Japanese bow to Mr Smith

PAUL SMITH can slip through his shop in Covent Garden virtually unnoticed. If he's spotted in one of his Tokyo stores, chaos ensues. Once the word has spread, people pour in brandishing T-shirts, books, motorcycle helmets - anything for him to sign. These personal appearances help the best-known foreign designer in Japan to shift pounds 4m of goods through his main Tokyo branch alone.

Twenty-five years into his business Smith has probably the most saleable name in British fashion. The UK industry is still tiny, though. Annual sales of British designer clothing are worth pounds 200m. This barely registers against the billions that names such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Armani and Chanel turn over.

Smith's problem is not how to get bigger, however, it is how to maintain personal control over his sprawling fashion empire. America is the obvious prize for any expansionist company, but Smith has already shut a pounds 9m operation there because he did not think licence-holders were using his brand the right way. "I must be mad, but I just stopped it because I did not like it."

While Smith may be little known in his native country, his image and name are household words in Japan. He is now deciding how to capitalise on it. "We will expand," he says. "We are aggressively trying to look at opportunities all the time. But it's not about more and more money - it's about having a great day and enjoying life."

Smith 's arrival in Japan was a low-key affair. He was invited over in 1984 by the Japanese company C Itoh, which was interested in getting a licence to sell his label. "I never went there thinking I was going to have a huge business," he says. "I went there because I was invited and I just thought 'I love this'." There is now a licensed operation of more than 150 shops.

Japan contributes three-quarters of the annual pounds 102m worldwide sales of Paul Smith labels. All the company's lines sell in Japan: the top-end Paul Smith collection, the jeans, Paul Smith for Women, children's wear and the new R Newbold workwear.

Where Smith differs from many foreign designers in Japan is in the personal control he holds over the operation. He is currently on his 39th visit to the country. This week he has been showing his new collection to sales reps and shop managers. There have been seminars on display detailing everything down to how to arrange the socks. All new staff watch a video chronicling his life and setting out company philosophy. He says this way they get real Paul Smith. "I worked very hard at it so every glass they drank out of, every doormat, every coat-hanger I was personally involved with choosing."

Smith sells to Japanese teenagers, executives, arts and media folk - but perhaps most noticeably to the young salary-men. These are the 20- year-olds who come in with their mothers to buy their first business suit. For the novice salary-man with a life of conformity ahead, the Paul Smith image of "classic with a twist" appeals.

Walk into the main Paul Smith shop in Tokyo and you could just as easily be in Covent Garden. The antique wooden fittings are imported from England. There are brass fixtures and soft lights. The only Japanese is written on the fire extinguisher. Old Beano comics, Bakelite radios and snowstorm ornaments vie with pounds 600 suits for expensive floorspace. This quirkiness is a vital part of the carefully controlled image Smith is selling.

At the Nottingham headquarters two of his most avid collectors of junk and ephemera, Art and Leslie Bates, unpack their latest haul. Boxes of old football annuals, coronation souvenirs and plastic flamenco dancers are laid out on trestle tables. Smith is delighted. "We'll take the lot. Football goes down well in Japan, put that down for Tokyo. They love comics, especially the Beano."

Smith admits his company is reliant on its Japanese operation. "In my opinion it's far too weighty towards Japan. We're consciously levelling out now." He is expanding elsewhere in the Far East - Seoul, Singapore, Taipei - and has just opened in Thailand after being surprised when someone told him he already had a shop in Bangkok. He hopes the real thing will keep the pirates at bay.

q The author is the producer of 'Why the Suit Fits', on BBC2's 'Money Programme' at 8:20 tonight.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £21000 per annum + uncapped commission: SThree: As a graduate you are...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Advisor is r...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn