What is creativity? Lazy Oaf founder Gemma Shiel on collaboration, inspiration and design

In the latest in a series of interviews exploring pure creativity, and how it is conceived, nurtured and grown, The Drum, in association with Millennial Media, sits down with fashion designer Gemma Shiel.

Gemma Shiel is the founder of Lazy Oaf, the graphic and illustration fashion label she started in her dad’s garage in 2001 before launching a stall in Spitalfields Market. It now has a flagship store in Carnaby Street and is stocked in over 250 stores worldwide. Her many collaborations have included DC Comics for a Batman collection and Warner Brothers for Looney Tunes.

Why are collaborations so important, and how do you make them work for both sides?

I do them because I want to get away from what is essentially my design bubble and my own creativity and challenge myself with something new. I like to choose collaborations that I get excited about or I have a personal affiliation with to push my creativity into another world of possibilities. I get to challenge myself with very tight constraints of the brand I’m working with and quite like pushing the boundaries when working with some really corporate companies. I think that’s a true collaboration when they get onboard with you and you’re sharing ideas.

How does the collaborative process work and what works best for you as a creative?

It’s always best to get whoever we’re working with into our studio as they get a real feel for what we’re about and our personality. We like to work with their creative teams, but I like to be the creative lead on it. We choose people that want an injection of the Lazy Oaf personality.

You have a strong blog and social media presence. How do you treat your brand as a publisher?

I have an amazing press and marketing team that are constantly on the lookout for interesting stories. We like to talk to people that look like our customers; the kind of people we sell to who like the product. We want to find out a bit more about what they do, what their bedroom looks like, what their studio looks like – we think our other customers must be interested in this. This lets us extend our voice in a way that we are genuinely interested in and think our customers will be, too.

Our customers are really vocal and not afraid to share their opinions, their love, their hate sometimes. I think that’s the beauty of social media. Sometimes we get loads of ideas from our customers as well that are tipping us off about other artists, events or brands, so it’s a nice conversation.

How do you define creativity?

Being able to imagine the potential of something that’s different from what it already is, or using your own imagination and slapping it on something with no boundaries. I remember a test I did at school that determined what career you were going to have, and it had a creativity section with a series of pictures that you had to apply some sort of creative thought to in order to make it into something different. There was a box so I thought if I draw a tail on it with some bows it becomes a kite. That’s creativity.

Where do your creative ideas come from?

For Lazy Oaf a lot of inspiration comes from everyday life. Quite often it can be from just sitting at a bus stop and overhearing someone’s incredible conversation about what they did yesterday, or what they bought from the shops, or what pets they’ve got at home and what ailments they might have. I am constantly looking at what people are wearing or what they do. I’m just a massive sponge.

Lazy Oaf is a bit lowbrow because we’re not pretentious. I don’t pick really over-important briefs for how I design; my mood board can have anything from a cat in a hat to a bag of chips to a strange lady with facial tattoos. It’s a real hodgepodge of stuff.

At the beginning of each design project I talk with quite a few members of my team and get them to do a bit of an inspiration haul. There’s no strict parameters. They collect stuff and we all sit down and look at it and it opens up a lot of conversation – sometimes it informs a theme or a direction.

Can creativity be learned or is it innate?

As a kid you’re always quite creative, in my experience, and then you learn to get out of that habit and you don’t spend time being creative. You can learn to be creative again by giving yourself time, the opportunity and the confidence to just do what the hell that means to you, whether it’s singing, drawing, theatre or making a pot. I think that absolutely everyone is creative at something. You don’t have to be amazing at it, but it’s just learning how to be creative again. It’s innate.

How closely do the two sides of creativity, thinking and producing, need to be aligned?

The thinking, the initial ideas, the research, the inspiration, the direction, is the most important part for me because it’s establishing root themes. I always allow time to go a bit crazy, without any parameters or restrictions on this part of the process.

Then when I’ve got all of my ideas together and start producing them, that’s when the business mind starts to come in. There’s still creativity, definitely, in that because sometimes your original idea suddenly becomes something new and probably much better. But it’s the initial stages that are the most important.

How can creativity best be nurtured?

Regardless of bad ideas or good ideas you have to be constructive with feedback so that if someone’s trying really hard you can’t knock them down. You need to be polite and constructive if things aren’t quite right, and always highlight the value in what they’ve produced. That’s really important.

The full ‘What is Creativity?’ series, where we catch up with names including Rishi Rich, David McAlmont, Tom Dixon and Jonathan Ross, can be found here.

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