Behind the scenes at Paul Smith

Alan Aboud and Sandro Sodano are the designers that have built and fostered the image in the world of the UK brand Paul Smith, creating top level advertising campaigns, perfumes and packs. Fashion no longer holds any secrets for them and neither does packaging.

Sonia Pedrazzini

It is certainly curious, and we hope a good omen, but this with Impackt is the first interview the two designers have given after the substantial changes made within their agency. In fact Aboud+Sodano has just recently become Aboud Creative, under the direction of Alan Aboud, while Sandro Sodano has preferred to dedicate himself even more fully to photography. This though has not disrupted the timehonored collaboration between the two colleagues, that is indeed continuing to great effect and with further possibilities for both to act more freely and on new projects. Alan Aboud answers our questions.

What is the common ground you share and that led you to decide to work together?
We were both unemployable when we left art school, so an older colleague who used to tutor us, offered for us to freelance from his space in Soho. We stayed in that building for 13 years, after we finally realized that we had to work for ourselves. Sandro’s knowledge and understanding of photographic and fashion helped me a lot, as I was not a particularly fashion conscious person at St Martin’s School of Art.
As I started getting more work from Paul Smith that entailed photography, I increasingly worked with Sandro on these projects, and that is how the collaboration began.

How is your studio organized?
We have evolved from just being a studio with two people, to now a functioning studio with 8-10 staff during busy periods. We offer a one stop service for clients. We design, we art direct, we produce shoots and we retouch images in post production. All activities are in-house, mainly so that I can keep a very close eye on the progress of projects.

Broaching a topic very dear to us: fashion and packaging, in your opinion what importance does packaging design have in the coordinated image of a big fashion maison?
It has very high importance. Presentation of garments and packaging helps increase the perceived value of an object. At the companies that we work with, a lot of money is spent trying to produce the right carrier bag, the right gift boxes for the consumer.
A lot of fashion purchases are gifts, and gift packaging really helps ensure that a customer comes back to shop again and again. If a person is buying a piece of jewelry from a fashion house for £2000, the least they expect is for it to have packaging that protects and also houses that item carefully and as attractively as possible. All garments have ticketing and packaging factored into their unit cost, so it is up to each fashion customer to decide how much they want to put towards packaging. Japanese fashion houses, for me, are the ones who value packaging the most. Even if you buy a tiny item in Tokyo at any store, your purchase is exquisitely packaged and you leave the store feeling special, and also contemplating further purchases.

How do you go about tackling a new packaging project, where do you get your inspiration, what methodology do you use?
Inspiration can come from anywhere. It could be a walk in a gallery, down the street, at a market or watching a film. I am constantly thinking of things to do, and projects to work on. I also am a book addict. I buy so many books, and thrive on their content. I try to avoid buying books on design, with the exception of true greats such as Saul Bass, Herb Lubalin and Robert Brownjohn. All heroes of mine. I carry my camera with me at all times too, especially when I go to New York. It is my favorite place for inspiration. My favorite book store is Dashwood Books, on Bond Street off Broadway. David, the owner, knows my taste and when I leave there each time I visit, I am usually a few hundred dollars poorer!!!

How did your relationship with Paul Smith come into being and how has it evolved in time?
I was in my final year at St. Martin’s School of Art in 1989. The Head Buyer at Paul Smith came to our end of year show, and short-listed me along with some of my friends to come for interview for freelance work. At the time, my specialisation was typography and I had no fashion or art directing skills in my portfolio. I was interviewed, and I was totally the wrong person for the job. Paul liked that, and I was offered some freelance work. I worked three days a week in the beginning and it has grown massively since then. I was lucky to be with Paul Smith at a time that they were massively expanding. I grew with them, and thankfully, my working relationship with the company and especially with Paul has been excellent. There have been some rocky times, but we are all still together after 19 years.
It took Paul a few years to become comfortable with me and to delegate, but now, we speak very often during the week and sometimes a brief consists of a sketch and a few lines of suggestion from him. We have a very good mutual understanding.

For the work done for Paul Smith, did you try to impose your own style, did you make the fashion designer’s style your own, or have you always worked in perfect cooperation and stylistic unity?
I don’t believe that I have a house style at my company, other than a simple, clear well reasoned solution for each piece of work that is output. I believe that as a service industry. designers have a responsibility to their client to further their brand image, and not the design agency’s. We act as a catalyst for image and design solutions. The client briefs us on what they need or what they see is lacking with their product, and we then seek to put the right team together to produce a well reasoned design solution for that specific purpose. Due to the longevity of my relationship with Paul Smith, I am often simultaneously the client and the agency. Very rarely do others make decisions on shoots etc, as I am effectively the brand guardian for the company, as I have helped establish the house style for them. I know, after 19 years, what Paul likes and what he won’t like.

What are the main elements a designer has to consider in designing packaging for the high fashion sector?
The most important question for every project is clarifying who the customer is for the required packaging. Is it a man or woman? What age are they? What other brands would they aspire to? Once one knows the answers to these questions, you can easily start to build up a picture of what is required.
Budget also, nowadays is very important to clarify. One can design the best packaging with bespoke linings etc, but if it is too expensive, the client will not do it. Finance plays a huge part in fashion now, and all fashion houses (successful ones) are governed by financial directors.
For me, luckily, often the simplest design and solution is the best. Luxury sometimes means simplicity, and space.

Do you have a case history or a special or curious anecdote you could relate to us?
Often notes are scribbled by Paul and given to me as a brief. I have kept a lot of them, and often they serve as a good reminder as to how to conduct one’s self in this industry.
After all, Paul started his business properly in 1970, so he has a whole wealth of experience to avail of. However, one day, whilst searching through some of his notebooks for some sketches, I came across one which sums up Paul completely in a way that no magazine article can. This scribble said: “I am at xxxxxx xxxxxxx (famous LA hotel). It’s full of bullshitters and showoffs…”.
He had been dining alone after doing interviews at his new LA store, and was appalled at the some of people that fashion attracted. He is no nonsense in his approach, and very, very down to earth. I like to think of Paul as my mentor in business and life. He shows me ways of conducting myself in a way that is proper, yet honest. He has been surrounded by stars and fame for a long time, but he remains unaffected by it all.

Who are your other customers besides Paul Smith?
I am now working for a company in London called Neal’s Yard Remedies, an organic Apothecary and organic and beauty retailer. They have bring me in as creative director to oversee the whole brand from packaging to store design. It is an immensely rewarding project as the passionately believe in creating products and packaging that does not harm the body or the environment. We inherited a truly iconic bottle and colour way and we are steering them in a way that creates continuity and strength. We also have been working with RIVER ISLAND, a high street company similar to H+M or TopShop. A very different challenge, but rewarding nonetheless.

What other fashion griffes would you like to work for?
I don’t seek to work with many fashion houses, as I think they are mostly too established for me to get involved. I would love to work on a brand that has had better days, and needs some re-invention. One such brand for me is Laura Ashley, an amazing British brand that enjoyed success globally in the 1980s, but sadly since the owner’s death, it has sunk to mediocrity.

Could you tell us something about what you will be working on next?
Next up for the studio are: A new limited edition men’s fragrance for Paul Smith. A book of personal images of mine called ‘Above All Else’, also a collaborative book written by my cousin, Simon Aboud, called TOLD. This is our first collaboration with our satellite company called ABOUD + ABOUD. (