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A Conversation With Sir Paul Smith


Words by Simon Chilvers / Photographs by Andrew Woffinder

We meet Sir Paul Smith, one of Britain’s most loved fashion designers, on a grey November morning at London’s Design Museum. On the building’s white front façade, facing the River Thames, the word ‘HELLO’ is written in highlighter pink, while the adjacent wall reads ‘My Name is Paul Smith’ in matching type. This is the title for a major exhibition that has just opened at the museum, drawing from Smith’s extensive personal archive and celebrating the designer’s career from 1970 to the present day. Dressed in a slender navy suit with an Oxford shirt and signature striped socks, Smith is in a typically buoyant mood, chatting enthusiastically to everyone and having his photograph taken with tourists, who can’t believe their luck at stumbling across the real-life London icon.

This show opens with a cosy white space the exact size of Smith’s first Nottingham shop, before taking the visitor into a series of rooms that are packed to the rafters with his treasures: rare books, art and gifts from fans, which includes Patti Smith and The Rolling Stones. One wall in the exhibition is decorated with 70,000 buttons. There is a recreation of the designer’s Covent Garden studio, while his desk and office are similarly re-imagined, and feature everything from silk-screen prints created by Smith, aged 18, to the very first Dyson vacuum cleaner that he sold in his London Floral Street store alongside his clothes. ‘Customers used to think I’d forgotten to put the vacuum cleaner away until we put a price ticket on it,’ recalls Smith, his face creasing up into a boyish chuckle. Other collaborations, including a Paul Smith striped Mini Cooper and a wastepaper basket in the shape of a rabbit, complete with ears that flash, are also part of the designer’s eclectic story.

Born in Nottingham, England, in 1946, Smith left school at 15 and, encouraged by his father, found a job in a clothing warehouse. His original plans to become a professional cyclist, still one of his greatest life passions, were dashed following a serious accident. Soon after, he started to spend time with an art-school crowd in the pubs of Nottingham. As the book that accompanies the exhibition, also called Hello, My Name is Paul Smith, recalls, Smith eventually left his warehouse job and helped to run a boutique called Birdcage. The next step on his road to fashion stardom was meeting Pauline Denyer, a tutor at one of the local art schools. She became his girlfriend, his business partner, his first designer, and eventually his wife – he has dedicated a corner to her in the exhibition.

Smith opened his first shop in Nottingham in 1970 (the white cube you walk through on arrival) and by 1976 was showing his first collection – which included six shirts, two jumpers and two suits – in a Paris hotel bedroom. The designer was awarded a CBE for his services to fashion in 1994, followed with a full knighthood in 2000. Hello, My Name Is Paul Smith is likely to be another hit in this great British success story.

Hello, My Name is Paul Smith is at the Design Museum, London, until 9 March 2014; designmuseum.org

Q&A WITH SIR PAUL SMITH

How does it feel as a designer to have a whole exhibition based around you and your work?

‘I suppose it must mean I am getting older. I must be at least 28 by now [laughs]. It’s a bit weird. But it’s a lovely weird. It’s a bit like getting the knighthood. But I suppose I’ve been doing it for a long time now…’

How did the concept of the exhibition evolve?

‘The whole exhibition is not a retrospective. It is about encouraging young designers or creators, or anybody really, just to come in and feel, “Maybe I can do that”. One of the hardest things was what to leave out. We could have had an exhibition about four times this size.’

What stands out for you in the exhibition as being particularly special?

‘You have to walk through a small 12sq ft box that is the size of my first shop. It makes me think, “Wow, I have moved on since then”. That’s the whole point, to show the visitor to keep your feet on the ground – it’s OK to do things at a pace, and you don’t necessarily have to do things in a clichéd way.’

What is the biggest challenge you face as a designer?

‘With any creative person, it is always about continuity. Andy Warhol said it was about 15 minutes of fame. I think what he meant was it’s easy perhaps to get somewhere, but to keep it up, especially in a world that is so fast moving and that changes so much, you have to work really hard. That’s the thing I am most proud of – the continuity.’

What was the first memory of fashion you had?

‘From the age of about 12 to 18, I wanted to be a cyclist, then after a bad crash I discovered the world of creativity by chance when I was visiting a pub in my hometown where all the art students used to go. I discovered this world where people were talking about Bauhaus and Kandinsky.’

How would you persuade someone who doesn’t wear colour to wear it?

‘People can write in lots of different ways – short sentences, long sentences. But one of the things that must be used in literature is punctuation marks. I always say to people who aren’t comfortable wearing colour that they should think about it like a punctuation mark. Wear a navy blue suit and simply punctuate it with a coloured sweater or a T-shirt. Don’t suddenly wear red, just wear a little bit of it.’

What has changed the most about fashion since you started your business?

‘The internet, of course. The British high street has become a lot bigger than it ever was – originally it was just Marks & Spencer – and the world is also just a much smaller place now.’

What stands British style apart from the rest of the world?

‘I think British style used to be easy to define, but not any more. We’ve got a lot of creativity in Britain. Before it used to be a lot more about classes – the tweeds, the corduroy, the city suit, the pinstripe. Now, it’s much more of a cocktai

Thanks to Simon Chilvers, Andrew Woffinder and our partner Matches Fashion for this brilliant interview. Click here to see all the fashion news signed by Paul Smith.

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