On the occasion of our SUSTAINABLE ISSUE, we talked to several insiders and experts that are dealing with sustainability in fashion. One of them was british designer Nigel Cabourn, who is not only one of the most charasmatic personalities in our industry, but one of the most savy on a technical level, thanks to his obsession with vintage workwear and military garments. He built up his currently 4,000-piece collection over decades, spending an estimated £40,00 to £50,000 on vintage per year for the past ten years, which serves as a base to create his timeless garments, designed and manufactured to outlive their wearers. Might this be the most sustainable fashion concept of all?
Where does your passion for old fabrics and designs come from?
I was brought up in the ‘50s and there were a LOT of things happening at that time. And that inspired me to become a person interested in lifestyle. And then in the ‘60s I was a fashion student and that was a very impressive time, too–just as the 1920s were. Vietnam, flower power, the most amazing US and UK pop music…you are very fortunate if you got stimulated by those periods. And those old fabrics remind me of that time; I am quite an emotional person.
What can we learn from those archive fabrics?
The old fabrics don’t compromise. They are usually very tightly woven. I also learned a lot about color, obviously the dyeing and colorfastness was amazing back then. I am looking a lot at WWII and military clothing: Those pieces really had to stand what they promise. That’s why there is so much vintage still left of it! How much of today’s clothing is even going to last to be vintage in like 20 to 40 years?
How much of today's clothing is even going to last to be vintage in like 20 to 40 years?"
Timeless design and (mostly) made in Britain–technically, your products are very sustainable, but you don’t market them as such. Do you want the label “sustainable” attached to your brand or do you just want it to be long-lasting?
I think the latter. It’s longevity. I don’t compromise usually, but take the best of everything. I make garments of really sturdy, mostly British fabrics, like Ventile, which was one of the first fabrics that stopped water from going through, or Harris Tweed which is waterproof naturally or British oil cloth.
We have a bit of a reputation for being too expensive, but I mean, Harris Tweed is like £25 a meter now! Yes, my jackets may be £800, £1,000, even £3,000, but they last forever and you’ll pass them on to your kids. My pieces are going to be tomorrow’s vintage.
Are these qualities missing in today’s fabrics?
People are more interested in fashion, they think about looking nice rather than quality. There definitely is some compromising today in comparison to those old British fabrics.
What do you think of recycled fabrics?
Fabrics made of plastic bottles have been going on for a while. But I’ve never really seen any of those fabrics that really looked something–and at the end of the day, if it doesn’t look good; I’m not interested in it.
Do you find it limiting to always look at the past and a similar period of vintage?
No, I always discover something new! Like I just discovered that the US Navy deck crew used to wear all these amazing colors–I didn’t know about this!
Plus I do look at the future all of the time, too. Like when I go to Paris for Première Vision, I spend three days at the show–and that is certainly looking into the future. Plus then I do like 1.5 days of vintage hunting and then I visit all the exciting stores. Like in Paris I go to Balenciaga or in Japan I love looking at The North Face Purple Label or the Beams Plus store… I am very fortunate. I spend six months traveling, and of these I might be 25% looking at vintage and 75% looking at other things.
People are more interested in fashion, they think about looking nice rather than quality."
Do you find it hard to compromise on fabric/qualities when designing a more commercial collection, like in your collaboration with Converse or Peak Performance?
Sometimes cheap is beautiful as well–there are beautiful fabrics out there that are actually quite inexpensive. I’ve just been looking at some special nylon jackets that British people made in the ‘60s/’70s before some of these technical fabrics came out.
And sometimes, you just have to be commercial. Actually, it took me 12 months to make the collaboration with Converse, because I didn’t want it to be made in Vietnam and they investigated in alternatives, but in the end they did make it in Asia. I was a purist all the time, but sometimes you have to break the rules otherwise you can’t make a living.
Can fashion ever really be sustainable?
Yes, classics can! Like my Antarctic or Everest parka–the latter is based on the actual pieces that Sir Edmund Hillary and his team wore during their expedition to the summit of Mount Everest back in 1953. I have actually travelled to New Zealand to see those original garments!
Do you feel that by doing all this fabrics and vintage research, you are giving some sort of education to the (fashion) world?
Nowadays it does feel a bit like that, yes. I teach fashion at Kyoto University in Japan and I was just a speaker at Première Vision actually. I really enjoy introducing people to the vintage and talking about it; I also built my Instagram around it. I think the more you go out, the more you get back. I think design people are generally very secretive and I am not–and it has worked well for me.
Read and see more interesting stories and insights in our new Sustainable ISSUE here.