Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Remco Merbis
We met Instyle’s Digital Influencer of the Year (in Craft / Illustration) and Instagram Queen Niki Groom. She is the woman behind Miss Magpie Fashion Spy and started illustrating from a plastic table in a backpackers hostel in Australia. She's since been featured in Vogue, Grazia and Harpers and worked for the likes of Liberty, Accessorize, Boden and Clinique. She is a lover of travel and colour who has flown to India over fifty times and taken her paintbrushes to the Calais Jungle. She’s not purist about the way she creates and believes in taking positive steps and looking on the bright side. We met in the Sun Room, her home studio at the back of her house, to talk about the ways illustrators can bridge gaps where photographers can’t, why she embraces aestheticism and humanitarianism alike, and why she believes these two pulls don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
What do you make?
I’m an illustrator. I trained as a fashion designer, but I was only ever in the fashion industry because I loved colour and fabric and drawing. A year ago I stopped doing design and just did fashion illustration. Now I mix live and commercial illustration for brands such as Clinique and Accessorize. I’m developing self-initiated work in other areas too.
How and why did you move between fashion design and illustration?
Everyone thinks fashion design is really creative and glamorous. There’s an element of that but it’s so sales focused. There’s lots of pressure for design to perform, which means you’re limited creatively. Illustration was my escape. When I’d send design specs to factories I’d always pen an illustration of a girl wearing the garment on the side. Everyone laughed and asked what on earth I was doing! But I always found a way to draw.
In 2000 I was 20-something and backpacking around Australia. I’d bought a one way ticket. I was trying to get fashion design jobs but then I met someone on a bus who liked my drawings and said I should meet her friend. Her friend turned out to be the Editor of Vogue and I got my first commission!
After that things were crazy for about 8 months. I’d set up in a backpackers hostel, on a little plastic table, do something and courier it to Sydney. I was getting commissions from Harpers and places. It was amazing.
When I returned to London in 2001, however, at first no-one was interested. So I went back into clothing design and ended up working at Monsoon. It was brilliant, but then when I was being encouraged to go to manager level, I discovered Instagram and started to illustrate again.
What is it about drawing and creativity that you enjoy?
I have always been creative. When I was little I had this shelf in my room that I would reorganise every week, changing the order and colour. And I’ve always drawn. I’d put little drawing competitions on the door of my room with prizes. I’m lucky, that creativity has never been stifled.
I’ve got a really feminine illustrative style. Faces, women, eyes, clothes… Product and food too. Lots of pens and watercolour. I’m not a purist. I love all kinds of work. There are people who do amazing stuff on Photoshop - but for me there’s something about mark making and mixing colour. Sometimes this face comes up and I’m like: ‘I love her!’ but I’ve no idea where she came from. These girls just sort of appear. There’s certain illustrations I’ve done I can’t sell them. It’s weird. It’s like I didn’t make them.
I go into my own little world and lose track of time when I’m drawing. It’s funny because when I do the live illustration I know exactly how long things take. I did some work for Topshop recently and every six minutes I was illustrating a new Christmas bauble! When I don’t have to do that it’s really nice. The whole day can go and I often realise it’s 4pm and I still haven’t had lunch! Some days I have to give myself a rest because my shoulder hurts or I have to do some admin or sort out VAT. But I’m never stuck for inspiration. It’s more that there’s so much I want to do that I haven’t got enough arms.
You’re freelance now, what do you do during the breaks between paid work?
On my easel now is a project I did when I had two weeks without any paid work. I thought let’s look at this in a positive way: I have all that time and I’ve got the opportunity to do anything I want. It was the catwalks at the time and I thought that whole Valentino collection was amazing so I decided to spend a couple of weeks with it. I printed lots of images out and looked at the print, the embellishment and the models. I wanted to capture the whole thing in one painting.
I really enjoyed doing it and I think my work would get stale if I didn’t do new projects like this every so often. With commercial work they tend to just want me to repeat what I’ve done before so I need to keep showing people new things. It’s important to keep doing stuff and really love what you’re doing and to keep sharing it. I know a lot of people are very negative about social media but I’m Instagram obsessed. It's such a great tool. I find it so interesting to see makers on that platform and love seeing behind the scenes.
What places have inspired you?
When I was a bit stuck with my illustration and felt I needed space to be more creative I googled ‘creative retreat’ and found this place in Scotland in Gardenstown, between Aberdeen and Inverness. It’s in the middle of nowhere and absolutely beautiful. I took a week off, packed up my pencils and went there to draw. I hired this massive studio that overlooks the sea. It was a really inspiring place. The light was amazing and I could hardly get wifi. There’s no phone, no shop, nothing. While I love social media, it was great to focus in the studio. At first it was really strange. I had all this amazing scenery around me and wondered if should I be trying to draw the sea. But instead, I just drew loads and loads of girls again.
Another place has to be India. I’m lucky to have travelled loads through fashion design. I’ve been back and forth to India about fifty times and I lived in Delhi for eight months. It’s all the colours and textiles and the block printed fabrics. I’ve been to the areas where they do that and it’s such a wonderful skill; you see them carving the blocks and mixing the colours with natural dye and printing in a way they have done for years. It’s incredibly inspiring. I haven’t been to India for a year, which for me is crazy. I’d usually go four or five times a year. And every time I go back I am amazed by how much India’s changed - but then so have I! I went from working for Monsoon to working for a small fair-trade company based in Cornwall called Nomads. They work with smaller factories and do hand block printing. There, I got more involved in Indian craft and techniques rather than mass production.
My trip to Africa in 1994 also had a big impact on me. It was my first trip away from home and I was completely naive. It was £220 for a ten-week trip. I got a flight to Nairobi on my own. It was before anyone was using the internet so my parents didn’t know for three weeks that I’d arrived because I had to write an airmail. When I returned to the UK I just wanted to go back to Africa, but I’ve since realised that it was travel I fell in love with.It sounds clichéd, but it was meeting different people and cultures and, for me, seeing different textiles, fabrics and colour. There’s things I’ve still got from that trip - a collection of raggedy bits of fabric - that I treasure.
You say you’re changing and so is your work, can you explain more about this?
I’ve been obsessed with aesthetic for so long - I think that comes from being in the fashion industry. It’s very much about colour, line and beauty. The process is interesting but it's never really trying to say anything. There's nothing behind most of it and I’ve always had this pull to do something useful. I nearly did African studies and social anthropology instead of art and I did my dissertation on fashion and charity. There’s always been this struggle: I want to do something helpful but I work in fashion. Often those feel poles apart.
This year, I volunteered in Calais with the Help Refugees Charity. I was involved with the charity beforehand: I illustrated these e-cards for them that were free if you donated money through a company - ‘So-and-so’s bought a sleeping bag on your behalf for a refugee in need’ kind of thing. I still didn’t feel like I was doing enough so I decided to go out to the Calais Jungle. While I was there I started illustrating the police, refugees and volunteers, and the conversations that were happening. That was a new way of managing to capture something in an image for me.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you used illustration in Calais?
I started off being a normal volunteer: packing, cleaning up and clearing. But then the news broke that they were going to start demolishing the camp. I had my sketchbook with me just in case. I captured the scene and tweeted it. From then on the Help Refugees team were like: ‘stop doing anything else and just draw’.
It was amazing but really hard. I was horrified by what I saw. I met a lot of kids and it was hard to leave them in that squalor. When I came back I found it even more difficult. At one point I was posting about theValentino collection and then the next post was something about refugees. It felt wrong and it was something I struggled with at first. But now I’ve realised it’s ok: I can be all these things. I need to work and grow my business and then I can be more useful. That’s the way I’ve got my head around it now.
Do you think there’s something about illustration other forms can’t capture?
Absolutely. Especially in Calais. A lot of refugees didn’t want to be photographed. And there's also that thing of sticking a camera in the face of a child without asking permission. A lot of the refugees still have family in Iraq or Syria and they’re scared for them. But the UK public needed to see the women, children and, indeed, many poor men who were suffering. Illustration was a really good way of capturing the information without identifying specific people. My style isn’t realistic so no one is going to be recognised. I think illustration often has more of a story than a photograph because people’s imaginations are allowed to continue. Illustrators bridge that gap so often: when all the problems happened in Paris an illustration would be shared millions of times. It’s a great way of communicating that transcends language and other barriers.
I could be in spaces, drawing and people would see it as harmless. They wouldn’t ask: ‘Who is she? Get her out!’ Even the French police, who wouldn’t talk to anyone, came over asking what I was doing and if I could draw them! I was seen as very neutral, which was funny as I didn’t always feel neutral. It was quite good to remove myself from all the groups people try to put you in while you’re there. You’ve got these people who go to help all the time in places like that. I’m sure some of them saw me coming and thought: ‘Oh great, another person with no experience here to help for five minutes!’ But I thought: I’ll just do my thing. And help how I know how. I now sell some of my work with Makers 4 Refugees.
What place would you like to make the world?
I read an article yesterday about the importance of being an optimist - which I am - and how difficult that is at the moment. Often things can feel pretty full of doom. But sometimes being optimistic is a choice.
I know people who feel so overwhelmed that they actually shut off. We can feel like we can’t affect anything but we can do lots of small things. I’ve decided to keep doing what I love doing, while trying to make it useful every now and again. If I think like that then I will actually do something and not shut off. It’s about getting that balance.
The Sun Room
Inspired by her time in a Scottish artistic retreat, this tranquil oasis is the perfect place to paint. The glass-roofed conservatory looks out onto Niki's garden and even on this grey December day the room is full of light and colour. Niki’s love of colour and fabric is apparent and we are surrounded by pinks, metallics, golds, blues and an array of patterns and texture.s There’s a day bed covered with hand-block printed fabric, paint pots and brushes scattered on top of her desk and an easel with her current Valentino collection painting resting on top and lots of girl’s faces staring back at you from every corner of the room. Yoda the cat plays on the roof. 'She’s just attention seeking,' Niki explains, ‘She sits right above my head when I’m working sometimes, it’s really unnerving!’ While colour is everywhere in her prints and paintings, the walls themselves are curiously bare. Niki laughs when I ask her about it. ‘My bedroom is white too,’ she explains. ‘I think sometimes there’s so much colour in my head that I need a rest from it!’
Why did you create the Sun Room?
After my last trip to Scotland, I realised I can’t just rely on that place to feel creative. I thought there must be a way of feeling like that here. So that’s when I turned this room into my studio. It’s not as amazing as there - there’s no sea view! But I can lose days in here. I think it’s a mix of the light and the fact that it backs onto the garden. I just feel cut off and peaceful.
It started just with the desk and it was all really tidy but I couldn’t work. As soon as I got all my equipment out it felt better. I’d forever been putting my paintbrushes away but as soon as I put them here I thought - this is where they live now. When I’m working on something, I like to stick lots of images up on the walls that inspire me. Sometimes it gets properly chaotic but it’s fine because I can lock it away in here and I still have my house.
This block printing stencil was a gift from a friend who owned a factory in India. He gave me it when I stopped working for Nomad. I love the illustrative way the sewing machine’s been done.
There is also my lucky paintbrush. In Jaipur, in India, you have all this amazing hand-painting on the buildings. I saw this man touching up a building near the hostel I was staying in at the time. He was just there for days. I tried to talk to him but realised he was mute. We smiled every day. I eventually managed to communicate that I did artwork as well. Then when I was leaving he gave me this paintbrush. I was so touched, it’s just lovely. I don’t actually use this brush to paint with must, but sometimes when I start something new I put the first mark down with that paintbrush. It’s sort of fallen apart so I’ve sellotaped it together.
In Calais, there was this amazing women’s and children’s centre in a tent in the camp. On Fridays they had this beauty day. They covered everything in blankets and created this beautiful, warm, lovely space. Some of the volunteers had beauty training and gave the women head massages and painted their nails. Some people can be really discerning when I describe this beauty day. They ask 'why did the refugees need that?' But that space and that level of care involved was important. It was just complete escapism for these woman, who came from all over the world and had all sorts of stories. There was one woman from Iran, who was thirty-three and had been an architect professor, teacher, qualified beautician and trained theatre actress.
No photographs were allowed in the tent but I was allowed to draw. Some of the children were making loom bands at the back. They couldn’t speak to each other because they didn’t have the same language but they could communicate through sharing this creative activity together. One of the girls was called Ida. She wanted to draw me and this is the picture she made. It’s so special - everything about it - you can even see her muddy fingerprints. I will get it framed at some point.
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.