Paul Smith wall
Photography by Tess Barker

Paul Smith’s Pink Wall: The Mechanics Behind the Unlikely Selfie Landmark

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Paul Smith aims for the Instagram Mecca to become as iconic as the Eiffel Tower — and spends approximately $60,000 a year on upkeep to do so.

There are a dozen people leaned against the bright pink wall outside of the Paul Smith store on Melrose. A group of women in heavy makeup wearing berets and expensive mini-skirts lean into one another, slightly duck-faced, as one of them extends her arm to get a selfie. Another young woman in fancy sweatpants crouches toward the ground and throws up a peace sign as a small team fusses with the flyaways in her hair before photographing her. Turns out the women in the berets are visiting from South Korea. How did they find out about the now iconic Paul Smith wall?

“Instagram!” they say in unison as they giggle.

At last count, more than 100,000 people a year upload photos shot in front of the store’s saturated pink face on Instagram, and Paul Smith claims that the wall is the second most photographed in the world behind the Great Wall of China.

Beyond the Instagram-famous “pink wall” is the actual store, which houses well-tailored men’s suits and a smart collection of sculpture and photography.

“Paul wanted to have a building that was remembered from west to east driving, like the Eiffel Tower. A point of reference,” says Jose Lemus, the impeccably dressed Paul Smith assistant manager.

Smith is a fervent admirer of the Mexican architect Luis Barragan, and the color is a nod to Barragan’s signature pink, called Rosa Mexicano. It’s splashed all over Mexico City, and particularly at Barragan’s former residence, which is now a museum — where photography is prohibited. Barragan himself was color blind, and the pink was chosen by his assistant and lover. The hue was selected because it brings light to the surface — a visual trick that illuminated buildings in Mexico, which relied on windows and skylights for light.

“Paul wanted to have a building that was remembered from west to east driving, like the Eiffel Tower. A point of reference.”

Jose Lemus, Paul Smith assistant manager

“We have a wall that has a bright background. The sun and the light is literally hitting you in the face,” Lemus says. “There is distance enough to go back and forth. You can create depth in your photograph, get close enough and you’ll still have the glow.”

Five years after Paul Smith moved in on Melrose, Instagram moved into the world’s smartphones, and tens of thousands of people noticed how good they looked basking in that glow.

“The wall became huge, practically from day to night,” Lemus says. “It’s a monster that we in retail have never experienced before, but we love it. There are pros and cons. There are more cons than pros.”

Paul Smith spends approximately $60,000 a year to upkeep the wall. It is repainted every three months. Hosing it down would damage the paint, so every morning, a janitor named Luna cleans the wall by hand. “Luna is my saving grace,” Lemus says.

“The wall became huge, practically from day to night. It’s a monster that we in retail have never experienced before, but we love it. There are pros and cons. There are more cons than pros.”

Jose Lemus, Paul Smith assistant manager

The pink, whose official Pantone name is Pink Ladies, is trademarked. It cannot be ordered from Sherwin Williams or any other paint store without a secret code. Lemus has that code.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” he says. “I am the person who the janitors call at six in the morning because someone graffitied the wall. I have to get up and arrange for the paint to be ordered and delivered.”

Rules have been established to protect the wall. A security guard maintains his post outside to ensure that they are followed. No feet on the wall — the prints they leave are difficult to clean. No props. No costumes. No professional cameras.

“If we don’t establish rules,” Lemus says, “we have all these crazy people come into the store, and they do their own thing.”

Someone once arrived towing a cow in a trailer. Someone else accidentally released metal balloons that hit a transformer, and left the three blocks around the store without lights for an entire weekend.

The police have informed Paul Smith that due to the fact that they attract more than 55,000 visitors a year they are considered a landmark. This means that anyone who graffitis here can be prosecuted, whether someone sees them do it or not.

Paul Smith rainbow wall
Michele Morrow poses in front of Paul Smith’s former rainbow wall. Courtesy of Michele Morrow/@michelemorrow

Street artist Thrasher has graffitied the wall at least three times, most recently at two o’clock in the morning on September 12, 2018 when he sprayed the words “Go fuck your selfie,” across its surface. Thrasher’s manager called the store shortly after to apologize and offer to pay for the damage.

“Paul said, ‘No you don’t have to pay for anything, just don’t do it again,’” Lemus says. “Thrasher’s idea was to empower women by telling them that you don’t need to get approval from society or social media to know that you’re beautiful. Paul thought a man shouldn’t be telling women what’s acceptable.”

For all that the wall has succeeded in becoming a cultural touchstone in Los Angeles, the majority of visitors — around 75 percent, by Lemus’ estimate — are international visitors. In order to cater to the wall tourists, the store has begun offering kitschy souvenirs. They give out free pins and postcards. They sell pink pens, wallets with the wall photo printed on it, t-shirts with the image splashed on sequins.

The police have informed Paul Smith that due to the fact that they attract more than 55,000 visitors a year they are considered a landmark. This means that anyone who graffitis here can be prosecuted, whether someone sees them do it or not.

Chi Dhiman is a barista at Carrera Cafe, which opened across the street from Paul Smith after the wall became popular.

“I recently moved to the city, and it seemed like such a simple, mundane thing at first,” Dhiman says. “Then I just saw how such a simple concept can bring so much attention, and it just really astounded me.”

The cafe offers free Wi-Fi, a place to charge phones and bathrooms that can be used for outfit changes.

“It’s almost like a fitting room for the Instagrammers,” Lemus says. “They make so much money.”

Wall traffic brings some business to Paul Smith too. Around three percent of the people who come to take pictures end up buying something.

“While the little girl is getting a selfie outside, we have the dad here trying clothes,” Lemus says.

“I recently moved to the city, and it seemed like such a simple, mundane thing at first. Then I just saw how such a simple concept can bring so much attention, and it just really astounded me.”

Chi Dhiman, a barista at Carrera Cafe across the street from the Paul Smith store

Paul Smith is often approached with offers of around $60,000 to cover the wall with an advertisement, but they always turn them down. There is only one time the wall has ever been painted a different color: six months after Donald Trump was elected, Instagram approached them and asked if they would like to do something to contribute to their campaign for world equality: gay rights, women’s rights, children’s rights.

“Paul said ‘That’s the only reason I would change the wall,’” Lemus says.

It was painted with a rainbow, and the demographic of selfie-takers shifted.

Lemus tears up a little at the memory.

“It’s not right to treat women wrong. It’s not right to insult immigrants or to insult gays or change policies because of profit. It’s all about humanity, and this is the way the designer was going to express this. We had transgender people, famous singers, actors, bloggers, best friends, colleagues just expressing who they are. It made us proud as employees,” he says.

Later in the day at magic hour — the time before sunset beloved by film directors because of the way light becomes warm and diffused — the long shadows of the Melrose traffic lights are cast against the wall’s surface, and another dozen pink ladies arrive.

Los Angeleno