Considering all the hype surrounding exhibitions that bridge the gap between art and fashion in recent years, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to learn that the Design Museum’s current exhibition, Hello, My Name is Paul Smith, has little to do with fashion at all. Apart from a collection of items demonstrating the versatility of the brand’s style, and a brief documentary disclosing the preparations for a recent menswear show, the exhibition is sparse in its display of the traditional, yet quirky, designs that have brought the company wide recognition, both commercially and within the global fashion industry.
Instead, the show’s primal focus lies on the man behind the £4 million empire, tracing his career to date and offering insight into his creative processes. It begins with a reconstruction of his first shop, a space occupying a mere three square metres in his hometown of Nottingham. This is followed by several similar recreations of places that have in various ways been significant to the development of his career.
The most personal and intimate of these replicas is his Covent Garden office. Crammed full of objects, including gifts sent from admirers and souvenirs collected from street markets across the globe, Smith’s everyday existence and work environment is essentially a clutter of creative chaos. Dubbing his office the “equivalent of my brain”, it manages to communicate the designer’s ability to find and draw inspiration from anything and everything; be it vintage bicycles, stuffed animals, or portraits.
Smith’s presence and involvement in curating the exhibition is highly noticeable throughout – the narrator of his own story. All room guides are written by the designer himself, offering his own reflections and explanations for why certain items have been included and in what way they have proved meaningful to him. In a room named Inside Paul’s Head, images from his extensive photographic archive are screened in 3D, with Smith’s voice echoing between mirrors and walls as he speaks about his lifelong passion for photography, and describes how he draws inspiration from photos and sketches by letting them work their way into fabrics and designs. Smith’s constant presence and varying methods of conveying his creative mindset serve as the exhibition’s greatest strength and advantage, allowing for the development of an intimate portrait of the man behind the brand, and pushing his personality to shine through in every aspect of the show.
Despite this central focus on the designer himself, the exhibition manages to successfully convey the size and status of the Paul Smith label. The influence the lifestyle brand has amassed over the years becomes particularly apparent through a room dedicated to the company’s collaborations throughout the years, displaying a vast range of items from Evian bottles to a Mini car. The next room also communicates the business’ international prominence, allowing a wall covered in 70,000 buttons to represent the unique elements and design approach of every Paul Smith store around the world, each of which arrangement Smith himself has been highly involved in. Once again, his integral part in every aspect of the business is emphasised, as is his ability to maintain a personal touch within all things carrying his name.
By guiding its visitors through the expansion of a tiny store in Nottingham into a globally renowned business, and providing insight into this creative mastermind, the exhibition is really about encouraging visitors to see the potential to grow from a humble beginning, and to seek and find inspiration in anything and everything one encounters in everyday life. This makes the exhibition one that I would recommend, not only to those with an interest in the brand itself, but to anyone wishing to fuel their own creativity in an unexpected way.