building in Turin, with the race-track on top. Just the fact that you would put a track on the roof of a building, I love that! That love of detail is something that I really get, that I really understand.