You might already have seen Richard Gair’s work, without knowing it, perhaps one of his hand-painted leather jackets worn by a motorbiking granny in a TV advert for Aunt Bessie’s Homestyle Chips, or by a model in a Christmas commercial for House of Fraser.
His meticulously crafted creative work is sought out by rock bands and their fans, by advertising agents, TV drama wardrobe departments and fashion designers. Yet this time last year, Richard was seriously ill with kidney failure caused by the type 1 diabetes he had been diagnosed with at the age of 17.
Born and bred in the village of Barnby Dun, near Doncaster, Richard, 46, went to school at Hunger Hill and then studied graphic design at Doncaster Art College. “It was fantastic times, because you’re invincible when you’re 16, 17, and we all had dreams of being wealthy graphic designers with big red glasses and white Porsches and big red braces,” he says.
There followed a degree in graphic design management at De Montfort University in Leicester. “That’s when my mental health started to slip,” he says. “Depression. I went pretty low. I think a lot of what happened was I missed home. I’m a homely person.”
Even so, Richard completed his degree and graduated in 1995. Unable to find a job that made use of his design skills, he worked in the pubs and clubs industry and became assistant manager at a nightclub in Doncaster. “But I didn’t have happy thoughts,” he says. “I didn’t know about depression back then.”
Although his health was adding to his problems, he decided to set up his own business, painting commissioned murals in public spaces, beauty salons, hotel receptions and youth clubs, and especially working with children in schools.
“We got the kids to do all the colouring in,” he says. “The schools loved it too because the kids took ownership of the buildings. There was no more vandalism, no more scrawling on the walls, so the insurance premiums went down.”
Richard began working with youth services in Doncaster, followed by several years with the youth offending services, but his life began to spiral out of control when his kidneys started to fail owing to the diabetes, fuelling his depression and leading to dialysis. He was also caring for his elderly father, who was drinking heavily. “I was frustrated. I had suicidal thoughts,” he says. “One day I got a call that the studio was flooded. I went home and my car broke down. I just felt despair. I was thinking, there’s nothing else that can go wrong for me. I just wanted it to end.”
Two years ago, Richard was asked to paint a Metallica design on a leather jacket – something he had also done successfully for a flatmate when he was a student. “It was like therapy and I discovered my love of art and design again,” he says. Realising that this was something he loved, could do well and was wanted, he founded GoGairy Hand Painted Leather.
Sadly, it wasn’t long before he became so ill that he had to take yet another backwards step. Then, last year, he got the call to say that a new kidney had been found, along with a new pancreas that would cure his diabetes. “It was like I had been given a second chance,” he says. “And I could eat cake for the first time.”
Now Richard is back to focusing on GoGairy, working from his spare room at home, hand-painting leather jackets, which retail for around £400-£500. Much of the work is still for the heavy metal and biker community, but there are also commissions for weddings and high-end designers, for skateboards and musical instruments, and Richard has even painted unicorns and fairies onto pony saddles owned by little girls. There are no copyright issues, for example, with the film character designs, because this is fan art, and depictions always vary from comic and screen originals in some way.
Now Richard has been asked to take on so much work that he has taken on a team of four artists – Bekki, Solar Moonflower, Pete the Doodle Monkey and Lindsey – all hand-painting leather jackets. These can be customised to tell the story of the wearer and can also be supplied ready to colour in, with paints and brushes, so that wearer and jacket become part of each other. For example, the name of someone close who has died can be incorporated into the design. In this way, a jacket can perhaps spark a conversation, enabling a bereaved person to open up about their feelings or their depression.
“I’d like to be more of an advocate for creative people with mental health issues. It’s a very common and widespread thing,” says Richard, adding that he hopes one day to have drop-in premises for art therapy.
Recently, GoGairy took to the catwalk at Manchester Fashion Week and the collection will be opening Liverpool Fashion Week in October. Richard is also a finalist in the Positive Awards in Liverpool which take place on September 21, nominated for his inspirational attitude towards life.
“I have the team, the talent and the determination. Physically I may look drained, but the fire is burning in my belly and the mind is full of creative ideas I am ready to develop.
“Eventually I want to open a creative studio and fill it with artists and dancers and skateboarders. It will be a hub where people can come together to express themselves artistically. That’s the dream, along with owning a canal boat.
“It’s not over yet but it’s given me a new start. It’s changed my life. I’ve got a power behind me. I’m not going to waste it this time. I want superstars to wear my jackets. I want to be synonymous with hand-painted leather jackets – like, you don’t buy a pair of jeans, you buy a pair of Levi’s.
“There is nobody in the world that can create jackets like we do – and I’ve had a look.”
GoGairy Hand Painted Leathers is at GoGairy.co.uk. The UK’s first Positive Awards take place on September 21 at The Hilton, Liverpool One. Visit www.positiveawards.co.uk.