Fresh from winning a British Fashion Award, Raeburn is proving that sustainable clothing can turn heads in retail’s temples of style such as Barneys and Liberty.
After struggling to locate the Peanut Factory, the old warehouse in which Christopher Raeburn’s studio is based, I call up and am told that someone will come outside to find me. A few minutes later, I spot a very tall young man in a baseball cap, hands deep in his utility jacket pockets, stooping towards me. I’m relieved to see it’s Raeburn and the outfit is not mainstream sportswear but serious designer clobber. (Case in point: Raeburn later describes the baseball caps as “millinery pieces”.) “Nice to meet you,” he says, before leading me into his Hackney Wick studio in east London, where his team are busy working on a new collaboration that he cannot disclose, which will be unveiled later this month. Every inch of the space is occupied, right down to garments hung from the ceiling.
“We’re moving studios soon,” he says, as we sit down in the kitchen, and I congratulate him on winning the Menswear Emerging Talent accolade at the British Fashion Awards in November.
“Thank you,” says the Kent-born designer. “What’s flattering is that it was judged by industry experts. I hope the reason we got that award is because of the vision of the company. We’re trying to approach fashion in a different way.”
It’s true. The ethos behind the Christopher Raeburn label combines reappropriated and recycled fabrics with a Made in England strategy. But those are just the fundamentals; Raeburn is an intelligent designer who turns his technological innovations into beautiful clothes.
Raeburn was the first exhibitor from Estethica – London Fashion Week’s ethical show – to be awarded Newgen sponsorship, sealing his position as one of London’s most talented young designers, with a focus on sustainability. And there’s no way Raeburn would have caught the attention of both Asos buyer Jemma Dyas and Liberty buying manager for menswear Stephen Ayres in the same week, had he not demonstrated solid design credentials.
The story goes that Raeburn, a Royal College of Art graduate, attended a series of lectures run by the Ethical Fashion Forum, and the organisation then suggested he enter its competition to win a place at Estethica for autumn 09. He did and duly won. “I put a collection of garments together made from military parachutes and that’s where it all kicked off from. That collection got into Browns Focus. Jemma Dyas [then buyer for Browns] was a great supporter,” he recalls.
A few days later, he joined hundreds of budding designers to queue outside Liberty for the department store’s Open Day, where individuals are given the chance to pitch their ideas to the buying team. “Stephen Ayres bought my collection,” he says. What, just like that? You just sat in front of him and presented your collection? “Yeah,” Raeburn replies. And he bought it? “Yeah.” Weren’t you nervous? Raeburn pauses. “There’s a certain self-confidence when you do things for yourself. You have to be quite thick-skinned,” he replies. “I was nervous, afterwards, when Stephen called me in for a proper meeting.”
Sticking to his values
Raeburn’s confidence must stem, in part, from the validation of his values. Many ethical brands have struggled to achieve true design-led status but orders from globally renowned retailers, including Barneys and Harvey Nichols, have doubled from autumn 11 to spring 12 at Christopher Raeburn. “You sort of inherently want to do it,” he muses, referring to the sustainable element of his collection, as if most people share his ethical concerns. “I freelanced as a pattern cutter at a high street supplier [after college] and I was very grateful for the experience, but I realised it was everything I didn’t want to do. I’d be working on six, seven, eight patterns a day. I got paid really well and it allowed me to set up the studio. I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to start my own business; I sort of accidentally did it. The idea of using reworked military garments … they were just there, not being used. It’s weirdly unquestionable.”
This attitude, combined with his admirable work ethic, shows an impressive level of maturity for a 29-year-old. “You need to take a bit of control yourself and knock on doors,” he says, when I ask if young designers get enough industry support. “The British Fashion Council has worked tirelessly with the designers on Newgen. Then I look at Fashion East [the initiative that helps new talent show at LFW] and what founder Lulu [Kennedy] has done there – it’s fantastic. But it’s down to you, just making yourself get up every day and work harder.”
Making his collection in the UK is also important and Raeburn tries to work with different British mills, including Hainsworth in Pudsey, West Yorkshire, and Halley Stevensons in Dundee. “We’re working with Hainsworth again for autumn 12 because the fabrics are incredible. They do all the ceremonial cloth for the military so all the red that you see at Buckingham Palace – that’s them. But then they’ll do you…,” he breaks off and walks across the studio to pick up the autumn 11 Parallel wool jacket. “This is one of their jackets, a menswear piece that sold out in Harvey Nichols. I’m so proud that we’re making it here. Halley Stevensons produces amazing wax cotton and beeswax cotton. We’re trying to encourage British manufacturing.”
But Raeburn admits he is considering manufacturing some of the sports-inspired, lightweight pieces outside the UK, for commercial reasons. “With the re-made pieces everything’s done here, but some of the lightweight pieces we’re now looking at external manufacturing because of volume. I’d still like for it to be done with the recycled fabrics and out of green factories. The reality is that, with those lightweight pieces, unlike the wool, the skillset in the UK isn’t as high as it is abroad because we’re not so used to doing sportswear,” Raeburn explains. “If you’re producing sustainably through a factory at a lower price point, allowing you to subsidise other areas of your business, I’d say that’s a good thing.”
He also readjusted prices for spring 12, with some coming down by between 20% and 30%. “Part of that is us being able to manufacture more efficiently and buy larger volumes,” he says.
As for the autumn 12 collection, Raeburn is reluctant to reveal much, other than the theme: Scorch and Freeze, for the men’s and women’s collections respectively. He may be known for menswear, but Raeburn does equally good business on womenswear, too. “With menswear, we’re doing a collection around the functionality of fire uniforms, whereas with womenswear, I want it to be a lot more feminine and fun,” he says.
Also for autumn 12 is a collaboration with Victorinox called Protect, after the success of the Remade in Switzerland capsule collection for autumn 11. A few days after we meet, I visit Victorinox’s stand at Pitti Uomo in Florence and am impressed by the seven-piece, outerwear-focused range made from sustainable and recycled materials, with great attention to technical detail.
Raeburn says he is “flattered” by the approaches from brands to collaborate with him, but it’s important to consider each request carefully. “You have to ask yourself: what can we offer them? Would it be nourishing? What would our customers think? Is it long or short term?” says Raeburn. “Then, trust your gut.”
2012 Collaborates with Victorinox on capsule collection Protect
2011 Wins British Fashion Award; launches Victorinox collaboration Remade in Switzerland 2010 First designer to win Newgen men’s and womenswear in a single season
2009 Wins International Ethical Fashion Forum’s Innovation competition
2008 Launches eponymous label
2006 Graduates from Royal College of Art