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What Design Can Do & Paul Smith: 'I am what I am'

By FashionUnited


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“What I do is I touch people, with friendliness, or with emotion or by making them feel better or enjoy the experience of walking in my shop,” revealed Sir Paul Smith, iconic designer when questioned about his job. “So I am just a normal guy.” The self-made man was one of the fashion guest speakers invited

to speak at the fourth edition of 'What Design Can Do', (WDCD) the two day annual conference held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands that explores the power of design and its effect on the world today.

Formed in 2011 by a group of designers from several fields, this year's edition takes places at Stadsschouwberg and runs from May 8-9. Accompanying the main conference are numerous interactive workshops, films, and discussions. “Designers can be an important part of social change,” commented creative director Richard van der Laken, one of the initiators of WDCD. “Designers can be game changers, especially in periods of crisis,” by solving old problems in new, innovative ways and using the social power of design to touch people.

Paul Smith is one of those game changers and his brand remains one of the most iconic fashion names, thanks to his unique vision and innovative use of design in the rapid changing world of the fashion industry. “The funny thing with Paul Smith, is that I never realized anything. I never realized I was successful or doing well,” revealed the designer during a small Q&A before his presentation at WDCD. Renowned for his creative and eccentric spirit along with his way of combining colors and patterns, traditional tailoring with modern shapes, Sir Smith ended up in the fashion industry by chance. “I literally fell into fashion by accident. And I am very happy with it.”

"Nobody needs another designer, another writer. The world is oversubscribed by us all.”

“Back when I started out, the key point was that you had an idea in your head and heart and you turned that idea into reality and then you hoped somebody would love it. But now design is just, unfortunately, a tiny part of existence in the fashion world... I am not being negative at all when I say this, but nobody needs another designer, another writer. The world is oversubscribed by us all.”

“Design can do many things. Just talking about clothes, it can make you look taller, or slimmer, it can make you look more important, it can make you look sexy. I mean for instance I came here this morning on the plane. If the captain greeted me at the door wearing a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, maybe I wouldn't trust him to fly me to Amsterdam. That is the power that clothes have.”

In order to succeed in design, Sir Smith believes it is important to focus on design, communication, individualism, personality and the quality of the clothing. Focus on quality is something he learned from Pauline, RCA fashion graduate and lifelong partner, who taught him the importance of the cut and shape, comparing fashion design to architecture. “Effort is free of charge, it is something that comes from the heart,” he adds, noting that it is important to put effort in all aspects of design in order to differentiate yourself. One way Paul Smith does this is by making sure every store design is different and every store window display is unique from one another. With over 200 stores in Japan alone, it is not always an easy task. “You can find inspiration in everything. If you can't, then you're not looking properly... it's all there if you want it.”

One of his concerns for emerging designers today is that they can become inundated with so much information online and over-comparison of themselves to others, that they can lose sight of what is important as well as their balance. “I don't want young people to only be obsessed by the internet, because there is a beautiful tree outside, or a yellow crane and if you are always looking at a screen, you may miss it.”

Sir Smith is a firm believer in encouraging and guiding young designers and there are always two fashion students interning at his company headquarters in Convent Garden, London. He wishes he had space to take on more, but with a design team of twenty-five, he is limited with the number of spaces he has available. “It's important for someone my age to have young people around, because what was relevant back in my age has changed today.” Being around a younger generation has certainly encouraged Sir Smith to be more social media savvy. “I am always in trouble with my staff for uploading random photos on Instagram. Like isn't this a lovely day or look at that blue cloud, and they say 'mention some shoes sometime,' and I say no way! They know that I make shoes.” He prides himself on taking and uploading all his Instagram photographs himself. “If I didn't work in fashion I would probably take photographs, because my father was an amateur photographer.” He insists on taking all the photographs for Paul Smith's advertorial campaigns as well, which makes his label all the more personal and he calls “branding.”

As designer/chairman for Paul Smith, he spends most of his days at the office, from 6 am to 6 pm, where he oversees every single aspect design-wise of his company. “Everything that has ever been designed, every shoe, watch, every store, I've seen. I work very long days and enjoy it, and we have an open door way of working which works very well.” He relates the running of his company to being a Chinese juggler, but states that everything he does, is because it feels right on the inside. However, finding the right balance between work, design, fashion and life has always been key for Sir Smith. “Life, in my opinion, is totally about balance and knowing when to stop.” He does not take any of his success for granted, but believes that at the end of the day it all boils down to the normal values and mundane things people tend to take for granted, like love, happiness, joy and health. “My business still exists today because its all about understanding the balance in image and the sugar on the strawberries and as well as paying the rent.”

“Make room to break the rules. Don't go down the obvious route because if you do, there's always someone else there."

During his presentation at WDCD, Sir Smith goes on to explain that if any student wishes to progress as a designer they need to make sure they stand out from the rest, and have a strong “point of view.” Having a unique vision design-wise is vital to success, according to the designer, especially in the highly competitive fashion industry. However with only so many fashion designer jobs available in the industry today, he also encourages students to follow different paths than their chosen study. “Make room to break the rules. Don't go down the obvious route because if you do, there's always someone else there.” He adds that his personal assistant and press agent both studied fashion design and are more than happy working for Paul Smith. In fact, many of his employees have been working for the label for over twenty years, which has evolved into a very close and honest company. “We are absolutely not one big happy family, but its a nice company,” notes Sir Smith with a grin.

Part of his presentation included tips for starting out designers, as education is part of the four themes of this year's WDCD. One of his top tips included allotting “purity, the thing you don't want to compromise on” to Friday and Saturday and then using the other four days (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) to work and ensure financial stability. “I am only here because of this,” admits Sir Smith “That's why I still exist today.” A fan of lateral thinking, a term founded by Edward de Bono, one quote that impacted Sir Smith's way of thinking that he heard in one of de Bono's lectures is: 'The job always changes you, you never change the job.'

So what has design done for Paul Smith? “I think generally speaking, and it's a real generalization because I make four lines for men and three for women, it can make you smile, it can make you feel special. I mean I have a navy blue suit on, but if you look in there, on the inside its very vibrant...so it's like little secrets that you can have with Paul Smith.”

Photos: Paul Smith at What Design Can Do

Vivian Hendriksz

Paul Smith
What Design Can Do