Paul Smith on photography, creativity and Instagram

Speaking at an Instagram event in London on Monday, designer Paul Smith discussed his love of photography, his relationship with art and music and why he likes to post pictures on the social media site…

Behind the scenes shot for a shoot promoting Paul Smith’s ‘suit to travel in’, and photograph of record sleeves. Images via @paulsmithdesign on Instagram


Speaking at an Instagram event in London on Monday, designer Paul Smith discussed his love of photography, his relationship with art and music and why he likes to post pictures on the social media site…

Smith has almost 200,000 followers on Instagram and regularly posts images using the hashtag #takenbypaul. Speaking at the Vinyl Factory in Soho (following a discussion in which a photographer, Instagram creative strategist and co-founder of knitwear brand Wool and the Gang shared tips for using the platform, which we covered here), he said he began practising photography as a child, and got his first camera – a Kodak Retinette – aged 11. His father was an amateur photographer and member of the local camera club, and constructed a darkroom in the attic of their house in Nottingham to develop negatives.

Smith spent most of his teens training to be a professional cyclist and left school at 15 – “I lived for cycling,” he said – but turned to design after he was injured in an accident and spent three months in hospital aged 18.

Images via @paulsmithdesign on Instagram. Smith said he likes to document unusual or surprising scenes, which he often comes across on his way to work in London

His fascination with art and fashion began when he arranged to meet some people he had met in hospital in a pub filled with local art students. “They were talking about Bauhaus and Pop Art…I had no idea what it meant…but it was fascinating. They had this language…it was very cool and exciting,” he said.

Soon after, he got a job in a shop and met Pauline Denyer, now his wife, who had studied fashion design at the Royal College of Art and taught him how to make garments. (Smith showed his first collection in Paris in 1976, after opening a boutique in Nottingham and taking evening classes in tailoring, along with help from Denyer).

As a young designer, he said his concept of creating ‘classics with a twist’ (a phrase he still uses to describe his designs) was born out of necessity: with little money to spare, he could only afford to buy plain white fabric in bulk, but would add details to shirts such as coloured buttonholes and intricate stitching as a way of making his products stand out.

Images via @paulsmithdesign on Instagram. The image of a house on the left was taken in London, and has been used by Smith on a silk scarf, while the image on the right, of a lake in Morocco, was used on one of his shirts

“No-one needs another designer, so you have to work out a way to make people want to buy what you create,” he said. Aside from these extras, however, Smith said he has always been conscious to avoid unnecessary details, warning that “sometimes, people try too hard to justify being a designer.”

In the early days of his career, Smith said he would often visit friends in London to watch bands and musicians performing in pubs – from The Rolling Stones to Jimmy Page – and would make screen printed t-shirts and sell them at gigs to pay for the trip. (He sold several to musicians including Page, Led Zeppelin and Rod Stewart).

Music continues to play an important role in his life – “I play music every morning before my meetings, it’s very important to me…at the moment, I’m listening to a lot of jazz, but it could be anything,” he said. The brand’s playlists are carefully curated, and it regularly collaborates with musicians (Smith said he also often invites bands and artists to where he works).

Smith’s first cycling license (note the signature), and a big horse in a small room, via @paulsmithdesign on Instagram

Smith then spoke about his love of taking pictures and shared some of his favourite images from his Instagram profile. His account offers a fantastic example of how brands and creatives can use the site, offering a behind the scenes look at shows, collections and shoots, as well as a glimpse into his daily life and scenes he’s passed in the street that have inspired him. It’s a fascinating insight into what catches his eye and what inspires him, from a row of clothes arranged by colour in a vintage store, to a Stormtrooper mask lying discarded on the street (pictured above).

He also uses the site to document his travels – Smith said he is abroad “most weeks” and likes to create a kind of visual diary of his trips – as well as his home city of London. He has even used some Instagram pictures, including one of a house in west London on a sunny day, and another of Waterloo Bridge at sunset, to create photographic silk scarves.

While Smith said he doesn’t know much about digital technology, he said he enjoyed the immediacy of it. Asked about the difference between digital photography and traditional image-making, he said: “We’re all photographers now…we take [pictures] because we know we can delete and modify them…we’re more flippant” but said he didn’t think either was “better or worse than the other.”

Smith said he is inspired by everyday scenes and objects – from a building site that looks like a stage, to samples at a tile shop. Images via @paulsmithdesign on Instagram

Smith often posts pictures on Instagram before or behind the scenes at fashion shows. The one on the left is captioned “the calm before the storm” taken on the morning of a show. Images via @paulsmithdesign on Instagram


Speaking about his experience of analogue photography, however, shooting for magazines such as Arena and The Face, he described it as a more “nerve-wracking experience”, adding: “You only had the model for an hour, and you didn’t know how it was going to turn out…[but] the good thing about that was that you had to be very focused.”

Talking about his approach to creativity, Smith said he liked to work with people who “think laterally” – “I like people who don’t go down the obvious route,” he said. On where he finds inspiration, he said he was constantly inspired by his surroundings and the brilliance to be found in the everyday – “I think I’m blessed with looking and seeing. A lot of people look, but they don’t see,” he said, adding that he felt people today pay less attention to what’s around them, particularly when glued to a screen or following sat nav in a car.

He ended the interview with a picture of a quote from Marcel Proust, which read: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

An edited version of the talk will be published by Instagram later this month, and you can see Smiths’ instagram pictures at @paulsmithdesign.

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency