A couple of weeks ago, I stood at the edge of the Olympic Park in Hackney Wick with the new stadium in clear sight for the very first time. It was the designer Christopher Raeburn, who took me on a little detour through the canals and newly built greenways before we entered his nearby studio. Thus far, I've been rather reticent about all things Olympics – will I be able to enjoy it without lamenting how badly the city is functioning, will it just an event of cock-ups a la mockumentary Twenty Twelve – but even I had to marvel at the enormity of the structure, embued with a sense of hope and anticipation for next year and beyond. Raeburn is similarly positive and enthusiastic about the regeneration of the area (unlike some of the naysayers here) – a representation of possibility that relays rather well to what he is doing with his own ambitious work.
I have a rather strange blogging history with Raeburn. A month into starting my blog in 2006, I brazenly asked asked Raeburn for an interview on the back of his brief but memorable appearance on Project Catwalk (we only got two series America). His list of inspirations in my naive questioning have stayed with me since and of course his career has taken a mind blowingly upward trajectory. Vogue US advised "Remember the four R's – reduce, reuse, recycle and Raeburn" summing up the ethos of his work, which stores like Barney's (Julie Gilhart, before she *ahem* left Barney's, championed Raeburn quite strongly), Browns, Harvey Nichols and The Corner have enthusiastically bought into.
Therefore I took this opportunity to have another go at interviewing and investigating this designer who piqued my interest even whilst on a crap reality TV show. In his studio, I found Raeburn to be someone who looks for problems to solve and finds the most practical and intelligent way of getting there, the antithesis of a flighty creative designer you might say. There's no frivolous fuss about him. "I like things that are useful," Raeburn says. With a TV diet of The Apprentice, Dragon's Den and Grand Designs, this self-confessed geek definitely has an unconventional approach towards fashion fused with functional product design.
'We were encouraged to draw something in the week and then challenged to make it with my dad on the weekend," he recalls 'From the age of 11, I was in air cadets, I learnt to fly. I was doing my Duke of Edinburgh. I was doing walks in Holland. I had this love of being prepared. I think there's something great about having everything on your back and being self-sufficient.' This childhood love of survival, making-and-creating and constant interaction with functional gear, paved the way for his idea of remaking military garments which deconstruct patterns to reuse a glut of military surplus that has been sitting in warehouses for over fifty years.
'With all the remade things, we're completely deconstructing original garments. Essentially you're taking a menswear uniform outerwear piece, they're generally badly/roughly cut and so for me the exciting thing is to reimagine that for womenswear. It's about deconstructing and reworking it into something new. You're able to make a garment with a history beyond its own, and there's something quite exciting about that.'
This is best seen in a mens duffle coat and womens cropped jacket for A/W 11-12 which sees the date stamps of the original jacket or uniform floating around on an innovatively cut, seen in the triangular pattern pieces that piece together. The leather trims around the buttons are also recycled from old German leather waistcoats. The lining reveals an old camouflage pattern. I might reel off these upcycle/reuse plus points, but in person, it is the design that strikes you. To cheesily appropriate an M&S ad, this isn't just any duffle coat. This is a Christopher Raeburn duffle coat.
You might be tempted to lump Raeburn with sustainable, ethical fashion labels but he himself, never classified his company as such and instead likes to think of his collections as products that make sense. 'It's really nice to look across your company and think "There was a reason for everything." We're really thinking about what we're doing and why.'
The very act of gathering up fabric scraps to make soft toys that are actually sold to the stores is a simple step to take towards reducing waste, something he developed whilst he was studying at RCA. He had interns busily sewing these up when I was there proving that these toys aren't just a showy gimmick.
Another example of Raeburn's constant analysis is a rare thing indeed amongst young designers – he holds customer focus groups. 'Our S/S 12 menswear collection was ripped apart by architects, graphic designers – people who might buy our pieces.' After all, from the point of view of men, the question is simple. What's it for? This sounds like an incredible dull question to try to attach to fashion, an expression of creativity and an art form in its own right but Raeburn is right to ask it.
Raeburn goes back to the word function over and over again, not because he's on a broken record rant but because he's cleverly carving out a niche for himself that customers are now beginning to recognise him for. He admits that the initial parachute parka jackets that propelled his label to recognition a few seasons ago, have now been changed and instead of recycled parachute fabric, he uses a recycled polyester. 'I hate the idea that someone bought that jacket and was left sodden at a bus stop. We have an obligation to think about both design and function. You'd be stupid not to change things.'
He also talks of his 'company' repeatedly and credits his team profusely, showing that in a very short time, he has already grown his brand to have a good support infrastructure of designers, pattern-cutters and sales force. Christopher Raeburn, the company and the designer has already begun to think about what other areas they can explore beyond military surplus reuse. They have collaborated with British mills and fabric manufacturers such as Hainsworth in Yorkshire or Halley Stevenson in Dundee to produce exclusive fabrics. Perhaps another R needs to be added to that American Vogue quote – rediscover.
I kept on pressing Raeburn though. What about contradicting with the somewhat frivolous nature of fashion? Doesn't he clash with a system that upholds excess and things that AREN'T useful? 'I suppose I hope that my voice in fashion is valid for that reason. That idea of being an archetypal fashion designer doesn't exist for me. I'm interested in so many different fields and I cross so many different product areas.'
That in itself presents itself as an exciting process. Fashion may not be the final full stop for Christopher Raeburn but for now, we can revel in his special fusion between style and function along with an intelligent sourcing of materials. We began by being confronted by a structure that represents change and is supposed to leave a legacy. My bet is that Raeburn will leave one of his own, a legacy that is bloody useful. How novel is that in fashion eh?
Christopher Raeburn A/W 11-12 presented in the disused Aldwych Underground station during London Fashion Week in February 2011