As a designer with a penchant for fashion, a passion for bright colour and being a born and bred Midlander, 'Hello, my name is Paul Smith' exhibition at the Design Museum is effectively the perfect exhibition for me. Therefore, armed with a fully charged smartphone and accompanied by the equally smart Ed (cutting an appropriately dapper figure in his signature Harris Tweed), I needed little excuse to take a trip after work to see what Sir Paul had to offer, as well as taking a last look at the Design Museum in it's current location in Shad Thames before it ups-sticks in 2015 and packs it's (very well designed) bags to move to it's new, location, in the more grandiose Kensington High Street.
I'll be the first to concede, I knew very little about Paul Smith as a person or a brand, outside of his well-known multi-coloured stripes, and a few choice packaging collaborations. I couldn't have told you much more about him. As our very own Holly B put it: "who wants to pay to see a load of old stripes".
In this sense it appears that I was not alone, which is perhaps what genius lies in the title of the exhibition. 'Hello my name is Paul Smith' is more than aptly named exhibition, as the whole thing is essentially an informal friendly introduction to the man behind the brand, created by the man himself. This exhibition couldn't be further from the self-congratulatory, egotistical retrospective that you may expect from such a fashion behemoth. 'Hello...' is more like an understated peek into the exciting life of a modest Midlands lad come good: a genuine Rags to Rags (with stripes) & Riches story.
The exhibition starts off in a style not too dissimilar to Smith's own career; perfectly understated. The exhibition opens greeting you with a stark 3 x 3 metre 'box' mimicking the exact dimensions of Smith's first Nottingham boutique, which opened in 1970. A simple white shell without windows open on Fridays and Saturdays when Smith wasn't paying his bills with his warehouse day-job. It's apparent then, from its opening we are to be experiencing this exhibition through the eyes of Paul Smith the man, not the brand. Following shop 1.0, in true Paul Smith style and in overwhelming contrast to this simple white box, we are then treated to an abundance of framed prints and artwork from ceiling to floor, along two long walls which is unbelievably just a small sample of Smith's personal art collection.
From then on we are given a glimpse into the multitude of brands secrets of success from very personal perspective and it soon becomes clear that Paul Smith is not to be dismissed as a fashion luvvie or a Gaultier-esque mega-ego but rather a down to earth fella with a genuine joie de vivre, an eclectic obsession with trinkets from anywhere his travels take him, a man who has a wicked eye for detail and finds inspiration in the most unusual of places. If ever this was in doubt, just a quick glimpse at the painstakingly true reconstruction of his office and design studio proves this; his obsession with the weird and wonderful is a true feast for the eyes, which is multitudinous enough to give the most whimsical of designers nightmares.
The most apparent thread noticeable running through the exhibition is unsurprisingly his genuine love of colour (or as he puts it himself: 'there is colour and there is 'COLOUR' meaning you don't have to beat people over the head with bright colours, you can control it's use) and natural ability to draw inspiration from anything including his surroundings and his ability to transfer this across not for just his own brand but myriad applications from cars and album covers to bicycles and bottles. This is demonstrated succinctly by the section of the exhibition showcasing his collaborative work which ranges from the well known (HP sauce, THAT Mini Cooper and Evian bottles) to the less well known (a range for Derbyshire based bike brand Mercian, T-shirts for Talking Heads and David Bowie as well as tea pots for Thomas Goode and Stelton).
For anyone working in the packaging and branding world this room is almost too exciting. If anything, this section serves as a sobering reminder that you may not have always thought about Paul Smith as a British design icon but he's always been there regardless.
To conclude the exhibition, we are treated to a video diary of his most recent Paris Fashion Week show narrating a guided behind the scenes tour from Smith himself. This really sums up the Paul Smith brand story and his own ethos perfectly; in contrast to the chaotic creative storm which is constantly raging around him, he seems laid back, in control a perhaps a little impish. It's refreshing to see a man at 67 years old continue to be such a hands-on integral part of the company; as both designer and chairman.
It's clear that Smith is continually involved in every aspect of his business and as a result and regardless of the impressive scale of its global operations today, Paul Smith Limited retains a personal touch often lost in companies of a similar size.
This exhibition is as much, if not more, about creative process from one of Britain's most successful global exports as it is about fashion. Anyone interested in the process of design and creativity will be hugely rewarded by 'Hello...' and the likelihood is you will exit the exhibition alive to the possibilities that if, like Sir Paul, you can maintain your childlike sense of wonder about the world and keep your eyes open, you can draw inspiration from just about anything in your surroundings.
Take my word for it; it's more than just a load of old stripes.