The wisdom of a Fashion Designer
Due to public demand, last January, London’s Design Museum announced that the exhibition celebrating the life and career of Sir Paul Smith, would be extended all the way until June 2014.
This is a remarkable testament to the Nottingham-born designer, who is still working with no signs of slowing down. The charmingly-titled, Hello, My Name is Paul Smith invites viewers into his world and charts the rise of his career to date.
Paul Smith is undoubtedly Nottingham’s (in fact, Britain’s) biggest fashion export since the demise of the city’s lace industry in the 19th century. With 14 collections under its umbrella, the quintessentially-British, yet internationally acclaimed, brand shows seasonally in London and Paris.
Its humble 1970s beginnings lay in a small boutique on Byard Lane called: Paul Smith Vêtement Pour Homme – French for Paul Smith Clothes for Men. A miniscule room which replicates the store’s 3x3m dimensions is the entrance to the Design Museum’s exhibition.
Here we see promotional material advertising the first boutique; I notice one which declares Homer – Smith’s Afghan hound – store manager. From the beginning, wit and humour have been intrinsic to the brand’s character.
The exhibition is organised around a central corridor, itself covered with framed prints. These prints curated from Paul’s collection, represents only a “small portion” his stock; yet the visual dissonance it elicits requires some times for the eyes to adjust. This must be, in all its chaos, a snapshot of what Paul’s mind looks like. Said to be incredibly observant, Paul often preaches that inspiration can come from anything if you look properly. Inside a mirrored room lined with screens, a recording of the designer’s voice discussing such subjects reinforces the feeling of being Inside Paul’s Head.
In fact, the press release states that visitors are taken on a journey through Smith’s world. With the help of vivid recreations and installations, this is executed quite literally. Paul’s infamously cluttered Covent Garden Office (described as the “office equivalent” of his brain) and his – slightly – less chaotic design studio have been reconstructed for the show. A series of sets such as the brand’s first showroom – where Paul displayed six shirts, two jumpers and two suits in a Paris hotel suite in 1976 – are illustratively reimagined in sketchy monochrome to charming effect.
The chronology of the exhibition emphasises how far the brand has developed since. These early makeshift venues are worlds away from grander spaces like the Paris Bourse du Commerce, where Smith showed his latest menswear Fall collection. Despite his success, the designer remains humble. He dedicated the exhibition to his wife Pauline to whom he credits the brand’s success. She graduated from London’s Royal College of Art and met Paul after she moved to Nottingham to be a part-time tutor at The School of Art and Design (part of Nottingham Trent University).Pauline is said to have taught a young Paul the importance of quality, cut and proportion. These concerns are clear in some of her early design sketches.
That isn’t to say Paul is without his talents. He is in fact an avid photographer who has shot many of the brand’s campaigns. This passion can be traced back to his father, a founding member of the Beeston Camera Club – Beeston is a town on the outskirts of Nottingham. An extensive archive of show invitations, look books, editorials and backstage passes document years of the brand’s vibrant visual identity through the years.
Aside from French navy Breton stripes, Paul Smith’s stripes are possibly the most famous in fashion. His signature of multi-coloured warped stripes signal the brand contribution to many collaborative projects, extensively showcased within the next room. As a polyamorous hobbyist, Smith’s passions have resulted in plenty of meaningful collaborations. His first love was cycling, so it is no surprise he has designed bicycles for Pinarello and Mercian Cycles and athlete’s uniforms for the Tour de France. Of course, he has also designed a camera with industry godfather Leica, but the diversity amongst his projects is as vast as unexpected. He created the official t-shirt and exclusive red vinyl for David Bowie’s The Next Day comeback album. He has also applied his brand to Evian, HP Sauce, Penguin Books, and most famously, Mini Cooper.
One of the major reasons behind the label’s international success is its unique approach to store designs. You will never walk into two Paul Smith boutiques that are the same, because each is designed in response to its surrounding environment. The brand’s main Nottingham branch Willoughby House – the Byard Lane store still stands – is a rustic and homely English townhouse.
In contrast, his Seoul flagship and Melrose Avenue store in Los Angeles embody the idealistic notion of futuristic living. These individual store architectures are yet another contribution to the brand renown.
After looking at the context and the inspiration, the exhibition finally shows us the clothes. A personal selection from the brand’s archive is purposefully grouped into four main themes: colour, print, travel and British tradition. It is difficult to distinguish within each of these themes, a prevailing influence. In travel, for example, the influences range from sunburnt African colours, to European folk and opulent Asia – Far and Middle East. And with colour, Paul Smith is wise in its usage. Whilst he is known to go bold, as demonstrated in a toxic yellow shirt, it is never extrovertly vulgar. Likewise when the garment is subdued, it is never introverted. Conversely, he likes to play up to an archaic notion of British traditionalism through formal tailoring in earthy chequered tones.
As the process of creating a fashion collection dictates: we end with a show. A mini documentary features a chatty Paul who takes us through the organisation of his Spring 2014 Paris menswear show. Although Smith doesn’t particularly enjoy them he recognises runway shows as an industry necessity and can certainly make a spectacular job of them. This video really shows the designer’s sunny disposition coming to life. In typical Paul Smith-style, he speaks with wisdom in abundance, possibly turning himself into an accidental father-figure to the next generation of designers.
Inspirational anecdotes are aplenty throughout the exhibition, so why not take one more positive message home with us. Paul Smith doesn’t wish us goodbye, instead he reminds us that “Every day is a new beginning.”
Hello, My Name is Paul Smith will be running until 22 June 2014 at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London, SE1 2YD. The exhibition is open daily. For more information, visit designmuseum.org.