An archetype in the field of heritage brands, the much-lauded Nigel Cabourn has endured over four decades in the business of reinterpreting vintage clothing for a contemporary audience. A maverick in terms of design yet a stickler for attention to detail, you’d forgive him for exuding an air of infallibility. Yet, as Nigel readily acknowledged, he owes much to the tight-knit, familial nature of his business and the enthusiasm of his small but dedicated workforce. Speaking candidly of “the power of having young people around you,” Nigel recounted how his much-copied Cameraman jacket came to prominence. “When Drew, my head of sales, joined me six years ago I had 25 Cameraman jackets in the cupboard which we were stuck with from 2003. He was a young man and he said, ‘Nige, I’ve always loved that jacket’ but we didn’t sell it first time round. He started selling them to his mates so we brought it back and made half a million on that jacket alone that season.” A jacket, previously consigned to a dusty cupboard, re-created to become a consistent best seller. However, it should come as no surprise after years of perfecting the art of rummaging around for old jackets, only to breathe a new lease of life into them. It’s what Cabourn does.
“My mother and father were pretty easy going,” recalls Cabourn as we discuss his formative years in his office; a backdrop of vintage books and prints setting the tone for much of our post-lunch discussion. “Initially I wanted to be a journalist and write about football. And I actually wanted to be a professional goalkeeper, until I realised when I got to 16 or 17 that you had to be totally dedicated but I liked to go out and party and drink and chase girls. So, the commitment wasn’t there to be a footballer, but certainly the commitment was there to do something in fashion.” From 1967 until 1971, Nigel attended fashion college in Newcastle, a source of much inspiration for the early years of his brand, Cricket. “From fashion college I was totally inspired to make my own product and actually get my coats on the back of people and that’s what I did. By 1971 I had people wearing my stuff.
“My mother and father were pretty easy going,” recalls Cabourn as we discuss his formative years in his office; a backdrop of vintage books and prints setting the tone for much of our post-lunch discussion. “Initially I wanted to be a journalist and write about football. And I actually wanted to be a professional goalkeeper, until I realised when I got to 16 or 17 that you had to be totally dedicated but I liked to go out and party and drink and chase girls. So, the commitment wasn’t there to be a footballer, but certainly the commitment was there to do something in fashion.” From 1967 until 1971, Nigel attended fashion college in Newcastle, a source of much inspiration for the early years of his brand, Cricket. “From fashion college I was totally inspired to make my own product and actually get my coats on the back of people and that’s what I did. By 1971 I had people wearing my stuff. I designed everything and got it manufactured, all locally in Newcastle. So not only had i designed it, but I got the patterns cut and was producing it, making it, selling it to local shops.” Unlike his current collections, Cricket was much more of its time, “it was all based on the pop stars of the late 60s. In the late 60s there were no niche brands; companies like what I was starting didn’t exist.”
Today, nestled away from view, just off a high street in a small town just outside Newcastle, resides the epicentre of the iconic Cabourn brand. We met up with him and his team on a bleak and gloomy Thursday morning. Past his house and through a gate to his back garden, we were met by the site of a small two story building. This may be mere speculation, but it must feel like you’ve made it when you can position your place of work within a stones throw from your bedroom window. While much of his design inspiration relies heavily upon vintage pieces which he avidly collects on his travels, the uncompromising nature of Tyneside’s often dreary weather provides a perfect backdrop for a brand which has gained much of its recognition for their British-made outerwear. It is these two juxtaposed worlds; the exotic and the grounded, which largely account for the Cabourn aesthetic. “I travel 4 months of the year,” Nigel chirps with the enthusiasm and wonderment of a child on a field trip, “I’m privy to going all the best places and if you travel to interesting places. You pick up interesting things, whether it be vintage clothes or books or seeing a famous exhibition. Inevitably, if I go to Tokyo or Sydney, or anywhere in the world, there will be something on that’s really inspiring.”
Nigel’s love of all things old has been a near-constant in his work for over three decades. While vintage garments had always held his interest, it was the introduction to the Clignancourt flea market in Paris by a certain Sir Paul Smith, a former employee of Cabourn, which shaped the Cabourn style we know today. “Although I had an interest in vintage in the late 60s,” says Cabourn, “it evolved and as I got older I met people. I realised by about’ 78 that there were stores and flea markets in Paris which actually specialised in vintage things.” Such exposure to a variety of design features and styles allowed Cabourn to take elements of these and pioneer them on a new front; “I first found a British military jacket with a button and tape idea – a slide button in 1979. Between ‘79 and ‘81 I made that idea so famous. That idea was copied by everybody, from the likes of Stone Island to Chevignon, but I reckon I was there before all of them.” The near obsessive attention to detail which he draws from his vintage fascination comes at a price, to both the brand and the customer. “The reality of Cabourn,” he argues, “is that it’s based from vintage and because of this I’m very inspired by vintage fabrics. Most of the old British fabrics either don’t exist or they’re very expensive to make because they’re high quality and these mills aren’t producing very much. On top of that, today, manufacturing is a dying trade in this country.” Yet, this is a burden that many will bare such is the attention to detail and craftsmanship involved; a sentiment held quite passionately by the man himself, “you can’t really make a cheap Cabourn product. These copiers,” of whom there are many, “always do it badly.”
There seems to be a thirst from Cabourn to perpetually seek new from old, to find an undiscovered vintage piece which he can utilise to create something new. It is the nature of menswear that you cannot reinvent the proverbial wheel; there is very little which hasn’t already been accomplished. There are, however, ideas and styles which have not yet been exposed to a large audience, “I meet some of the best collectors and they show me some of the best vintage pieces,” says Cabourn as he examines a 1937 deerskin Filson jacket from his latest Japanese excursion. “So, if I’m looking for a particular thing that I’ve seen in a book – I might have seen a Spanish Revolution book and think ‘fucking hell, where can I get that jacket from?’ I ask these guys and they find it for me. There are very few pieces of clothing that I can’t find at some stage. I don’t always find them when I want them; I might find them 3 yrs later,” but it is this kind of enthusiasm for hunting that ideal piece that has led to him amassing over 4,000 vintage pieces. Each piece is stored, photographed and catalogued in his back-garden workshop, ready to be used for whenever, or if ever, they are required.
One of the somewhat ironic intricacies of the brand is that despite their reliance on the craftsmanship of the past, Cabourn also champions the benefits of new technology. Despite being quite frank in admitting that he doesn’t use a computer at all, every single garment is designed on one of the four Apple Macs you are faced with when you enter his garden workshop. “The thing is, I start off with a vintage piece and photograph it. We might use three vintage pieces just for part of the idea for the jacket. Then we draw out the parts of the details, we build it like a building on the computer – that’s how we do it.” This process has been working with great success for the tight-knit Cabourn workforce little under two decades, “I had two guys, Nick and Gary, they helped me get into computers so we could design through it. Silicon Graphics was one of the first computers that built creatively, all of Jurassic Park was created on Silicon graphics, and I had one 15 years ago when most designers didn’t even know about it. I spent £100 000 on it. Can you believe about 15 years ago I paid 100 thousdand for a computer? And I couldn’t really afford it, I bought it on HP over 3 years, but it’s the best thing I ever did. That was how I developed our design process. We realised we could take vintage pieces, photograph them, put them into the computer and then join them together with other vintage garments. I reckon we almost invented that system. It’s very technical. Even though I can’t use a computer, I understand the benefits of it.”
A pioneer in more than a design-sense, Cabourn also paved the way for British designers in the Japanese market. “I’ve had a business relationship with the Japanese since ‘79. There was nobody other than myself and Margaret Howell that I can remember that was in Japan in those days other than big brand names.” Fashion is a small world; everyone’s career seems interwoven in some regard. The seminal influence of Nigel Cabourn and Margaret Howell, long-time compatriots in the field of niche brands, paved the way for many others like them. As the first two designers to break Japan, outside of the traditional heavyweights such as Aquascutum and Burberry, they left the door open for the likes of Sir Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood. The influence of Japan on the Cabourn brand is arguably as important as vintage clothing is. Whist vintage informs the clothing, Japan has driven the business. “I stopped Cricket and became a designed in 1983. I’d got right into the Japanese market from the late 70s and they were doing very well with what I was making. The Japanese said ‘look, we really need you to have a name – in Japan we need names.’ Of course from that period you didn’t have any real names. Margaret and I were really the first two brand names, even though we were very small, we were pioneers.”
Nigel readily acknowledged that much of his success can be owed to the Japanese. It is a true paradox of niche branding that those in Britain will fiend after unknown Japanese labels for their exclusivity and craftsmanship, while brands like Cabourn will resonate spectacularly with the Japanese consumer who is unfazed by the price tag and captivated by the allure of its heritage. The insight provided by Nigel into the phenomena was one, somewhat unsurprisingly, rooted in an understanding of Japanese history; “they have their own history but they love American history and they love British history, they really appreciate it. The Japanese consumer is very much different to the UK; they’re very hip. A Japanese guy will spend half his money on clothes; if he earns 20,000 a year he’ll spend 10,000 of it on clothes. That’s how they are; they have different values. They’re not so bothered about buying a house like we are, they’re quite happen to spend it on Cameraman jackets. A lot of this culture that they have comes from the uncertainty that they live with. Earthquakes, tsunamis and all these types of catastrophes happen quite often in the Far East. Japan has been hit by some tremendous earthquakes; in 1923 the whole of Tokyo was completely flattened. So they’re brought up with that and have learned that life might be more for the living rather than saving.”
While an appreciation of his craft is not limited to Japan, where his Mainline collection flourishes, it has certainly given the brand a solid footing over the years. In Europe and America the Cabourn Authentic collection is still a much revered mainstay of the menswear scene, so much so that the first bricks and mortar Cabourn store outside of Japan is due to open in London later this year. The enthusiasm with which Nigel spoke with was refreshing; it truly seemed like a labour of love. There was no ego about a man who was able to wear a £3,000 cashmere coat to cross the road to pick up some coffee. The passion which he exuded was almost tangible, yet there was a humility and a real respect for those who make the Cabourn operation happen. “I think I have loyal customers because I stick to my roots,” he says. “My main thing is that i don’t change. I don’t do trends; I can’t look at any trends on the computer because I don’t use one. For me, design is about the heritage, about a story and the quality; British quality, which always has a story to it. There’s much more to a Cabourn product, it’s not just a product, it’s a history and a story to go with it and that’s how we’ve built the brand.”
Contemporary Menswear, by Steven Vogel, Nicholas Schonberger & Calum Gordon, published by Thames & Hudson on 20th October at £19.95