Paul Smith, Vêtements pour Homme, as Smith called his first shop, was a life-affirming injection of wit and tailoring-with-a-twist into the cheesecloth and tank-top darkness of the 1970s. He had a tiny space, just 10ft by 10ft, in Nottingham, the English city in which he grew up. Its hours were 10am to 6pm, Fridays and Saturdays only. Along with the clothes, there was an Andy Warhol print on the wall that Smith still wishes he could have afforded to buy, and a selection of antique jewellery.
Then as now, what drives Smith is the delight he takes in discovering things, and the pleasure that he takes in sharing his finds with his customers, whom he treats as friends. Sometimes the discoveries end up on sale in his shops. He rescued the Filofax from the clutches of generations of compulsive list makers, before it became a badge of shame, a totem of the toxic materialism of the 1980s. He stocked vintage books, as well as Braun calculators by Dieter Rams.
He likes to tell you about the things he has seen. He once called to ask whether I’d been to Matt’s Gallery in London, the pioneering space for installation art run by Robin Klassnik. He had just seen ‘20:50’, the 200 gallons of sump oil that Richard Wilson had used to flood the building to spectacular effect. ‘It’s the last weekend of the exhibition, you have to go right now,’ he urged.
I had another phone call from Smith soon after he had opened his first store in Japan in 1984. ‘You have got to come to Tokyo, it’s the most amazing place on earth. Come with me next week.’ Luckily for me, I said yes and saw the city through his eyes. At Narita Airport, he pointed out the bus company staff, bowing low to a disappearing coach, a courtly gesture of respect that nobody but us would see. He took me to a tiny bar on an impossible-to-find alley in Shinjuku, where the barman served sake in unvarnished hinoki wood boxes and knew his name, and to the street full of shops near the old Tsukiji fish market, selling surrealist plates of wax spaghetti. He also took me to dinner with Rei Kawakubo, whom he ambushed with a rubber chicken.
Smith is celebrating the 50 years since he opened that first shop in Nottingham with a new book, edited by former Wallpaper* editor-in-chief Tony Chambers, that tells his story through 50 objects, salvaged from the snowdrift of stuff that covers every inch of his office in London’s Covent Garden. It’s an accumulation that has spilled over from a desk so full of things that it is no longer usable. There are tin toy cars, piles of books and magazines, Moroccan bottles, old cameras, a mountain of cycling jerseys, and a pink bicycle. There are a lot of rabbit artworks and ornaments, too. ‘I once said in an interview that seeing one brings me good luck, and the rabbits haven’t stopped pouring in ever since,’ Smith explains.
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