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Paul Smith in 50 Objects

Samantha Conti
·3 mins read

It was an odd way to be spending a 50th-anniversary year, and some would have even called it anticlimactic, but not Paul Smith, whose can-do spirit, sunny disposition and work ethic are unwavering.

The designer, retailer, and entrepreneur spent his 16 weeks of lockdown working alone in his massive Covent Garden headquarters in London, driving through the city’s deserted streets in the early morning, flipping on the lights, and then turning them out at the end of the day.

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HQ is now back up and running, and Smith said he’s proud to be able to update his CV, having served during those weeks as office cleaner, plant-waterer, irrigation system repairer (for the garden on the roof of the building) and fuse-box wizard (for when the garage door got stuck).

In between chores, he managed to run the business “on the phone and on Zoom” and did his best to cover for the 200-plus head office staff who were either working from home or on furlough.

After a few weeks, he had some long-distance company in the form of five warehouse staff in Nottingham, England — a tiny fraction of the usual workforce there — who were picking and packing and managing the e-commerce site at a social distance.

Smith was also helping to put the finishing touches on a new book, marking his 50th anniversary in business, which is set to be released this week. Edited by Tony Chambers and with a foreword by Jony Ive, the book, published by Phaidon, tells Smith’s story through 50 objects.

The book recalls BBC Radio 4’s program from a decade ago, “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” and anyone familiar with Smith and his work will recognize his possessions, passions and inspirations.

The items he chose include the Kodak Retinette camera he received from his father for his 11th birthday, and which engendered a lifelong passion for photography; the bicycle he crashed as a teenager, which put paid to his dreams of becoming a professional cyclist and set him on an entrepreneurial path, and the 1966 Le Smoking that Smith had asked Yves Saint Laurent to make for his wife, Pauline.

There are less romantic objects, too, such as the Paul Smith printed cotton boxer shorts that proved a hit with English customers; the green apple, which he used for his first photographic print because of its “minimalist, confident” look, and his collection of miniature rabbit figurines, Smith’s personal good luck symbol.

The designer said he didn’t “overanalyze” the 50 choices, and said they came naturally and spontaneously.

Interspersed in the book are small pamphlets with sketches, tributes and letters dedicated to Smith from the likes of Tadao Ando, Manolo Blahnik, James Dyson, Bill Nighy and John Pawson.

Sir Terence Conran, who died last month, had also paid tribute in a letter, noting that Smith’s blockbuster exhibition a few years ago, “Hello, My Name Is Paul Smith,” was one of the favorite shows that Conran and the Design Museum ever put together.

Capsule collections of 50th anniversary-product based on images in the book will launch later this month. Later this year, for Christmas, a limited edition of the book will be released, each with its own Polaroid photo, signed and taken by Smith during his days knocking around the empty headquarters in London.

Smith said he was adamant that the book not be a retrospective, or be categorized by year or by decade. He said he wanted something that people could refer to, dip in and out of, and be inspired by.

A shame, then, that his lockdown experiences happened as the book was going to press. Smith could have had so many more stories to tell, and could have chosen one of the 120 wastepaper baskets that he had to empty when he found himself alone, in the first week of lockdown, with no cleaners.