A van-load of transfers, a big dollop of enthusiasm and a talent for tapping into the current trends led to the creation of Let it Gibbon. Images meets the man behind the innovative transfer workshops popping up across the country

If there’s one thing Andrew Rutland lacks, it certainly isn’t energy. He’s the man behind the pink gibbon (more of that later) and the creative genius who bought 100,000 transfers dating from the 1970s for £500 20 years ago, and now runs events around London where people can create mash-ups using different transfers to make their own unique T-shirt designs.

He first started making his own clothes in the 1990s, setting up a brand called Pose. He had a bit of money and began ‘bootlegging’ – ripping off well-known brand logos, an approach that is currently resurgent – using a local screen printer in Hackney. “I was so desperate to get into the T-shirt business, I loved it all. I loved the funny logo rip-off T-shirts. I made Colonel Sanders [of KFC fame] with spirals in his eyes instead of his glasses. We made a hundred T-shirts, took them round Camden market and sold a few here and there on sale or return. It wasn’t looking good and then we walked into this shop in the basement of Kensington market. The guy looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, I like that one.’

“We had another design that was called Air Head, which was the Nike Air logo and the Head tennis logo put together, and he went, “I like that one too. I’ll have 300 of that one and 300 of that one.’ “That was the start of it, but still not much happened straightaway, and then we started getting into this idea of using reflective material. We made reflective badges that said Pose. ‘Leisure as identity’ was also an early slogan that we used. We bought a record bag, a cap, a bomber jacket and stuck reflective badges on them, then took a stand at a trade show at Earl’s Court. It cost us £1,000 for the stand and the samples, and I just kept hoping I’d get my money back. On the first day we took £17,000 of orders.

The pink gibbon

Happy customers. Both images, credit: Christopher Sims

“Then we went to Germany and it really kicked off. I was 25-years-old, still trading out ofmy bedroom, and turning over nearly £1.5 million a year.

“We started buying old stock fluorescent jackets from the safety garment manufacturers and putting badges on the back that said ‘Drug Enforcement’ and things like that. We were using reflective ink and glow-in-the-dark stuff – it was all very visually clubby and we did it in a very tongue-in-cheek way.

“We also did some airline wear. The labels would say ‘Do not remove from aircraft’ and the T-shirts all came with a pair of earplugs or a pair or aeroplane eye-shades and little toothbrushes. “Then one day I was in Stoke Newington [in London], home to many Hasidic Jews, who I used to buy fabrics from. This particular company made hard, plastic flooring: I was intomaking strange jackets and was looking for weird fabrics and for a while I made jackets out of industrial flooring.

“I looked around the corner and there was this whole room filled up with all these 1970s T-shirt transfers, which I remembered fromwhen Iwas a kid. That was how you bought a T-shirt then: you went into these shops that had big walls of transfers and you chose ‘The Beatles’ or ‘I’m with sexy’. He had a tonne of them.

“I said: ‘How much do you want for them?’ And he said, ‘£1,000’. I offered him £500, he said okay and the next day I turned up with a transit van. He said there were 100,000 of them. I never counted them until recently – I reckon there’s a lot more than that.

“I did a bit with them in the 1990s. One was a smiley face, which I transferred on to a T-shirt and then printed ‘Acid House’ below it with a screen print.

I played around with them a bit, but nothing really happened. In the 1990s they were still pretty naff. Nobody wanted to wear a T-shirt with fake boobs on it, or Frank Spencer, or Mork and Mindy.”

Andrew left the transfers in his parents’ garage for the next 20 years, and his label Pose disappeared soon after: “Quick as it went up, it went down. Three years later and I couldn’t give it away. Everyone was into drum and bass, and being a raver wasn’t cool anymore. It was a quick lesson in the fashion business.”

The transfers continued to sit in the garage. “Every so often I’d be down there having a little party and there would be some kids around, so I’d buy a few blank T-shirts and get the heat press out – I kept that – and the kids would make their own T-shirts. The adults would join in and it was really fun. We’d start cutting them up and sort of collage them.

“I kept thinking, ‘I’m sure there’s something in this,” and I did it for a few friends’ birthday parties, but I was always just giving it away really.

“Then last year I did a job with the Museum of London where we did a project on the death of nightclubs and the live music scene in London. I said, ‘Let’s get the transfers out and bring the heat presses down and try and sell some T-shirts,’ and people just went crazy for it.

“Since then I’ve been doing workshops, including an event in Middlesbrough with designer Wayne Hemingway, where people can come in, sit down and start cutting out.”

Since the 1990s the T-shirts have changed quite a bit, Andrew reports happily. “Twenty years ago T-shirts were big and boxy. The Gildan SoftStyle T-shirt is a real godsend. It’s a bit more fitted and it’s affordable and it’s great. People are also enjoying bringing in their own garments and doing the backs of denim jackets or skirts. The transfers look great on denim. I’ve been buying little kiddie denim jackets off eBay and working on them. [The model] Lily Cole bought one for her kid at the last workshop.

“It’s free entry to the workshops. People choose the colour and size of T-shirt they want and then sit down with a pile of transfers and cut. There are different price points – the rare transfers are more expensive and you can also buy made-up ones straight off the wall. It’s cheap and it’s fun. We have great DJs playing, we’ve got a big pink gibbon walking around… It’s fun and arty and for all of the family.”

The inspiration for the pink gibbon, a faintly disturbing yet unmistakable part of these events, comes straight from Andrew’s haul of 1970s’ transfers. “One of the transfers is ‘Funky Gibbon’ from ‘70s TV series, The Goodies. I was thinking, what can I call the business, what can I call it? And I came up with Let it Gibbon. My thinking behind that was a long time ago, we had ‘Let it be’ by The Beatles, then we had the Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood shop, Let it Rock. For me, the world is in tatters, everything’s completely falling apart. Everything is such a mish-mash and we’re all using mash-up words and all there is left is just to let it Gibbon. It’s kind of crazy and wacky and there’s nothing sensible left to be doing or thinking anymore.”

It’s definitely not sensible, but it’s certainly a great deal of fun: long may Andrew’s retro transfer mash-ups and pink gibbon suit prosper.