Paul Smith: "Many People Look, Few Really See"

An aspiring cyclist growing up, Paul Smith was never interested in fashion as a teenager. But a serious bike accident at 17 put him in hospital for 6 months, and led him to reconsider his career options. Meeting the woman who would later become his wife, Pauline Smith, who studied haute couture at the Royal College of Art, would change his life. On 18 September, 2019, Paul Smith gave an exceptional masterclass at Sciences Po during which he shared his inspirations, life lessons, and secrets to managing a successful luxury and fashion brand that has withstood the test of time.

His very first shop, which opened in 1970 in Nottingham, was 3 square metres. “I needed clients to feel comfortable in such a small space,” he explained, “so I would place a cool object on a little table, a small work of art, a poster of Giacometti on the wall or something I found at the Galerie Maeght. People immediately feel more comfortable if there is something to have a conversation about.” Today, Paul Smith remains an independent company, “a miracle in and of itself” he says. With stores in 73 countries, the homey feeling of the boutiques and the quirky window displays have a reputation of putting smiles on peoples’ faces. “Effort is free of charge,” he says.

"It's not good enough just to be a designer"

When one sees Paul Smith in person, two things are immediately noticeable: his towering physique - (6'4", or 1m95), and his “feet on the ground” demeanor. Though he has been knighted by the queen and named Britain’s most successful fashion designer for many years in a row, he remains humble and extremely approachable. He says it himself: “I’m quite a relaxed person.” Something for which he feels blessed, as he remarks how difficult it is for young fashion designers to launch today. “The world doesn’t need another fashion designer.” Indeed, as we know it, the fashion world is saturated. He explains, “before, you had an idea in your head and in your heart, and you hoped somebody would like it." Today, he goes on, managing a fashion company is branding, marketing, influencing, and so on, and then, maybe, the clothes. Paul Smith believes that perhaps the secret to his lasting brand is that the brand itself is not - or most often not - too visible. “Because by the time a 14-year-old turns 20, he won’t want to wear Paul Smith because that’s what his dad wore.”

"You can find inspiration in anything, and if you can't - look again!"

When it comes to inspiration, Paul Smith’s creative eye knows no bounds. Showing a picture of a plant pot, he pointed to the screen and said, “I don’t see a pot, I see colour.” From that moment on, all eyes in the full amphitheatre were wide open. The designer flipped through his slides revealing images popping with colour. A picture showing women in traditional Guatemalan dress gave the room a bright red and blue hue. “This, becomes this,” he said, flipping to the next slide showing the pattern samples that resulted from this inspiration. “I’ve never actually been to Guatemala, but I did visit... a library.” Inspiration, for Paul Smith, can come from anywhere. The key, he says, is training one’s eye to not just look, but to see. 

He has resisted buy-outs and intentionally remained a relatively small company. What is important to him is that Paul Smith stays true to 5 key values: design, communication, individuality, personality, and quality. A generous and warm character, Sir Paul Smith’s quirky sense of humour and immense creativity shined through his lecture. At the end, he opened up the floor for a student Q&A session - throwing pairs of striped Paul Smith socks to those who willingly participated.

This exceptional masterclass was organised by the Master's in Marketing and the Master's in New Luxury & Art de Vivre of the School of Management & Innovation, and made possible by journalist and author Laurence Benaïm, who teaches the course (in French) “Art et Mode : les liaisons dangereuses”.

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