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April 21 2014

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Sir Paul Smith Reveals The Secrets Of His Success (And A Nice Pair Of Legs)

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Paul Smith has at least two things of which he can be very proud. One of them is his legs: “I’ve still got the legs of a teenager,” he boasted yesterday at London’s Princess Anne Theatre, standing up to show them off. The other is the remarkable fact that his company—which continues to grow, despite the tough economy—holds no debt.

It was not Smith but his interlocutor at the public Q&A, Suzy Menkes, who brought that topic up. But the designer confirmed it’s true, and only dodged a little bit when explaining how. “We always grew the business within our means,” he said, and “didn’t aspire to yachts and Rolls-Royces.” Since opening his first tiny shop, as a weekends-only affair, in 1970, Smith has subsidized his efforts when he’s needed to with other income: Early on, he drove vans and did odd jobs; later on, he consulted on fabric design.

Smith’s decision to build his namesake label sustainably and not promote it too hard as a “luxury” brand seems smarter by the minute—that’s becoming a dirty word these days, Menkes pointed out. His steady devotion to Asia (specifically, Japan) in the eighties, when other designers took the money and ran, has definitely paid off.

In some very distinct ways, Smith is a throwback; like Miuccia Prada, he doesn’t use a computer. But his shopkeeper instincts are anything but obsolete. In this economy, he noted cannily, accessories (“the sugar on the strawberry”) give the customer the impression you’ve refreshed the stock.

Unsurprisingly, his next frontier is China. One challenge with expanding at a rate of six stores a year (some of them in second-tier Chinese cities) is retaining—via constant travel, if necessary—the personal connection to the brand that has set it apart. “It might not work, and frankly I’m very scared about it,” Smith admitted.

As colorful and freewheeling as his reputation is, Smith didn’t get where he was by making rash decisions. When the proudly British businessman was (inevitably) asked whether he’d be showing at the new London Collections anytime soon, his answer was lukewarm. He’s had a showroom in Paris since 1977, after all, and employs about 100 people there. “Let’s monitor it,” he said. “Let’s wait and see.”

Photo: Getty Images

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