Nigel Cabourn: Drawing the Line between British Authenticity and Imperialism
Nigel Cabourn: Drawing the Line between British Authenticity and Imperialism
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date April 04, 2018
As once-hard lines—local versus global, fact versus fiction—have blurred at increasing speeds since the start of the new millennium, a growing number of brands have sought to sell consumers on the concept of “authenticity,” a word that, in itself, seems to lose meaning with each ad campaign. While some brands have merely latched onto it as a trend word to turn a quick profit, others have embraced conventional meanings of authenticity while using it both as a marketing tool and as a descriptor for the ethical, commercial and production processes they employ. Brands such as Visvim, FEIT and Engineered Garments, among many others, readapt traditional processes and vintage designs that appeal to niche consumers looking for garments and accessories imbued with old-world marks of quality and traceable ties to history. Although one such designer, Nigel Cabourn, has only seen global success with the rise of new peers and the propagation of heritage clothing, he has been championing authenticity for nearly 50 years. However, while Cabourn the designer is a leader in his commitment to reviving designs, techniques and trims of bygone eras, his fixation on the past seems to prevent Cabourn the man from staying in touch with some of the social progressions of our time—an, at times, troubling dichotomy that may make Nigel Cabourn fans question their support.
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Despite being a frequent and affable subject of interviews—“I’ve got plenty of personality, plenty to say for myself and I love what I do. I travel around the world and a lot of people know who I am. A lot of people photograph me. All these things are part of the brand,” he told Vestoj: The Journal of Sartorial Matters* for its 2014 issue “On Slowness”—little has been written on Cabourn’s childhood. Born in 1949 in Newcastle, England, Cabourn fell in love with British pop music in the late ’60s and subsequently the flower power fashion of the era. Like many a horny teenage boy, he made decisions with hisvyou-know-what, following the advice of a friend who told him to attend Newcastle College of Art and Industrial Design (now the School of Design at Northumbria University—with, according to Cabourn, the hopes of getting laid. Once there, he realized he wanted to design menswear but had few peers or mentors to look to for help, since nearly everyone else was designing womenswear or children’s wear.
During Cabourn’s third year at Newcastle College, he used a £6,000 bank loan to start his own menswear brand, Cricket, which he would later rename after himself. Cabourn was producing and distributing all of his clothing within a 40-mile radius until 1972 when he met the highly-influential British designer Paul Smith who changed the trajectory of his career. At the time, Cabourn’s designs were mainly influenced by what had gotten him into fashion in the first place: British pop music and pop music-inspired clothing. Paul Smith not only agreed to be Cabourn’s agent—garnering him distribution throughout numerous shops in London—but he also introduced Cabourn to his first vintage garment in 1978, a British Royal Air Force jacket: “A little short green one with the button and tape. Paul gave it to me and it made me a fortune. Once I discovered that button and tape, I did a whole range of similar pieces in 1979—I was the first one to do that,” Cabourn recounted to Vestoj.
From 1973 through 1985 Cabourn showed his collection in Paris as his brand rose to prominence alongside legendary British designers like Vivienne Westwood and the aforementioned Smith, although it was far more commercial than its current incarnation, as indicated by the fact that Cabourn cites Fred Perry and Lacoste as his main competitors at the time. He even had a London flagship designed by architect John Pawson, although Cabourn seems to have mentioned the shop only once in an interview (making it difficult to know what the store looked like or the years it was open). Despite the designer’s fondness for nostalgia, the late ’70s and ’80s don’t seem to be a sentimental period for him, considering how little he talks about those years and the fact that he has gone as far to call the London shop he opened on Henrietta Street in 2014 his first UK store.
In 1980, Sam Sugure—a Japanese fashion agent who represented Margaret Howell at the time and is currently president of Outer Limits Co., which represents brands such as Oliver Spencer, Filson, Gitman Vintage in Japan—approached Cabourn about bringing his collection to Japan, where it has developed a cult following over the past 37-plus years (Cabourn now has six shops operated by Sugure and Outer Limits).
Despite Cabourn’s success in Japan, his brand struggled mightily during the ’90s and early 2000s: “I was pretty much on the bones of my arse in 2000,” he told Vestoj. “I was doing terrible. Sam Sugure told me, ‘Look, you’ve got to get back to doing things you really believe in.’” At the time, Cabourn was also consulting for British outdoor brand Berghaus, researching vintage mountaineering gear when he realized the fiftieth anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest was approaching: “I went to the Lake District to look at his clothes and I couldn’t believe what I found. I just hit lucky, and it changed my whole life. I found images of Hillary and Tenzing and their whole team and their clothes are fucking amazing. I just looked at them and thought, ‘I’m going to fucking make all those clothes’. And I did. And I’m still living on it today,” he continued. After his trip to the Lake District, Cabourn meticulously researched Hillary and the clothing he wore during his ascent, among other expeditions, even traveling to a museum in Christchurch, New Zealand to see Hillary’s Antarctica parka (which he redubbed the “Everest Parka”). In 2003, with the help of Karol Marketing, Cabourn released a campaign for his limited edition “Ascent of Cabourn” collection as the relaunch of his Authentic line, which turned out to be a huge success.
Since the release of his “Ascent of Cabourn” collection, Cabourn has stuck with the formula, crafting clothing almost entirely inspired by British military and mountaineering history from the 1910s through the 1950s. In fact, many of Cabourn’s most successful collections seem to draw inspiration from the great (white) men of history, thereby solidifying his brand’s heritage-based approach—which often appeals to customers drawn to garments imbued with classic forms of western masculinity—while also potentially reflecting some of the problematic views he’s expressed in interviews: “And I wasn’t gay like most other male designers. They’re all gay, let’s face it. And they all design womenswear because they want to dress like women and look like women. So it was hard to get inspiration for me back then. When I went to Paris in 1968, all I saw was the couture houses. And of course, they all had gilt chairs and giant mirrors – it was all crap. I thought, ‘What’s this? What have I gotten myself into?’” he reminisced to Vestoj of his days in design school.
Although Cabourn’s focus on early to mid-20th Century British history is not problematic in itself, one might wonder if his infatuation with the U.K.’s past triumphs hinders his ability to engage empathetically with the sociopolitical landscape of the present, whether it is his homophobic statement that all men who design womenswear “want to dress like women and look like women” or his distaste for Chinese craftsmanship: “I don’t want to make stuff in fucking China,” he told Vestoj. “Visvim is sort of niche, but then he makes it all in China and charges the earth for it. I’m sorry but I don’t see how you can charge £1,000 for a pair of shoes made in China.” Considering China’s continued development as a home for specialized factories—along with Visvim, brands like FEIT and FFIXXED STUDIOS produce clothing and/or accessories in the country—Cabourn’s assessment doesn’t seem tied to current reality. And, while much of Cabourn’s clothing is produced in the U.K., he can’t claim that his opinions on China come purely from a belief in local craftsmanship, since his Mainline collection is made entirely in Japan.
Yet, just as Cabourn’s remarks should not be ignored or excused, they also should not define his entire story. Nigel Cabourn is more than a modern manifestation of British imperialism, as shown by the admirable ways in which he directs his brand, such as the excruciating amount of time, money and travel he puts into research in the hopes of designing and producing superbly crafted, functional garments. “I travel four months of the year,” Cabourn explained to Port Magazine. “I’ve had ten trips in ten weeks, and wherever I go—whether it’s Hong Kong, New York or Seattle—I spend at least 25 percent of my time seeing vintage dealers.” In fact, Cabourn claims that he has invested “a couple of million pounds” to amass his 4000 piece vintage archive over the past 40 years and his Instagram attests to his endless hunt for vintage pieces.
The integrity with which Cabourn approaches research also carries over to the way he approaches collaborations. While he has collaborated with the likes of Converse, Filson and Viberg as his brand has gained traction over the past 15 years, he has left hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars on the table with the offers he’s turned down: “I said no to Moncler. They were doing a collaboration with Visvim but didn’t want to continue and I said to them, I said, ‘If you can’t make a success from working with Visvim, you’re not going to make one with me—we’re two peas in a pod.’ And also I asked them about their vintage and they didn’t have any. When I asked them about their customer they were after the same as me so I just thought, what’s the point? I’d be doing a me two. But I could have made a lot of money from it; for those sorts of collaborations you can make £3–400,000,” he explained to Vestoj.
Despite the money he could have made, Cabourn doesn’t seem to be hurting. In 2013, he launched his first women’s collection, followed by the opening of his Army Gym store in London in 2014 and the 2015 release of a second Sir Edmund Hillary-inspired collection. Most recently, Cabourn has started to break from his pre-’60s bias though a 2016 collaboration with Fred Perry inspired by ’50s and ’60s soccer uniforms and a 2018 collaboration with influential U.K. workwear brand Lybro inspired by military issue clothing form the Vietnam War. One would hope that Cabourn’s recent growth isn’t limited to his aesthetics, but that remains to be seen. By his own account, he is an intuitive designer, uninterested in experimentation, so it is hard to know if he has the self-reflexivity or willingness to change. Cabourn’s unerring consistency has defined much of his recent success. Could it also define his descent? “I just do what I do because I love it,” he told Vestoj. “I don’t know if I have a better explanation. It’s like when Sir Edmund Hillary was asked why he decided to climb Everest; he said, ‘I just like going up.’”