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The Textiles Interview: Christopher Raeburn

Christopher Raeburn

From parachutes to scuba suits, Christopher Raeburn scours the globe for fabrics to be “Remade” in his east London studio

Christopher Raeburn

Christopher Raeburn

The fabric archive in Raeburn’s East London studio

The Christopher Raeburn studio is a hive of activity. On the second floor of the Bow Office Exchange, by east London’s Limehouse Cut canal, the atelier has been the beating heart of the sustainable clothing brand since 2012. The studio boasts eight sewing machines, two large pattern-cutting tables, a fabric archive filled with roll upon roll of cloth and every garment produced by Raeburn since he graduated in 2006 with an MA in fashion womenswear from the Royal College of Art.

Overlooking the water, his desk is within arm’s reach of a rail of military uniforms – the inspiration for much of Raeburn’s work. Like the hideout of an adventurer plotting his next expedition, the walls are lined with maps, scale drawings of boats and a poster of a bear.

An imposing 6 ft 5 inches tall, the designer has the look of a modern-day explorer, sporting a cap with his trademark map pattern under the peak, a gilet thrown over an orangutan-patterned jumper from his spring 16 collection, dark jeans and a pair of elk leather boots – the result of an autumn 16 collaboration with footwear retailer Clarks.

Despite the accolades, which include becoming the first designer to win the British Fashion Council’s NewGen sponsorship for both men’s and womenswear in a single season, in 2010, Raeburn is affable and down to earth.

“Do you want a tour of the studio?” he asks, jumping from his chair to show Drapers rails of military-surplus rubberised scuba-diving suits and formal army jackets.

We meet days after Raeburn’s autumn 16 menswear show at London Collections Men in January received a “phenomenal” response: “In terms of press, followers and shares, the reaction really has been unprecedented for our company,” says Raeburn. “We’re still quite small but it feels like momentum is growing.” Since launching his label in 2008, he has inspired a strong following through his sustainable “Remade in England” ethos, driven by re-appropriated heritage pieces and military-surplus fabrics, such as a 24-man life raft and fighter-pilot compression suits reworked into modern men’s and womenswear.

“The idea of completely rethinking, deconstructing and reworking original military items drives our business each season,” Raeburn explains. “For example, the autumn 16 collection originated from research I’d been doing on Mongolia, in particular the winter camps of the migrating nomads. In the collection you’ll see really beautiful reworked rubberised protective suits, a deconstructed 60-year-old military jacket and German Cold War-era snow-camouflage ponchos.”

The team scours the globe for interesting fabrics for the Remade garments, which typically make up 15% to 30% of the collection. Individual pieces are found on auction sites and army-surplus fabric is bought from the Ministry of Defence (MoD). To ensure enough material is available for each style, Raeburn limits Remade pieces to 50 worldwide, many of which are made in the Bow studio.

The core team of eight (this swells to 16 with freelances in the run-up to shows) work across production, design and pattern cutting to produce between 600 and 900 Remade garments annually.

“It was a love of fabrics that first started Remade,” Raeburn reflects. “What’s really exciting is taking an original item and completely reworking it. It gives us such a unique selling point and our customers get really excited about the authenticity of the fabric.

“The sourcing process helps form the collection. For example, I built the concept for the autumn 15 menswear collection around a beautiful 24-man life raft I found online. It’s all about having a narrative and reinterpreting these original references into a modern garment.”

Beyond the Remade pieces, the provenance of fabric is central to the rest of the collection. Raeburn sources cloth from European mills and works with partners such as Leeds-based mill AW Hainsworth, one of the world’s oldest military fabric weavers.

“We admire Christopher’s flair and creativity, his ingenuity of mixing traditional and non-traditional fabrics,” says Hainsworth marketing manager Julie Greenough. “He also has an amazing understanding of wool and how he can incorporate this intelligently into a design, while evolving his style and concepts.

Raeb men fw16 0103

Christopher Raeburn

Autumn 16 menswear collection on the catwalk at LCM

“Christopher was the first person to take our reintroduced 700 gsm [grammes per square metre] woollen overcoating Pioneer fabric, which we added to the range in June for autumn 16/17. It’s always exciting to see the first garments made from a new cloth, especially in the hands of someone who incorporates a new twist.”

In addition to using trusted suppliers, Raeburn and the team visit shows such as Première Vision and Texworld in Paris (preview, page vi), as well as the London Textile Fair, to seek fabric innovation.

“It’s important you attend these shows with a clear focus in terms of pricing and material composition,” he says. “We want to find fabrics that will improve what we’re already doing, as well as looking for cloth that ties in to our seasonal concept.”

Since spring 14 Raeburn has collaborated with Australia’s Woolmark Company – a partnership that has encouraged him to use more of the merino wool promoted by the organisation, in the form of denim and lightweight worsted cloth for spring.

“Christopher was already using merino wool, but he came to us with exciting ideas on how he could develop this further in both menswear and womenswear,” explains Woolmark Company UK country manager Rebecca Kelley. “Christopher is known for his outerwear and wool is the perfect partner for this product area. Christopher has also further developed his fully fashioned merino knitwear.”

Most of the Remade pieces are created in the studio and the label’s accessories are largely made nearby by suppliers such as New Planet Fashions in Leyton and Indigo in Bow. The rest of the collection is manufactured at factories worldwide, chosen for their workmanship. Knitwear is made in Portugal, while lightweight sportswear and quilted garments are produced in Bulgaria and Lithuania respectively.

“We’ve experimented with lots of UK factories and we’ve found they’re very good at things like accessories and wool garments, but for sportswear it’s not nearly the same kind of quality, so it’s about finding that balance,” he explains. “Working in the UK, the product developers need to visit the factories more frequently, but then you have the immediacy of being able to turn things around quickly.”

For spring 16 Raeburn partnered with innovative knitwear studio Unmade. Based in London’s Somerset House, Unmade uses digital knitting machines and hand-finishing to construct bespoke knitwear in less than an hour. The Raeburn x Unmade knitwear pieces are displayed in the windows of Selfridges on London’s Oxford Street as part of the department store’s 2016 Bright New Things showcase for emerging talent.

Unmade co-founder Ben Alun-Jones recalls meeting Raeburn through The Woolmark Company: “Not many designers work in a way that considers the material impact of what they create. What I admire about Christopher’s aesthetic is the beauty that comes from functionality, intelligence and awareness of material and process.

“My favourite piece is the spring 16 men’s map jumper, which is based on a 1930s map of Borneo. Consumers can customise the design through our website by moving the map to navigate to your favourite place, thereby creating a unique Christopher Raeburn garment.”

The spring 16 menswear collection takes inspiration from the autobiography of explorer Tom Harrisson, who lived with indigenous tribes in Borneo in the 1920s and 1930s. Harrisson’s bravery and adventurous spirit fascinated Raeburn.

Christopher Raeburn

Christopher Raeburn

Autumn 16 menswear collection on show at LCM

“In his books you have these images of him going from a well-suited cad in the UK to pictures of him with the indigenous people. For me, it was a nice starting point to translate this into a collection. For the Remade anorak, crew-neck jumper and shorts, we reused air-brake parachutes from jets, which we traced to a company that sells the parachutes after they’ve been released from the MoD.”

Although fabric provenance is key, Raeburn does not stand on a sustainability soapbox. Nevertheless, the brand has built a following as far afield as Asia, especially Japan, where he believes the label’s emphasis on sustainability is a perfect fit.

Both men’s and womenswear (prices range from £99 for knitted mittens to £795 for a men’s Remade anorak made from air-brake parachute material) is sold via the company website and through etailers including, as well as department stores Harrods and Selfridges, and high-end independents such as Our Daily Edit in Brighton.

“It’s critical if you’re trying to grow a business to be in prominent retailers and the wholesale model is vital in bringing credibility to the work we’re doing,” says Raeburn. “Ultimately one starts to think about our own retail as a way of fully explaining our world and immersing people in what you see when you come to the studio, but [it will not happen] in the next year.”

While mindful of the consumer desire for newness, the size of the operation prevents Raeburn from releasing six drops a season – he does one per season – so he prefers extend the brand’s reach by partnering with others.

He says: “Companies approach us for collaborations because they like our balance of design aesthetic and sustainable intelligence. Over the years we’ve been very fortunate to work with some really fantastic brands, such as Fred Perry, Rapha and Moncler. Our longest-running collaboration is with [Swiss knife, travel and apparel brand] Victorinox. The trust and respect in that relationship is very important.”

The partnership with Victorinox began in autumn 2011, when Raeburn worked on its Remade in Switzerland capsule collection using Swiss military surplus materials. The tie-up continued when the British designer was appointed artistic director of apparel in 2013.

“It was Christopher’s focus on sustainability though that was very interesting to us,” explains Victorinox global president Jason Gallen. “He is creative, pragmatic and entrepreneurial, and brings a fresh view of a heritage brand like Victorinox.”

From his various collaborations to the mainline collection, Raeburn believes the company has grown up and become more refined: “Instead of standing still and assuming you’ll have the same customer, I think it’s important to be agile.”

Agile is the perfect word to describe Raeburn. Signalling the end of the interview, he leaps up from behind his desk to help his team with a fresh delivery of fabric, eager as ever to get his hands on the latest batch of cloth.

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