Hello My name is Paul Smith: exhibition review
On Friday, the exhibition Hello My Name is Paul Smith opened at The Design Museum on London’s South Bank and I was lucky enough to be there. A press release I’d seen showed images of the creative chaos of Smith’s office, apparently moved wholesale into the stark focus of The Design Museum’s white space, consisting of countless inspirational objects, art works and bits of stuff. Aside from this, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would there be actual clothes? Or, being The Design Museum, would there be a contrary focus on Paul Smith’s non-fashion work: from vehicles to furniture and other objects? As it turns out, his fashion work is reviewed as a whole: from the origins of Smith’s’ global business in a single, modest Nottingham shop space, to the scale of operations involved in his Paris catwalk shows, to the individuality of his global stores, and to me, the most interesting aspect of all: the rationale for his approach to design; his inspirations, working methods and obsessions. I found this exhibition to be very digestible – given the length of Smith’s career, this could have been a bloated showcase, full of unnecessary detail and with the essence of the story lost in the telling (as, I have to admit, I found some of the curation of the David Bowie exhibition earlier this year). Instead, the story here is told with the same economy of detail and flair for simplicity that you can hear the man himself espousing as a design ethic, in the quite brilliant audio piece being broadcast in the central space.
Here’s a few things I learned/had confirmed about Paul Smith from the exhibition:
1. He’s a collector. The walls of the gallery space when you walk in are covered in framed works of art, including pieces by major artists such as Hockney and Warhol, but its clear that they are chosen (like the random paraphernalia he also hoards) for what they represent to him, and not just for their monetary value. While there are certain themes (humour, a love of trippy, psychedelic imagery), as a whole, it’s quite dizzying.
2. He loves colour. From the individual garments selected from his many collections to the wall of literally thousands of differently-hued buttons, to the super-high-res video installation documenting his recent Paris runway show, featuring eye-popping acid pinks, vivid embroidery and pattern, inspired, it seems by a visit to Rajasthan, colour pops from every surface.
3. He loves photography. In another voiceover segment, he decribes the camera as his ‘notepad’, and photography is clearly something he is passionate and extremely knowledgeable about. Not only are there many works of photography he owns on display, but there are examples of Smith’s own very accomplished work on show too.
4. He is keen to credit his wife, Pauline’s influence. Originally a fashion tutor, she took a young Smith over to Paris along with her students to attend couture shows and their hotel room in that city later became their first showroom. The exhibition includes some of Pauline’s sketches for an early Paul Smith collection.
5. He loves to travel. The fact that Smith travels extensively is perhaps not so surprising, given the scale of his global business, but it’s also clear that the purpose of travel for him is at least partly for inspiration. He may only visit a place for 24 hours, he says (again in voiceover) but he will do more than most people would within that space of time. Street markets are a particular inspiration, clearly evident from the magpie-like passion for collecting colour and details from around the world, seen throughout the exhibition.
Spaces relevant to the story of Paul Smith, designer, are recreated throughout the exhibition: the first Nottingham shop, the famous Paris hotel room/showroom, the installation art-like visual cacophony of his recreated office space. And then, as I turn a corner, he is suddenly there in person; being interviewed by Japanese visitors in an actual working office space, his PA to his right, working away at managing his busy life. The interview is clearly audible, and as we bystanders look on in charmed awe, Paul Smith recounts aspects of his design ethos (it’s important to really ‘look’, which means ‘to absorb’) and the pleasure he gets from mentoring young talent, like young London designers Agi & Sam.
As the interview concludes, Smith greets the lookers-on, and as an excited school group passes through, he comes out from behind the counter to sign autographs, shake hands and answer questions, to the delight of both teachers and kids. The designer is also in his element, taking time to pose for photographs with whomever asks. My final realisation about Paul Smith is that this element of his being really present is what makes him so unique. A global brand he may be, but the touch, the ideas and the personality of Paul Smith runs through every aspect of that brand. He is the antithesis of the household name designer who is absent in all but name. That and the desirability and visual punch of his work, right up to the very present, makes his talent quite rare and this exhibition one I can’t recommmend highly enough.