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Paul Smith Talks Hello, My Name is Paul Smith Exhibition at Nottingham Castle

8 September 21 words: Frieda Wignall
photos: Tracey Whitefoot

We get a one time only look around as Sir Paul Smith makes a homecoming to Nottingham Castle to visit the Hello, My Name is Paul Smith exhibition on its last stop of a fourteen-country world tour – the Design Museum’s most successful touring exhibition in its history.

I am the wrong person to be doing this is what I’m thinking as I approach the Castle Gatehouse. I’ve already been chastised by my nearest and dearest for not knowing who Paul Smith is, come on after I told them that I would be meeting the man himself today. Okay, so obviously I knew the name, and somewhere in the foggy depths of my brain I knew he was from Nottingham, but not much beyond that. Sue me – clearly I’ve been living under a (sartorially ignorant) rock. Here goes nothing. 

My first thought is that the title of the exhibition – Hello, My Name is Paul Smith – feels pretty plain and inadequate for a man whose brand is not only a British institution but a global sensation. I soon realise that that is the point. Paul Smith is not a man with airs and graces, despite all his success – 50 years of it to be precise, celebrating the company’s golden anniversary in 2020. Even today, the 75-year-old is dressed impeccably but not ostentatiously. That said, he’s by no means ‘ordinary’ and the exhibition explodes with colour to reflect this. Some sections are beautifully minimalist and others deliciously maximalist – a highlight is the Wall of Art, featuring a collage of photos, prints and artworks that have inspired Paul. Whatever direction you look in, there’s a feast for the eyes and for the mind. Paul is all about inspiration, after all; according to him, you can find it in everything. “If you train your mind to think laterally, you can always be ahead of the game.” 

The exhibition hosts 1500 objects that encapsulate Paul’s personality. But his favourite? His wife Pauline’s paintings on the Wall of Art – “I owe it all to her.” The Wall also features a photograph of Paul with his parents in front of their old house in Beeston. Later, Paul points out a camera belonging to his late father, an amateur photographer. He holds court with magnetism and humour, leaning on the display cases. At one point he pulls a scarf (pattern inspired by a view of the Andes on a trip to Chile) from the display and quips, “I’ll probably get in trouble for that.” He’s still got a spark in his eyes when he talks about his work, passion that evidently hasn’t dulled over the decades. Does he still like what he does? “No, far more than that. I love it. It’s beautiful. I’m very privileged.” 

He’s still got a spark in his eyes when he talks about his work, passion that evidently hasn’t dulled over the decades

Finally, I get my chance to ask Paul two very precious questions of my own. When I tell him I’m from LeftLion, he immediately quotes back “Where Nottingham meets!” – memories of his 2007 interview with us still fresh, apparently. I ask whether he thinks there’s a future for fashion in the 21st century that is genuinely sustainable. “Certainly, as a company we’re making enormous headway. We’re doing a lot, but in order to run a business and survive, it’s hard to be 100% squeaky clean. Hopefully lots of people will be arm wrestled into paying attention to it more. A lot of companies will be put in an embarrassing situation where if they don’t do it, they’ll feel like they’re in the wrong.” By the end of 2022, 100% of Paul Smith packaging will be recyclable. He’s also just recently designed a sustainable Mini Cooper, which will be displayed in Munich in September.

But what I really want to know is, is there anything uniquely ‘Nottingham’ that has influenced him throughout his career? “Not from a creative point of view, but I think the fact that in Nottingham, I was always just Paul. Feet on the ground. There’s no room for big egos, whereas unfortunately one of the things the world suffers from these days is too many of those.”

The exhibition encourages you to get acquainted not with a master fashion guru, but with an old friend

I agree with him. There’s a frankness, a boldness to his curiosity that I recognise as authentically Notts. Throughout the day, he’s keen to stress that the exhibition is absolutely not about self-adulation. That grounded, what-you-see-is-what-you-get deal is very Paul and very Nottingham. He wants young people to know that “if you’re gentle, polite and you do things properly, you’ll progress.”

The gallery is still open to the public today and he’s chatting with everyone, not just the press and the coterie of councillors and donors (I particularly enjoy watching people’s faces as they realise, ‘Oh my god, that’s him!’). He cheerily accepts a hand-knitted Robin Hood hat from an older Castle volunteer. Of course, I’ve not witnessed the exhibition in its other glamourous touring spots – Seoul, Shanghai, Kyoto – but it just feels right having him and the show here, where it all began.  

Whether you’re a long-time admirer or a little bit clueless, like me, the exhibition encourages you to get acquainted not with a master fashion guru, but with an old friend. This is simply Paul introducing himself and showing you his things. So, as it turns out, I am the perfect person to be writing this piece. And though you won’t get Paul in the flesh, as I was lucky to, his presence thrums in every component of the exhibition. If you get a chance, see it. It’s not every day we get to welcome back one of our own in such a fitting way. 

Hello, My Name is Paul Smith is open at Nottingham Castle until 20th February 2022. 

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