Paul Smith is flitting between an official photographer and a gaggle of student iPhone snaparazzi at a new exhibition, “Hello, My Name Is Paul Smith,” at The Design Museum, London. The avuncular sixty-seven year-old has a rather impressive way of combining the eager to please affability of a local shopkeeper with the corporate nous of a global empire. While I’m waiting for my interview, groupies swarm to a gracious welcome – gosh, even toddlers get a hug.
The designer eschews the pretension of high fashion for humanism, a style that’s clear in the exhibition’s homely curation: fine art pieces flank knick-knacks from fans. Just don’t call it a retrospective: ‘I’ve got enough stuff for four or five separate exhibitions,’ he admits.
When was the last time you wore something that wasn’t designed by you?
[Laughs] 18. Although, if I’m on holiday and it’s suddenly cold and I haven’t got a sweater, I might buy a classic cashmere or something.
Do you feel guilty wearing other designers?
No, I just like my stuff. I steal it from downstairs; I nick it from the shops.
They’re trying to find the samples…
… And I’m the one who has them all.
You mentioned before that there is a level of pretentiousness and rudeness within the industry. You’d expect young people to put in the hard graft and work their way up. How do you feel about unpaid internships?
We’ve never encouraged unpaid internships. We get three, four, five requests a week for work placements. The best we can do these days is say, “Why don’t you come for an afternoon or day?”
You’re in your late sixties now, what are the problems with the youth of today?
[Laughs] I don’t think there is any problem with the youth of today – it’s just different. I think because of technology people spend a lot of time looking at screens and tweeting and doing all the things that are to do with modern communication. My only advice would be to try and get the balance right between looking at screens and just enjoying the observations of life and engaging in face-to-face conversation. And I think the last 20 years has been very much about C-list and B-list celebrity, really. Andy Warhol’s comment about everyone can be famous for 15 minutes has proved to be an amazing observation.
Did you ever want to be famous?
No. In this environment here, you expect people to know who you are, but when I walk down the street luckily I’m not a famous face, so thank goodness for that.
I noticed when I walked into the exhibition, that your first shop was tiny. It’s like a changing room.
I know. It was meant to be a shop! There was a curtain at the top of some stairs to a tiny changing room. The point of that exhibit is to show that you can start in a way that is considered very humble and then you can grow.
You’re not keen on email and computers in general. Do you think that being immersed in technology kills the creative side?
Personally, I’m not into it but I understand it. If you walk outside my room in Covent Garden there are four young ladies that help me: the PA and secretaries get about 600 emails a day, so I’m very IT savvy, as is the whole company. Personally, I find that the use of my own eyes, my photography, my notes, works for me – but each to their own. It’s about balance.
What phone do you use?
I’ve got an iPhone now. Jony Ives [Apple’s senior vice president of design] is a friend of mine, so I’m very privileged to get some very nice gifts.
You use Instagram but you don’t take many pictures of clothes. You tend to stick to more personal things.
Well, apparently you know, a lot of the big commercial brands use Instagram and Facebook but they’re just pictures of their shoes or bags or whatever. Interestingly, I’m told by my IT department that they might have a million followers but there’s almost never any comments, whereas with mine, we get 4,500, 5,000 comments. Not just the word ‘Like’ but ‘Oh, this is whatever’ or ‘When did you see that?’
You said before of the runway, “It’s £500,000 on 14 minutes.” Does it seem a bit ridiculous?
Absolutely. Unfortunately, it’s very much part of the process. A lot of the younger designers – and this is another reason for making this exhibition so down to earth – think that’s what it’s about: a fashion show and about twenty shops or whatever. Actually, it’s only a tiny part of the process. Even if you have the best fashion show in the world but you don’t make the clothes beautifully at the correct price and deliver on time and get paid, then it’s all a bit of a waste of time.
Technically speaking, you could collect your pension. Do you ever use the free bus pass and have you taken the heating allowance?
[Laughs and slaps my leg]. Don’t remind me, you swine, you. Throw this man out. No, I give it to Maggie’s [cancer charity] who we’ve worked with in the past.
What’s going to happen to your business after you retire?
It will just carry on. We’ve got a good structure and a flat management stream that works well.
Who would you like to take over?
There’s not one particular person. I suppose what I will miss is someone at the front of house – the spokesperson.
Do you intend to die on the job?
[Laughs] Yeah, I’ll do a Tommy Cooper.