From creating his first ever design on Photoshop, to running a successful store stocking a who’s who of UK streetwear brands, the journey of Daryll Thomas is certainly an interesting one. After spending an afternoon with the man behind Robot Bunny/Maniki Neko, it became very apparent that his aspirations lie way beyond that of just selling clothes. As a man driven by creativity, not money, it was refreshing to spend a few hours with Daryll and get an understanding of why he does what he does and how it all came to be.
For those not familiar with Maniki Neko, the store is located in Whiteleys Shopping Centre, West London. In a day and age where it would be rather simple to fill the shelves with sure-fire brands like Diamond Supply and The Hundreds, Maniki Neko stock nothing but independent UK labels. A bold yet admirable move, giving an outlet for brands that by and large are normally only seen online. Through being in the store, it gave me a chance to see first hand the time and effort that has gone into crafting these goods, as well appreciating the high level of quality and detail you would otherwise miss. But why the dedication to homegrown fashion? It all started with the creation of Daryll’s own brand; Robot Bunny.
Like most other labels starting out, Robot Bunny began life as a single design. That design being the robot head, that is still to this day the main logo for Robot Bunny. After being encouraged by friends, Daryll took the plunge and printed up around 20 t-shirts adorning his creation and preceded to distribute them amongst his pals. He wore this t-shirt one afternoon whilst shopping in the Pop-Store in Brent Cross. The owner asked who made it and upon discovering it was one of his own, enquired about the availability of these tees. Daryll provided them with the last remaining tops to be sold in the shop, which shifted quicker than a virgin’s cherry on eBay. After realising the popularity of the first release, Daryll set about creating more images to go on t-shirts. It’s at this point that our story takes a slightly different route to that you’d expect. Drawing inspiration from childhood television series such as The Jetsons and Transformers, he started to craft the backstory of Robot Bunny. It’s this aspect of the brand that stood out to me as being different. Each character that was to be printed on a Robot Bunny t-shirt would have a purpose and serve as an individual piece in the jigsaw. The story itself (which I will touch on later in the article) was what seemed to appeal to punters the most. Of course if his items were to be sold all over town then it would be unrealistic to expect every store worker to tell the tale of the brand. It was at this point it became apparent that for Robot Bunny to achieve it’s goals, it would have to be sold in it’s own shop, where the vision of the label can best be projected.
The very first store came to fruition after he obtained temporary lease of a stagnant lot in Brent Cross. Daryll himself admits that the owners took a big gamble on allowing him to rent the store, as this was by no means going to be a guaranteed success. With a budget smaller than Simon Cowell’s soul, the store was opened, but with an aesthetic that suggested far more money had been spent than was actually the case. Through being able to discuss with customers what Robot Bunny was really all about, as well as small personal touches such as selling items in fast food packaging, the store became a big hit, further spreading the word of the company.
The popularity of Robot Bunny was growing, but unfortunately some of the people that visited the store were not quite as familiar with the story as others. This being partly down to the fact that the shop was located next to Mother Care, meaning that Daryll quite regularly had to explain to confused mums that despite the bright colours, it was in fact an adults clothes shop. This did however serve to be a lesson in the importance of location (which I could really have done with last winter when I agreed to be an ice cream man in Finland).
One of the people that visited the store and was particularly impressed just so happened to represent the owner of Whiteleys Shopping Centre, who offered Robot Bunny a short lease. This was accepted and again proved to be very popular. After the lease expired, the store moved back to Brent Cross, and finally back to Whiteleys, where it takes up permanent residence (and is the location for the video at the top of the page). Most would see regular upheavel as a nuisance, but Daryll took this opportunity to portray different chapters in the then unreleased RB comic. The stores’ layouts and designs represented different aspects of the intergalactic story, that not only looked fantastic, but further reiterated the importance of Robot Bunny’s grounding as more than just a clothing label.
Knowing that the store had a place it could call home, Daryll branched out and called upon the many contacts he had made in the industry. It gave him the opportunity to offer a physical outlet to the likes of Rudo, Yes No Maybe and Soapbox (for a full list of brands click here and hit the links tab). It may not sound like a lot, but this is a massive step for any budding (or established) independent brand. A certain snobbery is often seen in the retail industry that the unknown if inferior. Much like the shop owners had taken a chance on Robot Bunny, Daryll took a gamble on selling these brands as the source of income for his shop. Through being in the Maniki Neko store it is clear to see the quality these brands have to offer and how they deserve our attention and appreciation. We’re not going to stop buying the likes of Supreme and Bape any time soon, but just as much of our focus should be on these smaller and lesser known commodities. The store also provides an opportunity to give feedback to those that created the clothing. Information on what customers are saying about their products can only serve to improve the quality of streetwear in Britain.
By talking to Daryll I became more aware of the struggles many brands face to grow and become accepted. I also learnt more about the tale of Robot Bunny (which you should all check out when the comic is released). But most importantly my time at Maniki Neko left me with a feeling of optimism about the future of the UK’s streetwear industry, and the knowledge that if it’s hot, independent and homegrown, it can be found at Whiteleys Shopping Centre.