“A very generous man with his time” is how Alan Aboud describes his client, the fashion designer, Paul Smith. Their working relationship started after Alan graduated from London’s Saint Martin’s School of Art and has lasted more than twenty-six years. Eamon Spelman met with Alan at his London studio, where he spoke about his time working for the designer and how that working relationship is now entering a new chapter.
Alan graduated in 1989, a period he describes as ‘a very bleak time’ for design but he found himself in the right place at the right time. Paul Smith were looking to hire someone and happened to attend his graduation show. They shortlisted six Saint Martin’s graduates, four of whom lived in the same house, the other two very good friends - “so probably our design ‘collective’ rubbed off on each other and Paul saw that.”
He admits that, at the time, he had no interest in fashion. “My final year show was typography: five quotes with five found images of old family photos. It was extremely minimalist and about making a statement. I think that’s what they liked about my show and Paul has a lateral way of employing people. I think I was the wrong person for the job so he thought it was a good idea! I was lucky.”
Graphic design for Alan started when an influential art teacher at Belvedere College, John Lane, encouraged him to apply to National College of Art & Design (NCAD), where he was accepted on the foundation year. While there, his growing interest in music meant that he was drawn to album sleeve design. “In the early ’80s, Dublin had a growing music scene and U2 were inextricably linked to it. The album Boy came out in 1980 and the cover was amazing, a really beautiful piece of work. I was totally taken by it,” he says.
“I was never really interested in photography but I got interested in who designed record sleeves. In U2’s case, it was a guy called Steve Averill – who has been responsible for designing the cover for every album U2 have done. I was lucky enough to end up doing an internship with him a few years later.
“Other designers working in the music industry that really interested me at the time were Peter Saville for New Order and Factory Records but, more so, a guy called Malcolm Garrett, who studied with Peter at Manchester Polytechnic. Malcolm did work for bands like Television and The Buzzcocks and did the more commercial stuff for the likes of Duran Duran. At the time, his company, Assorted Images, did some quite amazing covers. I got in touch with him – I can’t remember how – and ended up getting an internship with him too.
“So music was always the link and it’s how I got into graphic design.”
Alan left NCAD after second year to take up a degree course in Saint Martin’s in London, which was hugely significant for his career. “The biggest strength was the people that got drawn to go to Saint Martin’s. It was very much and still is – to an extent – a cliquey thing, a kind of Saint Martin’s mafia. Having that name [on your CV] counted for a lot. You could make connections very quickly,” he explains.
After graduation, Alan set up a business with Sandro Sodano, called Aboud Sodano, and divided his time between working for Paul Smith and as assistant art director at Blueprint, as well as working with Stephen Coates on Eye magazine. “It gave a nice balance between quite rigid (editorial) design and the quite fluid design, in terms of what we were doing for Paul. There was always a group of people who would be empowered with the creative direction of the company – Paul, me and then two or three other people, who came and went over time and who were third and fourth members of that committee. So everything creative would come through us.”
Over time, a level of trust was built between them that evolved into a more collaborative relationship: a case of working ‘with’ rather than ‘for’ Paul Smith. “In those days, there was no such thing as a brief. It was just a quick conversation and then a little sketch on the back of a fag pack, metaphorically speaking. I could understand how to execute and there was a trust. Most of the time, on photo shoots, we would be the creative directors, the agency and also the client. As we were working so closely with Paul, a lot of the time there wouldn’t be any representation from Paul Smith in terms of staff or marketing.
“We didn’t influence the clothes. We would get involved when the samples were produced and we would go through the mood boards with the designers to understand how to craft the campaign. We would take their mood boards and transition them for graphic design. We would advise on what products would work photographically and aesthetically. A lot of the time we’d get our way. We would work on the styling for the shoots, not an external stylist; it was all styled internally up until probably five or six years ago,” he says.
“We were working simultaneously on three, if not four, projects at any one time. In January, we might be working on Christmas later that year, the autumn/winter campaigns and the sale for that spring. As the business grew, licences grew, projects grew, and so it went from just this two-line company (main line and a jeans line) into eight or nine different lines, such as kids, watches, luggage, bags. So there was a lot going on and it was a very exciting time.
“Our last project was probably one of our best ones. We did a case study film, featuring a campaign for the Paul Smith travel suit and there were five aspects to the project; one was a celebrity induction, where we asked Olympic gymnast, Max Whitlock, to come in as the face of the campaign. From that, we did a print campaign and a film that went into store windows. It became a live promotion for London Collection: Mens (LC:M) and then a travelling performance that went around the world during the Summer of 2015.”
Alan continues, “It came about when they needed a live presentation for LC:M last January and had decided that this would be their promotional campaign for autumn/winter 2015. We were working on the consumer-facing campaign and they had an idea they wanted some way of demonstrating it. Chloe, who works with me, came up with idea to go the National Centre for Circus Arts to look at performers and also find a director of movement from the Royal Shakespeare Company. It went from there and we pieced together a team. What we thought would be a one-off event went to a second event, then to a third in Japan and then onto a tour around the world in August and September. It grew quite organically but it grew with, largely, our determination and drive, as opposed to their leadership.
“Working with Paul Smith has been an MA, except in the real world. Those years after graduation, it was like learning all over again. I learnt so much from him – a lot about business, a lot about politeness, business politeness: replying to people, even if you have no need for that person or interest in what they are doing. But it’s about being polite and being nice,” Alan says.
“Paul is very generous with his time with people. However, that’s the crux of the problem – succession – and the reason why we are not working with Paul Smith full-time anymore. We finished our full-time relationship in August. We are now only doing one line for them, the Japanese-only menswear line, Paul Smith Collection. So there is a big change for us and for him. The reason is that the company is trying to put in place a succession plan for him. The company has realised – possibly too late – that the company’s success is primarily based on him, the person.
“They have put in place a new creative director. This has allowed the new person to bring in a new fashion creative team and, as a result, we have stepped back. With any person who comes in, they want to bring in their own team. It’s been quite an eventful year – traumatic, in terms of change, but invigorating at the same time.”