Leah Armstrong

Hello My Name Is Paul Smith

In Uncategorized on December 19, 2013 at 14:03

paul smithThis morning I took a trip to the Design Museum to see the ‘Hello My Name is Paul Smith’ exhibition.

The last three exhibitions I have been to see at the Design Museum have been Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern, Terence Conran: The Way we Live Now and this, Hello my Name is Paul Smith. Perhaps it’s best not to think about what this hero-worshiping of the ‘great men’ of British design says about the Design Museum’s scope and ambition. After all, all three are and have been major figures in British design and will, no doubt, pull in an audience. But, in a city as interesting as London and in a field as wide and expanding as design, it does make you wonder what the Design Museum is doing. More worryingly, it also makes you think about the power relationship between the designer and curator, which seems to have been (intentionally- i think) bent pretty far in one direction at ‘Hello my name is Paul Smith’.

The premise of the exhibition is fairly simple and unambitious, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It tells the story of Paul Smith’s retail expansion from a small room in Nottingham to a global business, replete with ‘designer collaborations’ from HP Sauce (my fav) to Evian water. What it fails to do is fill in the gaps in between.

A large part of the exhibition is devoted to explaining the creative process in design. This involves a strong immersive element: recreations of his studio in covent garden (twice) and , quite bizarrely (i thought), a room which goes ‘inside the head of Paul Smith’ through a very groovy video installation. What this seems to suggest about Paul Smith is largely what we might expect a designer to tell us: he likes to keep a notebook in his pocket at all times ‘inspiration is everywhere’ (haven’t heard that one before), ‘photographs are great’ etc etc. His desk and studio is, of course, a mess. Designers , we know by now, cannot work in any other way.

And yet: the rest of the exhibition, which shows the end result of a series of clever marketing strategies, brand collaborations and PR exercises, is very different. What results is a disjointed sense of how the two, creativity and business, are related. The financial success and global expansion of the Paul Smith brand is thus presented as a wonderful outcome of the creative process. While this of course has some role to play in it, (and the fashion collections on display are testament to this), there are many other factors involved which are missing. For me, an interesting story about fashion retail is completely lost.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exhibition is how it presents Paul Smith as curator. He has handwritten the labels. He has ‘handpicked’ the clothes from the archive. The role of the real curator- Donna Loveday- is overwritten. I can’t help but wonder what is being sacrificed here in the apparent aim to massage the designer’s ego and further amplify the public image of the designer-hero. I wonder why and how this has been allowed to happen. I also wonder, why and how (on earth!) the exhibition came to be called Hello My Name is Paul Smith.

To end on a positive note- because actually the exhibition is great fun and aesthetically lovely, especially if you are a Paul Smith fan- the final room features one of the best catwalk show experiences I have seen at an exhibition. These are now becoming a pretty well-worn feature of fashion exhibitions (although they were also a really interesting aspect of the isabella blow exhibition I saw recently). But at Hello my name is Paul Smith, the use of new Sony 4K tellies (not currently on the market) actually makes this feel like a real experience. The depth of the image and vivid colours are brilliantly deployed. In summary, the exhibition was enjoyable and certainly got me thinking, but not really for the right reasons.

Paul Smith's 'chaotic' working environment.

Paul Smith’s ‘chaotic’ working environment.

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