Interview with designer Christopher Raeburn
Former Cub and award-winning fashion designer Christopher Raeburn talks about his childhood and how he got where he is today
Christopher Raeburn is an award-winning British fashion designer whose unique approach to fashion focuses on sustainability. A former Cub Scout at Ide Hill Cubs in Kent, he grew up in an environment that treasured creativity, invention and being in the outdoors. Over the years, he has become known for his innovative approach to fashion and the ethical integrity of his work. We spoke to Christopher about his childhood, his work and his experience as a Cub in Kent.
Tell us about your childhood
I grew up in a small village called Markbeech, near Hever Castle in Kent. It was four miles to the nearest shop so you basically had to make your own fun. My parents were really proactive in encouraging us to design and make things. My mum was always creative. When we were kids, she would make a lot of our clothes. My grandmother even made her own dress from a silk parachute! The ‘make-do and mend’ ethos very much runs in the family.
My father died of cancer when I was in my late teens. I am very grateful to have known him as long as I did. He was an emergency safety officer and used to work long hours and commute up to Bromley from Kent. He would say to us that if we drew a technical drawing of anything, with all the measurements, he’d help us make it on the weekend. What an amazing way to bring up kids! It made us determined to do things well and to be precise. It was a bit bonkers really because we’d do technical drawings of whatever goes through an 11-year-old’s head – a tree house, a robot, you name it! That was how he made time for us and taught us skills. I learnt to weld metal when I was about nine or 10 years old because that’s what was happening that weekend!
Tell us about your brand
There are several parts to our collection. One of them is called Remade in England, and that’s about deconstructing and reconstructing original military items – we’ve used utility items such as life rafts, blankets and hot-air balloons. What’s wonderful about those pieces is that they’re completely limited editions and every single one of them is made in our studio in East London.
We also have Reduced, which is all about organic cottons and now we’re introducing a fully recycled part to the line as well, for example, we have a bomber jacket made from plastic water bottles that have been ground down into pellets, then shredded into fibre and then rewoven into fabric. There’s lots of development in the industry in this area – not just thinking about making a garment from recycled material but also thinking about what happens when it’s no longer wanted or used, and that’s where the subject gets really interesting. It’s important to me to make changes to the way people consume. People need affordable clothing – less of it but better quality – we don’t need so much stuff! We cannot continue consuming in the way we currently are. If you buy something from Zara, maybe balance it with buying 50% of what you wear from charity shops.
Where does your inspiration come from?
For our upcoming spring/summer collection, I found this amazing book called The Long Walk about a chap that had walked with a group all the way from Siberia through to the Gobi desert in India – about 4,000 miles. It was a really interesting starting point to imagine those different environments and the sort of practical garments you would need to endure them.
I once bought a survival life raft online – this thing arrived and it weighed half a tonne and when you pulled on the rope it expanded, and I knew straight away I’d be able to do a whole collection just based off that.
You partnered with Victorinox on the Festival Ready project…
Having been to many festivals, I was shocked at the level of waste, and in particular how so many tents are simply discarded. I wanted to create a range of festival-ready products made from recycled materials and made to last. So we created a capsule collection with Victorinox featuring 11 pieces, including tents, camping gear, a women’s poncho, a men’s gilet and a Swiss-Army knife, all from fully recycled material and designed to be functional and technical, as well as fashion-conscious.
What are your memories of Scouting?
I had two older brothers and we all did Beavers first and then Cubs. It was thoroughly good fun. The spirit of adventure, coupled with the way I was brought up, made a real impact on me. Collecting the badges and getting to do all those activities – it’s great that at that age we could be so fastidious and want to learn so much. So as a platform or a foundation that I was able to build on from my youth, I think it was fantastic.
Was sustainability always the driving force for you?
If I’m perfectly honest, it was a love of fabric first. When I’m asked about my first memories of fashion, it was never reading old copies of Vogue, or making outfits for dolls. For me, it was that my father had this incredible German sniper’s sleeping bag with sleeves and a zip that you could zip across the knees and tuck it up behind you like a snail. I remember being a seven-year-old kid and thinking that was absolutely incredible. And it’s never really left me.
After Cubs, I spent seven years at Air Cadets where I’d been in close proximity to military materials and I suppose I’d always been into history, and when you tie all those things together, you’ve got a) a very geeky 18-year-old, and b) quite an interesting proposition. I couldn’t afford to buy fabrics on a roll as a student so I bought original jackets that were sometimes 60 or 70 years old for £1 each and turned them into something contemporary and useful.
You also run workshops at your studio…
The studio is in a fantastic part of East London with a history of textile and garment manufacturing. We’ve been able to partner with a local charity initiative called the Stitch Academy, which promotes creativity and teaches skills. So far we have managed a bag-making workshop, along with various open studios and even a pop-up zoo (with inflatable animals!) and the sessions are free, inclusive and educational. I want the studio to become a creative and community hub and these activities are part of our initiative to give back.