The architect Gabrielle Omar talks candidly about her time on reality TV and how she built a successful business of her own at Stratford Place
It’s fair to say that Gabrielle Omar is a good talker. Ask her a question and out pours a conversational torrent: honest, heartfelt and charming. The 34-year-old architect, known to all simply as Gabi, thrives on discussion, ideas, mobility and business; notably her four-year-old venture, Spotthisspace, which she runs from TOG offices in Stratford Place, a grand turning near Bond Street.
Here, Gabi and team create show homes and marketing suites: those temporary, theatrical structures that offer glossy dreams of domestic bliss. It’s a busy schedule, and she’s rather good at it: “It’s my most successful company to date. We’re booked up for the next two years.” Clients include Barratt Homes, Camden Council and Savills. Now she wants to “start looking into hotels. They’re up against Airbnb; it’s an interesting time in hospitality.”
Hailing from northwest London, Gabi — a fabulously London melange of Egyptian, Italian, Scottish and English — grew up above her parents’ fish-and-chip shop in Burnt Oak, where she helped out at evenings and weekends. So, saveloy or cod? Double- or single-fried chips? “Probably cod with single-fried chips. Do it once and well.”
After all-girls school in Mill Hill, Gabi went to Westminster University to study architecture, during which she supported herself for the seven- year course. “That’s when — and why — I started to create businesses.” Her companies included a sweetshop called Daily Dose (concept: sweets in a pill jar), a print and design shop-cum-art gallery called Webethree, and a company called Carry On Beauty, which made carry-on bags for airlines’ first-class cabins. Did it fly? “Not really. My issue is, I love to do initial design, brochures, concepts and websites, then I generally lose interest if it doesn’t make money like that [snaps fingers].”
So Gabi has a talent for starting companies (“I’ve created more than the fingers on both my hands”) and has a mercurial nature that means she bores quickly. So how did she end up becoming an architect: a profession renowned for having long careers, long horizons and lofty attitudes? “I haven’t done the usual architect thing,” she says, admitting that she was attracted to the business via the “Grand Designs” route: the dream of wanting to build her own home. “I’m still hopeful that I’ll find some land in London,” she says. “It’s probably connected with having grown up above a chip shop.”
More of a serial entrepreneur than a conventional architect, Gabi has always been on the road to self-employment and stewardship of her own business. And although she worked for architectural firms after university, she could never be contained. “I never wanted a job as such,” she says. “I’d always want to change the business model.”
One business she started after university showed real promise. Tea with an Architect aimed to hook up the public with architects for 15 minutes of free advice; the idea being to empower owners to improve their homes and gain business for that legion of architects who aren’t Lords Foster and Rogers. “Within six weeks, 6,000-7,000 architects signed up,” she says. But it became gruelling, with 34 events across the country in one week and 200 emails a day from the public. Plus, it was a struggle to make it pay. At one point, she was so low she went to a meeting and didn’t have enough money on her Oyster card to get home. Then a good thing happened. At a networking event, Gabi met someone from Barratt Homes and found out they needed a marketing suite. Once more, her natural chutzpah rose to the surface. “I said, ‘Funnily enough, we do marketing suites.’ He said, ‘Really? We’ve got a job in Surrey Quays we need doing.’ It was Tuesday and they needed it for Friday.” She didn’t sleep for three days, met the deadline and got the job, which is still how she likes to work: “Do it quick, see it built and move on.”
So, which styles are pulling in punters these days? It’s difficult to characterise, she says, dependent on where they are and who they’re aiming at. “Each developer has a different target market, and tastes change depending on whether it’s in Shoreditch or Fulham.” Some like it to look a bit “vintage”, with bevelled mirrors and dangling filament lights; others are wholly modern and sleek. But the important trick, adds Gabi, “is to make people feel as if they’re nosing around a home”. Each takes a couple of months to make, and then has a relatively short shelf-life, which suits her fine.
By now you might be thinking you’ve seen Gabi somewhere before. For back in 2012 the elfin entrepreneur became the first architect to appear on BBC’s reality-television programme The Apprentice. Why? Gabi draws breath. “It was spontaneous. We were watching it and I thought I’d apply.”
Alas, the experience was not made in heaven. Although Gabi lasted 10 weeks and was the “top seller” four times, she didn’t get on with Sir Alan Sugar. “I’ve never met anyone so rude,” she says. “On the final day we expected him to say, ‘Thanks for helping make a show that promotes me and makes other people look like idiots.’ ” Instead, the Amstrad tyro “rolled his eyes and walked off. He didn’t acknowledge us at all.”
Now she thinks the whole thing is a poisoned chalice. “Early on, you realise: you really don’t want to be his business partner,” she says. “He’ll never see you as an equal. Plus, you’re stuck in that house for two months and your clients go elsewhere.”
As the only architect to have appeared on The Apprentice, she gained insight into the public perception of the business, or rather, the lack of it. “In the Apprentice house, I’d noticed no-one knew what an architect did. One contestant asked Gabi if she “cleaned bones”, mixing it up with archeology.
It led her to believe that architecture remains in desperate need of a “brand overhaul”, as she put it in The Architects’ Journal. “So many people don’t know what we do, or think we’re all expensive, stuffy middle-class men.” So her task is to help enliven the business, and being young, female and garrulous is advantageous to this end. “The last thing I want to do is become stagnant,” she says.
Now Gabi is busy with Spotthisspace in Stratford Place. With business booming, she is already discussing bigger office space with TOG. Sometimes she thinks it’s a bit “scary. After all, I’m hiring a fair few people and they have families to feed.” But the company has solid foundations, as does her life. She’s just married, and recently bought her parents a flat in Wembley — “I’ve always wanted to get them out of Burnt Oak, and now I can afford to do that.” (There were tears, she says.)
Whatever happens, you can be sure that Gabi will charm her way onwards and upwards, particularly given her experience on The Apprentice. “I’ll be assertive, but I won’t scream at you. I’ll work out with you how it’s going to be done.” In this, she’s helped by an incurable optimism. “In this industry, if you’re not optimistic, walls can literally fall down on you.” Maybe we should call it the gift of the Gabi.