Paul Smith doesn’t want the journalists reviewing his new exhibition, ‘Hello, My Name is Paul Smith,’ to get cold feet – so much so that he brings multiple pairs of socks to distribute at the press preview. He also has designer notebooks for the unprepared writer. It doesn’t matter that no-one is even slightly unprepared for Smith’s kaleidoscopic, cluttered, not-quite-a-retrospective at the Design Museum in London. He runs out of notebooks within minutes.
The aura of approachability surrounding legendary British designer Paul Smith has very little to do with his fashion empire and almost everything to do with his attitude towards it. This is hardly unexpected when you discover that his heroes are his wife Pauline (who taught him how to design clothes and remains a source of support and inspiration after several decades together) and his local road sweeper (who, presumably, has done neither of these things). Wisely, Smith has chosen to dedicate the exhibition to Pauline.
One enters the exhibition, as in life, by passing through a small pink box. This is where it all starts. At three metres by three metres, it is the size of Smith’s first shop. It contains only a mirror and a small case containing a few pictures, advertisements and sketches, with captions handwritten by Smith himself. Dominating the case is a photograph of Smith’s Afghan hound, Homer, who had a layered, flicked-out haircut and an aquiline profile not unlike his owner’s in that period. The caption reads, “He was my first manager (1970). I was his assistant!”
‘Hello, My Name is Paul Smith’ is drawn from Paul Smith’s archives, but it’s not so much a reflection on the man as it is a celebration of a hugely successful global brand. Smith’s success, it can be argued, it just as dependent on his personality as it is on his eye for detail or unwavering dedication to structured tailoring. A sense of humour both simple and sophisticated is also vital. It can be seen in his approach to brand collaborations – amongst the striped teapots and bottles of mineral water, a boxed bottle of Paul Smith HP brown sauce (also striped, in varying shades of brown) is put proudly on display.
It is a feat of organised chaos. We see a recreation of Smith’s cluttered office and workrooms, a wall is plastered, seemingly arbitrarily, with buttons. More walls are lined floor to ceiling with personal photographs, fan letters (One from Japan reads, “I like your cloth design, spilit (sic) and your face. I love you”) and award-winning, tongue-in-cheek advertisements.
It makes you wonder. Specifically, it makes you wonder when such a broad retrospective will happen to an Irish designer. Just this week, both Simone Rocha and J.W Anderson won highly sought-after gongs at the British Fashion Awards. In thirty years, will we be wandering through a reconstruction of the Rocha office? Will Anderson’s already numerous collaborations take pride of place in some hallowed hall? Will the cult of personality surrounding Smith be replicated in Irish form?
Let’s hope so.