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Sir Paul Smith: ‘I’m an accidental designer’

The British designer shares some of the things he’s learnt over the years

Be childlike, but not childish. Picasso was right when he said every child is an artist.

Designer Sir Paul Smith, 71, grew up near Nottingham and left school at 15. He first became famous in the Eighties dressing the likes of David Bowie, Daniel Day-Lewis and Simply Red, and has recently collaborated with REM and Gary Oldman, whom he dressed for this year’s Baftas. He lives in London with his wife, Pauline Denyer.

On careers: “I am an accidental designer. Literally. As a teenager I wanted to be a racing cyclist, but a crash at 17 ended that dream. On leaving the hospital, a few of my fellow patients introduced me to some art students and I discovered a different world.”

On photography: “I get my love of photography from my dad, Harold. He was a credit draper,  but his passion was photography. He liked to compose trick shots — there’s one of me aged 12 flying on a ‘magic carpet’.” 

Be childlike, but not childish. Picasso was right when he said every child is an artist.

Paul Smith SS18 

On humour: “I also get my sense of humour from him. Another of his pictures from the Sixties shows some hippies in a park next to a sign that says, ‘Keep off the grass’.”

On inspiration: “You can find inspiration in everything. And if you can’t, look again. That’s the title of a book I wrote in 2001. I believe it more and more each day. Maybe I see things differently because I’m dyslexic?”

His motto: “Be childlike, but not childish. Picasso was right when he said every child is an artist.”

On shops: “I’ve always been a shopkeeper. My first was a windowless box, 3 x 3m, in Nottingham. It was only open on Fridays and Saturdays and could just fit me, at 6ft 2in, and my Afghan hound, Homer — I had to spray the place with Carven eau de toilette to cover the smell of dog.”

His exercise: “Swimming is a great way to start the day. I’m in the pool at the RAC in Pall Mall every morning at 5.30am. I have been doing this for 20 years. I get up so early, the birds are still asleep.”

Top tip: “Carry a notebook at all times. And a camera. I write down ideas and thoughts and photograph things that amuse or interest me. I once designed a shirt from a shot I took of seed packets, and created a shop window based on a display of oranges in a market. These photos used to be visual notes, but now I have an outlet on Instagram [@paulsmith].”

On fame: “Just because you’re famous, doesn’t mean you can’t be normal. In the early days, I got a call asking me to take some clothes round to where Paul McCartney was performing that evening. I jumped in a cab with a few outfits and when I got there he asked if I was hungry. As I ate what he made me I remember thinking, ‘A Beatle just made me a cheese sandwich!’”

On married life: “I owe a lot to my wife. When I met Pauline, she was studying fashion design at the Royal College of Art. She taught me what a designer is and encouraged me to start making my own things. We’ve been together since 1967 and I’m still learning from her.”

On art: “Sometimes you have to suffer for your art. Pauline briefly crossed over with David Hockney at the RCA, and I’ve always loved his work. Once, I had to decide between buying a limited-edition print by him called Pretty Tulips or paying the gas bill. A fortnight later, they came to turn off the gas.”

On rules: “Make room to break the rules. You’ll never do anything interesting unless you do.”

On fashion: “People aren’t sheep. Hopefully, the days of big corporate fashion companies pushing the same disappointing looks on everyone all over the world from Identikit stores are coming to an end.”

On rabbits: “But rabbits are lucky. Since people found out that I believe rabbits bring me good luck, I get sent about six a day. They’re usually toys, but I was once given a live one just before a fashion show in Paris.”

His outlook: “I’m an optimist. I get excited going to bed with my head whirling with ideas. It’s a fantastic feeling.” 

Get inspired

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