Sir Paul Smith During the last, I don’t know how many years things [in fashion] have changed enormously, because the high street now is so good at their job and because information is so available so quickly.
So if a catwalk designer has a fashion show in one country, within one hour it is available all around the world via the internet which means that the high street chains pick up on the information very quickly.
Obviously most of the catwalk designers are very heavy about copying so the high street designers tend to just take the influence rather than actually copy, but that’s not always the case. I find it very disappointing that a lot of magazines, especially the weekend supplements, show a Balenciaga - and the look from the high street, a Galliano - and the look from the high street…
Uscha Pohl ...you mean - how to get the look on the cheap.
SPS Yes -; I understand it, and it is difficult, but is just disappointing, because I think it is promoting copying, and the idea that you don’t use your brain, you just follow.
[SPS] It’s like a disease of the world like the whole problem with the financial sector at the moment, especially in America, where people are being sold mortgages they obviously cannot afford and they are being sold a dream, and then yet those are the people who are going to lose their homes and suffer from depression, not the greedy bankers…
All seems to me linked to cheating and with not telling the truth, being lazy, and imitating for the wrong reasons. The word “luxury” is a … funny word these days because it used to have a real meaning, and now it doesn’t seem to have a meaning; because maybe the only thing I could define as “luxury” now, would be peace and quiet, or, silence, or a blue sky or an empty beach.
Previously, in the case of clothing, “luxury” was attached to a very precious cashmere sweater for example. But that is now available from Uniqlo, or M & S at a very low cost and enormous quantity, so it doesnot mean the same “luxury” anymore.
The perception of luxury has really, really changed. I supposed the only form of luxury now in clothing is something that’s made by hand, because it will by its nature have a certain limit. It’s a big, subject. “Luxury” now is just another overused word; one that I am not interested in using, ever, because it doesn’t mean anything.
UP: Yes it would be hard to determine what it actually defines these days. What for example is the difference between “luxury” and “designer”? A lot of things are relative and hard to pin down, prices often are relating to the marketing, the “aspirational value” rather than the product itself …
SPS: It’s a big problem. It has made the job of a catwalk designer even harder. In fact now the clothes are almost incidental; it’s the power of the marketing and the business and the perception of the brand, the power of how many shops they can have, and the association of celebrity.
As a designer today it’s either the power of the brand or it’s the character of the designer which are the key points and mostly I would say it ‘s the power of the brand.
If you look at certain brands / designers that independently weren’t doing that well, they get picked up by a brand, lose lots of money for 2/3 years and then suddenly start to make some money because the big company throws so much money at it and opened so many shops, launched fragrance deals, jewellery deals, home-wear deals, shoe-deals.
So eventually through money they make money. In fact it’s very few where it is actually to do with the character of the designer.
UP: … or the creativity of the designer, or the real product,…
SPS: And then you get these short term adulations and attention which unfortunately often comes from the ever moving press who “adore” something for three seasons and then completely dismiss it. This is luckily something which someone like myself has never ever been afflicted by, I have never been “today’s favour” - thank god - I ‘ve been just there and steady and there is a massive continuity in my work, and my business and all my “layered” … we run a business which is “good’.
UP: A modern classic, kind of classic with a twist…
SPS: Yes and what’s interesting is that we amazingly have nurtured quite a lot of our older customers over the years and we still sell to them; and yet we sell to 14, 16, 20 year-olds, and we sell to Razor Light and Franz Ferdinand, but also to David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Daniel Day Lewis. So there’s 20, 40 and 60 year olds… and that’s quite rare.
UP: A marketing achievement! But we know that the purchasing power has moved up along the age ladder…
SPS: The purchasing power us definitely these days around 45-60 year olds, yet all the advertising is 18 year-olds…. And when I do the castings for my shows, they all arrive in Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, a pair of non-descript combat trousers or jeans, some free underpants that they were given at the previous show and a pair of Nike trainers. So, it’s really odd.
UP: It is generally understood that there is “luxury / designer “ – and high street & counterfit, these are the two levels. I find it striking that people accept it so readily.
I know it’s cheaper and it’s readily available and it’s promoted by the magazines but to buy a throw-away copy of something else, for me I have a huge resentment against this phenomenon. I’d rather have one beautiful well-made garment that lasts me for “ever” than ten disposable ones.
SPS: Well that’s because you’ve got a certain more self-assured way of thinking, where a lot of people are amazingly insecure. The bulk of the world is suffering from insecurity...
[SPS] At the “shake of a body” - you could go to even greater insecurity or depression because the world is moving so fast and there are so many comparisons to make out there all the time and you have so much information about or “how rich” somebody is, … “how happy” or how sad somebody is or what car they drive… and so you think “oh, I should be doing this” or, “I should be doing that” … “why aren’t I like this” or “why shouldn’t I be like that” … and then it just makes people insecure so they go out and buy clothes to be part of a “club, as to say “aren’t I fashionable” or “aren’t I rich”… in the case of the counterfits it’s to say “aren’t I fashionable”!
UP: And as it’s so cheap and disposable everyone can have more and more and the industry can sell more and more, the wheel keeps turning.SPS: I agree with you completely, and I have to point out that this is quite unique to Britain.
UP: I have never figured why the high street is so much more predominant and powerful in Britain in relation to other countries.
SPS: You’ve got “the Gaps of the world” in Italy and France and various countries and still you would find in Italy and France people would by “less but better”; ...
[SPS]...whereas in England certainly, especially for girls, there is this thing about buying a dress to go out in on Friday night, so it’s from Zara or wherever, H & M, and it’s just an outfit for that Friday night. Now, where that comes from I have no idea!
...Maybe it comes from the years of M & S being in existence on the British High Street. It could be that, because M & S was unique in the world for many years where you could buy low cost clothing in almost every city in the country whereas department stores never really existed in this form in France of Italy until relatively recently.
In Italy hardly at all, although there’s the Rinascente undergoing a rejuvenation just now, and in France you’ve got Le Bon Marché, but they were really in the capitals / main cities, not across the country. In most of the villages of cities in the UK now there’s an enormous quantity of clothes.
I think the FT did a survey a few years ago where they said there was a huge quantity of (women’s) clothes sold around the country particularly for that “Friday night out”. I really didn’t know why.
UP: Maybe, because “cheap clothing is so well represented around the country…”
SPS: I think that’s probably the start of it. And that leads onto the point why it has been difficult for British designers to have success in their own country.
When I started, for instance, just trying to get production, get things made, trying to buy fabrics as a young designer in this country, it was almost impossible, because all the factories were keyed up to do large quantities for M&S - and if they weren’t doing M&S it would still be large quantities for the army, or the police, uniforms, etc.
So going to a factory and saying you want a hundred shirts they just laughed at you, because the minimum quantity was probably, 2, 3, 4 up to 20 - thousand. And going to buy fabric and say you wanted 20 mts was just a ridiculous thing to ask for. So that’s another contributing factor to why our designers have found it hard to start out.
Then in the UK it is all about hierarchy; at the time it was all about the upper class and a lot of companies - like Harris Tweed - existed because the upper class bought into it for their country look. Now, Harris Tweed you could buy in smaller quantities because it is made on a narrow loom and hand-woven. But it’s not very useful for our summer season.
UP: How did you get around it?
SPS: By eventually finding people that had stock of light fabric or blue and white stripes… that’s really how my particular style came about. It is often described as “classic with a twist”… which was because my fabrics I could get hold of were very classic so that I had to do something with them; so, that by putting a highly patterned lining in or a coloured button hole or three different colour buttons on a cuff… that then became my style, but it was actually a style that came because I hadn’t any choice.
UP: Creativity out of necessity... I guess we haven’t really found the answer to the question of where the issue starts in the vicious cycle of high street versus designer, and the so-called luxury. Maybe it starts with the easy access to information which we touched on in the beginning.
SPS: Well the last thing we probably should talk about is just “trading” in general. Traders since time began always try to better themselves versus each other. So, if you take the idea of a sale in the shop, if it was a winter sale it would have originally probably been in March and a summer sale in August or early September...
[SPS] Now the sales are the day before Xmas, boxing day or the day after boxing day, and in the summer holidays. And that’s because traders have tried to get ahead of each other. Say, you’ve got a shirt and I want to do better than you, I’ll have my sale a week earlier, and then you must do better than me, so you’ll have your sale a week earlier, still.
This is probably why the luxury market doesn’t mean the same anymore, because now the highstreet wants to do as well as the luxury, so they copy each other, and then a big brand will use a famous model and then one of the high street brands uses the same model or a similarly, famous one,… one uses a famous photographer, celebrity photographer, and so will the other.
So finding a difference between the high street and the big brand is very difficult because they all use the same photographers, same models, same,… the only difference is that one is leading in terms of creativity and the other is following.
UP: … and the quality of make and fabrication; if you sell a garment at £20 you simply are not going to have the same product as when the fabric alone costs £20 / meter.
SPS: The quality is probably not nearly as good, but often, especially in England, young people just don’t care about that, they just want it for having a good time, finding a girlfriend or boyfriend, yes these are very different things.
And also lots of people don’t know about quality, so you could put two garments down and they wouldn’t know that one was better than the other. They haven’t been trained by their parents or everyday family life to say ‘this is beautiful because it’s got a lot of life, or deep in colour…’
UP: … or the way it’s made …
SPS: When first met my wife she was teaching in my hometown. She was a trained fashion designer from the Royal College of Art and then training there tended more towards couture than ready-to-wear. It was just at the end of the era where their teaching was still about clothes in a hand-made way.
When she was teaching in Nottingham and I met her, she used to take students to Paris twice a year to see the couture shows which were held in the small salons of the designers.
- [SPS] The (Paris) shows were held once or twice a day for weeks running with only about 30 people in the audience and a very mixed audience: maybe three American rich ladies, a pop star, a few students, and then there’d be almost certainly be two nuns from a convent with several young girls.
Now those were there because the couture industry was considered a really fantastic job for a young girl who could become an embroiderer, a machinist or handsewer. So they attended the shows to learn about the importance of couture and clothes. It was therefore in their blood from being 17, 18, 19 years of age.
The difference in France was that fashion was seen as a very serious industry, a creator of wealth and jobs. Families went on from one generation to another to be embroiderers. We never had that to this point in this country.
Why I brought it up was, if you say you got a Balenciaga and a fake Balenciaga, would a young person know the difference. I don’t know, but probably not.
UP: Here in the magazine we have the twins Melanie and Stephanie modelling Boudicca outfits (Melanie) and what is as close as you get straight copies from Zara and from H & M (Stephanie). From doing the shoot I know that when you hold one next to the other, the original is definitely the desirable one, knowing both I feel you would never want the second degree.
- SPS: Yes Boudicca, they are great ... well, lots of people would know the difference and some people wouldn’t and then some again would but wouldn’t care.
UP: Most people would never know the original. Where would you see the original when you walk down the high street, shopping? Really the only place where you could see both would be the internet… but you would need to know where to look and then again you only see a photograph from which it is impossible to tell the quality.
SPS: A lot of people buy from the internet these days - our own website for instance is enormously successful. It amazes me that people are willing to buy things without touching them, nor trying them on, or enjoying the experience of shopping. But I supposed it’s got to d o with lots of things,… called.. congestion charge, parking, carparks, traffic jams, laziness,… wanting to watch football, ...
UP: … steadily rising tube fares, fuel costs,… well; if we relate it back to the beginning of our discussion, then it is also because people want something that apparently someone else has, or has worn, publically, basically what one has seen featured as something to aspire to in a magazine so it doesn’t really matter about the rest…