Unrivalled Iconography

Renowned for impeccable tailoring with unexpected elements lurking beneath each perfect cut, Paul Smith rose from a single, tiny shop in Nottingham to a designer of global domination.

With his trademark stripes, printed shirts, slim-cut suits and quirky trims, Paul Smith has created an inimitable style that transcends each season’s trends and flippancies, always with quality at its core, always with humour in its design. Hello, my name is Paul Smith  at the Design Museum, London, celebrates Paul Smith as a company and a creative mastermind. Looking at the impressive scale of its global operation today, the exhibition draws on Paul Smith’s personal archive, from the company’s beginnings to its international prominence today. The show explores how Paul Smith’s intuitive take on design, together with an understanding of the roles of designer and retailer, have laid the foundations for the company’s lasting success and offer a unique insight into the magnificent mind of Paul Smith.

Curated by Donna Loveday, even the exhibition’s title illustrates how the company and the man are inextricably intertwined and at the heart of all of Paul Smith’s output lies Smith’s curiosity and insatiable creativity. Although the Design Museum mounted a Paul Smith exhibition in 1996 (Paul Smith: True Brit ) and it’s very rare that it stages a second exhibition, the decision to do so was made because of Paul Smith’s continued success in the fashion world and unstoppable global expansion, now into China after his most notable success in Japan (where there are more than 200 Paul Smith stores). Ultimately, the rise and rise of Paul Smith is a great story: “When you look at where he started from, as a very small shop in Nottingham in 1970, to the truly global scale of operation today, we wanted to document that in this presentation and to show how that’s happened. It really charts the development of the company’s beginnings through to where it is today.”

Loveday describes Smith as “a uniquely British designer [with] a career in fashion that spans over 40 years, which I think is incredible,” and the exhibition attempts to deconstruct this success and demystify the design process, with a view, it seems, to encourage new, young designers. Smith has always been incredibly supportive of new designers and often receives visitors in his shop in Covent Garden: “He really takes the time to talk to them, every generation of designers is important to him [and while] it’s not something we directly reference, it is something that I know is very close to his heart.” In this cycle of endless artistic encouragement the exhibition focuses very much on Smith as a creative and on his process. Loveday explains: “How his unique and intuitive take on design combines with an important understanding of the roles not only of the designer, but of the retailer. I think these are the foundations of the company’s lasting success.”

To highlight this growth, visitors are guided into the exhibition through a replica of Smith’s first boutique, a tiny three-metre-square space where Smith would welcome visitors for two days a week “because the rest of the week he was doing freelance jobs to keep it open,” and from which the business grew into what we know today. From the shop we are plunged Inside Paul’s Head – an audio visual experience where Smith’s stream-of-consciousness exposition on his many, myriad influences highlights the utterly absorbent nature of his personality, and hints at the skill involved in taking so many elements and creating a coherent brand, which in spite of such influences, always maintains consistent values at its cores: “More than anything, it’s the fact that he’s innovative, he’s always pushing boundaries, he was one of the first designers to put photographic prints on shirts – anything from leaves to spaghetti – the shirts are incredible. Also, what he’s very well known for, and which again he was one of the first to do, is to bring a certain unexpectedness to menswear. Taking a sober grey suit and combining it with a floral shirt, or a classic navy suit with bright fuchsia pink lining; those unexpected surprises in a jacket lining, a tie, a cuff, a print or pattern. I think that’s really why his collections are so popular all over the world.” He really is credited with bringing colour to menswear.

This area that showcases Smith’s influences takes much of its imagery from his extensive photographic archive: “Paul takes his camera wherever he goes. He’s constantly observing and taking photographs.” It’s an incredibly inspiring space and, although the narrative and images are looped, it’s difficult to leave after one listening because it enables you to, like Smith, discover new elements on different sittings. Located beside Inside Paul’s Head is a recreation of Smith’s infamous, chaotic, Covent Garden office, every surface strewn with books, records, models, curios and ephemera that Smith has collected or received from admiring fans over the years. Describing the office, where the Design Museum and Paul Smith team undertook numerous meetings, Loveday says: “The office is just crammed full of objects. He has a desk that he’s never sat at; it’s totally covered in things – books, bicycles, rabbits, cameras, robots, all sorts of things. These are things that have either been sent by anonymous people, or which he’s picked up on his travels and amuse and interest him. He describes the office as his brain and I think he derives a lot of inspiration from that space. You do get distracted because there are so many things around you.”

The fact that there are so many recreations of Smith’s “unique” spaces highlights how integral the designer as a person and his personal quirks and habits are to his eponymous brand. In addition to the first shop and Smith’s office there’s a recreation of the Paris hotel room where Smith showed his first collection in 1976 (“he invited various people to come along and only one arrived, right at the end of the day, but they placed an order so that was very much the beginnings of the collection”) and of Smith’s Covent Garden design studio which focuses “on the design process and Paul’s creative practice,” and transfers the viewer from these eclectic, slightly overwhelming inspirations of Smith, towards something like a new direction for each collection. The design studio displays fabric off-cuts, prints, buttons, threads and all the elements of dressmaking as well as representations of more intangible aspects of each collection such as mood board, wallpaper swatches and advertising campaigns. Always a keen amateur photographer, Smith shot many of his promotional images, and in spite of the distinctive elements that run through all his work, seeing them together highlights the individuality of each season and the manner by which Paul Smith constantly keeps its designs fresh.

This emphasis on individuality and something that is entirely bespoke is carried through Paul Smith stores worldwide, where each store is meticulously curated by the Paul Smith team to echo its surroundings with elements that aim to appeal to each particular locale: “Individuality is the most important thing. There’s no set formula for the design of the shops. The Paul Smith team create all their shops and he wants them to have their own character and one which reflects the setting that they’re in.”

Referencing Paul Smith’s first London store in Floral Street (opened 1976), Loveday highlights that “people were surprised at the time because it was one of the first minimalist shops in Europe: cream floors and walls and a very different approach. People were also surprised to find shops selling objects as well as clothes. There might be a Braun calculator, or a pink Dyson vacuum cleaner, or a Filofax. That’s something he continues today, setting beautifully tailored clothes next to vintage artefacts and books and collectables. In his shops you will find interesting objects.” This meticulous focus on the retail environment alongside the design is all part of the Paul Smith identity, and another strength to which Loveday attributes Smith’s success: “He has always shown an understanding of the importance of the retailer and good customer service. When you enter a Paul Smith shop, even if you don’t buy anything you have a pleasant and memorable experience.”

The precise curation of Smith himself upon every aspect of his work might have made mounting an exhibition of his work an overwhelming experience, but the show successfully segues from inspiration, to the design process, then to the final product. There’s a section dedicated to Smith’s collaborations over the years, “something that people are less familiar with,” which takes in everything from cars to bins, snowboards to mugs, cameras to china, and which highlights the prestige and respect that Smith commands outside of fashion. Clothing, as opposed to fashion perhaps, is what lies at Paul Smith’s core though, and the exhibition shows rather a conservative number of Smith’s final designs for both men and women in a hall of fame, loosely based around “British tradition, colour, travel and print.” Considering Smith has practised for more than 40 years, the collection of final show pieces is somewhat sparse, but it does serve to emphasise the exhibition’s exploration of the elements and inspirations of creativity, rather than simply highlighting the final product. There is, however, a dedicated screening room where Smith’s latest menswear show is screened (as preparation, rehearsal and final showcase) in Sony’s latest 4k technology, providing unparalleled clarity, where the textures and colours of each fabric are rendered as in real life. “We really give people an insight into the workings of a fashion show, not only the experience itself but what goes into putting that show together. It gives a really good insight into how Paul and his team work and how everything comes together for the launch of a new collection. It’s very much designed to take people on a journey through Paul Smith’s extraordinary world.”

Paul Smith’s continued success and his consistently creative output is all the more remarkable considering he built his empire from nothing. With no design training, Smith had intended to become a professional cyclist until an accident at 17 put an end to those dreams and he searched for an alternative career: “Really he hasn’t had a traditional background or training in fashion design but in a way that has given him a different perspective. He’s very much concerned with the business side of the operation.” Loveday speculates that this unusual path to a competitive career has given Smith the edge in his understanding of both the creative and the commercial: “He has this passion, perhaps from wanting to be a professional racing cyclist, and it’s transferred across to his business. He says it’s important to have a dream, but you need to be able to support that dream financially. There’s a very strong underpinning of the importance of the designer but also the retailer and being able to support your business in whatever way you can. He’s not a designer with classic training, but that’s the message really; he has done it by himself. Paul has always had this very clear and strong vision.”

What’s particularly touching is the repeated references to his wife throughout the exhibition. Pauline Smith, who trained at the Royal College of Art and designed clothes when they met, is credited with teaching Smith “the importance of the principles of good tailoring, cut, proportion, scale and fabric. All those things laid the foundations for Paul when he set up his business.” Smith personally argues that his wife taught him how to see, and take inspiration from the world. This original back-story, Smith’s irreverent attitude and his hardworking ethic have combined in a designer who has inspired a unique affection amongst his advocates. Paul Smith is perhaps on a par in British affections only with Vivienne Westwood, and this is something that is reflected in the remarkable collection of prints, snapshots and framed ephemera that form a corridor along the length of the Design Museum. Comprising many gifts from friends, fans and admirers, there is a collection of donations from famous faces as well as anonymous gifts. The corridor highlights once more the curiosity of Paul Smith, a designer who has consistently enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success and who remains irreverent, charming and humorous – the perfect English gent.

Hello, my Name is Paul Smith is showing at the Design Museum, London until 9 March 2014. www.designmuseum.org.

Ruby Beesley