“Sometimes you just have to [fall into the normal format of trying to get a job], unfortunately, as a stepping-stone to the next thing.”
Sir Paul Smith is both commercially successful and highly respected designer within the fashion industry, influencing thousands of designers over the years. In this interview with Mr. Lee McCormack of Designers Are Wankers, he shared how his eponymous menswear line started from just as a two-day love of creating fashion designs that eventually turned into a massive British export of fashion to nearly 200 of his own stores worldwide. [Note: The transcription below has been edited and condensed.]
The Hardest Steps after Leaving the University
“Sometimes you just have to [fall into the normal format of trying to get a job], unfortunately, as a stepping-stone to the next thing. It is really hard, because if you try to start your own thing right from the beginning, that can be disastrous as well. You make all your mistakes with your money and with your time and you haven’t got the experience. Sometimes it can actually be a sensible thing to try to work with somebody who is willing to give you a chance and try to tap into his or her experience. You give your energy and unison and almost give them your naivety, which often can be quite exciting.
But it’s case by case – you know, some people just manage to make it work and others don’t, and unfortunately a lot of people blame other things, but in fact it can be so many things. It is so hard to know what it is. It could be the fact that you’ve got great ideas but you don’t know how to put them across or communicate them, or you’ve got too much money and you do things, and you’re not hungry enough … it can just be so much stuff. Unfortunately, there is not a formula for the way it should be.
The hardest lessons, I suppose, were just learning how it all works, really … ‘it’ being anything you want it to be. Learning how it works – ‘I want to be a product designer, so what is the route?’ If you’ve got an idea, that’s fair enough, but if you’ve got nobody to show the ideas to or the people you show them to are not organized, both of those things are a problem.
I think what it is, is trying to have an understanding of what you want to do for the qualification you’re trying to get, early on. If you are training to be a graphic designer or a product designer or even something a lot more or less creative in many terms like [Artwork]… just something like that … something else where you’ve got to say: ‘Well, what do I mean by this word?’ ‘What does this word mean?’ ‘What does “graphic designer” mean?’
Even now as an established clothes designer, I still say, ‘What have I got to offer?’ ‘What’s Paul Smith got to offer that isn’t already there?’ ‘Why are we doing this?’
You look at fashion, for instance. Fashion is misinterpreting what being a fashion designer is. But a lot of the publicity that fashion gets, especially in this country, is quite flippant. Young designers and young students think that they’ve got to do very silly things – to design very stupid and outrageous and attention-seeking things to do well! In a way that’s true and in a big other way it’s absolutely not true at all, because how many people do you see walking around in jackets with three arms, or bare breasts?
In fact the balance is that you have to do attention-seeking things. But they still have to be so that people can actually still wear them and then they’re okay as well. I want to be a product designer, okay, well why do I want to be a product designer? Because I enjoy designing products. What are my products going to offer that other designers don’t offer? What’s my point? I always keep trying to say to everybody, ‘What’s my point?’ ‘What’s your point?’ ‘Why should anyone buy?’ Even now as an established clothes designer, I still say, ‘What have I got to offer?’ ‘What’s Paul Smith got to offer that isn’t already there?’ ‘Why are we doing this?’ We always try to make sure there is that little certain something to everything we do.
As soon as you become complacent in any creative industry, then there is somebody in the fast lane overtaking you, and design of any sort is about today and tomorrow. It’s not about yesterday. It’s about today and tomorrow. Yes, you can rest on your laurels for two or three years, but after that, you’ll soon be out.”
How “Paul Smith” Started
“Well, I think it was mostly my girlfriend who gave me the confidence to be able to do something on my own, because she kept saying, ‘You’ve got so much enthusiasm and so much natural energy and so many ideas, you could actually do something yourself.’ I was actually working for somebody else at the time when we met. She kept saying, ‘I’m sure you could do something on your own because that way you can express yourself more naturally.’ The interesting thing is, it was never to do with money or opportunity or a career move. In a way what’s so sad about today’s world is that it’s so formulaic. It’s so career-motivated and financially driven. In fact that can be quite a killer in creativity and in down-to-earth-ness. And it’s all about getting a good CV together, networking, [and] being a certain way. You have to be a hard, false person, which is horrendous.
I saved up a little bit of money and opened up a tiny shop…
I saved up a little bit of money and opened up a tiny shop that was only open a few days a week, supplemented my income through working like hell doing anything Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. And then my two days of purity were on Friday and Saturday!
I tried to get the balance right between earning a living and doing things that I loved. That was really down to somebody called Edward de Bono. He’s an American guy who writes about lateral thinking and he also says the job always changes you and you never change the job.
If for instance you are a young designer starting out, don’t think that you can earn a living from what you are going to try to do straight away…
If I’d have tried to earn a living from my little shop, then the job would have changed me. All the things I was selling or offering for sale in my shop, nobody really wanted because they were a bit different and a bit new and a bit odd and slightly self-indulgent. I knew that if I was to try and earn a living from that shop, then the job would change me, because what I’d have to do would be to change the products I offered in the shop to ones that people would readily think were great and would accept. By doing that I was watering down what I was actually trying to do and I would not actually make a statement. What I wanted to do was work out how to do something special. By thinking, ‘OK, I’m not going to let the job change me, so I’ll earn a living doing anything that comes along from Monday to Thursday and then on Fridays and Saturdays just do these two days where it’s just down to what I want to do,’ things slowly came good because the shop was so unusual and so different that people then came to it and so it worked. If for instance you are a young designer starting out, don’t think that you can earn a living from what you are going to try to do straight away, try to supplement it by consultancy, by even working in a bar or just doing anything just to earn a living to pay the rent and to eat. Then try to keep your purity, because by keeping your purity, if – and it’s a big ‘if’ – you are offering something that is different, it might not get accepted straight away. But eventually it might mean that you are the one that’s different and people will be attracted to it and eventually you can start to progress.
Advice to Young Designers
If possible try to work in some way, part-time or through the holidays, in the industry they are aiming to go into, where they can be gaining experience.”
-Interview by Lee McCormack, March 2005; London, UK. Read the full interview on Designers Are Wankers.
Photo Sources: 1) The Telegraph // 2) Style.com // 3) TheStyleKing.com