Cutting a dash in Tokyo, British designer Paul Smith, on one of his many trips here, talks to Weekender about childhood dreams, Olympic stamps and giving Japan a hug. 

He has designed clothes for some of the world’s biggest stars, received a knighthood for his services to the fashion industry and played an important role in the Oscar nominated movie, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,’ yet what really struck Weekender on meeting Sir Paul Smith was how normal he was, enjoying his cup of tea and chocolate; no airs or graces, just a down-to-earth guy from Nottingham.

“I just like people. I don’t care if you’re a road sweeper or the Prime Minister. Underneath it all, we’re the same. Even the Queen goes to the loo, well at least I think she does!” This attitude is reflected in the clothes his company makes. “We cater to both the eccentric and business style,” says Smith, “and my collections are so varied that you could be a 14 year old boy or a 70 year old man and still find something you like at Paul Smith.”

The Paul Smith brand has become a global phenomenon, though it is in Japan that it has enjoyed perhaps its greatest success. It currently has more than 200 shops here, compared to just 15 in the UK. Sir Paul originally came in 1982 and has been a regular visitor ever since. He was “fascinated by the place” back then and believes the fact that he saw it as being more than simply a cash cow explains the company’s longevity in Japan.

“A lot of designers were invited to Japan during the bubble economy, but the majority of them were not in it for the long haul. It was a case of earning lots of money and then going home as quickly as possible. We approached it a little more humbly than that, really embracing the culture and I think that is why it has worked so well for us.”

Paul Smith. Photo: Alan Aboud
Smith's One Pound Olympic StampSmith's 38 Pence Olympic Stamp

Sir Paul has time for everyone and seems so at ease in Japan, “I always enjoy coming here. I like the people and the way they dress. Thirty years ago it was all very classical but they are much more fashionable now.

Sometimes the way they put clothes together can seem eccentric to the European eye, but I think it’s great that self expression can come through such a harmless route.”

Paul Smith’s love-affair with the country shows no sign of diminishing. Following last year’s disaster he was soon on the plane to Tokyo in order to hug his staff and give them some reassuring words.

The organizers of Tokyo Fashion Week were so impressed by his actions that they invited him over to stage a show last October. After working with the Red Cross here, he called it ‘I Love Japan.’

The feeling seems mutual. As the biggest selling European designer in Japan, he is highly regarded and was even on the guestlist for a supper at Buckingham Palace for Emperor Akihito in May, after the pair had spoken at an official lunch.

Now aged 66, it would be easy for Paul to take a back seat approach and enjoy all the adulation. But that’s not his style.

He takes a very hands on approach to the business and spends almost three quarters of the year traveling the world, promoting his brand and looking for new ideas and projects.

One of his most recent has been designing stamps for the London Olympics. In a specially designed book made to commemorate their release, he writes, “Of course, the Olympics are always special but this year, exceptionally so as they are in my home city of London.” Sport is close to Sir Paul’s heart, he says, “as a teenager, my dream was to be a professional cyclist.”

The stamps “sold like crazy” at his shops around the world. He enjoyed doing it but admits it was a “big challenge, particularly trying to please the serious collectors.”

Stepping out of his comfort zone, though, is something he clearly relishes. When asked by Tomas Alfredson to help out with the British movie, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, he jumped at the chance.

“It was my job to give advice on the mood of the film. I suggested a monochrome style with traditional, bleak buildings, mixed in with highlights of colour. I chose red because I think it represents England well; double-decker buses, post boxes, that kind of thing. I got goosebumps when I saw the movie and realized he had taken notice of all I had said, particularly as we’d only met three times!”

Smith also dressed the film’s stars, including good friend Gary Oldman. Tony Blair and David Cameron have both worn Paul Smith. So too, has Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who Smith says he has had the pleasure of seeing in his underwear.

Sir Paul Smith takes just as much pleasure seeing a teenager or a housewife wear his clothes as he does a celebrity. Of course he enjoys the fame and money that comes with being a top designer but his main motivation is to “enjoy life and continue making nice clothes for as many people as possible.

Our philosophy is different to many other brands. We are real and our feet are firmly on the ground. I think in a world of falseness, sound-bites and commercial nonsense, people can appreciate our honesty.”

Interview by Matthew Hernon

Photographs: Paul Smith in Kanazawa by Alan Aboud, courtesy of Paul Smith.