"I don't like fashion but I like you," wrote an 11 year old Margo from Belgium in a fan letter addressed to Paul Smith, one of many that the veteran designer and professional creative bounder receives on a day to day basis. That's pretty much the crux of what makes Paul Smith, as a person, as a brand and as a company so compelling. And the Design Museum has paid tribute to all of those parts in a new exhibition plainly called Hello, My Name is Paul Smith.
What young Margo quite rightly pointed out is that Smith is the central lynchpin to the sprawling empire of collections, stores and collaborations. His boundless energy and endless curiosity are the key drivers to his brand from its humble beginnings as a 12ft square box menswear "shop" in Nottingham in 1970. In fact for me, the man Paul Smith is what makes the Paul Smith universe fascinating, regardless of whether or not I love every collection. Likewise, you don't have to be a diehard Paul Smith fan to see this exhibition. Hello, My Name is Paul Smith explores creative process and natural inquisitiveness and honours the merits of being humble-minded and not overreaching beyond your means when building a business. All of this will be relevant and inspiring to any young person on the precipice of deciding what they do in life. Scratch that, it's inspiring to older and seasoned hacks like myself, as I emerged from the exhibition yesterday feeling like I haven't seen enough of the world, I haven't absorbed enough art and photography and that I haven't done enough as a creative enterprise, when compared with the endeavours of Smith. Trailing Smith around the exhibition at the media preview yesterday was uplifting to say the least. Two minutes in conversation with the man and I defy anyone not to be a little bit smitten, charmed or at least bemused by him.
It is "absolutely not a retrospective" says Smith and that point is reiterated over and over again. That would suggest that Smith is vaguely slowing down, looking back and reflecting. But as Smith guided us around the exhibition, bouncing from one room to another, jovially answering anybody's question and striking up cheeky rapport with the photographers, the amount of kinetic creative energy he displays is enough to convince you that he's not resting on his laurels. "Fashion is about today and tomorrow", said Smith. "Nobody cares how good you used to be."
A recreation of that box space Nottingham shop, which was only open for two days in the week and manned by Smith and his Afghan hound Homer is the first space you're immersed in at the exhibition. There's also a replica of the Paris hotel room where Smith set up his first showroom in 1976, where nobody came save for one buyer on the last day. These are the humble beginnings that Smith wanted to use to illustrate that Paul his business was no overnight success. Smith has famously never borrowed money for his business, working within his means to build his brand – a remarkable feat and a solid example for young businesses today who seem to want everything too soon.
He also teaches a lesson in learning when to say no. One look at the collaborations Paul Smith has done and they're plainly selective and in some cases clearly done for personal desire rather than profit – see a floral covered Roberts radio or a cover for a special edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover. A journalist asked Smith if he would be opening hotels as a brand in the position of Paul Smith could. "I could do a lovely hotel, and you go there for your supper and the steak is really bad," he says. "And so you get the reputation for having a hotel with a bad steak. But the steak has nothing to do with me." This is a great example of Smith not wanting to overreach his abilities, even though his brand is most certainly at the sort of level where a veritable empire of hotels, cafes, homewares etc have come beckoning.
The central room of the exhibition is covered by what is a teensy tiny fraction of Smith's extraordinarily varied art and photography collection set out in a higgelty piggelty maze of frames, as if to mirror the way his brain dances from portraits by photographs of David Bailey and Nick Knight to naive drawings sent to him by young fans. The thing that immediately strikes you about Smith is his appetite for mind fodder of any sort – literature, art, object, culture of a place, someone's personality trait. He's the type of person who easily takes interest in most things. This is also reflected in another room where we are taken inside Smith's brain, where a building morphs into a flower which morphs into a print on a dress on sheeny shiny Sony screens and it's yet another way of peeking inside the working lynchpin of the Paul Smith brand.
Smith is a great collector of stuff and his full to the brim office, filled with bikes, toys, books, art, objects and things that he finds intriguing has been well documented. Again a small portion of it is recreated at the exhibition complete with a plate of spag bol and an African mask, which Smith poses with in jest for the photographers.
Another room recreates Smith's design studio space where their signature Paul Smith prints are created. Every detail feels faithful down to the circa 2006 Macs and the boxes of swatches to pick out colours for their famous multi-coloured stripe patterns. Here, Smith showed us how a 1906 traditional floral print was manipulated and cut-up to become a glitched up version used in his collection. That think tank process is again seen in a room where a film is shown depicting the run-up to the mens S/S 14 show.
I hope Smith doesn't take offence when I say that probably the least interesting part of the exhibition were the rooms with the two rows of archive Paul Smith clothes and the collaborative products to some extent. Reason being is that they're all things we've seen before. They're known quantities. They're also the aesthetic results of a thinking and creative process that in some ways is more interesting to learn about. That's precisely what this exhibition has successfully exposed for everyone to feel like they're getting to know Paul Smith, the man. We can all go into any one of Paul Smith's eclectically designed stores to look at the products. Here, we get peeks into the way Smith's mind works. Even, then you feel you're only scratching the surface.
Hello, My Name is Paul Smith open now at the Design Museum until 9th March 2014