What a nice man - what a very nice man

David Patterson has a mild obsession: to find anyone who will say something mean about the designer Paul Smith. Not a chance
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The Independent Culture
The Design Museum is packed tonight, and everyone is wearing a Paul Smith suit. True, this is the launch of the Paul Smith tribute exhibition, but one would assume that these people would be wearing Paul Smith suits whatever they were doing tonight (except, perhaps, for attending a Versace launch party).

They are Paul Smith people through and through - beautiful-ish, rich- ish, individual-ish, British. A microphone has been set up in the corner, next to a framed poster for a recent Oxford Union season of events. Many guest speakers are listed on the poster - Max Clifford, Joseph Heller - but only two are circled in green ink. Paul Smith and Kermit the Frog. For all of this overwhelming pomp and glamour, Smith would like us to know, he is only a muppet (albeit, like Kermit, the chief muppet - you wouldn't get Fozzie Bear invited to speak at the Oxford Union).

Then Terence Conran and Jeremy Issacs take the stage, and eulogise (as you'd expect). The eulogies, however, are ebullient enough to temper any cynicism. These are super eulogies. Jeremy Isaacs: "Probably the most extraordinary and remarkable man I have ever known."

Terence Conran: "A true Brit. A credit to this country. If there were more people alive like Paul Smith, Britain would surely be a greater place. Let's give him a resounding cheer!" Everybody cheers, heartily. Paul Smith blushes, and sticks up his thumbs.

Paul Smith is every profile writer's nightmare, for he seems genuinely to be the world's most liked man. His likeability, it seems, transcends analysis: it is ubiquitous and boundless. ("He knows everything about football. We talked for ages about George Best. Fantastic. One of the lads" - a journalist from Loaded magazine).

Although I certainly hadn't intended to dig up the dirt and rake the muck, I have become rather ungraciously obsessed in finding someone who has anything in the least bit mean to say about him: nobody can, surely, be that impeccable. But it is to little avail. ("Thank God for Paul Smith"- the Independent, March 1994.)

And now that all the superlatives have been exhausted, the "Man Who Has, and Deserves, Everything" (Sunday Times) has been given something new - this elaborate and fine Design Museum exhibition, dedicated to the life and myth. Like the suits, Paul Smith is an uncomplicated - if slightly goofy - fellow designed to be painted in broad strokes, as the exhibition deftly does.

And these are they:

1. Down-to-earth Credit Trader father.

2. Fell off his bicycle aged 17. Months in hospital. (An exact replica of the bicycle - buckled wheel intact - begins the exhibition.)

3. Started selling T-shirts from a big box in a Nottingham back alley. (He did, however, call the box-business 'Vetement'. The exhibition is entitled Smart from the Start.)

4. Met Pauline, his partner of 29 years, who convinced him to branch out and move to London. (We can read Pauline's diary from the time: "Just came home. We are all very tired.")

5. Now owns 146 shops in Japan.

6. Likes toy trains.

7. Everyone likes him.

The quintessential salt of the earth, suggest these broad strokes, is awed by his own life and accomplishment. Indeed, one corner of the exhibition is dedicated to nice letters he's received from people like Bruce Weber, which would be perceived as vanity in most, but comes out as something akin to ingenuous charm in Smith.

As does everything else. The accent, the demeanour, is parochial (if slightly effete) Nottingham through and through. It is as if he's in a permanent state of Not-Believing-His-Luckness. "I am an OK designer," he has said, "and an OK businessman."

This self-deprecation is not to be taken seriously, of course. He had a wonderfully simple idea, which he has executed beautifully: how to transform The Suit into a personal expression of subtly kooky, yet nicely wealthy, individuality.

Paul Smith suits go well with Filofaxes and boxer shorts (both popularised by Smith), but just as well with toy sculptures of spaghetti (which you can also purchase in his shops). Jack Nicholson, David Bowie, David Hockney - they are all Paul Smith men. I am reminded of the Jeff Daniels character in Something Wild.

"I am a rebel," he announces. "I just channel it in the mainstream."

For in interviews and important meetings, Smith has a tendency to suddenly announce, with a twinkle in his eye: "I'm bored."

After this, he produces a model train set, or bangs a squeaky toy hammer on the table, or - if he is working in his Covent Garden ex-banana warehouse office - slides down the spiral staircase, while whooping with glee. He goofily sticks up his thumbs in approbation like an impeccably stylish Krankee or Peter Stringfellow, or an autumnal Jean-Paul Gaultier.

But - in conversation, at least - he is a man for all seasons. When I wonder aloud to the journalist from Loaded whether Smith is the sort to guilefully manipulate his character to whatever company he's in - and, if so, what would that suggest about his disposition - he jumps hastily to the designer's defence.

"No. Honestly. He prefers to talk about George Best."

But then: "He's just the most charming, wonderful man I've ever met," says a rather lofty fashion buyer who wishes to remain nameless. "We spoke for hours about architecture. He's so knowledgeable. And serious, too.

"Did you know that he refused his nomination for British Designer of the Year as a protest against the lack of government support for the industry?"

"Why," I ask, "do you want to be anonymous if you've only got nice things to say about him?"

"I just don't want to take the chance," she replies, softly. "Who knows? He might be angry."

This, it transpires, is doubtful. Paul Smith says he has never, ever lost his temper, even, it seems, aged 17. This was the age, of course, when he famously and painfully fell off his racing bicycle and did not become melancholy or enraged at an unjust world.

"I just realised that there's more to life than riding a bike," he said. But the temperance and eccentricity belong to a man who knows he is in charge. The spiral staircase he whoopingly slides down leads straight to his employees' offices, designed, it is said, so he can keep an eye on them. Interestingly, too, many journalists have complained that he will invariably terminate the interview at the appointed minute ("The second!" exclaims one. "The second hand went to 12, and he immediately stood up and shook my hand!"). And it is very easy, of course, to bang a squeaky hammer during a very important meeting if the people around the table all work for you.

But this is churlish nit-picking. I never did find anyone with a gripe against Paul Smith. Maybe he really is - as Loaded has claimed - the Greatest Living Englishman. He certainly fulfils all the vital pre-requisites - a liberal down-to-earth manner tinged with harmless buffoonery; a suit that makes us look interesting and unique, but not too interesting or unique. And, lest we forget (as Paul Smith has reminded more than one journalist), Nottingham is situated in the very, very centre of England.

For further details about the exhibition, call the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 on 0171-403 7436.

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