With his unique look, eye for style and empathetic ear, Gok Wan has made his mark on our screens by giving women, and men, the confidence to appreciate their bodies and ‘find their fun’ with fashion. Having taken both the fashion and TV worlds by storm, he’s styled everyone from Damien Lewis to Dawn French, but his extensive knowledge and love of food and cooking has enabled him to expand his expertise across a broader lifestyle remit.
The Leicester-born fashion expert, award-winning TV presenter and author talks to Angela Sara West about his career, his brand and business tips, ‘getting naked’ himself for his new stage show Gok Wan Naked & Baring All… and how business saved his life.
“I LOVE business; I’m a bit obsessed with it!” Gok, who grew up living above his family’s Chinese restaurant, reveals. “I spent my childhood surrounded by business and learnt the importance of money, customers and trade at a very early age. One of my earliest memories is understanding that working really hard can get great results.”
Growing up with mental health and bullying issues, the multi-talented fashion guru didn’t have an easy childhood. “But the business side of things was a huge motivation and a great detachment from the bad stuff that was happening.” He admits that, had it not been for his father’s business and the work ethic it taught him, things could have been very different. “I probably would have ended up in quite a dark place. Working there from quite a young age was quite a saviour, really.”
In fact, Gok’s biggest business icon is his dad. “He was a huge drive for me. Back in those days, we didn’t have the likes of Sir Richard Branson and Sir Alan Sugar… the role of celebrity was left to actors or singers. Nowadays, because of the power of the internet, you have access to people’s lives and, obviously with Wikipedia etc. you can reach out and search for those people. But when I was growing up, business was immediate. My business icons were people who had done very well; members of my dad’s family, his friends and customers who also had their own businesses. He had quite a large set of affluent people who would come in and we’d hear about the companies they ran and how successful they were.”
Such business people fascinated Gok, more from the successful, rather than financial, point of view. “These people seemed very happy, very confident, very strong… and that really appealed to me. It was measured pretty easily by the cars they drove, the watches on their wrists, all of that kind of stuff.”
Super-stylish Gok’s pre-TV work involved jobs as a hair and make-up artist in the fashion industry, working on titles such as The Sunday Times Style. “I fell in love with the clothes and then worked as a fashion stylist, doing editorial, advertising and music for many years.”
Since 2006, his innate ability to relate to people and persuade them to take pride in themselves has resulted in TV transformations where women have “stripped” for the nation to boost their self-confidence. His serial hit Channel 4 makeover series, How To Look Good Naked, paved the way for numerous spin-off fashion-focused shows, such as Gok’s Fashion Fix, and regular slots on ITV’s This Morning.
“I never set out to be the Robin Hood of the woman’s body, but the cap fitted very well. Because of where I came from, with my experiences of bullying and self-esteem, I suppose I have a natural empathy for people who don’t like the way that they look,” he explains. “So, I’ve kind of fallen into this role, which I enjoy and I’m very thankful for. We’ve made a business out of it in the nicest possible sense… we’ve made TV programmes about raising people’s confidence, produced clothing lines including plus-sized brands, control wear… all the tools I’ve used on television as a stylist, we’ve turned into different business projects. I like to think of it as creating solutions for people.
Released to critical acclaim, his first clothing collection for Sainsbury’s TU in 2011 broke UK sales records, with his famous red wrap dress selling at a rate of one every 24 seconds. “It was a great dress! Very simple and elegant. It did incredibly well. We produced and sold a huge volume of jeans, too. We’ve been so lucky over the years with our products, whether beauty, body or underwear, swimwear, glasses… We’ve always stayed true to our brand and have never tried to move away from that. I think that’s been really important for the business.”
Sporting a distinctive look, with thick-rimmed glasses and impeccably-styled hair, did he set out to turn himself into a very distinctive brand? “Yes, I suppose I did. Working as a fashion stylist for many years before I was on television, it was always my job to give people a brand, make them unforgotten and iconic. Whether that was with a pair of glasses, hairstyle or clothes, it was my job to rebrand people and musicians.”
When it came to styling himself for TV, he therefore instinctually knew what to do. “I knew how to give myself a certain look to make sure I was going to be remembered. I’ve always styled myself, I’ve never had a stylist. I don’t know whether it was the cheap or clever option!”
Was it part of the plan to become a celebrity? “No, never! It’s a bi-product, really, of what’s happened in my life. I’m a fashion stylist by trade and because I now do it within the public sector and people see what I do en masse, people know who I am. But I would never describe myself as a celebrity!”
Gok & his wok…. and his dad!
But it’s not always been about clothes… in 2012, he explored his family’s fascinating roots in his documentary Made in China and presented his own Channel 4 cookery show, Gok Cooks Chinese… with his beloved dad, Poppa Wan. “I really enjoyed it; it was a dream come true! Because I’d spent so many years working in the restaurant, I can cook and know quite a lot about Chinese food. With the skills that I’d learnt over the years presenting and being able to do what I do on camera, it made sense to do it.”
He says focusing on food made a nice break from fashion. “Because, bizarrely, there’s less emotion with food. We’re very attached to what we eat, whereas with clothes, there seems to be a lot more emotion and sales involved…. you’ve got to convince people what to wear, how they look. With food, you can pretty much put a bowl of anything in front of them and they’ll give it a go. It’s a completely different medium, but just as fun!”
Along with styling titles, Gok has produced cookery books. “I like writing. I’ve written six or seven books. If I’m given an opportunity to write a good book or memoirs or something, absolutely! I would never claim to be a writer… I don’t think I’m particularly good, but I enjoy it and will always give it a good go.”
Tricks of the trade…
Bursting with business tips, Gok shares the following ground rules. “Firstly, you’ve got to understand your brand, what you’re about. What is your product and USP? What are your competitors doing? What’s out there in the marketplace? Secondly, understand your customer; understanding their psychology is paramount. If you don’t understand their needs, or fears, you’ll never develop your product to the point where you feel you are delivering the highest grade.”
He says it’s crucial to be sensible with your business plan. “Make sure your forecasting is accurate and not overly ambitious. I think the more simple it is, the greater the chance of surviving in the very tough world of business.”
Building your contacts and your network is equally as important. “Never burn any bridges, understand that if you help people, it will come back to you. Always be available, understand your staff, make sure you’ve got a great team around you and that they feel appreciated and their work is recognised.”
He stresses the importance of constantly developing YOURSELF along with your team. “Never think that you always know more than your team. Don’t be afraid of being obsessed with your business… of it being YOU. Because if it’s yours, you’re going to work very hard at it. It’s only like developing your personality… Why would you ignore what makes you happy? Why would you ignore what makes you laugh or cry? You should do that with your business, too.”
Baring all… body & business confident
The man who encouraged people to “get naked” for his TV show now promises to bare all about his own life. What can audiences can expect from the fashion guru’s stage show? “It covers everything from growing up, my relationship with my family, food, my body, where my confidence came from, where it went, the bullying, the anorexia, being famous, business, being on television, fashion… it’s access all areas. It’s kind of a memoir… in 2009, I wrote an autobiography and it was a big move for my career and me emotionally and for my confidence… I didn’t realise I could write it. I thought back then I’d disclosed everything. I covered six or seven known subject areas, but I’ve since realised I’ve got a lot more to say.”
“I suppose the message behind the show is that when life feels very, very tough and dark, you’re in control of the light switch.”
A cuppa for charity
Gok’s prolific charity work includes raising awareness of child obesity and anti-bullying and fundraising projects for cancer care. “We’re currently producing some films with Stonewall, who are very progressive, so that’s good fun! I really respect how they create awareness of the LGBT community.” Does he think everyone should do their bit for charity? “Charity work is often recognised financially and it doesn’t always have to be. It can be a cuppa with a lonely neighbour or feeding a friend’s dog… I think we all do a bit without realising.”
The best bits…
Award-winning Gok has gained many gongs. His proudest moment? “I’ve been really fortunate and had several in my life. But my proudest is when I managed to retire my parents, buy their house for them and close their business, buying them out… that was a really big moment in my life.”
Any regrets? “Do you know what, I don’t have any. My businesses have done very well and I’m very proud of them. I’ve also learnt a huge amount. If I could give advice to my 16 year-old self, I would say that everything in business is achievable if you’re willing to put in the graft.”
Workaholic Gok recently launched another company, his fabulous Fashion Brunch Club, offering fizz, brunch, Q&A and catwalk shows. “I’m always busy! But I enjoy it and like it that way. I love work!” He’s also planning a new arm to the business, teaching women in business about branding and confidence.
His final message? “Life is massively short. You’ve got one opportunity to make the most out of living, so don’t go to bed tonight thinking, “Should I have given something a go?”, wasting time worrying about it when, in fact, you SHOULD have given it a go!”
Gok’s new stage show, Gok Wan Naked & Baring All, kicks off in Norwich this autumn and takes in 18 theatre dates around the UK.
Gok’s Fashion Brunch Club: http://gokfashion.com
To find out more, visit www.gokwan.com
© Angela Sara West 2017 www.angelasarawest.com