It was with the above message that Sir Paul Smith took to the stage at the Vogue Festival. ‘This bit is quite serious,’ he said. ‘A lot of you out there are in the creative industries. And please don’t take what I’m about to say negatively. There are a lot of designers out there,’ he mused. ‘We don’t need any more designers, so you’ve got to have something that makes you stand out. You’ve got to have a point of view. You can find inspiration in everything and if you can’t you’re not looking properly. Look and see – don’t just look.’
And in one magical hour last weekend, he showed us how to see as well as look. Beginning the talk with a mini lecture offered an intriguing insight into his own methods and the hot topic of the day – inspirations. ‘Think laterally and have a point of view – look at other brands or magazines, at what’s already going on. That’s like buying yesterday’s newspaper.’
The audience hung on his every word – what’s his secret? Where does he store this mythical pot of inspiration and how can we all get a bit? Of course, he had already given the answer – everywhere. ‘All sorts of things can bring inspiration. Art, architecture, travel, humour… Don’t just keep looking at those screens all the time because you’re not observing life on the street’.
After more than 40 years at the forefront of fashion – a career that was itself a lucky accident – his passion for design and love of life is infectious. The two are very much connected for him I feel. Rather appropriately the talk was entitled ‘Fashion and Personality’, an adjective that sums up Paul Smith, man and brand. The word ‘brand’ always sounds like ugly marketing speak, but in this case I feel the clothes are the man personified. His boundless energy, sense of fun, joie de vivre and colourful character shine through in every garment, and have earned him the title of ‘one of the country’s most successful designers’, as he was described in Vogue Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Shulman’s introduction.
Sir Paul’s interviewer was another of fashion’s big personalities, much to the audience’s palpable excitement – broadcaster and style icon Alexa Chung. They proved the perfect duo, bouncing off one another as Chung quizzed the designer on what it takes to reach the forefront of fashion – and stay there. Sir Paul’s articulate responses to her questions made it clear why, demonstrating most significantly his deep understanding of the role of the designer, which I think definitely anticipated the now multi-faceted nature of the contemporary role. ‘It’s about many things, not just designing’ he explained. ‘Communication – talking to people, spreading the word. Individualism is vital; every street in the world now is looking the same. Personality, of course, and quality, never underestimate the quality of your work.’
It would be easy to see how such a positive, spirited character might become jaded by a notoriously critical industry or wearied by its relentless pace. Not Sir Paul – who remains level-headed and diplomatic as ever. ‘It’s very much about life, being successful in creative industries. It’s about understanding that the river flows in a different direction all the time. Fashion’s about today and tomorrow. Nobody cares how good you used to be.’
The way that Sir Paul looks and sees has developed a unique vision, without pandering to the whims of fashion. This clarity and true understanding of the world around him has ensured his longevity and will continue to do so.
Quizzed about becoming a Sir (‘It’s a bit weird’), being put on the spot about his successor (‘I’m far too young to even start thinking about it!’), talking lovingly about his wife, Pauline (‘She’s always been very inspirational.’) and being upfront about the bitchiness of the fashion industry (‘Theres a lot of bad behaviour in this industry. People have got to realise we’re all on the earth and we’re all equal. They need a good slap round the head a lot of those people!’) – I fell for his charm. He’s just a lovely, refreshingly normal man with a cracking sense of humour and an attitude to life we could all learn from.