In a corner of east London that travel guides probably call ‘bijou,’ there lies a kaleidoscopic cavern of really great clothes. Through a set of white doors is a treasure chest of garments that fall somewhere between streetwear silhouettes and kids’ dressing up box costumes. Puffy chiffon sleeves swing gently on racks next to oversized tees emblazoned with sarky slogans about hating your job, and on the next rail are funny subversions of the sort of commemorative tops you can buy at holiday resorts (“The sun never shines,” reads one t-shirt illustrated with a sad-faced palm tree.)
The jumpers, skirts, trousers, coats and shoes around me are carefully thought out, and made in a limited quantity. They carry such a strong brand identity – bold prints, a slacker aesthetic, a sense of fun – that they could only be made by one company: the now-iconic British brand Lazy Oaf.
I’m at Lazy Oaf’s Shoreditch store, their second in London, following the Carnaby Street outpost that opened in 2013. I’ll be meeting some of the creatives behind the brand, which has endured for almost two decades as a completely independent venture, with no investors. There is design manager Shirley Webb, Jerry O’Sullivan, the PR and marketing manager who’s been with Lazy Oaf for over a decade, and of course the founder and CEO Gemma Shiel, who started everything on a market stall in early 2001. In an era where new fast fashion labels seemingly spring up every week, often supplying poor quality, unethically made clothes with a large environmental impact, I want to find out first-hand what it takes to build a thriving, unique and instantly recognisable fashion brand which has taking things more slowly built into its very ethos.
The women I’m meeting today look right at home in the shop, because they’re also wearing Lazy Oaf designs. The brand is best known for its subversion of tropes and trends, as well as its proclivity for a daring print (in fact, they’re so well recognised in this area that they’ve collaborated with creative institutions as beloved as Peanuts, Mr. Men and Hello Kitty.) True to the label’s form, Webb is in a tweed suit, which would seem pretty buttoned-up for Lazy Oaf’s famously laid back style if it weren’t playfully oversized, while O’Sullivan wears a more understated black, babydoll-style dress. Shiel, on the other hand, is in full Oaf regalia, in the form of a two-piece suit featuring a pink scribble print – business wear, but make it Lazy.
This distinguishing style chimes with what Demetra Kolakis, Course Leader for the Fashion Visual Merchandising and Branding BA at London College of Fashion, tells me about the brand, when I contact her to get an academic perspective on why Lazy Oaf stands out so much on the British fashion landscape. “The brand is known for its original designs, each fused with a warped sense of humour involving eye-catching colourful and fun aesthetics. As a result, Lazy Oaf is memorably beautiful and individual, setting them apart on the UK independent fashion market,” she tells me.
The bold, bright spoils of Shiel’s labour certainly attest to that, surrounding us in the store as we settle in and she tells me a bit about Lazy Oaf’s beginnings. Fresh out of uni, having studied print-making, she felt unsure about what came next, though she had been making t-shirts for friends on the side. “I thought that maybe I could give the t-shirt thing a go. I was hand-printing t-shirts and selling them on a market stall, and whatever I got from the t-shirts, I’d use to buy more t-shirts, and print them, and then I was probably working two or three jobs at the same time to pay for food and beer!” Shiel remembers.
Things got more serious when she opened a store with some friends, and the Lazy Oaf products were by far the most popular. Soon after, Shiel started taking her designs to streetwear trade shows, and recalls how much they stood out. “Everyone at that time, in the early 2000s, took streetwear so seriously. I wanted to have fun and approach stuff with light-heartedness, and mixing colour or jokes or graphics that really didn’t have much representation. There wasn’t much womenswear either.”
Nowadays, streetwear is full of tongue-in-cheek lols (think of the Supreme burner phone, or, like, the brick), but Lazy Oaf’s sense of humour has been a crucial part of the brand from the very beginning. “Lazy Oaf came from the fact that what I liked to draw was really the most unpretentious stuff that I could think of, related to what I was watching on telly, or bad food, the stuff that is sort of, anti-a good lifestyle. That has remained a bit of a constant. I’ve always had quite a wry sense of humour, a little bit cynical,” says Shiel.
Another area that Lazy Oaf were quietly pioneering was social media, for which they’re well respected in their community. James Cutmore, the founder and owner of The Ragged Priest – an edgier, but similarly-sized brand whose store is Lazy Oaf’s Soho neighbour – tells me that he thinks “they’re one of the best at it in our industry.” “It’s a very clear aesthetic, and they have their own handwriting,” Cutmore continues.
O’Sullivan speaks to Lazy Oaf’s adeptness with social media, in particular Instagram, her area of expertise. “I’d like to say we were quite early adopters of Instagram, because everything’s really visual and we put a lot of investment into the quality content.” Their approach to the medium has adapted over time, too, because it’s had to. In a landscape where brands like Pretty Little Thing are constantly releasing influencer ‘edits’ (essentially, collections of their existing designs supposedly selected by a high-profile influencer collaborator to represent their style), Lazy Oaf are more interested in “finding people from all over the world who represent the brand and bring their own personality and values to it. It’s part of a bigger community,” says O’Sullivan.
Though Lazy Oaf aren’t part of the fast fashion ecosystem occupied by brands like PLT and Missguided – “we’re not producing thousands, we produce a couple of hundred of each thing,” Shiel clarifies defiantly – they can’t help but be affected by the market domination of trends, purely as a fashion brand in 2019. Fast fashion, to some degree, places Lazy Oaf in a bit of a double bind. Shiel explains: “Consumers’ expectations, whether you’re fast fashion or not, is that they want their product and they want it now. But they also complain about fast fashion. If we haven’t released anything new in two weeks, we can see our sales start to drop, because people just want newness. And then if they’re not getting it delivered the next day or the day after, then it’s a problem.”
“But then also it’s quite interesting at the moment,” she continues, “because everyone’s like ‘I’ve got to really care about the ethics or my purchases. So I’ll ask them if they’re ethical, but I’ll also complain at the same time if I haven’t got it the next day.’ So it’s up to us to make sure we have enough education on our side, and on our brand, about who we are, what we care about, why we are ethical, and why we’re trying our best to be as socially responsible as we can.”
This is something Lazy Oaf have stepped up recently. Though in the past, the brand's policies have been less clear, this year they published an 'Oafesto' on their website which lists all of their commitments to social responsibility, animal welfare, environmental impact, and more. In this, they recognised that "our customers would appreciate greater transparency from us," which they are "happy to provide."
The ethics of what they do are important to all three women: O’Sullivan names the brand’s first non-profit collection for Mental Health Awareness Week as a highlight of her time there, while Webb is passionate about sustainability. She is one of many Lazy Oaf employees working to make the brand more eco-friendly, from the big (they’ll be releasing a fully recycled swim collection in the future) to the little: “Even in terms of our swing tickets and stuff, we’re changing them all to be recyclable materials,” she says.
To a degree, however, sustainability is already somewhat inherent in each Lazy Oaf item. Though they are sold at a slightly higher price point than clothes on the high street, Shiel says that Lazy Oaf’s clothes are “built to last,” and is especially pleased to see a culture of reselling Lazy Oaf garments on sites like eBay and Depop prevailing. “We’d like to work with that somehow in the future, and encourage swapping, trading. We might do an Oaf car boot, where people can trade the stuff they’ve had,” she says.
Indeed the amount of people who are able to wear Lazy Oaf garments has grown over the years – they recently expanded their size range to include everything from a UK size six to a UK size 20. Shiel is very conscious that this is only “a good start,” explaining that she wants to make it even bigger (this, of course, would also necessarily make the brand more ethical and sustainable), though she faces some challenges.
“We’ve done research across all the high street stores, and what we’ve found is that there’s no industry standard once you go past a 14,” she says, the frustration clear in her voice. “So we’re working on perfecting a 16 to a 20, and until we nail that we can’t truly go up any further. What we’re really keen to do is actually understand what happens, so we can get the fit really great, and people feel great. We’re trying to include our community in that process as well, so we’re inviting people into our head office and our studio to try stuff on, tell us how they fit, bring their old clothes in, and how they like those and what’s good about it.”
It’s clearly a process that all the Oaf designers are passionate about, as Webb adds, “We want to make sure that as the size goes up or down, the garment looks exactly how it’s supposed to look. There shouldn’t be a compromise because you’re wearing a smaller or larger size. We want to perfect that.”
Though perfection seems antithetical to Lazy Oaf’s über-chill attitude, what they care about is getting it right where it counts – doing right by their consumers, and, increasingly, the planet, by taking an approach that puts creativity, care, and self-expression miles ahead of mega-bucks. “Although we’ve been around for a long time, that means we’re really steady, and we understand how this works,” Shiel concludes. “We’re not hungry for fast growth and global domination. It’s like: steady but surely, we’re gonna creep up.”
Two stores, a global, cult consumer base unlike any other, and genuine efforts to make the world a cuter and more conscious place? These sound like pretty good results to me.