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Taisir Has It All Tied Up

By 3rd October 2014

I met this week’s Big Personality a few years ago through my friend, Kelly when they worked together at Paco’s Restaurant. Taisir Gibreel, or SiSi (pronounce it like C.C.) as she is affectionately known by her friends, was studying textiles at Duncan & Jordanstone College of Art and paying her bills with a few shifts a week as a waitress.  I remember Kelly telling me that she was an amazing designer and was going to have her own fashion line one day.

Looking at Taisir I saw a woman who was tall, elegant and effortless in her style. A woman who had achieved that elusive balance of individual, classic and right-on-trend.  So even though Kelly is prone to exaggerate a teeny, tiny bit, I had no problem wrapping my head around the possibility that I was in the company of a future catwalk creator.

Fast forward a few years and I meet Taisir in the street where we have a very excited conversation about her new line of silk scarves.  She has created a raft of designs and has had them printed onto a beautiful heavy silk. She was, of course, wearing one and I recall my disappointment when I was told that they retailed at £149+.  I wanted one so badly – but Cain’s feet were growing two sizes a month at the time and my purse strings were never going to reach.

It was a mixture of glee and remorse then, when a few years later I picked up one of Taisir Gibreel’s stunning silk scarfs for half price as a clearance item.  I bought three (one for stylish sister in law, one for stylish friend) and felt genuinely sorry that it hadn’t worked out for her.  So, when I caught up with Irene and Katriona from Pretty Things to chat about their recent Perthshire photoshoot it was with a happy curiosity that I discovered they continued to stock SiSi’s collections.

A coffee and chat was required!

“Ahhhhh. Yes. They were stunning scarves. I loved them. But like a few of my early decisions they were perhaps more of a designer’s whim than a sensible decision. Do you know that silk cost me £43 a meter to print? £43!   I was so intent on being innovative and so, when I discovered no-one else was printing on it…!” Her big brown eyes widen, the eyebrows go up and she smiles in mock disbelief at her own naïve self.    

“I sold a few of them and people loved them, but it was never enough to make a proper living. I was so caught up in the idea of it all at that point that I hadn’t really put my commercial head on yet.”

SiSi, as you will discover, has no problems in holding her hands up and talking about the mistakes she has made along the way.   She tells me she has no regrets, that she can let go of bad choices and wrong decisions almost as soon as she’s learned the lesson required.  

“Holding onto these things is no use – it makes you hostile. I like to look at it, learn from it and move on to the next stage. You need to live your life moving forward.”

SiSi’s life is as colourful as her gorgeous prints, and has brought her across two continents to set up home in Perth, Scotland. She currently lives with her boyfriend and they have recently been joined by her 11 year old niece, who is spending time with Auntie SiSi .  

“I feel like all I do is tell her to slow down, to stop playing on screen so long, to listen to people more.   She is so much more grown up than I was at that age. I don’t know if it’s just different times or if it’s because we grew up in Africa and we were allowed to be children for longer.  It’s hard for girls now – she was talking about plucking her eyebrows the other day. I think I was 18 before I plucked my eyebrows!”

There is a tenderness and frustration in her voice; hearing how she wants to slow the world down for her niece to enjoy a little more of her childhood is a reflection of SiSi herself. She tells me about her childhood in The Sudan, where she grew up as the second eldest of six children.

Taisir Gibreel at School“It was a great childhood. I was born in London but we moved to Sudan when I was very little. My Dad was Sudanese, my mum English and at that time there was a real innocence to our lives. We played simple games like aeroplane where I’d roll out a trolley and serve tea and coffee!”

Were they arty, is that where you picked up this talent? 

“No! My dad was a businessman, his father had been a big shot politician in the Sudan and my mum was an aid worker.   My dad died when I was 13 and my mum went on to become a programme director for Save The Children. Most of my brothers and sisters have ‘proper’ jobs – teacher, accountant, headmistress. That’s what was expected of us at the time.”

When she was seventeen she moved back to London to study for her A levels and on leaving school picked up a part time job with the Oilily store in Sloan Street.  In the nineties, this Dutch clothing brand was just starting out in the UK and SiSi moved up the ladder of responsibility quickly. By the tender age of 24 she was the Store Manager and although she loved the brand and enjoyed working in fashion, she suddenly realised she was in her mid-twenties and had known nothing else.

Spurred on by a desire for change, she resigned but Oilily promptly offered the same position in Holland where she stayed for three years before eventually ending up as the Shop In Shop Area Manager, responsible for 42 stores across the world.   She was 27 years old, was working incredibly hard and learning her craft of fashion from the ground up. But after 9 ½ years in the same business she had had enough.  Her last big job with Oilily saw her working alongside the interior design team for a new store opening 50 miles outside Madrid. She thrived on the new challenge and in her head was already thinking of retraining in interior design.

“I really do think that most of the stuff that happens in life happens in one of three ways. You have to work hard, get lucky or be in the right place at the right time.   I was over in Scotland visiting my sister – she married a Scotsman – and I went to chat to a careers advisor about my options and thoughts on interior design. She told me I would need a portfolio and before I knew where I was I had moved to Scotland, bought a flat in Perth and was at Dundee College on a portfolio course.”

One of her tutors at the time was so impressed with her design work that he suggested she look more at textiles. She moved into an HND and then onto Duncan and Jordanstone where she was to find the inspiration that would change the direction of her life.

Taisir Gibreel Dougal Dad“We had a visit from an Orkadian artist, Ingrid Tate and she asked the class to come up with a textile collection that was “Scottish With A Twist”.  I went into art student mode and… you know I haven’t told anyone this. Ok… So I invented this little character called Dougal’s Dad. Dougal’s Dad was into bagging munroes, Scotch Eggs and Irn Bru.  I made a cut-out of him and took him on trips across Scotland. In the name of research I climbed 29 munroes, visited The Scottish Parliament Buildings and photographed Dougal’s Dad out and about on every adventure.”

At this point I love SiSi even more. She appears far too cool to be an eccentric but you don’t come up with nonsense like that unless you’re a little off the wall. 

“When I sat down to design, all of these wonderful rich textures and colours appeared. If you look at my Fairground Sugar Rush prints, you’ll see the little upside down boats from the Parliament. And the orange could be my African roots or it could be Dougal’s Dad’s Irn Bru!  Ben Lawers is there in the rich, beautiful and dark colours of Silver Dew Rainbow. Scotland’s landscape is undoubtedly the source of my inspiration.

Taisir Gibreel Weaving on LoomI loved them right away and decided to use them for my degree show. I had specialised in weaving and printing with textile design and I had them printed up onto cloth and displayed as wall hangings.  Joyce from Gallery Q in Dundee was at the show and she told me that if I ever decided to print my designs as scarves she’d buy them from me. That was it. That’s when it all started for me.”

She printed onto the beautiful silk we talked about earlier, and then had the fabric cut and stitched into her slim, doubled rolled design. True to her word Joyce bought in SiSi’s scarfs and still sells them to this day. Pretty Things in Perth and St Andrews followed suit as well as a few more galleries and boutiques.

“It was amazing. The scarfs sold but at the price point I had I wasn’t getting repeat customers and so the re-orders from my stockists was slow. So, I went back to my retail roots to pay the bills, working first as a buyer for McEwens and then at the House of Bruar. I learned a LOT in this time about consumer habits and what people want. It was all incredibly inspiring but the truth is the business was slow.”

In March 2013, just three years after she had graduated and started her business, she met a woman called Margot Selby.  Margot told her that her designs were right, they were there. But her product was wrong and needed work.

“Let me tell you, sometimes you can talk and chat. Other times you need to listen. I had to admit the business was dying and I had to either get out or give up my job and throw myself into it full-time so I could make it work.  And, well, you know what I chose!”

She packed in her job at House of Bruar and she started researching and making tough decisions about where her product could fit in the market-place.  She was far more careful this time round, learning and listening as she went. She relaunched Taisir Gibreel in August 2013 at a show in New York and came back feeling energised and ready to go.

Taisir Gibreel Various Scarves“I love New York! If you’re going to do fashion you need to do it. The Americans are so full on and positive. It was just what I needed. I had changed my lead product line to a £89 square scarf and honestly, the original still sells but this square made my business.”

She pushed the collection out through shows in London, Germany and Scotland and suddenly she was picking up new accounts and looking at her collection through new eyes. She was still a season behind in fashion speak because she was selling in August for Autumn-Winter that year.  But SiSi set her mind to the long game and worked tirelessly all winter to present a new collection at the early shows.  She is now in sync and presents new collections in varying colours for the season ahead. 

Her designs remain true to Dougal’s Dad’s initial adventures but her business has transformed.

“It’s one thing to be a designer but you need a touch of reality to get your product right. I wasn’t too big to realise that what I was doing was wrong – I was always just ‘nearly there’. It was a big leap of faith to give up a job I loved and just go for it but when I look back now it was all worth it.

You have to be philosophical. So I never got it right the first time round. £43 a meter; how was that ever going to work? Since I re-launched last August I have sold 1800 units and I’ve just secured a German distributer who’s been working really hard and already has the collection in 22 independent boutiques across Germany. Its incredible.”

Taisir Gibreel Large Scarf 2

One of her stockists is Ingrid Tate, the woman who set her class the design task that inspired the collection.   Ingrid had sent a buyer to London to the Top Drawer show and had instructed her to look at the quality of the beautiful scarves she had seen on the show’s website. It wasn’t until the order was placed that SiSi realised who it was for and until that point, Ingrid had no idea her 2009 brief to a classroom full of students was the inspiration behind this new designer’s collection.  

“It was all chance. Ingrid came to see me at Pulse in May this year and instantly started to rearrange the stand. Of course… she was right. It looked better after she’d gone!”

We chat about Perth and the fact she has lived here now for 10 years. This year she was lucky enough to work with a group of artists for Perthshire Studios Open Doors and meet some of her end customers face to face.

“It was amazing – there was a woman who buys from me online – she has six scarfs - and she came with her husband and mother in law. All three own something from my collections.  Talking to them about what my plans are and hearing their feedback was invaluable to me.  I loved being part of that whole experience in fact. It can be quite isolating at times.”

She now designs on four different sizes of silk scarf (none of it costs her £43 per meter!), she launched a silk dress range for Summer 2014 with Wolf & Badger in London and has produced her prints onto very fine, wool scarfs. Which, incidentally, now retail through all three of the Johnstons of Elgin stores.  She also has a line of tops designed and off to the printers to be ready for next winter.

“I was working the other day and I thought… Why didn’t I start with tops? Why dresses? See, still making elementary mistakes! I have a company in London making the dresses for me and I ran the tiniest line of 110 dresses in five prints for my first run this year. It was fabulous. So next year, I’ve upped the order. It’s terrifying because it’s my own money as the outlay. I know I could do it cheaper if I printed and manufactured in China but I just don’t want to. I use a company in Macclesfield to print and make the scarfs for me and a company in London to make the dresses. It’s all British through and through, that’s really important to me.”

Taisir Gibreel DressI’ve seen the dresses and they are gorgeous. I tell her they look like a woman designed them. Not too clingy, little sleeve, not a shoestring strap in sight.  She whips out her collection booklet for next summer and shows me some of the new prints… they are glorious!

“The thing with my prints is that they are big and bold so the dress had to be simple, loose and soft. I wanted something you could wear with statement jewellery and high heels or with a denim jacket and pumps. I still use my original print designs but I’ve also introduced a lot of new colours that are more reminiscent of Moroccan and Arabic influences. I can feel elements of my two distinct cultures across my newer work.”

I ask her if she was arty as a child, if she knew that she’d make this her path someday. 

“No! My Dad wanted me to be a doctor! I wasn’t arty but I do remember when I was growing up I looked at everything through colour. I liked things that clashed. My time at Oilily taught me to be brave and bold with colour and trends and so I explored this side of me in the designs. I think using your heritage and creating something that you love is key to the success.  Although, my personal favourites aren’t necessarily the commercial best sellers. I always find that odd!” 

 “But the thing is, you have to learn as a designer that it’s not about you. That’s hard because often we’re all about the aesthetic but I always listen to customer feedback. And I happily take on board the advice of other designers and people who know more than me. You don’t always need to act on it but you should consider it nevertheless. You can learn some big lessons if you listen.”

Taisir Gibreel Side Profile ScarfWe’re back to her mantra of no regrets and listen hard.  I have a sense of a very strong moral compass lurking under the surface of SiSi’s colourful, creative exterior. She is wild and considered in equal measure. Passionate and poised. A bit like the designs she presents for us to enjoy.

But you won’t need to take my word for it for very long. Because I can’t help feeling that now she is on her roll, scarves waving, all her dresses in a row, we are all about to witness exactly what this strong, vibrant woman is made of.    And I bet it’s even more fabulous than silk at £43 a meter.


If you'd like to buy from the Taisir Gibreel Collection In Perthshire visit Pretty Things in Perth, House of Bruar in Blair Atholl or visit SiSi's website.

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