As a new exhibition of the his life's work opens at the Design Museum in London, the British designer talks about working without a plan. 'I never think about anything really,' he explains. 'We never had these huge aspirations'
Fashion designer Paul Smith poses in a recreation of his office at the Design Museum. Photograph: Luke Macgregor/REUTERS
Paul Smith design showcase is 'absolutely not a retrospective'
Second Design Museum homage to veteran British designer focuses not on trademark designs but all aspects of the business
The Guardian, Thursday 14 November 2013 / http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2013/nov/14/paul-smith-design-showcase-retrospective
"If you ask a question, I'll give you a pair of socks," announced Sir Paul Smith at the press conference to launch a new exhibition about his life, work and creative process at the Design Museum in London.
And with that, the stiffness in the room was punctured, and reporters jostled for the chance to shout their queries, and in return be lobbed a pair of stripey socks from the front of the room, by the fashion designer.
Smith, whose suits are worn by everyone from David Cameron to Tinie Tempah, Sir Mervyn King to David Beckham, has built a business with an annual turnover of £200m by making people smile. "What he does is create a pleasant experience out of very ordinary things," says Donna Loveday, the exhibition's curator. The Paul Smith brand has captured a combination of lighthearted wit, sophistication and British tradition which succeeds in turning cufflinks, wallets, socks, shirts and ties – the everyday essentials of the British man – into fun and desirable purchases.
Hello My Name Is Paul Smith is a second Design Museum exhibition for Sir Paul Smith. In 1995, the True Brit show marked 25 years of his company; in the 18 years since then his empire has continued to expand, making Smith the most consistently successful fashion designer in Britain and the only one to combine commercial success with critical credibility. A company which began in 1970 with one shop, now has more than 300 stores worldwide.
"Classics with a twist" is a dearly held Paul Smith motto, and the twist in this exhibition is that in an era when fashion exhibitions are increasingly in vogue, this one is not really about fashion at all. Clothes on mannequins play second fiddle to displays celebrating the creative process and the history of Smith's business. This is a deliberate move, intended to convey a message: that creativity and hard work are what matter, rather than money or glory.
"This exhibition is not just about fashion, it's about how Paul sees the world," says Deyan Sudjic, director of the museum. A film made on the day of Smith's most recent Paris menswear show puts the catwalk glamour within business, sales and marketing.
The exhibition includes a theatrical set remake of the Paris hotel room in which Smith showed his first collection to buyers, in 1976. Hiding his own suitcase and personal effects in the bathroom, Smith hung his wares in the wardrobe, and laid out shirts on the bed. But no one came - until 4pm on the last of the four days, when one buyer arrived, and placed an order. "That was what got me started," recalls Smith. "I want to encourage young people and to send a message that from a small beginning you can make progress. It doesn't have to be overnight. Young designers come to me now and they think they need catwalk shows, they need 20 shops straight away. But there was no great turning point in my career, no one moment when I suddenly became famous. It's important to be patient, to be humble, and to enjoy every day. This morning I went for a swim at 5.15am, and was in my office at 6am. The first thing I do in my office is put some vinyl on – today it was Talking Heads – and then I start work."
According to Design Museum staff, when Smith arrived for his press conference, he immediately began tidying the stock in the pop-up shop adjacent to the gallery. "I'm a shopkeeper at heart," he told them.
"Our first meeting about the exhibition took place in Paul's office, surrounded by cameras and bikes and books and toy rabbits and letters, and as we talked it became clear that we needed to recreate this room in the exhibition," says Loveday. The two largest spaces are devoted to displaying a tiny fraction of Smith's personal collection of art and mementos, and to a reproduction of his office, with art tomes, bolts of fabric and postcards from fans. By placing his fashion archive in a supporting role to his workplace and sources of inspiration, the 67-year-old designer makes it clear it is the ongoing creative process which interests him, rather than his legacy. "This is absolutely not a retrospective," he told reporters. "And as for retiring – I don't understand that word."