London by Design With Paul Smith
Published: June 2009
By Vanessa Friedman
The London fashion designer leads the way to his favorite flea markets, museums, secret gardens, and the hotel he considers heaven on earth
Forget bad-boy rockers and bad-boy artists. The coolest creator in Britannia, as any clotheshorse will tell you, is designer Paul Smith. The first to put the savvy in Savile Row, Smith has devoted the past three decades to taking the familiar suit (not to mention boxer shorts and the Filofax) and transforming it, via color, cut, and pattern, into a witty wink at tradition. A Nottingham boy made good, he opened his first shop in 1970 in an alley with a few basic pieces; now his collections include women's wear, children's wear, leisure wear, formal wear--you name it, he designs it, from ties to toothbrushes. Indeed, as the British Empire has shrunk, the Smith empire has grown, and these days the designer spends seven months of the year jetting between his outposts in London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Manila, and Japan, where Smithmania has created the need for 200 shops. The Paul Smith Web site, www.paulsmith.co.uk (you can actually "walk" into the store and check out the goods), gets 1,000 hits a day, and his latest "shop in a home," occupying a Georgian town house in his London neighborhood, Notting Hill, is almost as big a tourist attraction as Buckingham Palace. The store, he says, is a "statement against minimalism and black-and-white chic." Not surprisingly for someone whose socks are Crayola-bright, he hates homogenization. As to what he likes, well, read on.
An Ideal Day in London
I start with a swim at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, a beautiful old private club. Then I go to Patisserie Valerie for breakfast. It's on the way to my office in Covent Garden and has a nice atmosphere--full of film people. They supposedly serve very good croissants, but I'm quite boringly English; I order toast. Afterward, I might swing by the Photographers' Gallery, or Hamiltons --it's got fantastic work by Helmut Newton, David Bailey, and so many others. For contemporary British and Russian painting, I'm partial to the Caelt Gallery, just across the street from Lacy Gallery, which has fabulous antique picture frames.
I don't really eat lunch, so in the afternoon I sometimes head to the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, in the East End near Brick Lane market, a good place for seeing the scruffier part of London. I'm interested in the minds that design toys, because there's no one harder to please than a kid. I have about 300 toy robots, including a dinosaur that walks. In summer, another place I go for inspiration is the Chelsea Physic Garden, which is open only on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. It's primarily a serious garden devoted to medicinal plants. I'm especially partial to the colors of flowers just as they're fading. The garden is run by both staff and volunteers, and it's often full of lovely old ladies serving tea and cakes.
For dinner, I stay in Notting Hill (I've gotten lazy). I like Alastair Little, near my house; it's intimate, with a small daily menu, meaning you don't have to think too much. The food is light, concentrating on simple Italian dishes. I also like Assaggi, but it's tiny and you have to book weeks ahead. The chef is from Sardinia, and he does wonderful grilled fish. The best fish-and-chips in London is at Geales, just behind my local cinema. They serve wine, which is nice, because you can have your fish-and-chips and get pissed as well. The Windsor Castle does great pub food: sausage and mash, oysters and Guinness. When it's sunny enough for a picnic, I like Holland Park. It's full of rabbits and squirrels, and there's a Japanese garden. I go to Mr. Christian's Provisions, pick up some Parma ham, bresaola, cheese, something from their enormous selection of breads--and relax.
I actually enjoy being on planes. It's the only time I get any peace and quiet. But I don't like airports. I use Heathrow because I can't be bothered to go all the way down to Gatwick. And I always try to get there late so I won't have to wait. I also hate waiting for bags, so unless I'm going to Tokyo for two weeks, I just bring this beautiful beat-up old nameless leather bag I have--like jeans, it gets better with age. Inside I pack lots of mesh bags from Muji in Tokyo: one for underwear and socks; another for shirts, which I leave in their dry-cleaner bags. I try to travel in a suit, or jeans and a suit jacket, so the jacket doesn't get crushed in the bag. If I do pack a suit, I use acid-free tissue paper--you can tell it's acid-free when it's very crinkly. On the plane I use nasal spray to clear my head and keep my ears from popping, and a geranium-based antibacterial oil from Micheline Arcier, an aromatherapist near Harvey Nichols. I put a few drops on my handkerchief to protect against all the germs floating around. Otherwise, I just bring a pen and a notebook. No books. No computer. The only thing I won't leave home without is my Braun travel alarm clock.
Markets and Other Manias
I'm an antique-aholic and a street-market addict. In London, the place to be on Saturdays is Portobello (get there by nine), and Bermondsey is on Fridays (but you need to be there by around seven). If I have any free time in Paris on a weekend morning, at about 10 I go to the Porte de Vanves (at Avenue Marc-Sangnier and Avenue Georges-Lafenestre), which is less well known than the flea market at Clignancourt and a great place to find the random perfect thing: a lamp, a pen, an old shirt. I can easily spend three hours there, and then I walk a block to a fantastic food market. (On Sundays, there's also an organic food market on the Boulevard Raspail; you can get wine, cheese, and veg and then picnic by the Seine.) Afternoons in Paris, I love going to the Musée d'Orsay. I could base a whole collection on Cézanne's use of color. I also love walking around the Left Bank, particularly the Rue Jacob and Rue de Seine area. There's a Picasso bust in the courtyard of St.-Germain-des-Prés that not many people know about.
In Tuscany, I go to Lucca, a medieval walled town that has an antiques market the third weekend of every month in summer. On Sundays in Tokyo there's an antiques market in the Togo Shrine, a three-minute walk from Harajuku station. I've bought furniture there and had it sent across the world on the Shanghai Express.
For me, the most important thing at a hotel is the pool, so in Paris I always stay at the Ritz, and I always have the same room, but it's a secret. (The only other Paris hotels with pools that I'd consider are the Bristol and the Costes, but their pools are tiny, and I'm six foot three.) The Ritz has a real pool, as does the Okura in Tokyo. There's no hotel with a decent pool in Milan, so if I'm not too pressed for time I stay an hour's drive away in Cernobbio, at the Villa d'Este. It's probably my favorite place of all. I love the contrast between the mountains and the lake--the scale feels normal, until you see a seaplane go by and realize it's the size of a fly compared with the Alps. I think it would be a good place to die--not that I'm planning on that or anything.
A trip worth taking is to Wisley Garden (44-1483/224-234), the Royal Horticultural Society Garden, in Woking, Surrey, 25 minutes by train from Waterloo Station. It has model gardens (urban, herb) and is the place to solve any horticultural quandary. Less well known is Painshill Garden (Portsmouth Rd; 44-1932/868-113), in Cobham, 35 minutes from Woking Station. Part of an 18th-century estate, Painshill's green gardens are examples of English eclecticism at its best.
London, the Traditional Way
Stay at the Basil Street Hotel, the ultimate quaint, old-fashioned establishment. Stroll in Kensington Gardens -- start by the palace, walk around the pond, go to the Serpentine Gallery, then circle back to the Orangery, a park café, to have a cheese sandwich and champagne. For classic English clothes, check out Hackett or the Burlington Arcade. For high-end antiques, walk down New Kings Road. Then have roast beef at Simpson's on the Strand.
galleries Caelt Gallery 182 Westbourne Grove; 44-171/229-9309. Hamiltons Gallery 13 Carlos Place; 44-171/499-9493. Lacy Gallery 203 Westbourne Grove; 44-171/229-6340. Photographers' Gallery 5 and 8 Great Newport St.; 44-171/831-1772.
gardens Chelsea Physic Garden 66 Royal Hospital Rd.; 44-171/352-5646. Kyoto Garden Holland Park; 44-171/602-9483.
hotel Basil Street Hotel Basil St., Knightsbridge; 44-171/581-3311.
museum Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood Cambridge Heath Rd.; 44-181/980-2415.
picnic supplies Mr. Christian's Provisions 11 Elgin Crescent; 44-171/229-0501.
pub Windsor Castle 114 Campden Hill Rd.; 44-171/243-9551.
restaurants Alastair Little 49 Frith St.; 44-171/734-5183; dinner for two $85. Assaggi 39 Chepstow Place; 44-171/792-5501; dinner for two $87. Geales 2 Farmer St.; 44-171/727-7969; fish-and-chips for two $28. Patisserie Valerie 44 Old Compton St.; 44-171/437-3466; breakfast for two $10. Simpson's 100 The Strand; 44-171/836-9112; dinner for two $95.
shops Burlington Arcade 51 Piccadilly; 44-171/493-1764. Hackett 31-32 King's St.; 44-171/240-2040. Micheline Arcier 7 Williams St.; 44-171/235-3545. Paul Smith Westbourne House, 122 Kensington Park Rd.; 44-171/727-3553.