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Hello, My Name Is Paul Smith

Catherine von Ruhland

Design Museum, London

Until June 22

It would be easy to miss the homely pair of monochrome photographs among the visual pzazz of this rather wonderful focus on top British fashion designer, Sir Paul Smith (so successful an exhibition that it's been extended by three and a half months). Taken by his keen photographer father when Paul was ten years old, in one the boy sits on a rug set over the backs of a couple of chairs. In the other, there is Paul, flying a magic carpet above Brighton's Royal Pavilion.

Neither image detracts from the other: It is like clearly seeing the puppeteers and machinations of the stage play, War Horse yet nevertheless weeping for the dying, shattered Topthorn. Framework plus imagination of a gifted creator and their audience equals something very enchanting indeed. Those small black and white photographs are a metaphor for this entire exhibition.

Room by room, in Hello, My Name Is Paul Smith we are shown his company's development from a three metre square windowless shop opened in Nottingham in 1970 ('It was a room but we called it a shop.') to a worldwide concern.

A plywood mock-up of that first boxy shop sets the scene. In that tiny space (called 'Paul Smith: Vetements Pour l'Homme') is expressed his resourcefulness and determination to succeed. 'This Is My First Showroom' presents the layout of the bedroom in a Paris hotel where six shirts, two jumpers and two suits made their debut. 'Only one person turned up at the end of the final day, but they placed an order: that was the beginning of my business.'

His design room is also recreated, with the print collection Smith has amassed since he was a teenager - including those by Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Banksy - and even a framed tea towel featuring the self-portraits of the children of All Saints Church of England Primary School. The prints fill two walls from floor to ceiling. A room called 'Inside Paul's Head' incorporates his recorded voice explaining what sparks his ideas. 'You can find inspiration in everything. And if you can't, look again,' Smith advises us with the eye and mind of an artist, camera and sketchbook at the ready.

Christians tend to be antagonistic towards fashion design, focusing primarily on: its fleeting seasonal and resource-hungry nature; the physical androgyny of the models used to promote the latest styles; and the ethics of its production. Lilies of the field are often mentioned (Luke 12: 27-28). Yet while these are all valid and important considerations, they are also reductive. Whether we like it or not, we are all influenced by and dependent on the fashion industry by the very fact that we clothe ourselves within a capitalist society.

Paul Smith is now a global design company that needs to keep pace with the seasons and shows to maintain the business, and were one uninterested in either fashion or design, it might be possible to be dismissive of the Design Museum's display of a commercial brand.

Except what is so striking about Hello, My Name Is Paul Smith is how it so strongly captures the personality of the man behind the label. The exhibition title is apt because one can't help but read Sir Paul as a warm, funny, approachable and grounded Englishman. (He is referred to here as a uniquely British designer but his work and the manner in which he combines tradition and modernity is arguably as English as that of, say, Morrissey's or Bowie's oeuvre.)

Paul Smith openly admits that it is his wife, Pauline who keeps him level-headed and to whom he owes his career. This exhibition is as much a tale of a marriage. As a Royal College of Art fashion graduate tutoring at Nottingham's School of Art & Design, it was she who encouraged Paul's switch to fashion after a serious accident stymied his teen dream of becoming a professional cyclist. Her sketches for his earliest collection are on show.

Sir Paul Smith is more than a fashion designer. His trademark stripes have graced bottles, a car and bike helmets. He's worked with football teams, the Royal Mail and Penguin Books. Every one of his shops is different; he's boldly covered walls in coloured buttons, or white dominoes. His view of the world is infectious: back out in the Thameside light framed by Tower Bridge, creative possibilities abound.