With customers coveting his tasteful shop fittings as much as his fashion, design maestro Paul Smith decided to set up shop in Mayfair to sell cherished collectibles from his travels.
In spite of a dawn flight and temperatures of 40C at 10am, Paul Smith is in cracking form. His 6ft 4in frame is crunched into the front seat of a tiny hired car in Milan, driven by his friend Nick Chandos (a Brit whose driving skills are remarkably Italian). Wavy grey hair buffeted by the breeze, Britain’s favorite fashion knight is clearly loving the freedom of being out of the office for a couple of hours, and is full of good-natured jokes.
“Come oooonnnn Nick, you could have got that one!” he gibes, as a hooting Chandos narrowly misses a blonde on her Piaggio. “This is like a Mafia film! I like this kind of day at the office!”
While most fashion designers in Milan are sweating in their showrooms, putting the last-minute touches to their autumn/winter 2006 collections for Fashion Week, meeting shareholders and bankers, and wheedling international buyers into placing orders, Smith is out having a ball. “This is the part of the job I love,” he says, his fine-boned face breaking into a grin as we head into the city’s hinterland of warehouses and cellars. “That’s the pleasure of owning your own company, you can do what you enjoy, what’s important to you. Like getting out there and discovering things.”
Things in this case are not fashion items, as you’d expect from a man whose 26 lines of menswear, womenswear, shoes and accessories last year turned over Pounds 250 million. They’re beautiful pieces of furniture, lights, paintings, toys, books, magazines, Fifties bathroom sets and rugs – anything but clothes – which he will start selling in his first stand-alone “curiosity shop” in Mayfair. The choice of such salubrious surrounds for this “fantastically self-indulgent experiment of a shop, with no real commercial considerations”, may seem at odds with his carefully considered fashion lines, but the variance was deliberate. This selection of objects is in no way “fashionable” or intended to appeal to the mass-market. It’s the result of his hobby, rather than his job: a collection of the designer’s “really special one-offs,” he says, “or quirky items that hopefully people will fall in love with as much as I did when I bought them”.
Things like what? “Well, at the top end, a Gio Ponti desk, which will be about Pounds 30,000, we think. And the most beautiful little Fiat 500 – we’ve made the shop doors big enough to get in small cars – which is a rich burgundy with pale powder-blue seats. Just lovely. That’ll be about Pounds 5,000. But little, inexpensive things, too.” The bulk of stock will consist of the cream of French, Japanese, Thai, Indian and English pieces that he and Chandos, an antiques dealer who owned his own Notting Hill shop until Smith poached him three years ago, have collected on their travels. Plus, in the back of the shop, the part they hope to give a “sort of antique-market feel”, there’ll be eccentric china, rare figurines, toys, tools, handles, wall lights and chairs. “Anything we feel like selling, really,” Smith says, shrugging. “One day it might be Greek fishermen’s vests, the next 40 pieces of rare Murano glass.”
Unlike most emporia, which employ buyers to fulfil a corporate brief, many of the pieces have been discovered by Smith himself. When last in Japan, he had a few hours off and found some, “absolutely beautiful, really gorgeous, antique rice chests”. So he bought them all. Ditto five linen chests, which are special, he explains, because they’re made of a softwood called kirin, which soaks up moisture, so keeps the linen inside dry. “Oh, and a staircase,” he grins, explaining how the staircase with drawers built beneath each stair was so bulky that it had to be transported back to the UK on the Trans-Siberian Express. “I hope it got a window seat,” he jokes, “because that’s one helluva long journey to Mayfair.” It was in Japan, too (his biggest market, with 200 shops, accounting for more than 80 per cent of his profit), where he found one of his favorite items: a stock of 80-to-90-year-old rice-paddy worker’s uniforms colored with indigo mosquito-repelling dye, which the workers had patched using fine sashiko stitching. “I love the idea that clothes were loved so much that time was spent trying to keep them wearable for as long as possible,” he says, with a hint of nostalgia. “It’s so unlike today’s throwaway culture.”
With shops in more than 35 countries, including new outlets in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur in the past 12 months, Smith travels about seven months of the year, so has plenty of opportunities to source. Not that his buying is planned or methodical.
“Sometimes I’ll go to Delhi for the day for a meeting, and then have a few hours to dig around. Or I’ll go to Clignancourt (antique market) in Paris on a Sunday morning and wander. I don’t go with any specific buying plan. I just use my eyes and things appear. I buy whatever I like. It might be artwork by a student I’ve seen at a show or a photograph by someone who is not well known, but that I think is beautiful.”
Today, he’s being whizzed about by Chandos to some of Milan’s top furniture dealers (whose names and addresses I’ve had to promise, on pain of death, not to divulge). The duo – both looking fashionably cool in white jeans and Paul Smith pink shirts – are clearly at ease in each other’s company: Chandos collected Smith from the airport that morning with a sign sporting the words “Hopalong Cassidy” to Smith’s amusement and the bafflement of fellow passengers, retailer Vittorio Radice and designer Roberto Cavalli.
Bantering and joking on the streets, they politely greet each Italian dealer with a friendly and unpretentious, “Buongiorno, I’m Nick.” “And I’m Paul.”
Then the British knight and his antique-dealer mate are soon ferreting about, each spotting things and enthusiastically urging the other over to see: a Fifties green-upholstered sofa made by Ico Parisi, “one of the most important architects in Italy at that time,” Smith helpfully informs me; five 10ft-high brass-framed mirrors that the designer says will be perfect for a new store he hopes to open in New York next year; a pair of rough-polished brass armchairs with black leather belts for cushion supports (“great for one of our shops because of the crossover of furniture and fashion,” Smith observes); sets of Fifties-style Italia blue-glass bathroom sets, which they’ll sell in 9 Albemarle Street.
While the idea of a curiosity shop is new, Smith has always squirrelled away “furniture and things”, as he refers to his eclectic collections. His first 12sq ft shop in Nottingham, where his artist wife (and business partner) Pauline designed his first collection in the Seventies, had “all sorts of things in it: penknives I’d found in a hardware store, odd schoolbooks from a Greek port I’d discovered on holiday and posters from exhibitions I’d been to”. Since then, individual bits of furnishing have become a trademark of his shops: battered wooden shop-fittings from a chemist’s; Louis XIV chairs upholstered in Paul Smith fabric; retro mirrors from barbers; posters; photographs. “The Paul Smith signature look,” as he refers to it.
He and Pauline have always enjoyed finding pieces for their London home, which he describes as “clean and furnished with pieces we’ve loved and chosen together”, and their Italian home, near Lucca, which is full of bits from all over the world. Selling the stuff only occurred to him when shop staff told him how often customers wanted to buy the fittings. Sensing a gap in the market, he began to snap up pieces wherever he went, storing them in warehouses outside Nottingham and railway arches in King’s Cross.
Today, he reckons he has pieces in 180,000sq ft of storage, having taken on Chandos to “find pieces I had no time to find and which, actually, he was much more knowledgeable about”. Whizzing with Chandos around the Milan antique market, held on the last Sunday of each month along Milan’s Grand Canal, it’s clear the guy knows what’s what; his beady eyes spotting Castiglioni lamp shades, rare Dresden figurines (“which, weirdly, we like because they often have extraordinary outfits which fit well in shops”), sepia photographs (“we’ll use as notelets”) and, to Smith’s delight, Fifties copies of Domus magazine. “I’m a big fan – I used to get them delivered to Nottingham in the Sixties, and Pauline used to get the Evening Standard sent from London on the train,” Smith says. “They were reading treats when we couldn’t afford to get to cities to see things for ourselves.”
While neither of the pair knows what he might find, they’re always on the lookout for certain designers and pieces. At the moment, they’re “over” Danish furniture, which Chandos says, “has passed its fashionable moment”, and into French mid-century and designers such as George Nelson, the American architect and designer, and Raymond Loewy, whose triumphs included the Shell and Lucky Strike logos and the original Coke bottle. Given that the windows of the new shop, on the corner of Albemarle and Stafford Street, are 9sq ft and, Smith says, “perfect to catch the eyes of people passing by in their chauffeured cars on the way out of the West End”, they’re keen to find extraordinary pieces. Being in Mayfair means a great deal to Smith. “A few years ago, we might have thought of opening in Notting Hill,” he says. “But sadly – well, I think, it’s sadly – that area has changed so much that there’s no way we would. The reason I went there in the first place was because it was full of antique shops. And now – unfortunately, perhaps, because of me – it is full of shops you can find everywhere else.”
Mayfair is the right place, he feels, to put his very British brand, with “places like Brown’s Hotel, which has always been a lovely, very British place”, and characterful pubs, art galleries, and antique shops. And besides, he says with a cheeky grin, “it’s the posh one on the Monopoly board. The place you always want to own. It has to be right!” There’s lots of buying to do. Chandos is off to Avignon and Montpelier, then Buenos Aires. Smith will traverse India, the Far East and America. Is there ever a time that the boss doesn’t like what Chandos has selected, I ask, after we drop Smith off at his showroom. “Of course!” Chandos says, chuckling.
“Usually, he’ll look at something and go very quiet. Then I’ll think, ‘Oh no, maybe that three-headed stuffed sheep wasn’t such a good idea!’ But generally, our eyes pick out similar things. He’s a genuinely charming, talented, creative man who is interested in everything, willing to learn, to discover new things. That’s the secret of his success. He’s always on top of what’s going on and loves what he does. And it shines through.”