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Furniture designer Kristin Ross on the magnetism of rational design

Fashion The Military Man

He sources intelligently from military surplus, with an unwavering dedication to making as much as
possible in England. In his early career, he held focus groups to make sure he was doing things right.
We meet Christopher Raeburn, the British designer with a penchant for reconstruction.

There’s a genre of British literature that emerged in the Victorian era, a style of boys’ adventure stories dubbed ‘penny dreadfuls’ for their nominal cover price. From the 1930s to 60s they re-surged to popularity, loathed by moral arbiters looking for some element of youth culture to pick at, devoured by girls who’d grown tired of the same-old pastel prudishness. These formulaic comics – churned out cheap n’ quick – told tales of bravery and honour, of sensational adventure, of physical feats and dichotomies of good and evil. For their inky heroes, an audience allegiance was easily garnered: you shoot a rifle, you tame a half-wild horse; you prove yourself a leader.

When I think of boys’ adventure cartoons and all their valorous escapism, I think of Christopher Raeburn, more specifically, his childhood. The British designer grew up very much in the outdoors, in the southeast county of Kent. There, his father galvanised Raeburn and his two brothers to become active inventors. “My father, an emergency safety officer during the week, would say that if we could design and draw a project with measurements that worked, we could then all make it together on the weekend,” says Raeburn. “This started out with classic ‘boys will be boys’ adventures of making tree-houses [and] creating mortars from Coca Cola cans, but then quickly moved on to such things as welding.”

At 13-years-old, Raeburn began flying lessons and joined the young air cadets. Though his family have no direct link to the military, his attachment to wartime fabrics is borne from a respect for sensible construction, for the smart and utilitarian. During our interview, Raeburn is observing the Olympic Stadium from his London apartment, clad in Rapha jeans and Nike Flyknits. It’s not a flippant decision. “Problem solving, functionality and technical innovation are all the things I respect and hold dear in design,” he says. “When choosing clothes, I am naturally attracted to those which fit into these categories.”

Most of the military wear that Raeburn deconstructs for his label is forged from the original garment itself; literally picked apart and re-imagined from a mass of wartime surplus. This isn’t stuff bought in rolls – it is parachute fabric, Swedish battledress jackets; it’s Royal Air Force maps printed on silk and rare, forgotten sheepskin coats once belonging to Siberian officers. At the time of our interview, Raeburn is fascinated with waterproof backpacks from World War II. “That is the beauty of working with military products. We are forever finding something new, rare, and quite one-off… For me there’s something interesting about taking something that was originally designed with only military functionality in mind, and then transforming that original item into something relevant, covetable and ultimately wearable.”

It’s strange to think of uniforms of war reworked as garments for, well, whoever is interested. Does their reimagining erase their military history, or are the chaotic narratives still present, etched deep into the threads? Raeburn feels the ‘authenticity’ remains, even with an intelligent redesign. It’s not a revolutionary message, this idea of anti-waste – but the devotion to conceptual camoflage and remaking militia garb has seen the designer amass significant respect amongst critics. Suzy Menkes calls his business’ trajectory “a green battle plan for fashion”. Maya Singer claimed, after viewing his Fall 2011 ready to wear collection, that Raeburn was “the single most radical designer working today” (via style.com). Intrigued by his no-waste take on construction and a ‘Made in England’ ethos, names like Moncler, Fred Perry, Rapha, Victorinox and Woolmark have all stepped forward to collaborate. The latest relationship is with luxury online menswear retailer, Mr Porter, who now stock the line on their main site. “They understand that we are different brand to most and stand for something unique based on craft [and] provenance”.

You get the feeling that risk-taking (an informed, defiant breed of it) has been a guiding force for Raeburn all along. Since mastering basic aviation skills on the cusp of adolescence, he has become a keen mountain climber, who runs and cycles and – in spite of his fear of heights (which, he admits, might merely be a rational fear of death) – is known to scale large rocky expanses. It’s all there, in front of Raeburn. It’s boyhood adventures. It’s a project, which, if the measurements are right, can be built on repeat, every single week.

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