Sir Paul Smith on doing business in Japan

29 Jun 2015 by Jenny Southan

At a recent cultural salon held at London's Shangri-La at the Shard, English designer Paul Smith revealed the highs and lows of business travel to Japan in the eighties, and how a rubber chicken ultimately contributed to his success.

In the early eighties, I just had one tiny little shop, 3 sqm, open Fridays and Saturdays, and one little shop in London on Floral Street. I think we had been open there about a year and one day this Japanese gentleman from Yoshida Corporation arrived and asked to speak to me.

He started showing me all these photographs and press cuttings of me – he knew far more about me than I knew about me.

He was a scout living in Paris and was following the work of an Italian, French and British designer and, fortunately for me, I was invited to go to Japan. That was in 1982.

I remember I went from Tokyo to Osaka on the bullet train, and there were three men waiting on the platform for me and they said: "Mr Smith, very sorry. Train is three minutes late."

Immediately, right from the beginning it was brilliant as they were such lovely, charming people.

© Jenny Southan

At the time, there were very few gaijin, foreigners, going to Japan. For some, I was the first foreign person they had ever seen, and I got a lot of attention as I was so tall. They took pictures of me and I took pictures of them.

There was one time I went for a massage and I was so much bigger than the bed that when the lady came in, she took one look at me and said, ‘Double time’. She was very surprised at the height.

On a more serious note, the thing about going to Japan then, in the eighties, was that there was a lot of money, and lots of people were being invited from all over the world, lots of designers, not just from fashion. The difference was, the absolute reason I have done well there, was because I wanted to go. It was economy class via Anchorage, and it used to take 18 hours – with my long legs.

My way of thinking was very different. I never thought I would get to this place that was so far away. It was a very long way from leaving school at 16 and starting my business with £600 of savings.

To go to Japan – and for someone else to pay – was fantastic. I didn't worry about the jetlag or the food. And remember, in 1982 to have tempura or sushi was very different.

© Jenny Southan

However, in my opinion, a lot of the people who were invited to go out there were very disrespectful and flippant – they just thought it was about making money, you didn’t really have to put anything in – you just sent a couple of designs every year, a video of your fashion show and the money would just come in.

For two or three years that was the case but almost all of the designers that were invited then no longer have any success in Japan.

After two or three years, one of the designers that had been introduced to Japan at the same time as me, called me and asked: "How come your business is doing so well in Japan?" I said: "How many times a year do you go?" And he said: "A year? I have only been once." And I said: "How often do you send faxes?" He said: "Twice a year."

I was going out there four times a year for ten days at a time and talking to them almost every day, so the whole way of working was completely different.

I think the company I went with was completely wrong – they were tailors in the south of Japan, they'd never had shops, they'd never done any editorial, advertising, press, but because I was such a willing partner, slowly, slowly I asked them to do things and they worked, and once they got confidence in me, they wouldn't do anything without my input.

We didn't make money for the first three years and I was earning a very tiny amount from it but it was just an amazing thing to do.

© Jenny Southan

The point about the early days for me in Japan was effort – effort is free of charge. It is just a matter of digging deep and finding the energy, and through lateral thinking trying to find out what I am offering that somebody else isn't.

Sadly, as you all know, a lot of countries still haven't really recovered from the recession and there is a massive over-distribution of product around the world. Many of the big brands may open 60 shops a year.

Back then, there was an element of Britishness that they were interested in, so we started shipping furniture out similar to the shop fit we had on Floral Street. But what we failed to realise was that Japan has high humidity and all the wood used to crack and split and twist.

Of course, the most ridiculously stupid thing was that I used to buy lots of lovely old oil paintings from Portobello Road, and we also used to send them by container over the sea to save money. But when they unloaded them, everything was fine except the canvases were blank because with 40-degree heat going over the Indian Ocean, all the oil had slid down to a blob at the bottom. There was a lot of learning in those early days.

My clothes have been described as "classic with a twist" and that was because I never really trained as a fashion designer myself – at the age of 21 I met [my wife] Pauline [Denyer] who had trained at the Royal College of Art as a fashion designer during the couture period when they were still teaching making clothes by hand, cutting your own patterns and understanding how to build a suit – the importance of cut and shape very much like architecture.

© Jenny Southan

She taught me at home how to design clothes but I wasn't really a fantastic designer so the "classic with a twist" thing came from the fact I wanted to make clothes people would want to wear, but as they were so simple I started putting interesting interiors in the them – an unusual coloured cuff or buttonhole – as a reason for someone to buy from me.

The gorgeous thing about Mr Yoshida was he was an elderly man who just made very beautiful suits all his life. No shirts, no knitwear, no shops. But he was a proper old-fashioned gentleman.

The combination of a very traditional man making something I knew a lot about, and my enthusiasm, worked. We started off making suits and I would make the shirts and knitwear in England and send them over. But that bit of it was hopeless as we were very popular quite quickly so we would run out of things.

And, of course, I hadn't really realised that Japanese people are a very different shape. We made clothes in Britain and shipped them out for about two years but we soon realised we couldn't keep up with demand and the sizing was wrong. Later, I would spend days in a windowless room doing fittings for my whole collection to get the shapes right.

In terms of design in the eighties, the Japanese were massively innovative – cameras, cars, graphic design, architecture… In my industry, the people running the business now are managers and are not nearly so innovative – before you know it, someone is overtaking you in the fast lane.

In our business we are constantly reassessing. Competition is very different. You have to have a point of view, a reason for people to buy from you.

My advice for anyone starting a business is don't let complacency set in, don't think you have made it, reassess all the time, try to keep your overheads as low as you can and be flexible as the river is flowing really fast.

After Japan, slowly, other Asian countries took an interest, such as South Korea, where we have 17 shops, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore. But Japan embraced me and I embraced them. I adore their work ethic and I love their way of thinking, their admiration for older people.

© Jenny Southan

The first 16 times I went there, I was on my own and had three people who worked for me out there, one of whom only spoke schoolboy English. So it was really challenging.

I noticed every time I had a meeting there would be two people from their side with one just sitting there to learn and listen.

But I found it quite stressful because I was on my own, I was there for ten days, I was out late at night socialising to get to know the press, and didn't get much sleep.

I have always had quite a strong sense of humour and when I felt I needed to relax things a bit in these meetings, I would pull out a rubber chicken from my briefcase and wave it around. They would all gasp and the mood would lighten. One time, I did pull out the chicken in a meeting with [Rei Kawakubo from] Commes de Garcons, who is a very serious lady, and she didn't laugh.

But I do put my success in Japan partly down to my rubber chicken.

I have now been to Japan more than 100 times. I have 265 shops in 83 countries and have £325 million a year turnover. We even have one collection that is unique to Japan sold across 28 Paul Smith Collection shops that all sell hand-made clothes.

Jenny Southan

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