Jim Smart wears a freshly ironed shirt everyday.
All the shirts hanging in his closet — where I recorded my startribune.com/video with something extra beyond the credit— needed ironing, he said, because “freshly” means ironed that day by him. The president of Minneapolis-based Smart Associates, designer of retail spaces and restaurants, has been persnickety about his shirts since middle school. “In those days it had to be a Gant shirt with a box pleat. I wanted my mother to iron my shirts so that the box pleat went all the way down to the tail of the shirt,” Smart said. “She said, No. If you want that you go ahead and do it yourself.”
Smart believes he works better when he looks — and this is the word he used — “OK.” I’ve never seen him looking less than fabulous — even when dressed casually. His style, like his unfailingly pleasant demeanor, is stratospheres beyond OK. Smart just laughs whenever I tell him what a style icon he is. But I’m right. A few weeks after we did this interview, Smart told me he’s scheduled to be in a stylemakers edition of an upcoming Mpls.St.Paul mag.
Q: How many business spaces have you designed?
A: A couple years ago I did a count, just on restaurants, because we were putting together a request for proposal. At that stage, I think I had 342. Some of those are chains. You design one as a prototype; by the time you get to the third and fourth, they kind of roll themselves out. We’ve being going quickly since that time. We just opened three last weekend. It’s probably closer to 360 or 70. And retail stores. I haven’t done a count on that but we’ve done chains where we’ve done 200-and-something retails: shoes; shoe stores, cellular phone stores. Probably close to a thousand, I don’t really know. We’ve done everything from kiosks to department stores — not many of those around anymore. We are the largest designers in the United States of high-end men’s clothing stores. In this town we’ve done Hubert White, Twill by Scott Dayton, The Foursome. Marty Mathis Direct.
Q: How did you translate your background in making theater sets into a successful career in designing business spaces?
A: It’s kind of the same business. Especially restaurants. Restaurants in almost every way, shape and form are theater. … A restaurateur is in every way, shape and form a director. I never did any movie sets, I did some advertising sets. Both Cindie [his wife, an attorney] I are very involved in the local theater, mostly just sitting on boards and asking people for money.
Q: What is the secret to the individuality of the restaurants you design?
A: I try not to be trendy in how I appear, and how we design a restaurant. You really want the atmosphere to be vital for five to 10 years.
Q: Why a handlebar mustache?
A: This started out when Cindie and I first got married. We were a couple of hippies and were at the Minnesota State Fair. This would have been about ’72. I had a big shaggy mustache. There was this giant St. Paul cop who had this wonderful handlebar mustache. I went up to him and I said, “Do you mind if I ask, how you do that?” He looked at me and he looked around a little bit to see if anybody was looking at him. In a big deep voice he said, Dippity Do. What? Dippity Do styling gel, with this gruff voice and he walked away. So my mother had given me an antique mustache curling iron. I knew I wasn’t going to heat up a curling iron so I tried it with Dippity Do and have been doing it every since. I don’t use a curling iron anymore.
Q: They still make Dippity Do?
A: I have to order it from Canada. Honest to God. For a while they sold it at Duane Reade in New York.
Q: What’s the name of the Democrat who’s been the biggest disappointment in your lifetime?
A: Huh. I can’t think of any. [Laughter] Certainly that character who ran for vice president. I’ve forgotten his name. He had an affair and his wife died of cancer. Can’t remember his name. I guess he didn’t make much of an impression.
Q: What is a fashion trend you are not looking forward to seeing when it cycles back, as they always do?
A: I try not to follow fashion trends too much. At my age, I’m not going to go out and buy a bunch of “Mad Men” skinny suits or something like that. I guess I really wouldn’t look forward to polyester leisure suits. Not that I ever owned one, mind you. Ultrawide lapels and bell-bottom pants, look pretty silly on me at this stage. I think they’d look pretty silly on anybody, so.
Q: So we aren’t going to see you walking around in a shorts suit?
A: No, no, no. Or a sleeveless suit, those are classics [Laughter].
Q: Would you rather talk fashion with Anna Wintour, Puff Daddy or Tim Gunn?
A: Oh, Tim Gunn in a blink.
Q: Name some Twin Citians whose clean-as-a-whistle style you appreciate.
A: Jim Michaels at Hubert White, who’s on the sales staff; almost the entire sales staff; Bob White, owner of Hubert White. Dorsey Whitney lawyer Cornell Moore — now that is a classy guy; nice guy, great sense of humor.
Q: Tommy Hilfiger says you should never wash your jeans. Agree or disagree?
A: I totally disagree. I don’t think it was Tommy Hilfiger. I think it was the president of Levi jeans who said that. Maybe they both said that. But neither of those guys ever has to wash their jeans because they throw them away after two weeks. I think jeans needs to be washed because you want them a little snug.
Q: Gay Talese told Vanity Fair he doesn’t own a pair of bluejeans. How many do you own?
A: What a mistake. I own about seven or eight pairs maybe. I cycle them. When jeans get too worn in the knees, they become work jeans. I spend a lot of time working around the house, I have hobbies and work in the garden.
Q: Any clothing designer with a dominating presence in your closet?
A: Probably Ermenegildo Zegna.
Q: Since you are a fashion icon …
A: [Long laugh. He almost can’t stop laughing …]
Q: … What are some memorable reactions you’ve received?
A: I get a lot of reactions. It’s surprised me sometimes. I’ve had this mustache since the early ’70s. I’ve gone through stages where people look at me like I’m an alien. Right now when it’s really trendy, I get these beautiful young people stopping me; it’s happened in New York, Europe. The one I got the other day was, Mister, that is a righteous mustache, which I rather liked. Frankly, I think I work better when I think I look OK.
Q: What article of clothing about which are you most obsessed?
A: [Lengthy laugh] Probably shoes. I like shoes.
Q: You’ve restrained yourself, there aren’t that many here?
A: No, every time I buy a pair now, I have to get rid of a pair. I’ve run out of room! You haven’t seen our cabin.
Q: Do you have a socks drawer?
A: I have a huge socks drawer and a little socks basket. I don’t wear socks in the summer. My collection includes socks with mustaches on them, my daughter is always buying.
Q: Your wife is a woman after my own heart because she does not try to compete with you in the style department.
A: She likes comfort dressing. She’s a classic dresser. As you can see from some of her clothes, she wears beautiful clothes. But she doesn’t like to be out there.
Q: Does she enjoy your suggestions about what she should wear?
A: Yeah, I think she appreciates it. I rely on her almost every day: “Does this look OK?” And she’s brutally honest, Oh, I think that’s going a little far [Laughter].
Q: Did you and Cindie consciously raise a style icon/chef, your daughter Casey?
A: She is clearly a fashionista, as you once pointed out in your column. She was featured in Vogue magazine in Japan for walking down the streets of New York. She picked all that up on her own. She was on her merry way working on a degree in art history or theology and ended up a well-dressed chef in New York. She’s a very talented line cook. She will be a chef.
Q: Can you cook anything?
A: I can cook anything. I was a little shy about soufflés until this past February. I took a weeklong boot camp at CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in bistro cooking and I just had a ball. It was wonderful. Now I feel quite adept at soufflés.
Q: Do you ever lose your temper?
A: Not very often. I could count not even on one hand the number of times I have in the last 10 years. My parents were really optimistic people and we always went through life with our glasses half full.
Interviews are edited. To contact C.J. try firstname.lastname@example.org and to see her watch FOX 9’s “Buzz.”