Sir Paul, Do you remember the first time you drove a MINI?
Yes I do. It was in the late sixties and ended in an unpleasant incident.
My pal had lent me a MINI van for a trip to the pub with our group of friends. Hardly had I parked the car than smoke began billowing out of the windows. A cigarette end had fallen unnoticed on to the passengerseat and was smouldering away merrily. We stamped on it until the fire was out. I was very glad it wasn’t my car.
That was in the sixties, when the MINI was all the rage and you were just starting out as a designer. What made it sucha special era?
We were the first generation not directly affected by World War II and we suddenly had a say. We could venture into entirely new areas, try out new things. That gave us a sense of freedom. Men grew their hair long, girls wore mini skirts. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones became superstars. And architects and designers came up with some iconic creations: Ernő Goldfinger built Brutalist blocks offlats; Alex Moulton developed a bicycle that successfully challenged the concept of the traditional, diamond frame. There was a modern feel to the MINI from the start, and it was popular with people who considered themselves particularly cool.
A man with taste and perspective: Smith has been influencing the fashion industry for half a century.
Many stars from the world of music still come to you for their clothes today. Has this led to friendships over the years?
David Bowie was a good friend of mine. We even made the T-shirts for Blackstar, his final album. I feel honoured and glad to have known him. I regularly meet up with Jimmy Page, the Led Zeppelin guitarist. The first time I met Paul McCartney was just before a concert in London, when the Beatles were already the biggest music sensation in the world. While he was busy with the sound check, I was nervously laying out ten different looks for him. All he said when he came in was: It’s okay, I’ll take them all. Then he made me a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea. How cool is that, I thought. I happened to bump into Paul just recently at a restaurant – just before the lockdown in London. The manager was very pleased: We’ve got not one but two Sir Pauls dining here this evening!
Do you still feel inspired by the sixties, the era when it all began?
It was all very much about individuality, freedom and having the opportunity to think differently. Sadly, many people today seem to want to live to a pattern. They spend more time thinking about how to fit into a norm than about how they really want to be. The pace of life is faster today; excitement about new things doesn’t last as long.
Your job also involves identifying and setting trends. Sustainability is the megatrend of our time. What does the word mean to you?
We are all agreed on the importance of an ecological lifestyle. But the word “sustainability” must not be used simply as a label or a sales argument. I see sustainability as a cycle: where and how is an article or product manufactured, and under what working conditions? And above all: where does the product end up when it is no longer needed? Can it be turned into something new? Ninety-eight per cent of our sweatshirts are made of recycled polyester, the suits of low-impact wool.
How can good design help to foster a sustainable mindset?
Sustainability is a sensible thing – that’s the message design also needs to convey. And that brings us back to “less is more”. What can I leave out? This is what we should be asking ourselves – not just the producers, but the consumers, as well. Also: do I want to fill my wardrobe with clothes that will soon end up on the rubbish heap? Or would I rather have timeless pieces of clothing of generally better quality, but not so many of them? It’s probably my own and the middle generation that needs to be brought round to this way of thinking. The younger generation realised this a long time ago.
Every morning, just after six o’clock, Paul Smith parks his MINI Cooper SE in his private parking space outside his studio in Covent Garden. He’s always the first in the studio along with the cleaners. Then he puts on a record (vinyl these days) – something by the American folk-rock band The Lumineers. The master grooves into his day with feel-good music and greets his 200 employees with it – or he would, if they weren’t working from home.
What do you enjoy more: roaring across the hilly Midlands countryside or cruising sedately around Piccadilly Circus?
The latter, because I only drive the MINI in London. My hometown of Nottingham is too far away. I love to purr through the awakening city early in the morning. In London, as in many other big cities, air pollution is sadly a major problem. We absolutely have to bring it down, as fast as possible. Electric vehicles are the right answer to this problem. The electrification of mobility is only just beginning, but we need to develop ways to make charging even more efficient and more convenient, and quickly.
Could the MINI Cooper SE become an icon of the new green era?
A great start has already been made on that. In my opinion, the design of many of the earlier electric cars was pretty laughable. Great efforts were made to build something futuristic. By contrast, the MINI remains true to itself. That would also be my wish for the future: just keep it simple. A MINI is the essence of mobility. But it also emanates a lightness and simplicity – quite unlike these great big “driving machines” that take themselves so seriously. I hope that the joy of simplicity will generally define the era of sustainability.
Would you also apply that principle to designing your personal dream MINI?
The guiding principle there, too, would be the cycle: upholstery, seats and other textiles would be made of recycled wool or knitting yarn. I would take my lead from the designer Dieter Rams, who said: Form follows function. I would leave a lot out and simplify. Who knows, perhaps a dashboard would no longer be necessary. Maybe a smartphone holder would suffice and I could control the lights, radio, air conditioning and so on with an app. People often associate me with colourful designs, but for the MINI, I would leave the choice of colours to my customers.
SUSTAINABILITY IS A SENSIBLE THING – THAT’S THE MESSAGE DESIGN ALSO NEEDS TO CONVEY.
Cars, books, cameras, furniture – you have long since extended your creativity beyond fashion. Where do you get so much energy?
From my love of life. I feel blessed: I am independent, my ownboss. I have stability at home; I’ve been with my wife, Pauline, since I was 20, and we are still very interested in each other and happy. The joy of life is at the heart of my business. We were recently described as “light-hearted and proper”. That’s apt. We have fun and don’t take ourselves too seriously. But we are super-efficient and conscientious. And we have good manners. I have never yet had an ugly argument.
Most arguments a rise from self-importance and greed. If you allow a dispute to escalate, you won’t solve anything. I always try to understand the other person’s point of view. I will discuss a matter of contention, certainly, but argue? No.
On the brick walls of his office, Smith has countless photos, art prints and sketches celebrating the old and new projects, friendships and happy moments of a rich creative life. Smith left school at 15, intending to become a professional racing cyclist. But then he met Pauline, a student at the Royal College of Art. At the kitchen table, she showed the son of a textile salesman how to sew. In 1970, Smith opened his first shop in Nottingham – and with it laid the foundations for his creative empire.
You had a bad accident just before your 18th birthday that put paid to your dream of becoming a racing cyclist. How do you feel about that looking back?
I was in hospital for three months after hitting an Austin estate. It was one of those big, bulky cars – that’s probably why I still can not stand them. I had a broken thigh bone, collarbone, fingers and more. Medical care wasn’t as advanced as it is now, and while I was there,16 people died on my ward. Nottingham was a big mining area and there were often terrible accidents involving miners. So it was a very traumatic time for me. I did also learn how to hold a spoon between my toes and feed myself jelly with my foot, though. I suppose I was something like a hospital clown to the other patients. My sense of humour also helped me through the physiotherapy and convalescence afterwards.
One symbol of that humour is your use of multicoloured zebra stripes in your designs. Where did you get that idea?
By chance. I was playing with threads at some point in the nineties, winding different colours around a spindle, and I made a shirt in that multicoloured zebra look. It sold pretty well straight off. Later, when I was showing the winter collection at Harrods, someone said: “Lovely– but where are the stripes? I said they were only for the summer season, and the Harrods people retorted: No, no! We want more stripes! Since then, they’ve turned up in my collections every year.
Which of your achievements makes you particularly proud?
That I appeal to all generations and also lots of amazing younger artists – actors like Orlando Bloom and musicians like John Legend and Niall Horan. That our brand has been in business for half a century, that we are still relevant and up to date, and make so many different people happy – that’s absolutely fantastic.
What is your dream project?
I don’t have a particular one. But I receive so many requests to collaborate – and turn most of them down. My motto is: Don’t do what’s easy. Do what feels right. And what could feel more right than a collaboration with MINI?