One London morning over Zoom, designer and sustainability advocate Christopher Raeburn is giving us a virtual video tour of the Raeburn Lab in Hackney Central Studios, a converted former Burberry textile factory that’s now his HQ.
“Within Raeburn, everything you see has either been remade from something else, recycled or organic cotton or merino wool, so the focus is reducing our impact on the environment,” says the down-to-earth designer who runs the lab and his Raeburn fashion line (both men’s and womenswear), as well as creatively helming outerwear giant Timberland. “We do super-cool things, dresses from air-break parachutes – actually lots of parachute pieces.” The studio is almost empty that day, with the UK amid another lockdown, but Raeburn usually has a team of about 20 working away, experimenting, designing, innovating and making.
He’s showing off his latest collaboration with Australian body brand Aesop – the Adventurer fabric three-pocket, roll-up kits, made using upcycled and recycled materials, and carrying a trio of Aesop products on the go. The kit, in two designs, is useful for portable hand-cleansing and care products – a priority now that Covid-19 has made us more aware of hygiene, skin and body care.
All of Raeburn’s remade items and garments are created right there at the lab – a space that follows an ethos of the three Rs: remade, reduced, recycle. There’s also a trio of Cs, too, as he explains: “What we do is all about craft, creativity and community. We run workshops and tours, really with the hope that you can educate and inspire people into different ways of working.”
The youngest of three boys, Raeburn was born and raised in Kent, with a childhood full of nature, exploration, invention and making things with his family. “We lived in the middle of nowhere: the nearest shop was four miles away and if you weren’t creative and imaginative, you were in trouble,” he says with a laugh. “The way we were bought up, it was with a really pragmatic way of doing things, mending things and making the most of what you had. You had to make your fun … I think that’s really translated into my creative practices as an adult.”
He learned to fly in his teens while in the Air Cadets, an activity that, along with his Duke of Edinburgh Award, and walking and hiking around the Netherlands, gave the young Raeburn his sense of preparedness. Even while studying at Middlesex University and then at the London College of Art, functional clothing was his focus. He’d collect different garments, waterproofed, ultra-warm or functional, and this collection has followed and expanded into the vast Raeburn archives at his studio today.
In 2009, his business and brand “kind of started as a happy accident, because I was so fascinated by the materials”. Through his passion for certain garments and materials, Raeburn almost approached his label “like archaeology and finding this cool stuff that already exists with an amazing story behind it, that gives you a head start on the design process as well.”
Sustainability and recycling have been central to the brand from the outset. Then the movement was underground, whereas now fashion’s great reckoning has forced the collective consciousness towards more environmentally friendly ways. “The vocabulary then versus the vocabulary now has changed so much,” says Raeburn, “that it gives me so much hope, even in the last three to five years, that things have really shifted. It’s really exciting.” And this digital era provides plenty of hope and efficiency in spreading the message globally.
The work we do is part conversation and part provocationChristopher Raeburn
Covid has, of course, contributed to this, as fashion brands fight for survival and consumer patterns become more responsible and conscious, especially driven by the young. Raeburn’s biggest fear, though, is that post-Covid, “we go back to business as usual in fashion. Business as usual pre-Covid didn’t make any sense and it certainly doesn’t afterwards,” he argues, but the positives are that we’re more aware of our immediate environment as well as the global environmental crisis. “I genuinely think that, for the first time, we now have a lot of people demanding more from brands and products, particularly from the groundswell from the younger generations … They categorically have a new sensibility to fashion.”
Production transparency has changed, too, as well as better access to materials such as organic cottons or recycled fabrics, meaning also that recycled materials are more cost-effective today. “When I think back to when I started my brand, recycled materials would be about 30 to 50 percent more expensive. Now often you have parity in pricing, and sometimes it’s more affordable,” he explains. His fashion brand offers free repairs for life – there’s a lot of renewal, reduced waste and materials kept in circulation. It looks at fabrics for recyclability and how easily it can go back to the earth, experimental elements that are “future-proofing” fashion, which Raeburn hopes will proliferate in the industry. His commitment and cleverness when it comes to fashion have clearly created waves and given him multiple accolades, including the 2020 Drapers Sustainable Fashion Award.
The clarity and commitment of Raeburn’s vision (both aesthetic and ethical), as well as the lab’s openness, have resulted in a number of partnerships and collaborations over the years. Indeed, with projects in his pocket with the likes of Selfridges, Depop, Timberland, Barbour and MCM – and even the V&A Museum and Disney – the designer and his lab have been prolific. However, he’s most excited about working across industries (“where you’re pushing each other a lot more – and that’s where I think you’re truly doing something completely new”), so the Aesop project could hardly have come at a better time.
The designer started talking to Australia-headquartered Aesop in June 2020, having known the popular brand well and used its products for years. There was a natural cohesion in values, so Raeburn felt confident they could do something new together. “Then the process becomes quite streamlined,” he says. “We were talking about the reality of the world today, with Covid, travel, etcetera, and how it will be going forward, too … Also the spirit of adventure, when things open up again and working on a product that would help people on the journey.”
The map roll-up kit is made from an original 1960s aeronautical map used by pilots, a unique find and nod to his own teenage years in the Air Cadets. Maps are an obsession in general, which “embody the spirit of travelling. We were able to take the maps, create the pattern and sew them with beautiful tape details.” There’s the additional recycled cotton version -products that are versatile, flexible and, in a way, “future-proof the roll up”.
Raeburn carefully selects the people and brands that he works with and has rejected many. Collaborators need to gel with the studio’s values (the three Rs mentioned earlier) for a productive alignment. It’s bought him the top creative job at outerwear giant Timberland – what started out as a collaboration turned into Raeburn taking on the role of the brand’s global creative director.
“Obviously, there’s so much innovation in terms of the materials,” the designer says, “and much of that has been driven by true outdoor brands, which have then pioneered lots of innovations that were picked up by the mainstream.” This is all in addition to his menswear and womenswear lines that balance beauty with a radical approach, one that’s brave, intelligent, and responsible. This menswear is clever, rugged yet edgy.
“Without jumping to too many clichés,” Raeburn says, “men tend to be quite pragmatic … For us, within our studio, it’s always a design- led conversation – we never wanted to be known as a sustainable or responsible company first … I went to RCA to learn the skills properly.” That design process however isn’t always linear: “I imagine it can be a bit frustrating for our design team, but it keeps things really fresh – you’re designing in a completely different way and not just looking at a season’s trends or colours.”
At times, the process is led by an artifact he’s found or sourced, such as a 25-person life raft weighing almost half a tonne, which he bought and used to make an amazing collection. In art, there are unexpected inspirations, too: after visiting a Chelsea exhibition by Icelandic artist-photographer Ragnar Axelsson, Raeburn used the images as prints in his autumn/winter 2014 collection and again in autumn/ winter 2020.
“The work we do in Raeburn is part conversation and part provocation,” he adds. Ultimately he knows that success doesn’t just hinge on important values, but style sensibility and fresh ideas too. “You have to be designing a product that’s going to excite and engage people,” says Raeburn. “That’s the first step with all of this – having something that people are going to be wowed by first.
This article first appeared on PrestigeOnline Hong Kong
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