Aboud Creative is known for its lasting bond with fashion designer Paul Smith
It must have been fate: When Alan Aboud was completing his design education at St. Martin's School of Art in London, the designer Paul Smith's business was located practically next door. In need of some freelance design help, Smith sent someone over to check out the work of the school's top students. Aboud's work stood out—and now, 20 years later, Smith's renowned clothing company and Aboud's esteemed design shop are still working together.
spoke to Aboud, a judge at this year's One Show Design, about the ins-and-outs and the ups-and-downs of a long-lasting client/designer relationship. It really started, Aboud says, as something of a mismatch. Back in those student days at St. Martin's, Aboud was expressing an edgy design approach that "was exactly the wrong style of work for Paul Smith," Aboud says. "But that has always been Paul's ethos—look for the wrong person, and you'll end up with the right person."
Aboud initially set up shop with photographer Sandro Sodano and over the next two decades, the agency would help define and refine the identity of the Paul Smith brand, creating a client/agency relationship that is surprisingly durable for any product category, but especially within the fickle world of fashion. "I'm not saying it's all been a bed of roses for 20 years," Aboud says, adding: "It's always difficult in a way to have a client who is extremely creative—who's in some ways more creative than the creative agency. It took a while for him to become comfortable with me and let me just get on with things."
It took almost a decade, in fact, before Aboud was able to have his biggest impact on the brand, by redesigning its corporate identity around what has come to be known as the "multi-stripe" sensibility. Aboud was able to take the vibrant imagery from Smith's textile collection—involving stripes, patterns and rich colors—and extend it to the overall brand identity, including packaging and signage. The look became synonymous with Paul Smith and, at the same time, highly-influential in fashion and design circles. "In some ways it created a new genre in design, and I'm actually quite proud about that," Aboud says.
The look represented a bold change of direction for Smith's company, which had previously become known for understated "cool gray" bags and collateral. "It was kind of an anomaly where Paul Smith's clothing was famous for color and prints and patterns, and yet his external identity was gray," Aboud says. "So even though those gray bags had been successful, we felt it was important to set about trying to change the company's image." Aboud went to his client and got straight to the point, saying: "You're all about color and the ability to mix color and patterns—why don't you have this amazingly colorful bag as the identity?"
Smith agreed and the rest is history. The redesign "was so successful that we were kind of scared by its success," Aboud says. "And for the first five years we really reined in the use of multi-stripe within the company." Aboud notes that Smith's approach is anti-corporate in terms of not wanting too much uniformity in any aspect of his business—for example, no two Paul Smith stores look the same in terms of layout and interior design. "He prides himself on that, but obviously in this complex world you also need a brand identity that customers can recognize in an instant, whether it be in a mall or a department store or in a store window down the street," Aboud says. "We wrestled for quite a long time with how much to use the new imagery. But gradually we all realized we'd created something that was actually quite a beautiful statement about the brand—and then we started being more confident about pushing it out in a very controlled way."
The multi-stripe sensibility is only part of the overall change Aboud and Smith brought to the brand's communication. Aboud, who works on all the ads right down to the photo shoots and the production and direction of commercials, strived to create a tone that was distinctive but also believable. Paul Smith ads are "aspirational but not in a Calvin Klein kind of way," he says. "There's often a sense of humor underlying the imagery." The biggest challenge, he says, involves keeping the brand fresh and new, yet still consistent, from one season to the next.
Aboud Creative has expanded over the years to take on a number of other major branding assignments, primarily in the fashion and fragrance industries: Clients have included Levi's, H&M, LVMH, and more recently River Island and Neal's Yard Remedies. Working in the fashion and fragrance industries, "the difficulty is the fickleness and unpredictability of the market," Aboud says. "There is such rapid change in what is considered fashionable and unfashionable. But if you get too involved in being fashionable, in terms of your designs, that can be your downfall." He says that design agencies that strive to be "flavor-of-the-month" are likely to just as quickly fall out of favor. "We've adopted a very pragmatic attitude whereby we haven't tried to be the coolest agency in the world or in London—we just kind of got on with the work and traveled a very level upward curve. We've gone in under the radar and not gotten caught up playing the fashion game." By not trying too hard to be stylish, Aboud has created a style that works well for Smith, and his agency has done likewise with other fashion clients. "What we're trying to do with the work is bring out the brand's true identity as opposed to purporting a falseness about them. In the fashion industry there's a lot of design and advertising that tries to embellish products that don't merit the hype or the pricetag. We've been fortunate to work with fashion brands that actually have a soul."
First and foremost among those is Paul Smith, of course. Aboud's relationship with the brand isn't just lengthy, it's deep. The agency does all the work on commercials and print ads, works with the web company in creating the visual look of the Paul Smith website, designs in-store signage, creates bottles for fragrances, designed a Paul Smith book, and works with all the licensees on their advertising (there are seven different sub-brands, ranging from watches, fragrance, bags, underwear). "I love the variety of working in all those areas, Aboud says. "I believe if you're creative, you can work in any field as long as you have the right specialists around you." The agency's ethos, he says, is that crossing over into many disciplines is good because ideas and energy tend to spark from one area to another.
In handling so many creative roles for Smith, "we're like an internal agency even though we're an external agency," Aboud says. "It's a weird scenario whereby I know the brand so well that sometimes it's like I'm simultaneously client and agency." And he also gets involved on a corporate strategic level, sitting on a four-person creative committee that includes Smith and two of Smith's top creative executives. Aboud also talks on the phone to Smith at least two or three times three times a week. The relationship between agency and client is so close that there's rarely a need for a brief—"other than maybe just a hand-jotted note that gets faxed over to me."
Aboud acknowledges that it can be unsettling to have one client that plays such an important role in defining an agency's identity. "In the beginning as a designer I really struggled with my association with Paul because the work far outweighs any other of my clients," he says. "I was concerned that people might just label me as the Paul Smith designer. But in recent years I've come to realize that it's not a bad thing to be known for something that has been so widely-emulated, and for work that will likely stand the test of time."