We ask Lazy Oaf, Bene Culture, Slowdown Studio, Victoria HK, and UN:IK the value of championing independent innovators in a time of collaborative connection.
As big brand team-ups dominate the fashion world, some labels are choosing collaboration of a different kind: with emerging creatives. Away from the sphere of Balenci-adidas, new labels are offering artists the opportunity to platform their work – in space that appreciates the value of these individual offerings.
From clothing labels Lazy Oaf, Bene Culture, and UN:IK, to lifestyle platform Slowdown Studio and Asian brand Victoria HK, we ask the founders about their process of championing independent creators, and how these practices have impacted the journey of their brands. Whether hosting events, commissioning graphics, or providing a professional network, each of these companies has honed the notion of collaboration in various ways. If fresh ideas are key, then perhaps they’ve cracked it.
A Conversation With Gemma Shiel
Tell us about the journey of Lazy Oaf – how it began and the journey so far.
I started out making T-shirts for friends at Uni – it was the easiest way to make a garment that had my art works on it. Making T-shirts is super accessible, pocket friendly, especially if you did what I did, bulk buying blank t-shirts online for a few quid online, or having friends give me their spares to print on. And actually, T-shirts were probably the best kind of canvas for my work, and definitely the easiest way to put my drawings, jokes, musings, and favourite cultural references on a garment that I didn’t actually have to make myself. Since I started, Lazy Oaf has never really been about order numbers, or cashing in on trends; since day one we’ve been far more focused on finding our people, the ones who get us, understand what we’re doing and want to be a part of it. So very early on we sought, and to this day continue to seek our own gang, building small communities both IRL and digitally, putting everything back into the community around us, and really listening to all they had to say. And although the landscape has changed wildly since 2001, and my business certainly has too – that ethos has remained true to this day.
What’s the story behind the name Lazy Oaf?
The whole name deciding thing was quite a last-minute affair. I was getting my first screen made with the prints that I wanted for my first big batch of t-shirts, and I thought I might as well hand print my brand name onto the tees, because at that point I couldn’t afford labels. The illustrations were based on lo-fi stuff, which at that point we were probably calling trash culture, because that’s what we were interested in, and we didn’t want anything too pretentious. And there came Lazy Oaf, which captured not only the aesthetic of the tees, but also my approach to life at that point, and the way I drew and created.
Let’s talk collaborations – which has been your favourite so far?
It’s very hard for me to pick one favourite collaboration – as every collab we work on is so different – and all are favourites in their own way. Dr Martens is definitely one that I return to as a dream come true for teenage Gem – I never could have imagined myself creating my own version of the shoes I lived in through my formative years. That said every collaboration brings something new and exciting – it would be like choosing a favourite child.
Lazy Oaf has collaborated with a variety of talented creatives, why is it important for you to work with and celebrate creatives, especially those emerging into the industry.
I started out collaborating with other creatives to get away from my own design bubble and my own perspective, and challenge myself with something new. For us collaboration and creativity are two of our core brand values – so using collaborations as an opportunity to develop and push our inhouse perspective and ideas is something that is truly integral to the brand.
As someone who has experienced a “DIY beginning”, what advice would you give to those who are starting off and in that position?
Doing It Yourself is the best way to get to grips with all aspects of building a brand and the business, you don’t need to know it all before you start, work out your own way. I have created new processes, my own approach and style to creating what I do because I had to work it out! It doesn’t always work but those are the times that you learn the most. Sometimes you wear all the hats and don’t have the resource or the budgets like others, this is where creativity comes in, I love a challenge, if you haven’t got £1000s to spend on a shoot how can you make it look like it anyway, maybe it’s phone phtoos and the most amazing post treatment that involves your illustrations or collage? Breathe in, jump in, feel the fear and do that shit anyway.
What is your stance on creative freedom when commissioning and how close do you work with collaborators?
We love fresh perspectives and new ideas, we love setting a brief and seeing how our collaborators interprets it, We always have a sketch and idea development stage so we can be part of that process, we think that creative freedom needs to be there to get to the best end result, the challenge then comes for us in how to interpret that best to our capabilities, from a product creation or print point of view, but always work closely with our collaborator to ensure they stay part of the process and are proud and happy with the project.
What do you think there needs to be more of within the industry?
Less pretention, more representation, and jokes 😊
Each collection at Lazy Oaf is different to the next, what inspires you and future launches?
We take inspiration from everywhere. We are like creepy image and culture miners, we like the odd, the silly and the absurd and also love to connect our collection and creative inspiration to our brand values and beginnings.
Where do you hope to see Lazy Oaf in 5 years?
My hope is to become better and better at what we do, that we keep a building a community of like-minded people, I hope that we continue to challenge ourselves with what we do and who we are.
A Conversation With Hemal Chauhan
How did Bene Culture come about?
We started Bene Culture around 2015/2016 with an idea to sell a mix of vintage, Independent brands, and our own label. We had the vision for our concept but we were lacking on the money to actually start it. We didn’t want to waste time so we decided to start with £50 of vintage and sold it on Depop. That £50 of vintage led to us to sourcing in the US, wholesalers and around 100K followers on depop within a few months. From that point; we knew we wanted to start the other aspect of our brand and a brick and mortar store was the most important part for us. So we could build our community with the people in our local community. So in May 2016 we launched our first store which mixed vintage, start up brands and our own in-house label. Since we launched the store we’ve held 40+ events (ranging from exhibitions, supper clubs, movie premiers and gigs), stocked around 70 brands and 100+ indie publications/zines. Since the start of covid; we’ve mainly focused on our in-house brand but we’re slowly adding vintage, brands and events back for the end of this year.
You’ve collaborated with a variety of creatives – why is it important to you to get them involved?
When we started; a key pillar was to constantly be a platform to aid in the growth/development of the people around us. The collaborations arent always linear and range from a piece of clothing to a full-blown exhibition of their work. With the events we provide our store for free to ensure the creatives can use our space to develop without the past risk associated with putting on an event. Vice versa the collaborations have allowed us constantly change our collection guidelines and not be tied to one subject or sub-genre.
What inspires you?
Our inspirations are constantly changing, one collection can be based around movies we watched as kids and the next can be based around a random image we found in a book whilst researching. Right now we’re gaining a lot of inspiration from cartoons/bootleg art from the 70/80s.
What is the process when working with creatives and what is your stance on giving creative freedom?
Usually we provide them with a super basic brief which allows them as much creative freedom as possible. There’s no point collaborating with someone but then holding them back.
Where do you hope to see Bene Culture in five years?
In 5 years’, time we’re aiming to be able to give back more in terms of free workshops and events spaces. Alongside that we want to create more infrastructure within our local area for responsible UK production for us and other brands.
What would you like to see more of within the industry?
Within the next few years we’re hoping for further showcasing of south Asian creatives and brands. Over the past year or so; communities like Diet Paratha and Daytimers have been pushing boundaries in the industry and it’s so great see. Prior to starting Bene Culture; people like ClothSurgeon and MKI (Rav Matharu and Vik Taylor) were inspirations for us to start. Hopefully the current crop of south asian creatives/brands can be inspirations for further generations if we’re given the light.
For those looking to start their own brand or emerging creatives looking to work with a brand, what advice would you give?
Our advice to people wanting to start their own brand/creative project is always to just start, you don’t want to be in a position where you regret not taking that big step and putting your plan into action earlier.
A Conversation With Marc Hendrick
Why did you start Slowdown Studio and how would you describe what the brand stands for?
I started Slowdown Studio as a more art-driven, creative approach to home textiles. It was a category that was pretty safe at the time (mainly basics with nice colors or simple patterns) and I wanted to breathe some life into it. The brand stands for collaboration, a sharing of ideas, and newness. And of course, slowing down.
What does slow living mean to you?
Slow living means turning off the hyperactive part of your brain, the craving for constant dopamine hits. It means no screens, enjoying the simple things in life like a cup of coffee or taking a bath. Slow living isn’t about doing nothing, it should actually spark creativity.
Slowdown Studio has worked with a wealth of creatives from across the world. Why was it important to you to take this approach, rather than taking an in-house route?
It’s just a much more exciting way to work to be honest! We have a fairly distinct style because of the artists we choose, but by working with so many different creatives there’s always going to be new ideas and styles present in our products. It never gets boring for me. In an era of social media, working with so many fantastic people is also a great way to create awareness for our brand.
Collaboration is central to Slowdown Studio, what do you look for when searching for your next collaborator?
It’s all down to personal taste, if they have a style I love and would want their art on my walls, I try to work with them. I don’t necessarily have the most commercial eye, which may be to our own detriment, but I think it can give us an edge in other ways. We have nice beautiful abstract pieces that everybody loves, but we also have some pretty weird stuff!
What inspires you?
Anybody who is willing to walk their own walk, someone who has the self belief to achieve their own vision. This can be in business, the arts, sports, politics, music, whatever. You can notice these people from a mile away, some people are just naturally very captivating based on the choices they make, and I find that really inspiring.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to create a brand?
Just to be prepared to make mistakes, and to learn from them. Find a network of people doing similar things and speak to them constantly, find a mentor who has done it all before. Surrounding yourself with good people is always going to help with every element of your life, but especially with something like running a brand.
A Conversation With Jacob Messer
Tell us about UN:IK – what was the motivation behind creating the company?
I was stuck in a corp 9-5 I hated, in a place I hated. I always wanted to start my own business and I guess I had a really strong interest in fashion. I saw this gap where there were so many talented designers, or freelance designers, but no real consolidation to bring them or independent brands into one place. I guess sometimes you’re at a point in your life where the risk level is lower and I was at that stage! I wanted to be able to make clothes I wanted to wear / buy, but also help bring a variety of designers to the forefront of people in one location.
Collaborating with independent designers and brands is at the heart of what you do – why is championing independent creatives and innovators so important to you?
Firstly, underground / freelance designers is where the originality comes from. There is a reason that big clothing brands rip off small independents, and that’s because the independents lead the way with well thought out designs and graphics. I think it’s so important to showcase this. I think its so important to showcase individuals who are running that risk and doing things on their own, with their own style. That’s the joy of UN:IK is that there is so much variation in the designs because the designers have the freedom to put their own style to things but where we also spot gaps in what we need as a collective.
Everyone can go shop a brand they know at ASOS, but how good is it you can go buy a design from a freelancer from a brand you’ve never heard of? Independent brands is where its at, and I can only point back to that word of originality again.
How would you describe UN:IK’s audience?
As a community. It’s a community of people who understand independent culture and what it means to buy underground / unheard of brands because of the design, quality and originality.
What do you think there needs to be more of within the industry?
The obvious one is a pull back from fast fashion. Not only do these fast fashion brands completely rip off smaller brands and undercut them, it’s also awful for the environment and culture of fashion itself. We should buy garments to go through experiences with, not wear once and discard. You should have a t-shirt that brings you a memory, for example.
In a more positive manner, it would be good to see more brands championing each other and drop the competitive under current. There are enough people in the world to sell too, without beefing each other. Hopefully this would lead to more brand to brand / creative collaborations. There is still a lot of snobbery embedded in fashion, this heavily includes independent brands.
Where do you hope to see UN:IK in five years?
We’ve always talked a flagship store here in Manchester, that’d be cool as but its very difficult as an independent (especially now), to run a successful brick and mortar with all the costs involved. Sadly Manchester is built for the hospitality industry and less so retail, but this would be a dream ticked. Other than that, I don’t really look at 5 years ahead! We just plan to keep doing what we’re doing, work with more designers and more independent creative businesses / labels for collaborations! I think we’ll be going strong, and hopefully have a really progressive and diverse learning team (so I can take a few more holidays hopefully).
What’s your stance on creative freedom and what’s the process like when collaborating with a creative?
This is a great question. I always let the designers just design. They’re better at that than me, 100%, so I give them that design freedom with feedback in the areas that I am knowledgeable. I then have built the knowledge about what commercially works as a design onto a garment, so will always then advice and discuss that when curating a range. I also have the knowledge of the garments and fabrics themselves. So really it’s a great combination, it’s identifying the strongest skill sets and bringing them together for the best outcome. Telling a designer how to design is like telling a striker to play centre back, they’ll do a job, but not one they’re any good at!
Lastly, any advice you’d give to those wanting to start their own brand or creatives wishing to work with a company like UN:IK?
Stick to your own style, but don’t be afraid to take inspiration from others! Keep grafting and get the balance right, originality, quality and imagery.
A Conversation With Arthur Leung
Tell us about the journey of Victoria – what was the incentive behind starting the brand and how did the brand develop to where it is now?
Victoria – the idea came about 7 years ago in Hong Kong during a chat I had with my partner Alfie. We started printing stickers with the name SARS and my partner and my initial idea was to make a magazine featuring all the local artists, brands, local manufacturing and have articles/interviews. Within the first week we realized neither of us could write so we started exploring making graphics and finding imagery we liked when we walked around HK and printing them on tees to give away to friends. It was more of a creative outlet, we just enjoyed learning how to screen print and print shirts with graphics we find cool and giving it out to all our friends. Over time, a small community of people were walking around in these queen logo shirts and local shops started noticing and inquiring. We had no clue at the time how to properly run a business and were just enjoying the process of giving away the designs we created to people that actually loved the product. Then about two years ago, we officially registered the business and started doing a full collection of cut and sew and luckily met some amazing people that wanted to give us a show room in Japan, and from there more shops globally were interested and supported. We are forever grateful for these shops that are taking a chance on us and like what we do.
Collaboration is prominent within Victoria from the co-founders to the commissioned artists – would you say a collaborative culture is central to the brand?
I feel collaborations are def in our dna, within the brand we all have our ideas and we try our best to fit everyone’s ideas into each drop, regarding commissioned artists, we have so many talented friends around us and we are all stoked on each others work so it only makes sense to work on graphics and projects together, our local scene is our biggest inspo especially during the two years of covid and we are all stuck in hk. Before covid, we would plan trips and host exhibitions that showcases the victoria collectives art work, we want to show that these skaters are also extremely talented in other mediums. The last event we hosted was in Taiwan and the feedback was amazing, collaborating with the local artists to put this whole thing together, feedback from everyone was amazing, we all had an amazing time and it’ll be a memory that stands out forever.
Why was it essential for VICTORIA to take inspiration from Hong Kong’s juxtaposition of old/new and east/west?
One of the focuses when we started Victoria was to revisit and create something that resonates with our community in Hong Kong, especially in the skate scene where most graphics and references were mainly from the Western world. Hong Kong has a unique way of adapting and we’d like to explore that element through Victoria.
What do you think there should be more of, within the industry?
Honestly, We don’t think much about the industry. As for culture, I think we would like more platforms/venues where people can connect offline and make tangible connections.
Why do you think it’s important to work with and commission a variety of creatives, rather than keep everything in-house?
We feel it’s important to explore and commission different creatives and also keep a good amount in-house. You can always learn something new working with others, their creative process is what motivates us too.
Where do you hope to see Victoria in five years?
Continue to maintain and contribute towards culture, we made it through the Pandemic and the world is in a recovery period. We are excited to see the seeds we have planted bloom. Keep growing.
What would be your advice to those wanting to start a brand or independent creatives wanting to work with brands?
If you truly want to pursue running your own brand, stay true to what you want to create and expect to face many hurdles that could discourage you, know that those will only make you grow and continue what you do. Don’t get discouraged. It is a very generic answer but it’s very true.