Monday, June 13, 2016

Paul Smith, Gentleman Designer (and me)

As I set up the ironing board and prepared to tackle a month's worth of 100% cotton shirts and pants, I thought I might as well watch something on television to help pass the time. The first two selections (Spy and The Martian) weren't doing it for me so I checked M2M.  I found a documentary about Paul Smith, the British designer, and pressed play.

My knowledge of Paul Smith is limited. I own a pair of eyeglasses of his design and one time walked through one of his retail stores in London.  I remembered something of a "cheeky" design aesthetic in the shop.

The film about his life and design hit many chords with me.

The cleaning cloth in the spectacle case was a design of the British flag from measuring tapes.

I collect vintage extension rulers
He admits that for years he felt embarrassed calling himself a designer because he never went to design school and was self-taught. He learned by "doing it." Not having much money for fancy textiles he asked himself how he could take affordable white cotton and make a shirt that someone would want to buy. Maybe if he used interesting buttons and added small details not found in the average men's shirt? "Special without being silly," as he put it.

From the Paul Smith exhibition at London's Design Museum

I love buttons
His focus on those details differentiated his work in the late 70s and early 80s and with time, he created a new kind of dandyism in men's wear.  People who wear his clothes feel happy wearing the bright colors and mixed patterns that permeate his work.

Paul Smith's mixed print men's shirt

I enjoy mixing prints, as well
He takes inspiration from vintage clothing and other flea market finds. He doesn't copy old designs but looks for interesting sleeve treatments, buttons closures, etc. Seeing him pawing through racks of clothes and kidding around with the sellers showed his sense of wonder and joy with design.

Flea market shopping is the best
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he doesn't know how to draw and is unable to provide his designers with illustrations of his ideas. Instead, he spends time talking with them and batting ideas back and forth.

His office space is full of his collections- vintage robots, 19th century fabric books, mechanical toys, Russian nesting dolls, and many gifts from customers and friends all over the world. I find this fascination with collections and toys charming.

He surrounds himself with things he loves

I will never be a mimimalist
Mr. Smith is in his 60s and his customer base is aging. One of his challenges is how to bring in a younger customer while maintaining the loyalty of his existing customer base. He does it partly through a variety of labels/collections that go in somewhat different directions. His fun loving personality helps him to establish rapport with a young design team.  Another aspect to the aging process is that he sees his own designs in vintage stores. "Because I'm old," he says.

Ha! Had a similar experience lately.

I rescued one of my designs from a thrift store last week. A bargain at $5.99! of his favorite hobbies is photography. He takes his camera everywhere and takes pictures of everything.  I really love that about him.

What a joy to discover so many similarities in someone I admire.  It encourages me to continue doing what I love.  Thank you, Paul Smith.


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