The vibrant colours of Lazy Oaf smacked us in the face as we pushed our way into their North London office. A glaring white neon sign hit us in the face as its glow illuminated a sofa full of plush cushions and soft toys, reminiscent of a mid 80’s Hamley’s point of sale display. The office was busy, full of new season stock and samples, print outs of presidential Prince and dogs. A fan of Lazy Oaf’s approach to clothing, we caught up with Gemma Sheil, the mastermind of this far from lazy operation. A bright pink haired Gemma pulled her chair from underneath the table, trying to avoid her new puppy as he did laps of the table legs beneath us.
So, just as an introduction, could you tell us a little about where the brand originated?
It started in 2001, I’d just finished University and I was doing screen-printing. I didn’t really understand what my course was; I was a bit like ‘I just enjoy drawing pictures and printing them on things’.
I read somewhere that you hated your course?
I didn’t hate it; I just didn’t understand what it was, sort of related to fashion but not sure how. But I was a frustrated illustrator really, I liked writing stories and creating characters and people on my course were like ‘I really want that on a tee shirt’. So I started screen-printing things for my friends. When I finished Uni’ I was very much like ‘What the hell am I gonna do with my life?’ A lot of people went down the textile route and my portfolio was bonkers, it wasn’t commercial, so I got hooked on the idea that maybe I can create a label and charge people for printing these tee shits rather than giving them as presents. I came up with the idea and just started doing it. I had two part time jobs and started printing my own tee shirts and selling them on a Spitalfields market stall.
So what was the timescale between you finishing up at Uni’ and selling on the stall?
Umm probably like ¾ months. I finished whenever you finish, like June or July and then I started doing it in October.
Really soon after then, shit.
Yeah, so it was quite quick, but I was just printing a few tee shirts and then I had jobs, so I was doing markets like once or twice a week. I set up a print studio in my Dad’s garage, well I say studio, it was a door screwed onto two bench legs, that’s where I printed.
The story seems to me like a story of somebody who’s gone to Uni’ and come out of it a little lost, which I feel is something the majority of students experience.
Yeah I was totally confused, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and it seems like a natural fit as I’d worked with print for so long already, it was a natural progression for me. Also the key thing was that I just started really small, I tested it, I wasn’t making a huge financial loss, and it was a really organic growth. I spend what I can afford, I don’t want to stretch and end up in trouble, which is what a lot of companies do.
So, how long did you do the markets for?
5, maybe 6 years I think. We learnt a lot. From doing the markets though I was also selling to stores but this is when Spitalfields was actually a really key place to go to source product. Where as now it’s not so much. I started doing shows; I opened up my own studio-
So what was your product range 2/3 years into the markets?
Well, I actually began as a menswear brand at the very beginning and then slowly introduced the girl’s stuff. I think I was pure menswear for about a year.
What was your train of thought in heading in the direction of womenswear?
I think I just started to get more women’s ideas. Because I’d created the label and brand name Lazy Oaf, I guess I never thought it could be so womanly. I would never have picked that name if I knew where the direction of the brand would go.
So yeah, what is the craic with the name then?
It’s a really boring story. I was getting screens made for my first batch [of tees] and I just thought it’d be a really good opportunity to get my brand name put on the screens. So I had five, ten minutes to come up with a brand name. It was between like, ‘Fat Trucker’ and ‘lazy Oaf’ and I think I made the right choice. People call me Lazy Oaf now, so if my brand was called ‘Fat Trucker’- I think I can handle Lazy Oaf. But I do think it fits the illustration style and our casual approach to fashion in general, everything’s really slouchy in streetwear, it’s not suited and booted.
Were you very aware of how big you wanted it to grow, did you ever envisage this?
I think I’m very aware and driven to keep going and I’ve made a million mistakes but most importantly I’ve kept going. You take it year on year and then reassess, but you never give up. Part of my personality is that nothing is quite good enough; it’s very much ‘that’s great, what’s next’
Over the twelve years you’ve been operating, has there been a critical point that maybe you’ve thought it may be the end?
Yeah loads, I think it’s being able to manage your growth and manage your cash flow. You can have a huge site that want to order your range, but you’ve got to pay for it. They aren’t paying for 90 days. Stuff like that can be crippling. I’ve had factories that have sent me a season worth of faulty goods. Tens of thousands of pieces that had broken zips and stuff like that and it’d all been paid for. I couldn’t sell it to accounts, online, in store. It’s very much all about rolling up your sleeves and solving problems, as a team, sometimes.
And that must be pretty soul destroying when things go wrong like you mentioned?
Yeah its real head in your hands stuff and I’m not only responsible for me I’m responsible for my team. If something can vanish that easy, it’s a lot of pressure.
For a long time it was just you, when was that tipping point in growing your team and the operation in general?
Well for many years it was me and my Mum, whom is now retired from the ‘Oaf world’. There was also someone who managed the wholesale whilst I concentrated on the creative side. Then from sort of 5 years, we started getting interns, then some interns stayed on and we developed roles for them, whether that’s; press, marketing, website, wholesale. Once they come, I don’t let them leave.
It must’ve been hard to grow as a person too though, from a girl drawing illustrations to print on tees, to running a team?
Yeah absolutely, I’m not a natural boss at all and I’ve always hated my boss’. I always have those David Brent nightmares, are people laughing with me or are they laughing because I’m their boss? I always have those flashes of Brent.
In regard to illustrations, what were you drawing, why and where does your art come from?
Trash culture mainly – things I hear on buses, fast food, and bad telly, things that I’m personally interested in. Actually talking of trash, right at the beginning I funded my first batch of tees with a collection of 60’s and 70’s playboy’s and Vogues that my Dad had found, and I stress found. I used to sell those to gain some cash to pay for blank tee shirts to print on. They’d sit to the side of my tee shirts.
An interesting product mix then!
It was fantastic visual research.
You had no experience, no ties in the family?
No, I went into it completely blind. My Mum and Dad are in the pub trade so I grew up in Pubs. In terms of influence, they worked really hard. I started working when I was 12. Nothing comes easy and that’s a great life lesson, although they always say I work too hard, which is rich from them.
How difficult is it to worry about all this; the design, wholesale and everything, then have to worry about the retail store and the staff. Is that a whole other level of stress?
Yeah, I’m a giant ball of stress. It gets easier as I begin to delegate more though. Delegation is tough when you’re used to having control. It’s hard to let go but people rise to the opportunity when it’s offered to them and do a really good job generally so it does work, but it doesn’t make it easier.
So back to talking about University, we’ve all done Uni’ and before you go to University and whilst your at University you get told it’s the only way to succeed. What advice would you give to people feeling a bit lost coming out of University?
I think there’s a lot of pressure to decide on your career at a young age nowadays and people seem to think that what they study at University is what their life is going to be like and I don’t think it’s like that. If your not happy with what you’re doing, change, it’s not a big deal, that goes for Uni’ and life in general. When I was at Uni there wasn’t Etsy or Big Cartel, all I had was a market stall. There wasn’t anything helping me to sell what I created at all. If there’s something you’re interested in, go, test it, get feed back, it’s so much easier now. I don’t think you should worry too much at Uni’, have fun, enjoy the experience; things will work out!
You mentioned Etsy and Big Cartel, I guess it’s sort of ironic how, if these online marketplaces would have been around when you started, you may have struggled in the vastly busier marketplace. Would that be fair to say?
Probably, yeah, it would’ve been harder to break out, with the Internet how it is. However also, if your on a global website, exposure is vast, compared to a few people coming to your stall in East London. It’s all relative really.
With that in mind then, we’re interested to know where Lazy Oaf sits. Are you a streetwear brand, a kitsch fun brand, menswear, womenswear, where does it sit in that spectrum, or is it all of those things, which is what makes it so unique?
Yeah it’s all of those things, but that’s what I worry about, what are we and where do we sit? But as we’ve got such a broad product range, it’s difficult to slot us into one category. We fit into streetwear, a fashion thing and I want to be all of those things to all of these people, but it’s hard to manage and you can’t please everybody. It’s a difficult thing to answer, but I think it’s good to be all of those things in a way. The hard thing is, is not to do a bad job of things. It’s great that we’re on these great streetwear blogs, I don’t want our stuff to be cringy and cheesy but our stuff is pop and fun-
Yeah but we like the fact it’s cheesy, it’s almost a big tongue in cheek fuck you to all those who takes things too seriously. In regards to the menswear thing does you think the poppy nature of the brand hinders success in those circles because; like we’ve said the menswear thing is painfully serious.
Yeah menswear is kind of so serious and I think also and I don’t want to pull this card but as a female trying to do men’s street wear is almost a strike against you but that makes me a bit more determined – but not in a feminist FUCK YOU GUYS! kind of a way.