Instead, Paul prefers the term ‘artist’, “It’s not about fashion. It’s about ooohs and ahhhs... I know ooohs and aaahs.”
The colourfully-clad, laidback New Yorker wraps up the interview with this as a way of clarifying that what he does and the clothing he creates is ‘different’. He needn’t have.
Spending a fascinating hour in a Cherng Talay coffee shop, close to one of Paul Ropp’s 16 stores in Thailand, it becomes clear that Paul is anything like the archetypal ‘darling’ fashion designers.
Born in Brooklyn, he became a ward of the state when he was just eight years old.
“I went to a sort of reform school,” says Paul, “it was a school for emotionally vulnerable and delinquent children – I learned how to co-exist,” he says, choosing his words very carefully.
This period of Paul’s life was ‘difficult’ to say the very least, but it was at this point that he traces the burgeoning of his interest in art.
“Academics I just could never identify with it, I was always more into arts and music. I had some great teachers though, one of whom said, “Don’t be afraid to go off the stroke.”
Although at the time, the teacher was referring to painting, Paul saw beauty in its sentiments.
“I have lived by that rule ever since, and it’s the way that I produce what I produce.”
Seeing stars and stripes
Although Paul later received a scholarship and went to the School of Art & Design at the Pratt Institute in New York, it was, unsurprisingly, through a less conventional and more unorthodox method that he made his fortune.
It was during the Vietnam War and, after realising that he couldn’t be a smuggler – “I didn’t have the balls and I couldn’t keep a secret,” Paul jokes – that he began looking at other ways of making money.
“When I was about 25 years-old, I thought, ‘Why are cigarette rolling papers white?’
“The simple answer I found was because nobody had made them in any other way. So I started manufacturing [Stars and Stripes patterned] Patriotic Rolling Paper.”
Because of laws that prohibit activity that may be seen as desecrating the American flag, Paul had them manufactured in Italy because it was forbidden to do so in the US.
During those times of political turbulence and musical experimentation, Paul, very much part of the ‘scene’, was among 100,000 young people who went on an anti-Vietnam war protest to Washington DC to smoke using the papers he was making.
“It upset a lot of people,” remembers Paul with a smile. But it also made a lot of money.“I sold 13 million Stars and Stripes papers, and never hired a sales man.
“I didn’t agree with what the government was doing... [but] I remember being interviewed a lot at that time about why I was doing it, and somebody from the Rolling Stones’ entourage, who was present in an interview, said that it was simply ‘to make money’, and I think there was a little bit of that in it as well.”
Paul’s luck was to take an unfortunate turn, however, around the time of the Watergate scandal.
“I was getting a cheque for US$36,000 every week for a long time. We paid all the right taxes, it’s just that ‘they’ didn’t like what I was doing.”
Paul recounts with incredulity the day the Secret Service even came to see him.
After having enough, he decided to leave America and ended up in India, which is where he spent the next six years on a Goa beach, chilling out, meeting interesting people and little else. Although he did deliver a few babies.
“We were very tribal back then – much different to your generation. We were always around each other, we just did that kind of thing.”
After a half decade on the beach, he had somewhat of an epiphany. “It took a long time of thinking about why I had lost the money, before I decided “Hey, I need to start making some more!”
Starting all over again
Paul’s next move brought him into the textile industry, and a step closer to what he does now.
“I started making T-shirts and began working with the women in the villages [of Goa]. The women there did embroidery and produced handmade silk products the old-fashioned way. These are handicrafts and techniques that belong to a bygone era.”
Much like the rolling papers, Paul’s T-Shirts became an instant hit with the counter culture generation.
“When I eventually returned to New York, most of the old crowd had left, so I had very few contacts, but as all of the boutique store owners knew me from the Stars and Stripes papers, it was fine.
“I made the T-shirts for US$1.25 and sold them for more than US$100 to the best stores in New York.”
Despite his success – in 1978, the ‘Indian-Nepal’ range made US$6 million – Paul returned to Asia as soon as he could.
“I’m attracted to the lifestyle [in Asia], if I’d have been really interested in the industry of fashion, I would have stayed in New York. But I was very much of the opinion that because I was good at what I did, they would find me – and they did.”
There are now 16 Paul Ropp retail outlets throughout Thailand, and another 10 in Indonesia (Jakarta and Bali). He also exports to 33 countries worldwide. Paul is now largely resident in Bali, though he frequently travels to Phuket for business.
The ‘ooh’ factor of the clothes though has not been altered since he first started ‘designing’.
“My clothes are provocative, made to elicit a reaction. Many of my clothes have not changed in style since I started, I have just perfected the technique.”