I met up with iconic British designer Paul Smith at London Fashion Week ahead of his One Night Only tour in Australia on Monday (he’s coming for a store event in Melbourne). Paul kindly gave me the grand tour of his office/Ali Barber cave of treasures in which photos by Cecil Beaton, Bruce Weber and Patti Smith are scattered amongst piles of toys, books, and random objects like a giant pink iPod, which was a gift from Paul’s good friend Sir Jonathan Ive (good friend to have).
Alice Cavanagh: This is pretty epic. Is it organised chaos, though?
Paul Smith: Well, while I was away they decided they would tidy things up and so I realised that I did know where things were because when I came back, I didn’t know where things were. Now, I’m going to hold onto that [gestures to my iPhone] and you’ve got to lift this bicycle.
Oh wow. It’s so light!
Isn’t that nice? It’s carbon fibre. There’s a little school just around the corner, and I invited 22 nine-year-olds to come and look at how we do things. When they came in this room, I said to one of the little boys, “Do you want to try and lift this bicycle?” He came and braced himself and went to lift it up, and when he did he was so surprised. He said, ‘That’s lighter than my sister!” I thought that was the greatest.
Does your house look like this?
No. I’m allowed one room.
Which room is that?
It’s my little study. I can get into it — it’s not too hoard-y. I can get in like this [motions as though he is squeezing his body through a tight space].
So, you’re coming to Australia…
I’m going for a day. My hotel for three nights is an airplane. I do Japan, then Sydney for four hours, then down to Melbourne for the event and then overnight to Singapore, and then overnight to London.
It’s your first time in Australia, isn’t it?
It is. Which is weird, because I feel like I’ve been everywhere. But it’s always been a time thing. But I do day trips. I do Delhi for a day.
Do you ever take a holiday?
Yeah, I do a month every year. From about the 10th of July for a month. I have a home in Italy, which I’ve had for about 20 years. You’re allowed to sit down if you like. Would you like a cup of tea? A glass of water? An espresso?
I’d love a glass of water. You’ve opened new stores in Australia recently, but what’s your biggest market outside of the UK?
Japan. It’s actually our biggest market. We’ve been there since 1982 and we now have 265 shops.
Has it been up and down there?
Always up. I’ve been there a lot. I love the people.
You have some amazing photographs in here. Let’s talk about your photography. Not everyone knows that you are a great photographer as well. When did you start taking pictures?
I worked for The Face and then more recently for magazines like Numero. I’ll only ever take pictures, though, if I can do it in a day. My dad was an amateur photographer. He bought me a camera when I was about 11 and we used to have a darkroom in the attic of our house. He was very much about the caught moments — you know, someone scratching their nose. I think that’s where my eye came from, because, as you know, I’m not trained as a designer. My world is very much about observing and I think I’m just lucky because I am never short of ideas. There are always a zillion ideas; the hard thing is for my team to keep up…
Photo: Vanity Fair
Did you plan for this success?
No, I don’t think I’ve ever planned anything in my entire life. I never sat around a table and thought, ‘Oh I want a business.’ It was very natural. And because I’m not very motivated by money, I just enjoy my days. It’s just the motivation of life really.
What time do you get up in the morning?
Around 5am — I swim at 5:15am every morning. But it’s just for a stretch. [Leans in and says] I don’t have a six-pack: I have a family pack.
Ha! What time do you start work?
Who’s in here then with you? Do you make other people come in then?
No, it’s just the cleaner. The lovely lady who cleans this office has been with me since 2000. But sometimes other people start early — that’s their choice though.
You’re obviously one of the most established designers on the schedule at London Fashion Week. Do you ever mentor any of the younger brands?
Well, we’ve done some work with Erdem. And often, over the years, Suzie Menkes has said to people, “Go and see Paul.” So I’ve had John Galliano in here and Alexander McQueen… asking, you know, ‘What are royalties?” etc.
What do you think will happen with Galliano?
I think he needs to take a breath for a while. It’s going to be tough. I haven’t seen him for years — I knew him when he first started. It’s a tough business though. That’s why I don’t get involved. I’m a very private guy. I’m not at all the openings and the parties; I feel I’ve been around long enough not to do that stuff.