Five Things I Learnt From Paul Smith

Gordon Comstock draws five lessons from the Hello My Name is Paul Smith exhibition at the Design Museum, and his time working with the designer

When I was 17 I got a job working as runner for Paul Smith. It was an incredible opportunity, but it was also the late 90s, so I was mainly interested in getting drunk and intercepting invitations to parties at the Met Bar. Later on, when I started working in advertising, I came to understand the extent of the privilege that I had squandered. It was quite clear that a lot of what the gurus of branding and advertising had to say were things that Smith had known all along. But it was all done with such little fanfare, as though this was the natural and proper way to do business, that I almost managed to escape without noticing. At any rate, the current exhibition at the Design Museum in London, Hello, My Name Is Paul Smith, offered the perfect opportunity to reflect on the things I learned or might have learned, if only I’d been a better listener at the time….

1. Either or and

Opening the Design Museum show is a reproduction of Smith’s first shop in Nottingham. It’s a windowless room, 12 foot square, with a few rails and shelves, which he shared with an Afghan Hound. A backroom in another premises, it was only open three days a week; on the other days Smith earned a living elsewhere. It meant that he could keep his stock, in his words, “pure”. You can see a similar principle at work in Smith’s output today – the mainline collection will showcase pieces in flamboyant colour, and often it will be these clothes that appear on the backs of celebrities and the covers of magazines. The majority of sales, however, will be in more conventional fabrics. It’s a magical formula: the fun stuff advertises the boring stuff, while the boring stuff pays for the fun. Creative people often bridle at the idea of compromise, but if one enables the other it might make you resent it less.

2. Only collect

The central room of the Design Museum show is covered from floor to ceiling with framed pictures and prints. The collection is eclectic: oil paintings, signed album artwork, fan mail, collaborations and photographs. It’s unusual, when you think about it, for the main room in a major designer’s retrospective to be given over to other people’s work. But then, the curation of diverse objects has always been a key part of what Smith does. As well as clothes, his shops have always stocked intriguing products – not just the trousers, but the art book to leaf through and even the sofa to sit on while you do so. He’s been selling a lifestyle, long before that was even a thing. You can see it on this wall, with its hints at glamour, foreign travel, a taste for art and the right kind of celebrity, but also a generous inclusivity, with children’s drawings hung side by side with David Bailey. Smith himself is a world-class collector; his office is stacked with books, he even collects his thoughts, in small Rhodia pads. Because a thought shouldn’t be wasted, it’s a valuable thing that you might find a use for later. Packaged properly you might even be able to sell it.

3. Sample sale

Smith is radically down to earth about the creative process. He opened his last book, edited and designed by long-term collaborator Alan Aboud, with a quote: ‘Inspiration is all around you, if you can’t see it, look again.’ Many of his creative leaps have been the result of a kind of cultural sampling. For instance, in Japan a receipt is given to you in an envelope, proffered with a bow. So in Paul Smith shops the receipt is also offered in a black envelope, albeit without the bow. A lot of people might have noticed the cultural more, but the smart thing was to realise that what makes the experience special in Tokyo would work just as well in London or New York. Likewise, one of the signatures of his brand is its use of prints, often taken directly from his photography and woven or printed on to fabric. After all, if the pattern of a venetian blind on the ceiling evokes a summer in Italy, why shouldn’t it do the same on a shirt? Recontextualising things like this works. It’s like when Bowie used the melody for Over the Rainbow for Starman; talent imitates, but genius steals. So don’t sit around waiting for ideas to arrive from the ether, go out and find them.

4. Classic-with-a-twist

Menswear, where Smith made his name, tends toward the uniform. Two well-cut men’s suits are virtually indistinguishable – so the addition of the detail, the twist, in the classic-with-a-twist is crucial. What is personality apart from the ways in which a person or thing isn’t quite perfect? This is what the coloured buttonhole or the patterned linings do: they’re the deviations from the norm that render products more human. They’re small rebellions that make your Paul Smith jacket unlike another jacket, but also unlike the perfect jacket. In a way, the more conventional outfit, the jacket without the canary lining, would be easier to buy, but harder to really like. His clothes demand acceptance, the way that certain friends do. And this is really important because fashion might depend on conformity, but style is all about personality.

5. This charming man

Paul Smith is nice. And this is particularly surprising when you consider that some of the biggest names in fashion are notoriously, well, not-nice. While I suspect this is more happy accident than design, it just so happens this is a perfect case of zigging where others zag. If Steve Jobs’s famously tyrannical approach marked him out in the world of programmers and software engineers, then perhaps Smith’s down-to-earth demeanour is a welcome relief amongst all those prima donnas. It turns out that kindness is even more valuable in a scarce economy. And while it doesn’t prove that you have to be nice to succeed, he does demonstrate that it’s not only the bastards that win. 1

‘Gordon Comstock’ is a creative director based in London and regular CR columnist. He tweets from @notvoodoo. Hello, My Name is Paul Smith is on at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD until March 9. More details at designmuseum.org. An accompanying book, published by Rizzoli, is also available (£40), rizzoliusa.com

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