The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Photograph by Marc Aitken.

Since first blazing a trail across the British fashion scene in 2008, last month's London Fashion Week (LFW) saw Christopher Raeburn cement his position as one of the UK's most innovative and directional designers. Raeburn's raison d'etre is his compelling re-appropriation of decommissioned military fabrics (such as nylon parachutes), transforming them into quality, functional and elegant outerwear. 

The "staunchly British" designer, underpinned by the tagline "Remade in England," emphasises local manufacturing and sustainability. But with admitted pressures to outsource specialist production lines as his label grows, Raeburn may have to sacrifice the Union Jack in order to realise his design visions and fly the flag of commercial success.

Christopher Raeburn SS13 London Fashion Week

Raeburn presented his second standalone womenswear collection at last month's LFW in a collection that celebrated aviation and, as he told Elle after the show, the word "flight." In a show inspired by the likes of Amelia Earhart and accompanied by a soundtrack featuring the intermittent spluttering of airplane engines in various stages of flight, Raeburn maintained his verve for the abstract up-cycling and repurposing of military garb and accoutrements into feminine but practical designs. 

Old flight escape maps made into intricate dresses set the scene, whilst parachute nylon shirt dresses and silk bicycle shorts with grosgrain ribbon gave sheen to adventurer chic and Raeburn's resourcefulness and ingenuity. The label retained its trademark parachute parkas, reinvented in metallic gold and red, while fun was had with hare, dog and owl shaped backpacks and show props. The S/S 2013 collection also featured a new fabric - Ripstop cotton - that added a feminine camouflage twist to antique white dresses. Delicate while functional, the water and wind proof collection channeled the pioneering and adventurous spirit of the first female aviators.    

Delicate while functional, the water and wind proof collection channeled the pioneering and adventurous spirit of the first female aviators.

It has been a meteoric rise for the 30-year-old Kent-born designer, who graduated from London's prestigious Royal College of Art in 2006. He freelanced as a pattern cutter for a high street supplier before setting up a studio and launching his own label in 2008. He set about laying the foundations of his pioneering designs, researching and sourcing military fabrics from the UK, Czech Republic and also from the former East Germany. The first Gulf War was important in this respect because there was a huge supply of fabric that enabled Raeburn to produce a hundred or so garments rather than a handful, which were all "remade" in London's East End. 

Raeburn provided insight into a tactical mindset when he explained the factors behind using military fabric to The Guardian: "My reasons for using this fabric is twofold: firstly, it is functional and waterproof. Secondly, the military always has to overproduce its garments, so there are warehouses with thousands of square feet of military surplus sitting around. For me, giving that a new lease of life is very interesting." 

Such was Raeburn's impact, he was hand-picked for the 2008 "Camouflage" exhibition held at the Imperial War Museum in London and went on to showcase his "Inverted" collection of reversible garments during London Design Week. The following year saw Raeburn win the International Ethical Fashion Forum's (EFF) Innovation competition, which secured him an exhibition space at London Fashion Week A⁄W 2009. 

Christopher Raeburn SS13 London Fashion Week

His resulting relationship with EFF, a progressive not-for-profit network that aims to transform social and environmental practices in the fashion world, has proved intrinsic to the rise of the Christopher Raeburn label. EFF has helped Raeburn shape his business goals and make a success of the designer's decision to localise the manufacture of his pieces eliminating global production issues - although the ethical nature of his plan seemingly came as a secondary motive. Raeburn told The Guardian, "My stuff is about good design, produced in England. It's a very happy accident that it's also ethical. I didn't set out with that as the primary goal; it came out of my creative work, and of wanting to use this particular fabric." 

"Remade in England is a phrase that powerfully resonates in a country that has experienced a dramatic decline in its manufacturing industry over the past few decades. Raeburn works with different UK mills in his quest to single-handedly boost UK manufacturing, including Hainsworth in Pudsey, West Yorkshire and Halley Stevensons in Dundee, Scotland, which produces wax cotton and beeswax cotton that Raeburn favours.

2012 is proving to be another pivotal year in the Raeburn story. His cup runneth over with a collaboration with high-end French sportswear brand Moncler and a launch in an ongoing relationship with Swiss Army Knife company, Victorinox; the world is opening up to his Midas touch. The Victorinox project called "Protect" came about following the success of last year's "Remade in Switzerland" collection. His label now has 30 stockists worldwide, including the likes of uber-chic French retailer Colette and UK standard bearers Harvey Nichols and Liberty.

The problem for [Christopher] Raeburn is that his "Remade in England" theme has struck a chord and it will prove to be a delicate proposition to reinvent a new narrative...

Unfortunately, such a journey does not come without its dilemmas. As his label expands, Raeburn admitted to Drapers Online, that he "is considering manufacturing some of the sports-inspired, lightweight pieces outside the UK, for commercial reasons." He explained, "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." An honest answer from a man whose intelligence, craftsmanship, ambition and business sense will demand an evolution in strategy as his label grows and his design vision expands. The problem for Raeburn is that his "Remade in England" theme has struck a chord and it will prove to be a delicate proposition to reinvent a new narrative that will not feel a little disappointing in comparison.

Christopher Raeburn is blessed with a rare combination of imagination, technical excellence and an eye for marketing and self-promotion. As he himself admits, the ethical nature that is associated with his work was a happy accident, second to the vision of how he wanted his designs to look and feel. Time will tell whether "Remade in England" will just be a phase for this designer, but nevertheless, he has carved a trail for other innovative designers who want to promote ethical standards while attaining commercial success.



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