How to turn your art into a business: six tips from Lazy Oaf founder Gemma Shiel

Lazy Oaf founder Gemma Shiel
Lazy Oaf founder Gemma Shiel

London-based fashion brand Lazy Oaf makes colourful clothes and accessories adorned with playful graphic prints. It was founded by Gemma Shiel in 2001, after she graduated with a degree in textile design from Nottingham Trent University. Fifteen years on, it has a permanent store off Carnaby Street, has created capsule collections with Disney, Garfield and Looney Tunes as well as animators Becky & Joe and launched pop-up stores around the world. It also has over half a million followers on Instagram.

Lazy Oaf's Lazy Land exhibition at Protein Studios in London. Image: Iona Wolff
Lazy Oaf’s Lazy Land exhibition at Protein Studios in London. Image: Iona Wolff

To celebrate its 15th birthday, Lazy Oaf is hosting an exhibition at Protein Studios in London this weekend. Lazy Land features large-scale sculptures and giant inflatables designed by Shiel alongside clothes and accessories for sale.  With the show opening today, we asked Shiel to share some things she has learned from 15 years of running the business…

Lazy Oaf's Lazy Land exhibition at Protein Studios in London. Image: Iona Wolff
Lazy Oaf’s Lazy Land exhibition at Protein Studios in London. Image: Iona Wolff

Know what you want to deliver or create, your market and your point of difference

I think it is really valuable to know your market, know who your target customer is and do as much research as you can, writes Gemma Shiel. I did this with friends and family, trying to get honest feedback on designs and products. It is also really important to fully embrace how the hell you’re going to stand out in that market. What will make people turn to you rather than that brand who’s been knocking around for a bit pumping out good stuff? Maybe it’s a your personal story, maybe it’s your approach to manufacture and sourcing, or maybe it’s your affiliation to a youth sub culture. Work out who cares about this stuff – where they’re buying it and where they’re looking at it. It has to be authentic to you and your story, because things can become pretty transparent pretty quickly to today’s consumer if you’re just hopping on a band wagon.

There is no such thing as a bad mistake.

During 15 years of running Oaf I have had many many disasters that at times have almost left the business on the precipice of failure… it’s scary. But it’s at these times that you get to be the most creative and work on the solutions to turn those situations into something else. I believe that if you look at problems from lots of different angles, opportunities often pop up – so don’t give up at the first hurdle.  All the mistakes I have made, I tend to only make them once and then move on to the next clanger.

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Lazy Oaf’s collaboration with Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared creators Becky & Joe

Don’t be an ass

Generally the fashion world or any business sector is a small place, nobody likes an arrogant asshole. Having humility and a genuine interest in people will always set you in good stead and ensure you keep all those key relationships both within your team and outside. I would also say it is critical you know your strengths and know what you are crap at. I always say everyday is like a school day; I’m always learning because I just simply don’t know it all, I’ve built a team around me with the people that fill those gaps. I can design you a knock out collection but I’m not so hot on pivoting spreadsheets.

Strive to deliver the unexpected

For me personally, what keeps me moving forward is the constant challenge to evolve and change, bettering the brand and what we are able to do. I have had so many Negative Nancies along the way that have doubted my ability and in a way I love that because it pushes me to keep moving forward. I also want to do that for my customers, because fashion is a fast moving sector. You can’t stand still, you need to keep trying new things and deliver something different. This could come in many forms – the way we speak, the way we photograph our clothes to the people we choose to work with.

Lazy Oaf's Lazy Land exhibition at Protein Studios in London. Image: Iona Wolff
Lazy Oaf’s Lazy Land exhibition at Protein Studios in London. Image: Iona Wolff

Not having a clue what you are doing can sometimes be the best way to progress

This may contradict some points that I’ve already chatted about. I think part of my success to date is that I have made key decisions from instinct. I don’t have a pre-conditioned business sense, which if I had would at times have meant not taking some of the risks I have. Sometimes you just have to listen to your gut. I’ve had to work out my own way of running a business, which may not be the ‘proper’ way but it has worked for us. Now as my business is getting bigger, I need to have more structure, policies and plans in place as we expand for global domination, so I went out and got myself an expert!

But it hasn’t worked yet

Quite often when I chat to people starting out, they are frustrated that they haven’t got to a certain level of success in year 1. They put so much pressure on themselves for not having achieved all these massive goals and wonder why they aren’t rich yet. It doesn’t all happen at once, Oaf has been a slow burn and I worked two jobs at the beginning so that I could keep it going. I was still driving a 20-year-old car until last year when I upgraded to a three-year-old car. Don’t set yourself massive goals, be realistic and break it down into achievable chunks, then plan to tackle each one. Look at the big plan, how long do you want to be in it for and what happens at the end? I like to work backwards quite a lot!

Lazy Oaf's Lazy Land exhibition at Protein Studios in London. Image: Iona Wolff
Lazy Oaf’s Lazy Land exhibition at Protein Studios in London. Image: Iona Wolff

Lazy Land is open Protein Studios, 31 New Inn Yard, London, EC2A 3EY from November 4-6. Opening times are 11am-7pm Fri, 11am-3.30pm Sat and 12-4pm Sun. You can find more info about the event here.

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