When I was 17 I got a job working as runner for Paul Smith. It was an incredible opportunity. The problem was it was also the late 90s, and I was mainly interested in getting drunk and intercepting invitations to parties at the Met Bar. Later on, when I started working in advertising, I came to understand the extent of the privilege that I had squandered. It was clear that most of what the gurus of branding and advertising had to say were things that Paul had known all along. The difference was that he did it all without any fanfare, it just came naturally. The recent show at the Design Museum, Hello My Name Is Paul Smith, offered the perfect opportunity to reflect on the things I learned, or might have learned, if only I’d been a better listener at the time.
Either or and
Opening the Design Museum show is a reproduction of Smith’s first shop in Nottingham. It’s a windowless room, twelve foot square, with a few rails and shelves, which he shared with an Afghan Hound. This shop, really a backroom in another premises, was only open three days a week, so that the other days he could earn a living elsewhere. It meant that he could keep his stock, in his words, ‘pure’. You can see a similar principle at work in Smith’s output today – the mainline collection will showcase pieces in flamboyant colour, and often it will be these clothes that appear on the backs of celebrities and the covers of magazines. The majority of sales, however, will be in more conventional fabrics. It’s a magical formula: the fun stuff advertises the boring stuff, while the boring stuff pays for the fun. Creative people often bridle at the idea of compromise, but recognising that one enables the other might make you resent it less.
The central room of the Design Museum show is covered from floor to ceiling with framed pictures and prints. The collection is eclectic: oil paintings, signed album artwork, fan mail, collaborations and photographs. It’s unusual, when you think about it, for the main room in a major designer’s retrospective to be given over to other people’s work. But then, the curation of diverse objects has always been a key part of what Smith does. As well as clothes his shops have always stocked intriguing products – not just the trousers, but the artbook to leaf through and even the sofa to sit on while you do so. He’s been selling a lifestyle, since long before that was a thing. You can see it on this wall, with its hints of glamour, foreign travel, a taste for art and the right kind of celebrity, but also a generous inclusivity, children’s drawings hung side by side with David Bailey. Smith himself is a world-class collector; his office is stacked with books, he even collects his thoughts, in small Rhodia pads. Because a thought shouldn’t be wasted, it’s a valuable thing that you might find a use for later. Packaged properly you might even be able to sell it.
Smith is radically down to earth about the creative process. He opened his last book, designed by long-term collaborators Aboud Sodano, with a quote ‘Inspiration is all around you, if you can’t see it look again.’ Many of his creative leaps have been the result of a kind of cultural sampling. For instance, in Japan a receipt is given to you in an envelope, proffered with a bow. So in Paul Smith shops the receipt is also offered in a black envelope, albeit without the bow. A lot of people might have notice the cultural more, but the smart thing was to realise that what makes the experience special in Tokyo would work just as well in London or New York. Likewise one of the signatures of his brand is its use of prints, often taken directly from his photography and woven or printed on to fabric. After all, if the pattern of a venetian blind on the ceiling evokes a summer in Italy, why shouldn’t it do the same on a shirt? Recontextualising things like this works. So don’t sit around waiting for ideas to arrive from the ether, go out and find them.
Menswear, where Smith made his name, tends toward the uniform. Two well-cut men’s suits are virtually indistinguishable – so the addition of the detail, the twist, in the classic-with-a-twist is crucial. What is personality apart from the ways in which a person or thing isn’t quite perfect? This is what the coloured buttonhole or the pattern linings do: they’re the deviations from the norm that render products more human. They’re small rebellions that make your Paul Smith jacket unlike another jacket, but also unlike the perfect jacket. In a way, the more conventional outfit, the jacket without the canary lining, would be easier to buy, but harder to really like. His clothes demand acceptance, the way that certain friends do. And this is really important because fashion might depend on conformity, but style is all about personality.
This charming man
Paul Smith is nice. And this is particularly surprising when you consider that some of biggest names in fashion are notoriously, well, not-nice. While I suspect this is more happy accident than design, it just so happens this is a perfect case of zigging where others zag. If Steve Jobs’s famously tyrannical approach marked him out in the world of programmers and software engineers, then perhaps Smith’s down-to-earth demeanour is a welcome relief amongst all those prima donnas. It turns out that kindness is even more valuable in a scarce economy. And while it doesn’t prove that you have to be nice to succeed, he does demonstrate that it’s not only the bastards that win.
(This article was originally published in Creative Review)