Gecko Shibori: Colour, crafts & creativity

We can't wait to showcase Gecko Shibori's stunning designs on the Label runway this April 13th! Grab your tickets here:

What first inspired you to begin designing?

Back when I was a kid, I used to do some designing just for fun. I designed a bunch of fantasy sports strips for teams I invented that played a futuristic sport I had also invented... But that was all just on paper! Despite having an interest in design; I took a GCSE in design and communication, my real passion was science, so I never really pursued my design interests. What inspired me to do it as an adult though was music. I had been out of work for a while with depression, and part of what I found helped me out of the illness was listening to music. I was listening to a lot of psychedelic trance music, especially at the gym. I was in the process of trying to get back into full time work, but I had no success after nearly a year of trying, and I was already considering becoming self-employed.  Around that time, I suddenly decided one day I wanted to make myself a pair of tie dye shorts to wear at the gym, and I feel that this decision was perhaps inspired by all the music I was listening to at the time. The inspiration seemed the answer to the question of “self-employed doing what?” that I had been asking myself. I am a G-d fearing person and when I have difficulties in my life I ask G-d for guidance. The sudden interest in tie-dye and my subsequent discovery of shibori while researching how to buy some dye seemed like a bit of Divine Providence to me. First, I threw myself into researching everything I could discover about resist dying techniques and began to practice on old donated items of clothing and pieces from charity shops. I was just experimenting and recording my findings. After 6 months of practice I was still just as enthused about the idea as before, and I developed a business plan to start my business and become a professional designer.

I still listen to music while I am working, and I think it's hugely influential in my designs. I find the psychedelic trance music keeps me working faster, and it helps me keep going during the long hours of a production day, when you need to keep focused and keep your energy up while doing what is quite physically demanding work. For sewing I prefer other genres including drum and bass, synthwave, and tech house. Of course, the question remains, why did I not just buy a pair of shorts, why did I want to make them? I find it hard to get clothing I want to wear in the shops. I think menswear is generally very boring, and I don’t see why it should be. So, the other thing that inspired me was a desire to create more interesting, colourful men’s clothing in particular. I feel there is room for more choice and individuality in menswear, just like you have in ladieswear. I think the conservative nature of men’s clothing is a recent thing from just the last few centuries, so hopefully we will evolve beyond the limited palette and obsession with the suit to something more diverse in the future. If I can do anything to help expedite this, then great, if not, there are people out there who no doubt want to express a more personal style with their clothing than conservative dress allows, and the thought of this inspires me.


Where does the brand name come from?

I like geckos. It’s as simple as that I suppose. I like the way they stick to walls and ceilings with their hands. Back in 2000 I began to use the screen name grippygecko. I had a previous screenname but it wasn’t as original, so occasionally I would find it had already been taken so I came up with grippygecko as a new one. I came up with the shape I use as a logo not long after. As the internet evolved you started to get asked for an avatar when you signed up to a forum or whatever, and I didn’t want to use a picture of myself. I am not very photogenic. I came up with a shape in my head that I wanted to use to represent myself instead. I rendered a 3D model of what I call “the blob” in a program called POVray. The current Gecko Shibori logo is a 2D version of “the blob”. Ever since then I have stuck the “gecko” name on most of my personal projects.  Shibori is the Japanese art of shaped resist dyeing. I am focussed on using traditional shibori, with or without modern variations, although I do use Western direct application tie dye and ice dye techniques as well. I think there are fewer artists working in the medium of shibori, so its more distinctive than the “tie dye” side of the business. The downside is most people might not really know what Shibori is or means. I want to start incorporating sashiko into my work, but the original inspiration was the shibori so even if I started to make things that didn’t involve resist dyeing I would keep the name I think.


What have been the challenges of running a business on Etsy?

The first challenge was getting found. I think it takes a while before the internet “catches up” with you, and you start showing up in searches. It took quite a while between me opening my Etsy shop, and my first Etsy sale. I had sales to personal contacts to keep me going in the meantime, but the constant concern with an Etsy shop is showing up in search results and getting sales. I have noticed that a lot of people will favourite my items without ever buying from me. The Etsy rules mean I am not allowed to contact my customers, or potential customer with marketing, only to discuss fulfilling their order. It is this horrible paradox of “nobody wants to be marketed to” but every business must market what they do. Etsy, in wanting to protect customers from getting spammed with pushy sales messages, have actually made it impossible for shop owners to do normal marketing activities like emailing customers to promote sales or inform them of new lines. That’s if you obey the rules, some shop owners don’t, and I even get people sending me unsolicited etsy convos, trying to convince me I should stock their products in my shop!

Another clear issue is the balance of made to order vs. pret a porter. I am still a small business and I don’t want to make lots and lots of stock. I can’t make every design in every colour and every size, because it might not all sell. I make some pret a porter pieces for people to buy as is, but I also offer extensive made to order, customised garments that allow a customer to tell me what colours they want, what size they need and which technique to apply. Certain techniques work well on one fabric or garment type but not on another, so I really need to discuss a bespoke project with the customer. Etsy has a convo system that makes customisation requests straightforward, but a lot of customers still aren’t used to shopping that way. They don’t want to wait 3 weeks for their items to be made, they want it now. There is also the problem with any kind of distance selling of clothing; you must use pictures and words to describe the items, the customer can’t feel it or try it on. I have the problem from the other side when I buy fabric. Sometimes you would know what you want, if you could see and feel it, but from just a picture and a short description, you can’t be certain.  I have only had one return of a garment that didn’t fit, but it’s crushing because I want everyone who buys from me to get exactly what they want and be delighted with the purchase.

Getting quality photos is the single biggest challenge to my online business. We all know its very important, and you look at some Etsy shops and they have photos that are such super quality: like a magazine fashion spread. I have good friends and acquaintances who have helped me out by modelling and shooting the photos for me, and my local community centre where I go for sewing classes let me use the centre gardens for my photos, but getting suitable weather, and arranging a photo shoot is time consuming and tricky. I can’t really keep up with the rate I am making things, so I have a constant backlog of creations waiting to be photographed, and then I need to actually sit and write copy for and list them once I have the photos. I am quite slow and deliberate when I write so it takes me a quite a while because I want to really give a sense of how unique each item is, and why the customer would want it. Just simply giving a flat description of the garment style and colour wouldn’t make a sale would it? You fight so hard to get a customer into your virtual shop, you don’t want to just have them walk out without appreciating your range. Sometimes I just have to put my copy writing head on and write like that is my job. Because I am a one man band, I have to design, make, market, and fulfil orders (on top of actually running the business as well). I don’t have any formal training in any of it, so it feels like a real challenge.


How are you celebrating your third anniversary?

Well, doing this fashion show is a great way to celebrate I guess. These anniversaries seem to whizz round so quickly, I never feel properly prepared for them. I always intend to do something for them, like a promotion or something. But the problem is with the anniversary being just before Passover. Preparing for the Jewish festival of Passover is a big deal, and quite a disruption. I have a period of downtime every year for the festival because my work area, what I jokingly refer to as the “gecko shibori lab”, is not available to me for use during the festival and even just prior to it. To run a big sale just before I am unable to work would be awkward. I started a blog last year, and I mean to post more content with it going forward. Hopefully the anniversary will be an anchor point for me to refocus my efforts and rebalance my priorities. I think I will run some sort of promotion for the 3rd anniversary after the Passover holiday, and have that tied in with some new homeware lines I have planned. In the past my bandana giveaway, and totebag giveaway were popular so I think the birthday promotion will involve a giveaway rather than a conventional sale. I might bake a cake too. Can’t go wrong with cake can you?


Where do you draw inspiration from?

In addition to the musical inspiration, I am naturally drawn to traditional Japanese designs. There is just something about the traditional designs of Japan, particularly the geometric designs that I find resonates with me. I never set out to be interested in Japan or Japanese culture, and I don’t even consider myself a Japanophile, however I just keep finding myself being attracted to Japanese designs and handicrafts. I stumbled across sashiko a year or so ago and I am now really into that too. The patterns of sashiko can cross over into my dyed designs, and vice versa. I also really like the practical nature of sashiko, how it’s about strengthening textiles while at the same time decorating them and preventing waste. I love upcycling, the worlds resources are precious, and we should avoid wasting things that are still useful. I have even begun learning some Japanese on duolingo. I also seem to pay a lot more attention to costumes in films and tv shows than I ever did before I started making clothes. I really love the costumes in the Chinese costume drama Tientsin Mystic (He Shen 河神) which I have just started watching on Netflix. There are some really cool looking boro style garments. I find Asian style garments are design more with practicality and comfort in mind, and for me, those are major factors to consider. I continue to look at traditional styles of Asian garments from all across that vast continent for design inspiration.

My other main source of inspiration is science. My designs usually feature abstract rather than realist depictions. I like patterns, and science is full of patterns. I still work like a scientist and some of my designs are inspired by things like soundwaves, crystal growth, X-ray imaging, DNA, chromosomes, and chromatography. Because the designs are still essentially abstract it might not be apparent that they are inspired by scientific images or processes, and its not always something you want to share with the buying public who are not all scientists, and might not have the same positive feelings associated with an idea that I have. Sometimes science gets set up as some kind of opposite to nature, but really science is all about nature; it’s the rational understanding of the fundamental nature of the world. When someone says they are inspired by nature and natural images people can relate to that better I think.


How do you think crafts, arts and fashion interconnect?

I once the gave the question of what is art and what is a craft some thought. I think making something using skill is always a craft. But an item made to be entirely utilitarian is not a piece of art. To be art I think the item needs to have an aesthetic quality beyond the minimum qualities it requires for its function.  Wearing clothing is necessary to avoid getting too cold if you live in the temperate zone, in addition we have laws in most countries that make appearing in public without clothing a crime. Clothing could be made that has a basic utilitarian function of simply covering your body to be decent and warm, and if made by machines this would not be a craft or an art. Fashion is about making a statement with your clothes, expressing your individual taste. For that you need art. Fashion is a form of art. But mass produced fast fashion is the artistic equivalent of a printed poster. It is limited in terms of its relevancy and its so ubiquitous it lacks much in the way of originality and quickly loses its impact. At the other end you have clothing that has had so much time, effort and skill go into its making that it’s the equivalent of an original painting or a sculpture. There will only ever be one. With automation a lot of traditional handicrafts associated with clothing production began to fall out of favour. Now only a few skilled individuals keep those traditions alive. I think its great that designers are helping to support such crafters by featuring these techniques in their collections. Now a new generation of crafters are taking up some of these traditional techniques, but without the traditional cottage industry that once supported these crafts we are having to do many steps in a production process ourselves, when previously each step was the job of only one highly skilled crafter. Taking shibori as an example; marking the fabric with a design was the job of one person. Binding the cloth was the job of another person, and they would only be using one technique (shibori is a family of many different techniques that give very different appearances). Dyeing the fabric was someone else’s job, and rinsing it someone else again. Finally, the finished fabric was sold to a tailor to be made into a garment. Not only do I not specialise in a single shibori technique, but I do all the above-mentioned steps meaning I will never have the level of skill and speed associated with the cottage industry system. Most modern shiborika are the same as me, it is only the traditional old generation of craftsmen and women in Japan who specialise. This seems to be the new way for modern crafters, where we do everything ourselves.

I aim to make wearable art. I want the person wearing a piece I have made to feel something about it, and the people who see it to feel something about it too. That is not to say I am making impractical or uncomfortable garments because I think people might get the wrong idea when I say “wearable art”. I design comfy, practical clothing, but I want it to be mentally and emotionally stimulating in addition. The person who wears a piece of art gets to show people their taste in art without inviting them home, and I think people can tell quite a lot about you, or they think they can tell quite a lot about you, from the way you dress. Your clothing says something about you. Letting people say more than “I have to wear clothing or I would get arrested” is what designing clothing is all about I guess.


What do you most want people to know about your business?

I have never really made a big deal out of being ethical, or ecological etc. I do make it clear that some of what I make is upcycled, organic or fairtrade, but I don’t exactly shout it from the rooftops or build my brand on green credentials. One reason I don’t do that is because getting accreditation or certification would be a costly and probably time consuming process. That would just put all my prices up and then would people be more likely or less likely to shop with me? The truth is that my business has a very low impact on the environment. In my childhood I collected money, and donated money myself to have trees planted in places where desertification was a risk. I figure all those trees would count as carbon offset for my business. I do my best to offer value to my customers and be a responsible businessman. I reuse and repurpose items to create new designs, partly because I hate waste and partly because I like the challenge to my ingenuity to create with what is available.

I would also like people to know I do bespoke pieces. I am always amazed how even with my made to order listings people tend to order the same colour as the main picture for a listing. If I make the first of a range blue, people will keep ordering blues ones! I never just dye one item in a shibori tub, I make a number of other things at the same time because it is more economical. I dye more things blue because people keep ordering blue things, then I make a whole tub of blue pieces and blue fabric, list them and then they get ordered in blue too. I am happy to dye things other colours! Of course if the customer wants blue, that’s absolutely fine.

I think I would like people to know how time consuming the making process really is. Especially the shibori. So many people say “oh tie dye, I did that at school”. I feel like they don’t really appreciate the time and skill that goes into what I do or the level of control I have over the outcome. This is not the tie-dye you did at school. To bind a shibori piece takes me hours (sometimes days) of work, often handstitching, as in the case of mokume, or maki nui. I also use a number of traditional binding tools that I had specially built for me. Even the dying and rinsing will take half a day minimum. The rinsing is time consuming and skilled, and I do everything myself, I don’t have any assistants. Its worth all the effort though because it creates something truly unique. I can dye 3 t-shirts using the same technique and while you will be able to tell they are the same technique, if you look closer you will see they are not identical. I get very upset when I see fake shibori or tie dye in the shops, where a picture of some shibori or tie-dye has been printed on some garment or other so that each one is absolutely identical. I feel it devalues something that is a handicraft when they do that because many people don’t know the difference. Another annoyance is when a supermarket picks up on the shibori trend and they start selling cheap, poorly made shibori that is proper hand dyed but for far less than I could make it. I know that someone in a developing country has still had to hand bind and dye that garment, it would still have taken them time to do, but they are clearly being exploited to do that much work on a garment that only costs a few pounds. I do what I do full time, professionally, so I take it seriously. I don’t like to see my craft dismissed as a trivial thing or devalued by cheap knock offs.

As far as the dying is concerned I am entirely self taught, but I have obtained books and read tutorials by other dyers and shiborikas. I have no qualifications in sewing or fashion but I started taking classes at a local adult education centre to learn sewing and dressmaking. I have grown in confidence with the sewing and I am always trying new dye techniques, new sewing projects and designing new products. I am committed to continue growing and learning. I know there is a great deal still for me to learn, but having already been through higher education studying science I don’t have the option to just do a fashion degree or a business qualification. I need to keep learning on the job. In the last three years I have come on leaps and bounds and it’s very empowering. I have always had faith in myself. Sometimes its been a struggle to get other people to share that faith, and that is why I ended up starting this business. I want to keep growing it, and eventually become an established brand. In addition to Etsy I sometimes do local markets, but what I would really like to do would be to sell my work in boutiques and at music festivals.  My religious beliefs prevent me working on the Sabbath which means I cannot really attend music festivals to sell my work in person, but perhaps I can partner up with an experienced vendor who appreciates my work.  All in all I am really seriously looking for ways to grow beyond Etsy into the wider market place, while still maintaining a means for people to order custom made items.