Studio Session : The Gently Unfurling Sneak

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The door creaks open, and you step into the artist’s space. What magic will you find?

Join me for Ruby Slipper’s Studio Sessions – a new array of documentary blogs which chart artists in their creative spaces. We discuss their practice, their development and some of the hurdles they’ve overcome. It’s a wisdom waterfall, y’all.

Today we meet with Anika Cook of The Gently Unfurling Sneak in her western-suburbs based airy studio. I was first attracted to Anika’s work when I saw a dress of hers: it was a beautiful silk with a surreal seamonster scene and a bright obelisk. It looked like collage, but then again not. It was clothing that  told a story, and wasn’t about the physicality of the wearer. I love clothing like this, and wanted to know more about the artist behind the label. So I drove across the Westgate into the clear air, and down to Anika’s studio – laden with treats from Sugardough Bakery and a journal full of questions.

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I: Did you have a clear idea about what you wanted to do?

AC: No. I though I wanted to be a film maker, so I did some film studies at RMIT  – but I didn’t like that at all. Then I decided I’d be a photographer. I was at Melbourne University and I kept on making collages out of photos when a switched-on teacher said ‘I think you like doing this more’. I really, really loved collage. Everything I do is based on collage – I’m a fashion designer but it’s really all about the print for me. I see myself more as an illustrator than a fashion designer, in truth. I try to keep the shapes simple, so that the clothes aren’t overworked and that the graphic is the focus. When I began the seeds of what would become the Gently Unfurling Sneak , I had done a short course in screen-printing and was trying to make back some of the money I’d spent on equipment. I started making t-shirts that I sold at the Rose Street Designer Market, which is how it all began. At that point, I had no intention of making it an actual business.

I: What did you think you’d be doing at that point in your life, in your career?

AC: I had no idea, but I don’t really remember being too bothered about that. When I finished University I went on to work for an IT company for a while – it was awful – and my screenprinted products felt like a way out of that.

I: How long did you participate in running two jobs at the same time?

AC: Only for 6 months – and then I got out and worked full-time on the business, Then I was offered a part-time job at Craft Victoria and I looked after their website and design for three years. It was really hard to make the decision to leave, because it was a wonderful job at a wonderful place.

I: It gave you time to do the stuff you needed to do for your business?

AC: Yes, it was nice to be able to do different things – being able to work on my own stuff and then doing web-design  for another business. It eventually got to a point where I knew I had to go into my  business full-time, or do something else completely – I had to pick one.

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I: There was a real tipping point? Did you feel stretched at  both ends?

AC: Yes, I had all these great ideas but I didn’t have any time to carry them out. I could see how I could be making more money, but you I had to quit my job and have that scary period of not making any proper money. You don’t know if you’re going to survive for that period of time. For me, it was a year of ups and downs.

I: You know that you’ve hit paydirt on your own vocation when you feel like ‘I’m actually steering my own boat’. That you’re not being dictated to.

AC: It’s that difference between feeling like you’re putting out fires, where everything is urgent and scary, and then finally reaching a point where you’re on top of things and excited about the future. It’s a nice moment to get there.

I: How long have you in practice, all up?

AC: Since 2006, but I’ve only been full-time for three years.

II’ve been self-employed for six years and found that it was compliance that was the biggest hurdle for me. How did you go with overcoming business compliance basics?

AC: I learned really early that you have to keep on top of book-keeping: invoices, expenses. I’d do it straight away. When you have to register for GST (I waited until I absolutely had to) you’re ushered into a whole other world of complication and annoyance. That’s when I bought MYOB. I use that and it has saved my life. In terms of the numbers, it figures out everything for me. Depreciation, inventory write-down, the whole kit. I’ve had an accountant since the start – she does my tax, BAS statements and similar. But I would recommend to just get an accountant immediately for their advice. They look after your financial being, they can advise you on the way to buy a car or a piece of equipment – they’ll tell you what’s important. When I started getting employees, that was another level of complexity – dealing with Workcover, superannuation etc. I really had to make sure I was doing that properly. I don’t want to be a business that doesn’t pay people properly, even if it’s by accident.

I: Do you have many employees?

AC: I have one who is in two days per week.

I: How critical is it to fully consider the structure and responsibilities of a business before embarking?

I think if I’d looked at it all before it would have scared the shit out of me and I wouldn’t have gone ahead. But I do think that you need to be on top of your business compliance. My slow growth allowed me to ease into its responsibilities. I do know people who didn’t prioritise that element of their business and didn’t end up doing their tax for five years. It just became a total disaster for them and nearly ruined their business. Prioritise things like invoicing: if you don’t send it to your client on time, you don’t get paid on time. Chasing up invoices take a lot of time.

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I: If you feel on top of it, there’s another portion of your brain that’s not on screensaver. You’re like ‘now I can go and do this awesome stuff’.

AC: It’s the belly-tightening anxiety thing – waking up in the middle of the night and thinking ‘I haven’t paid my GST or I’ve spent all my GST money’. That’s something that pretty much everyone has done! Staying on top of all this compliance keeps you creative.

I: The creative work you do – is it all on the computer?

AC: Sometimes I do get out the glue and scissors – it’s more fun. But ultimately digital is the way to go. I have a drawing tablet, so I often draw straight into the computer.

I: I really love your work because it is less about physicality than about projecting an idea or a story. I don’t often look the same every day or have the same motivation for my appearance. Do you?

AC: No. Sometimes I wake up and I want to really wear high heels, even though I just live down the road and no-one will see me. And then sometimes it’s a sneakers day. That part of life’s fun – why would you want to look the same every day?

I: Clothes need to be about more than just looking attractive. I’m one to use an array of descriptive words like fat or ugly as well as pretty – things that are strange are often wonderful, regardless as to whether they’re considered broadly attractive. Difficult things aren’t bad, ugly isn’t bad – they just are. They can be both beautiful and wonderful.

AC: Yeah,  recognise that too. I definitely like weird things. My first love is surrealism and surrealist collage (usually when I begin to discuss it, people’s eyes glaze over). I love strange things! When I first started out I was just like ‘Will anyone buy this’? I remember one of the first things I made had a scary seamonster design with waves and a weird little building. I only ordered a few of those initially – but everyone desperately wanted the seamonster dress and years later, people still ask me about it! I then knew that people really like weird stuff as long as you can make it wearable. I do want to be accessible.

I: Your work really reminds me of Terry Gilliam’s film ‘The adventures of Baron Von Munchausen’.

AC: I was shown a lot of Monty Python as a kid – my Dad was obsessed. The really giant fat guy who vomits everywhere in The Meaning of Life? I remember being pretty freaked out by that.

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I: What ideas influence your work?

AC: It often starts with a graphic element. Sometimes its just about a line, or about colors. Then I start out with an image and I’ll work on that for a period of time until it feels ready. Then I’ll work out if it is to be an artwork or a piece of clothing or a card. If I can’t think of anything, I’ll go back to all the old surrealist works for inspiration. Old-fashioned photography from the ’60s is really wonderful too – it has something about it that I find really amazing. I think it’s something about the flat colors and the hair – it’s so perfect and smooth.

I: When you design seasons, do you consider the work influenced by the season or is it a capsule of ideas?

AC: It’s more what I’m thinking about at the time, but I do bright colors in summer and I do darker dresses in winter. This winter I’ve done a really thick, wonderfully warm dress that you can be in all day and it will hug you. It is fleecy cotton. It has pockets. I’m looking forward to wearing that one.

I: What have you learned through osmosis?

AC: I’m not a trained fashion designer. I was pathetic when I started, I did my own patterns which was a bad idea. It’s stuff I’ve really had to learn by osmosis. Having people tell me stuff is wrong and then having to fix it – I think that’s the best way to learn. I used to feel really bad about screwing things up – things always go wrong, particularly in fashion production. Things always have to be fiddled with, and being on a steep learning curve taught me so much. Those are the things you learn by doing. The other things I’ve learned by osmosis is how to interact with clients. What wholesale people expect, what suppliers expect. Your clients are people who run their own businesses and you need to work out whether or not you fit into the way they do business.

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I: Learning what’s normal?

AC: Yeah, learning what’s normal. Often there’s no normal, so you just have to work out what normal is to you. It’s a big part of it.

I:Did you find relationship building with clients difficult?

AC: A little bit. I’m naturally very shy and I didn’t quite grasp that when you go to make a delivery you have to stand there for half an hour and chat. I tried to escape this responsibility previously. Every shy person comes across this problem – but you have to forge ahead and do these things as part of business. They want to know about you and your story, and they need a story to tell their own clients who come into their shop.

I: I find a lot of artists or creative wear ‘poverty of the creative’ as a badge of honor. It’s bullshit. In order to produce well you need money, you need resources. There’s nothing wrong with an ethical relationship between patron and artist. 

AC: Creative people really have trouble with this. Pricing is always a massive struggle for people starting out. I’ve had heaps of conversations with people starting to sell in markets and they are always pricing their stock so low. You make something and then you wonder what you’ll sell it for. “It cost me this much including my time which you double for wholesale and then double for retail.” – that’s a bit of a formula. You really have to get to a point where you know what it’s worth: you’ve spent a particular period of time conceptualizing it and making it. Maybe not every person can afford it or will like it. That’s OK. This is how much it costs.

I: It’s easy to undervalue IP. It might be a candle you’re selling for example – say it’s worth $50. You could say ‘I’ll sell it for $25 and I’ll sell a whole lot’. But if you’ve done branding, product sourcing and a tale around the item – you’ll be short-changing yourself by making your product cheap. That IP doesn’t come out of thin air.

AC: People can feel ashamed for charging money for something they enjoy doing. That’s ridiculous!

My message to you? Don’t be ashamed to make money from your passion, your art. Big thanks to Anika Cook for welcoming me to her studio. To see the latest collection of The Gently Unfurling Sneak, click here.

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