Well it’s not often we get to interview a ‘Sir’ here at LeftLion. In fact it’s a first for us! But Paul Smith has always been something a bit special. The man fashioned a global clothing empire from scratch, building it out of hard graft which started in a small commercial space in Nottingham city centre. A few decades later and his clothes and shops are available all over the world. We caught up with him at the launch of the Broadway’s new ‘Paul Smith Cinema’ for a chat about the fashion industry, travelling and Withnail…
What do you think to the new Broadway cinema and particularly your bit of it?
It’s really nice to see it for two reasons. One is because when I saw the space it was just really a building site and the rest has just been working from a drawing. I’m actually quite used to working from just a plan, as I’ve been involved in the design of all my shops. But it’s always really nice and exciting to see it come to reality.
It’s very Paul Smith in that I’ve used the stripe that everybody knows is to do with me. The fabric on the seats I actually designed for an upholstery firm in America, so the nice thing is it’s actually meant for lots of bottoms and should wear well. The deep purple is also a colour I use often in linings of suits. The entrance as you come in is a collection of my photographs, which are all cinema-related.
I didn’t realise the photos were from your collection…
Some of them are to do with the actual Broadway. Some of them are a series of photographs which I still have to find out who the photographer is. But they’re a series of empty theatres and empty cinemas, showing the stage and the art deco thing and some of the iconic actors which I’ve always really liked. Then we’ve put in this really nice 1960’s Italian spaceship light at the front, which looks a bit like a sputnik.
The film you’ve chosen to launch with is Withnail and I. I take it you chose that?
Yes. The idea was to officially open screen four (The Paul Smith Cinema) and to choose a film that was close to my heart. I chose Withnail and I because it’s a film that I absolutely love and it’s twenty years old so that’s like an anniversary. But the main reason I chose it is because the actual Withnail character that Richard E Grant plays was based on somebody who was a personal friend of mine and actually was from Nottingham.
He was called Vivian Mackerall and was an actor who studied at RADA. The film is very realistic and shows his wayward nature, but he did actually work on the stage and made a TV documentary. He made one film with Marianne Faithful in 1974 called Ghost Story in India. Apart from that he got into the world of drink and drugs. He was still quite a responsible person even though he liked his… well it was drink he mostly liked to be honest. He worked with me in the old Paul Smith warehouse packing boxes. We’ve got very fond memories of Vivian. There’s a ten minute slot at the beginning of the launch film for me to talk about the cinema itself, some of the films I saw here as a young guy and also to talk a little bit about Vivian himself and why I’ve chosen the film.
When you got made a Sir, did you get to meet the Queen?
Actually it was Charles that put the old sword on my shoulder. But I met the Queen when I got my CBE. When you’re honoured like that, you’re not allowed to speak to them unless you’re spoken to because otherwise the whole thing would go on for hours and people would be falling asleep in their seats. She says very few things to you. But, without wanting to show off, I’ve actually met her on quite a few occasions because I’ve been invited to Buckingham Palace quite a few times to big official dinners with the Emperor of Japan. I’m a big exporter and we’ve got quite an important business in Japan, so I found myself sitting there having dinner with the Emperor and a few of the other people from Japan. Afterwards we’d have an after dinner drink and literally be there with every member of the royal family which was quite a bizarre experience. Literally, everybody was there including the Queen Mother and Charles. I’ve met Charles quite a lot over the years and I met Diana because I’m quite involved with various things like the Princes Trust. It’s not really my world but it’s quite interesting to dip into it from time to time.
I know you’re a big cycling fan. Do you own any Raleigh bikes?
Actually, I don’t own a Raleigh. I ought to get one. We were talking about Raleigh tonight because I have two friends that have come up from London and that was the one connection they could remember with Nottingham.
One of the guys was quite an important film editor, he’s actually retired now, but he worked on Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, the Albert Finney film which was based here in Nottingham. A lot of it was based around the Raleigh factory, so they were asking me about that.
Bikewise, I’ve got a Trek and a Harry Hall from Manchester and a Mercian from Derby. I’ve recently done a collaboration with Mercian from Derby, because it’s their sixtieth anniversary this year, so we’ve designed a couple of bikes together which has been really exciting for me.
Have you sampled any of the new Nottingham cycle routes? The Big Wheel have made a big thing about putting new ones…
Yeah, I noticed that tonight, actually, when I was driving here. Apart from the trams, you’ve got all the new cycle routes now. I actually don’t cycle much in Nottingham because I’m normally only here for a day at a time now. I live in London and have done for many years, so I miss that.
I obviously used to cycle around here a lot. I lived in Beeston and worked in Nottingham city centre, so I used to cycle all the time. Then I moved to The Park and still used to cycle there. I cycle when I’m in Paris, because I work and have an office there. I keep bikes in all the places I have to go, like Italy and Japan, so I still keep my hand in a little bit.
If you were going to give me a fashion makeover, what would you suggest I wear?
Well, the first thing with any advice on fashion is that it’s not that significant unless it’s important to you personally. I don’t care if people dress in a scruffy, immaculate, perfect or fashionable way. To me, I’m more interested in human beings and what’s inside people’s heads, like their conversation and emotion.
The second thing is that you can’t just do a makeover unless you know the person’s personality and day-to-day job. You’re casually dressed tonight and the job that you’re doing as a journalist means that you probably dress in a casual way most of the time. So I’d say you’re alright as you are, but if you were working as a banker you might need a bit of help.
What are the best and worst things about working in the fashion industry?
If I was a real typical fashion person, which would mean I take myself too seriously, have a strong ego, go to all the openings and parties and pander to the press all the time, the culture would be a real downside to the fashion industry.
But I’m a very independent person and I don’t take myself too seriously. I don’t really go to any of the parties and private views or mix with people working in the fashion industry. The great thing about my job in fashion, is that I’m lucky enough to be independent and able to make my own decisions. We’re a privately owned company. I’m the boss and the main shareholder and I feel very privileged that I can work quite freely. My trade happens to be fashion, but its just great to be working independently.
How do you feel when you see people wearing your clothes in the street?
I always feel pleased, although not as much if they look a mess! I’m a real anorak about my clothes because I can look at something and say, that’s from ten years ago and know which mill it’s from. But obviously seeing someone wearing your designs is really exciting.
Except on one occasion, where I once spotted a guy on Nottingham station in a coat that I’d made. I’d only ever made one of them and it was a mistake. It was a jade green coat with dinosaurs printed on it and was made for a special project as a sample. It obviously then got sold on in a sample sale or something and I was horrified to see a human being owning and wearing it on the station. But that was the only time that I was really horrified by my own clothes.
I’ve been reading about you on the web. They say you’re very grounded in the fashion industry. Is that down to your roots? How do manage to maintain this ‘groundedness’?
One of the reasons could be that I was based in a provincial town for a long time and I think I didn’t get too big for my boots. I think in a provincial town people still keep you very “you are what you are.” People say “yeah, you’re just Paul! I went to school with you!” Also, my father had a very lovely, strong personality. He was a very nice man, who died at the age of 94. Right up until the end he had a lot of young friends and was easy to talk to, very witty and everything. I just hope that a bit of his personality rubbed off on me and helped me have the ability to communicate with people.
I’ve been together with my wife a long time, since before you were born. So being very stable at home, very happy and still in love and stimulated by her and how she is in every way. All those things contribute to making you realise you’re just a normal bloke. I’m not searching for attention or trying to show off or take myself too seriously.
A question from one of our readers that was posted on the LeftLion forum. I hope you don’t mind because it’s a little bit…
Yes, you could say that. Will you design your own coffin or will you be buried in something that’s off the peg?
I definitely won’t design my own coffin! I’m scared of dying, I like life too much and I think when the day comes I’ll be happy to be in anything. But I do have my plot already fixed, with a space for my wife as well. It’s already booked.
Can I ask where that is?
It’s in London, I can tell you that.
What do you miss about not living in Nottingham anymore?
I don’t think I miss that much to be honest, but I enjoy coming back. I always like coming to this cinema and that is one of the things I always try to do when I come back. If I’ve had a busy day I can come in here and just clear my head by seeing a film. It’s such a good cinema and it has quite a lot of, I suppose you call them art films, but interesting ones rather than big commercial movies.
I’ve got 400 staff here in Nottingham so I’m still very connected with Nottingham. I live mainly in London, but I’m actually travelling seven months of the year. I enjoy travelling more than anything, so I don’t miss London and I don’t miss Nottingham because I see them both regularly.
I’ve got home in Italy and I’ve just opened three shops in eight days, so I was in New York, Moscow and Paris all in eight days! I spend most of my time in a metal tube called an aeroplane. I feel very privileged with how much I can absorb and observe and how much of the world I get to see. I’m interested in life and interested in looking.
Paul Smith website