Lou Pardi – is excited to chat with Lazy Oaf founder, Gemma Shiel.
I’m not sure I should be writing about Lazy Oaf, because truth is, I’ve totally fallen for its collection. Everything. Somebody says, “Lazy Oaf” and I get the very same grin and wistful brown cow eyes I get when people say, “Go home early, it’s Friday.” But putting my finger on the core of the attraction isn’t easy. People have asked. I see a lot of design, intricate, la-di-da-i-ly printed design. Yet I’ve fallen for what Lazy Oaf owner and designer, Gemma Shiel, describes as “scribbles”. Simple, uncomplicated, pen-drawn creations. So in an effort to put my finger on what is so… special (ugh) about Lazy Oaf, I asked the lady herself how she goes about drawing inspiration. I got to talk to her on the phone. She’s in London and I’m in Australia so it was Friday afternoon for her and very late at night for me. I tried very hard not to imagine we were best friends and braiding each other’s hair. We are on different continents after all.
So, here we go (must not let on I am massive fan). Firstly, how did the name Lazy Oaf come about? Gemma says, “I used to go back to my university and see my technician and he would make the screens up for me. I thought it would be good to have my label name on there and I had no idea what it would be called. I had five minutes before he was doing the job. I came up with Lazy Oaf quite quickly. I could have been called ‘Fat Trucker’, that’s what the other name was. I’m very glad that didn’t happen. Not quite as catchy and I would have to admit to, ‘Yes, I’m Fat Trucker, I do that.’”
Phew. I’m quite glad too, as I’d really rather not be gushing about how great ‘Fat Trucker’ tees are. So Lazy Oaf, it’s a cute name, but I’m struggling to see how it applies to Gemma or her designs. She runs a successful business now employing nine people, arranges overseas production of Lazy Oaf’s merchandise, and creates the designs. What’s so lazy about that (or oafish, for that matter)? “I think I am quite lazy,” she says, revealing a TV obsession that includes Madge-and-Harold-era Neighbours. “And I’m quite lazy about the way I draw – nothing’s ever perfect and it’s all a little bit wobbly…”
Which brings us to those drawings. “I’m really, really low-tech. I normally just have a lot of white paper with little scribbles in black pen on it. I quickly write down ideas and I go back through them all and scan stuff in. I never have exciting sketchbooks – it’s always just a massive collection of paper,” says Gemma. “It’s hard to describe inspiration. It comes from all over the place: it comes from your peers; I have a love for 80’s and 90’s images and watching people – that sounds a bit creepy…” I assure her peoplewatching is a completely reasonable pastime. Turns out anyway that there’s much more to this lady’s inspiration than hanging out her window with binoculars (I made that last bit up).
And now onto my favourite Foxy T-shirt. “I was drawing a lot of Little Red Riding Hood characters and I was reading quite a lot of different stories about wolves and different variations from different countries. It got really disturbing – but all the drawings I produced looked quite sweet and cute. I wanted to give the T-shirt a fairytale edge so I gave it a little kind of Peter Pan collar,” says Gemma.
Gemma’s always finding new ways to treat her tees. “It’s a great format for selling your illustration style. It doesn’t matter how many T-shirts you have in a wardrobe, there’s always an excuse to buy another one. It doesn’t go out of fashion. It’s so simple and yet you can do so much on that tight template,” she says. Apart from the designs, I’m pretty crazy about the cut of the Lazy Oaf tee – not too long, and firm enough without making you look like Dolly Parton. Genius. “We used to use blank T-shirts but we do our own [T-shirts cut to Lazy Oaf’s specifications] because there’s always something you want to change,” says Gemma. “We’ve just got our T-shirts to the way that we want them – just right.” It wasn’t easy, though. Many T-shirt designers I’ve spoken with have found production a challenge, and unfortunately Gemma’s no exception. “It was the most heartbreaking, stressful situation ever,” she says, lamenting the process. She reels off the challenges: “Finding the right place, finding someone who’s reliable, finding someone that delivers on time, finding people that don’t basically con you.”
Given the opportunity though, Gemma would much rather focus on the design aspect. “I love the challenge of a T-shirt quite a lot, coming up with a new idea – how you’re going to print on that T-shirt every time – doing different styles or doing something on the back or something coming out of the neck,” she says, referring to the collar on Foxy and T-shirts from previous collections that were printed to look like blouses.
It’s not all girly tees though; Lazy Oaf has a broad fan base of both girls and guys. “They really range in age as well. On the girls’ side it’s kind of young, and on the guys’ side it’s a little bit older. Essentially I think they’ve got to love a bit of colour, because everything’s very colourful. I don’t want to think about it, in a way, because it might influence me too much in what I create. I like to create for what I like and what I want to wear and what my friends would like to wear,” says Gemma.
Many Lazy Oaf designs suit both genders, but some, like Crazy Seal, Gemma says are just for boys: “I think there’s something a little bit manic about him [the seal character] that I don’t think girls will like that much,” she says. Where did he come from, I wonder? “I think it was the dark recesses of my mind,” says Gemma. “He just came out of the end of my pen!”
Speaking of boys, how about this Pixie tee? “It’s kind of like the idea of sweet romance and love that lasts forever…” Gemma trails off into giggles. “I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth. That’s very cheesy of me; I don’t usually do that kind of thing. I quite like the folk side of that image as well,” she says. Is it a bit ironic? “Yeah, I guess so… I don’t really believe in —” she dissolves into giggles again. “You don’t really believe in pixies or you don’t really believe in love?” I ask. “I believe in pixies…” she replies. I tend to think we would get along quite well indeed.
The Special tee is made for boys and girls and was also part of a themed collection. “We do a men’s version in black and white. I had a semi-theme when I was designing some of this collection, which was ‘galactic treasures’, and I was quite obsessed with bad sci-fi and mystical objects and treasure that people might go through all these ridiculous kind of adventures for. I got my pens out and started drawing this gem and I really liked it, so I just wrote ‘Special’ across the top. I scanned it in and it became the print.”
Something Appears to have Changed had a similar birth. “The character was a really quick illustration as well. Someone asked me last night, ‘Is that Sagittarius?’ And I was like, ‘No, it’s just a guy with a horse body.’ I’d scanned him in and I was looking at him and the phrase ‘Something Appears to have Changed’ really tickled me, so I just wrote that in,” says Gemma.
If crazy seals and centaurs were jumping from the end of my pen, I’m not sure whether I’d put it down out of fright or keep going to see what happened next. At some stage, Gemma put down the pen and picked up… scissors. The surprising result is City Scape. “I was cutting up a lot of card and colours and just working with shapes. I thought this would look quite nice all put together and then I thought, ‘This isn’t very Lazy Oaf, I need to put some faces here somewhere.’ It is quite blocky and it is very graphic for me but it’s one of my favourites, actually.”
As far as handicrafts go generally, Gemma is far better at drawing them than doing them. For example, the illustrated knitting on the I Make Things tee is perhaps as close as she’ll get to a completed piece of knitting for some time. “I’ve never really learned how to knit. In just the past couple of weeks I’ve really tried and I’m really terrible,” she confesses. The tee design celebrates those who can. “I think there’s a real craft revolution at the moment. Everyone seems to be going back to knitting or embroidery or making their own little things. I’m surrounded by so many people who do their own thing. It’s not massproduced, it’s all a bit home-made – this tee is in homage to them,” she says.
At the other end of the spectrum, RAD, seemingly one of the simplest of designs, has a hidden meaning, which was unknown to even Gemma until she spoke with her French distributor. “‘Rad’ is something like a prostitute drinking den in France. The distributor was like [French accent], ‘You’re not going to be able to sell very much of these,’” shares Gemma. The Oafs get to go to France twice a year to check out their gear in stores (and perhaps check on the ladies of the night?).
The Wrestlers tee reveals an unexpected interest. Gemma shares that she has a brother, who is an illustrator as well, married and father to her nephew. “When I was younger, my brother was obsessed with WWF. I had to spend a lot of time watching WWF and he had the figures. We saw a live WWF event at SummerSlam at Wembley Arena. It was something I got quite a fondness for, the whole very snazzy spandex outfits and the fake tan and the huge obnoxious muscles and the great hair. There was something so camp about it. For this design, I spent days on the internet looking at all these amazing images. I actually spent too long drawing wrestlers and then I ended up only doing one wrestlers T-shirt.”
When she finally got back to the books, Gemma picked up a Victorian book on animal illustrations. “I was just flicking through and looking at these animals and sketching them. There were all these weird and wonderful ones. There was quite a nice picture of a lion in there and I just decided to draw a lion really quickly – it wasn’t anything that I intended to use but it was just so nice, I thought it would look quite good really big on a T-shirt. I hadn’t even drawn the rest of his body and I just stopped and drew little feet,” she says, describing the lion as “a little bit cynical”.
Our time is up so I have to leave my new friend (?!). First though, I get the word on the new collection. “I’ve stuck up a whole range of Baywatch stickers on the wall. I was looking at 80’s surfwear and rainbow colours,” Gemma says.One last question, considering (but not revealing) my own enthusiasm. I ask Gemma if she still gets excited when she sees someone in Lazy Oaf gear. “I get really excited – it’s a bit embarrassing because when I see someone down the street wearing it I kind of like either point and smile, or I really, really stare at them and people kind of think, ‘What the hell is she staring at?’ I’m like, ‘You’re wearing one of my T-shirts!’” Ah, T-shirts. LP
This article first appeared in T-world magazine. For a full pdf see: T#06_LAZY OAF