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The Drapers Interview: How Gemma Shiel built Lazy Oaf into a serious business

Gemma Shiel Lazy Oaf 02

“Keeping it weird” for 15 years, Lazy Oaf founder Gemma Shiel has her sights set on “world domination” with her young fashion brand.

Gemma Shiel Lazy Oaf

Gemma Shiel Lazy Oaf

Gemma Shiel Lazy Oaf

There are offices, and then there is Gemma Shiel’s London office. Crammed full of Disney memorabilia and covered in pictures of photoshoots, the Muppets and cartoon burgers, the founder of young fashion brand Lazy Oaf describes it as “like the inside of my mind”.

It has been 15 years since Lazy Oaf first started life as a market stall in Spitalfields, east London, selling tongue-in-cheek men’s T-shirts. Known for its bright, bubble-gum aesthetic, the brand – whose motto is #keepingitweirdsince2001 – now has a cult following.

Asos is Lazy Oaf’s biggest partner in the UK and it has 130 international stockists, including US etailer Dolls Kill and highly regarded Parisian concept store Colette.

Shiel has been busy expanding Lazy Oaf’s product range during 2016. She launched swimwear in May, which retails from £45 for bikini sets and £60 for swimming costumes with the brand’s trademark humour in shark, watermelon and cat prints.

Beyond a joke

Shiel graduated in 2001 with a degree in textile design from Nottingham Trent University and initially struggled to find a place in an industry that did not know quite what to make of her designs.

“I went to see quite a few different agencies after I finished my course, and most of them said they loved what I was doing – that it was really funny – but they didn’t know what to do with me,” she says.

“When I was still at university, I was creating children’s-book style illustrations, which I then put on T-shirts. My mum handed me a leaflet for Spitalfields Market, and suggested I print more T-shirts and sell them there, so that’s how it started.”

Lazy Oaf might be an unusual name, but Shiel admits it could have been worse: “It was a toss-up between calling the brand Fat Trucker or Lazy Oaf. I felt it summed up my style of drawing, which is quite loose, and all my references at the time were about trash culture: junk food and TV.”

Lasyoafdisneylookbook9246

Lasyoafdisneylookbook9246

Despite starting life as a menswear label, womenswear, which was launched in 2002, now makes up around 80% of the business. Menswear is still part of Lazy Oaf and the brand also makes a range of accessories. 

After running the business from a market stall for five years, Shiel moved into multi-brand store Our Shop in London’s Kingly Court, off Carnaby Street. When the other labels at the store decided to leave, she was forced to take a chance on Lazy Oaf’s first standalone store.

“As a stroke of luck, a unit on the ground floor of Kingly Court became available. It was about three times more rent than I was paying, and I had to do it all on my own, but I just bit the bullet and opened the first Lazy Oaf own-brand store. I had faith in the product and I knew it was selling well for me.”

Berlin calling

Lazy Oaf moved to nearby Fouberts Place in 2009, and then to Ganton Street – which remains its only standalone store – in 2013. Instore and online sales make up 50% of the business, and wholesale makes up the other half. Shiel will not reveal turnover figures but says combined sales from the store, pop-ups and ecommerce are up 50% year on year and international wholesale sales are up 68% over the same period.

 European trade shows have been key to creating a successful brand.

“The first time I really felt we’d got somewhere was my first Berlin show, Bread & Butter in 2004. That was the first time we had brands I’d heard of but never met coming on the stand and saying, ‘Hmm, this is quite good.’ That was when we jumped up a level.”

The collaborations really happened by accident

Marina Jiménez, founder of Spanish retailer and Lazy Oaf stockist Miss Kleckley, feels “great affection” towards the brand: “It’s one of our top performers. The way it’s grown over the past 15 years is a definite inspiration. Lazy Oaf sets the trends rather than follows them.”

Innovative collaborations and thoughtful character licences have helped Lazy Oaf to become a trendsetter. Both are now an important part of the business and Shiel aims to produce one licensed collection and one more “left field” collaboration each year, which has included US etailer Nasty Gal and – less obviously – viral cartoon series Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared.

It was all born from a personal desire for some Batman printed leggings.

“The collaborations really happened by accident. The first one was a Batman collection of men’s and women’s wear in 2012, which we did because I wanted some leggings with the Batman motif and didn’t think I’d get away with making them without permission,” explains Shiels.

”It wasn’t something anyone else was doing at the time, so we approached Warner Bros. It came out just before one of the new films [The Dark Knight Rises] and was an instant sell-out. We had to re-run a lot of designs, we were on the front page of newspapers and dresses were going for hundreds of pounds on eBay.”

Now flooded with offers, Shiel now has to think carefully about whether a potential licence fits with Lazy Oaf: “It has to tick the following boxes – Is it weird? Is it niche? Will our customer love it? And who else is doing it? If lots of people are doing it, then usually we wouldn’t touch it.”

I always want to have something in my ranges that will fit everyone

Rules, however, are made to be broken. This year’s much-hyped collaboration is with entertainment giant Disney, which in 2016 alone has worked with Marc Jacobs, Kate Spade, Primark and Zara.

“As a team, it was contentious because it is such a commercial brand and everybody has done something with Disney. You can pick up something from Tesco with a Disney character on it, so what else is there to do with it that’s different from the market?

“Having said all that, I’m a massive Disney fan and because it’s Lazy Oaf’s 15th birthday, I wanted to do something that was really personal to me.”

The inspiration with many of Lazy Oaf’s products comes from Shiel’s childhood and teenage years in the 1990s: “With the swimwear, for example, I thought no one was doing fun bikinis. I thought it would be fun to almost go back to the swimming togs I had as a kid. It’s now a permanent part of our product range and we’ll be doing another collection for summer 17.”

Lasyoafdisneylookbook8581

Lasyoafdisneylookbook8581

Shiel now has her sights set on a range of lingerie and nightwear, which she says the brand will try to “squeeze in” for autumn 17.

Land of the rising sun

Another source of inspiration is Japan, where Lazy Oaf is fast growing an even more devoted following than its UK fan base. The brand worked with Japanese boutique Delta on a pop-up in street fashion capital Harajuku last October – a “pinch me” moment for Shiel.

“We had crazy fans turn up that wanted to meet me. People queued up to give me presents and quite a few were crying, which was totally surreal. I’m not Beyoncé, but I felt like I was for a minute.”

Lazy Oaf is returning to Japan this month for another pop-up and two shop-in-shops. A permanent store in the country is a long-term goal.

“There’s always been a dream to have a store in Tokyo. In a small way we’re achieving it and one day we’ll get there. The demand is definitely there and that’s something we’re building towards.”

Inclusivity on price and fit are an important to Shiel, who says she felt excluded by some high street retailers when she was growing up: “We generally pass around a garment for everybody to try on at Lazy Oaf, especially if it’s one size only, so we can see what it looks like on someone who is 5 ft and size 8 or somebody who is 5ft 11 and a 16. I always want to have something in my ranges that will fit everyone, so you can come to Lazy Oaf and come away with something.”

Lazy Oaf takes a similar approach to price, although the brand does sit towards the top of end of the high street.

“We always have some complaints that the brand is too expensive, because it’s mid to high prices, but I always make sure there’s plenty in the range that’s affordable,” Shiel says.

“The highest price point is about £160 for a winter coat, which isn’t unreasonable, but we have a customer base from 14 to 30, so there will be some who don’t understand where Lazy Oaf comes from and that we can’t manufacture 10,000 of one T-shirt to get it at to you at £9.99.”

Having nailed a quirky product offer, Shiel is now focusing on “stepping it up to the next stage of the business”. Paul Humphrey, who was previously at Dr Martens, joined as general manager earlier this year to look after the commercial arm of Lazy Oaf, leaving Shiel free to concentrate on being creative director and doing most of the design work.

“I would really like to open small stores in key terrorities, so customers can get the experience they get in our Carnaby store all over the world – in New York, in Seoul, in Tokyo. We’re working out how to make that happen – Paul is plotting out the next five years. We’re on the road to bigger and better things – maybe even world domination.”

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