Menswear designer Christopher Raeburn has become one of the most radical forces in British fashion by tackling its biggest taboo — transparency — head on
One Sunday evening in 2013, Christopher Raeburn was scrolling through eBay when he saw a picture of a bright orange life raft. It had been assembled decades earlier from rubber and plastic, and then packed with enough supplies to sustain 25 sailors for the length of time it might take a rescue craft to find them, should the worst happen. Not that anything ever did; this particular boat saw out its career on a vessel that avoided icebergs and saw off storms. Now, it was available at a steep discount to anyone confident enough in their doggy-paddle to buy a raft that would ‘probably’ stay afloat at a pinch — but which had outlived any legal guarantees.
A few days later, the retired dinghy ended up outside Raeburn’s studio in Mile End. It had seemed heavy enough when they lugged the half-tonne box off the lorry. But now, plonked on concrete rather than water, it made a footprint that didn’t seem to tally with the capacity promises printed on its side. With a rope trailing from one end, the enwombed raft looked a little like a giant conker. But then its new owner gave it a hard yank, and — as if he had performed a conjuring trick — an enormous, fully inflated raft suddenly popped into being.
Inside were rations, flares, and a First Aid kit, all stowed away years before in the hope they’d never be used. Raeburn hadn’t considered how much space twenty-five people require when they’re adrift at sea, potentially for days. Nor had he made any definite plans for the thing that had suddenly colonised his yard. But he saw possibility in its orange and black rubber shell.
“Straight away, I knew it made sense to do a collection,” he says, “to explore what it would be like, in a romanticised way, to spend that time on the ocean.” We’re perched on a bench outside his current studio in Hackney — a sleeker set of digs than Mile End, where it’s hard to imagine any impromptu life raft inflations taking place. Through the windows of his studio, we watch his staff sling coruscating orange and grey jackets onto hangers, ahead of a private viewing he’s organised for his mailing list subscribers.
Across the street, security guards eye up a coach as it decants tourists outside the Burberry outlet, part of a fashion hub that opened last year. The hub was funded by money Hackney Council received after rioters set swathes of the borough alight in 2011. (The hope, perhaps, being that disaffected youth won’t loot luxury goods when they’re marked down by 80 per cent.)
But high-end has history in the area, albeit at the other end of the supply chain. The building that looms above us, now converted luxury flats, once housed Burberry’s textile factory. Raeburn takes great pride in this local connection to Britain’s manufacturing past. “Last weekend, we had a studio event. And we had a lady, 69, who had been sewing garments here in 1965.” he says. “Being back in a space with such history, and the uniqueness of that, is something I really hold dear.”
Christopher Raeburn doesn’t come across like a designer.
For one, he wears colour — today, a bright blue knitted jumper with a shark motif, part of the AW15 collection which was born when that life raft burst from its capsule. But also, unlike most designers, he’s happy to pick apart his work.
His latest collection, for example, first shown during London’s SS18 shows this past summer, took shape after he read The Long Walk — a memoir by Polish prisoner-turned-author Slavomir Rawicz. In it, Rawicz recounts his escape from a Soviet gulag, and trek to freedom — through Siberia and the Gobi Desert, and across the Himalayas to an eventual rescue in India.
“The challenge was to imagine the specific environments and the preparedness that you would need for that journey.” Raeburn explains. He decided that the most appropriate kit would be sportswear and jackets made from wind- and rain-proof fabrics, light enough to layer against changeable temperatures. So that’s what he made. Simple, really.
But in Raeburn’s world, nothing is ever quite as simple as it appears. The materials for the collection weren’t sourced from mills; instead, they were produced from kites, salvaged once surfers and snowboarders are finished with them and repurposed by a brand called Exkite. “It’s run by this really cool guy, who’s an ex-professional [kite-surfer],” says Raeburn. “It was very much about elements, and about the wind, and function. But it also just gave us this amazing pop of colour, which is really unexpected for the collections.”
“In the end of the day, you should be having fun with this. And you should be trying to surprise yourself — as well as other people. Otherwise you just repeat, don’t you? I think it’s so important that you evolve — and also stay open to the madness.”
(This original article continues in our Issue Ten)