Legendary British fashion designer Sir Paul Smith shared his experiences with MBA students from Alliance MBS during a visit to the University of Manchester.
Famous the world over for his iconic and striking designs, he talked at length with students about the challenges of building a brand today and the importance of creating the right culture within your business.
Said Sir Paul: “Building a fashion brand is very difficult today, it is such an overcrowded market. That means it’s important to develop a point of view. What is your specific skill? Why should anyone be interested in you? It is all about position, about finding a way in an overcrowded world to be successful. The world is full of designers, you have got to work out what is your point.”
He added that in today’s online world many fail to get these basics right. “Unfortunately so many people today forget about all the ingredients you need. They think setting up online will bring in customers, but how will anyone know you even exist? There are lots of bits missing from the jigsaw.”
Sir Paul’s visit marked the opening of his first store in Manchester city centre, and he said there was still great value in having a bricks and mortar operation. “It’s part of the same jigsaw. People might end up ordering clothes online, but if you only have an online offering eventually people could forget about you.”
Sir Paul said keeping your brand interesting and special was crucial. He pointed to his recent ‘A Suit To Travel In’ marketing campaign which featured Olympic gymnast Max Whitlock doing a gym routine dressed in the suit. “It went viral on social media and within ten days we had sold a huge number of suits. It comes back to thinking outwards rather than straight ahead and doing the obvious.”
He added that his company ran a very flat management structure and, crucially, a very open door policy. “I am very hands-on in every sense. It all comes down to communication, talking to people in person and creating a culture that people respect. We ask, we don’t tell. We discuss. We are polite, we open doors. Just this week I got our designers together, put on some records and we brainstormed for three hours. It was an incredibly creative process which led to loads of new ideas.
“In some ways, our model is very old-fashioned, very ordinary, but it works. My advice to students would be to take a slither of my way and apply it to the modern world. As a company, we are just very down to earth. When we have meetings people say ‘what about this’, or ‘do you think we should do that’. It is very honest.”
Sir Paul said he remained as passionate as ever. “It’s simply a job I love, it is a lifestyle for me. And I greatly enjoy meeting students too, it’s important for me to share my experiences with the next generation.”
Asked about what advice he had for aspiring entrepreneurs, he added: “Make room to break rules and think about things differently. When someone asks you to do something, do things that are right, not which are easy. Never ever assume. And remember that you can find inspiration in everything around you. If you can’t, then you’re not looking properly.”
MBA student Vanig Bostanian was one of those who met Sir Paul. He said: “It was really amazing to see such a humble person talking about his beginnings in business. It’s nice to learn all the business models and theories, but Sir Paul also spoke about how he uses common sense and humility to grow the company. I have certainly been encouraged to go into the fashion industry myself.”
Fellow student Aaiza Ansari added: “He offered some really valuable insights into the fashion industry. I am looking at the industry as a career myself, and after today I think why not, absolutely! It was great to hear him in person.”