The Whimsy Of British Fashion Icon Paul Smith

An epic retrospective at Design Museum London tracks the career of the wannabe cyclist with no formal training.

British menswear icon Sir Paul Smith became a designer by accident. As a teenager, he always dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist, and left school at 14 to race obsessively.


Those dreams were shattered when Smith crashed his bicycle into a car and spent three months recuperating in the hospital. It was in the hospital that Smith, social butterfly, made several friends who would introduce him to London’s art and fashion scene. He decided to open a little shop in his native Nottingham, England. Fast-forward half a century: The brand’s whimsical designs are represented in 72 countries.

Given such a serendipitous story, it’s no wonder the message “EVERY DAY IS A NEW BEGINNING” hangs on a massive yellow Post-it note before the exit of Hello, My Name Is Paul Smith at Design Museum London. This epic retrospective has proved so popular that its run has now been extended until June. The designer’s playful optimism shines, from the recreation of his first shop, hung with a photograph of its “manager,” a regal Afghan hound, to a wall of 70,000 of his signature colorful buttons.

“My ideas come from all around me,” Smith says in the introduction to the iPad app that accompanies the show, “From the photos I take, the colors I spot, to the things people say and the pictures on my walls. You can find inspiration in everything, and if you can’t, look again.”

Even though Smith was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2009, Smith doesn’t take himself too seriously–and that’s one of his main appeals as a designer. “Good design is very much about spontaneity and following your instincts,” Smith told the Scotsman in a recent interview. (Smith didn’t study fashion formally.)

Looking at the youthful aesthetic of Smith clothing collections, full of color and energetic patterns–most famously, stripes–you’d never guess that the designer was almost 70 years old. The exhibition’s recreation of Smith’s office reveals his child-like love of toys and trinkets. Among its consuming clutter is a rabbit-shaped carpet, a Snoopy figurine, a floral yellow teapot, and a strand of plastic ice-cream cones. There’s also one of the first, hefty iMacs, in candy-apple green–a gift from Smith’s friend, Apple designer Jonathan Ive.

In addition to producing an impressive 28 collections a year, Smith designs all his own unique stores and shoots his own campaign imagery. Where does he find the time? It might have something to do with his avoidance of the Internet–he doesn’t have an e-mail address, and does all his correspondence by hand.


Following his own advice to use every day as a new beginning, Smith never gave up on his love of bicycles–he just decided to design them instead of race them. Featured in this exhibit are two-wheelers he designed in collaboration with Mercian Cycles, the brand he was riding during his crash.

True to Smith’s wacky spirit, a bunny-themed “Easter Extravaganza” event is planned as part of Hello, My Name is Paul Smith in April.

Check out Hello, My Name Is Paul Smith at Design Museum London until June 22.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.