Success is sustainable for designer turning waste into fashion statement

Christopher Raeburn has a lot to celebrate in his 10th anniversary show at London fashion week

When the lights go up at Christopher Raeburn’s 10th anniversary show at London fashion week men’s on Sunday, the world can expect to be presented not just with a clothing collection but – as the designer puts it – “a manifesto for change”.

In the decade since he started his fashion label, the Royal College of Art graduate has become to the menswear fashion industry what Stella McCartney is to womenswear – the leading advocate of sustainability and responsibly sourced style. His brand’s “remade, reduced, recycled” ethos permeates everything that comes out of his design studio in Hackney Central and has done from the start.

Utilising used fabrics – including kites and vintage parachutes and other military stock – his designs have taken on a utilitarian-meets streetwear aesthetic. He is now looking to see how he can “push things further than ever before”.

“It’s our opportunity to say, ‘hey, that’s been an amazing first chapter for the business and now we’re building on our learning from the last 10 years’,” says Raeburn. His team has been “mulching, shredding and making our own insulation from the off-cuts of materials that are being made in our atelier in east London and then making them into Puffa jackets” for today’s collection.

There’s never been a better time to be leading the charge. Last year the United Nations launched a fashion industry charter for climate action and the Commons environmental audit committee announced it was investigating the sustainability of the fashion industry. Burberry pledged to reuse, repair or recycle products after the shocking revelation that it had destroyed £28.6m of stock in 2017.

But 36-year-old Raeburn has been driving fashion in a responsible direction since he was discovered by the industry expert Susanne Tide-Frater in 2009. Asked by the British Fashion Council to mentor a new ecological brand, she chose Raeburn, having identified his “radically different vision from what was then considered recycled”.

“When I first met Christopher, his vision immediately exceeded other designers in his segment,” says Tide-Frater, currently board director of Browns Fashion. “In fact, I have always considered him a creative entrepreneur rather than a fashion designer predicting or chasing the next trend. It was really just at the start of a very personal journey [for him], which at times has been challenging.”

London Fashion Week
Recycling is the message from Christopher Raeburn’s London Fashion Week Men’s show. Photograph: Chris Yates

One of the main challenges facing sustainable design is dispelling the scepticism surrounding the “homespun” aesthetic. A major part of Raeburn’s success has been his belief that covetable design and responsible infrastructure are not necessarily incompatible.

“I’ve always approached my business from a design-led perspective first,” he says. “Our obligation as a company and for me as a designer is to make sure I’m embedding good design with really considered choices around the way the materials are made, who’s making them, where that item is made and what happens to it afterwards. If you’ve ticked those boxes and something is fully recycled and recyclable, it becomes unquestionable.”

Another challenge is keeping financially afloat while retaining creative control. “Where other designers expanded and took on major investment, Christopher self-financed and was always independent,” says Tide-Frater.

Collaborations with brands including Eastpak, Umbro and most recently Timberland (where he has since taken on global creative director duties) must be mutually beneficial in this respect, as well as pushing the brand’s message into the mainstream. “Not connecting with him would have been a big miss as he cares passionately about the overall ‘making it better’ concept which motivates Timberland’s world, environment, design and products,” said a spokesperson for the US brand.

Recognition came in 2016 when Raeburn was named breakthrough designer at the GQ Men of The Year awards and the appetite for his designs and approach is picking up pace. His recent pop-up in London’s new Coal Drops Yard development proved so successful that he is hoping to open a larger permanent space there in the spring, while the #buynothing campaign he launched on Black Friday “as a challenge to the industry” went viral.

“With this race to the bottom of selling products at increasingly discounted rates, you have to really question where that’s going to end up and we, within the industry, have an obligation to question ourselves,” says Raeburn, who refused to sell anything that day.

“It’s really important for designers like Christopher to make a stand against over-consumption and to lead the way for a more responsible fashion industry,” says Tamsin Blanchard, who works closely with the not-for-profit reform movement Fashion Revolution. “By disabling his online shop for Black Friday it was a way for him to protest against the insidious culture that is constantly nagging away at us to buy more, buy cheaper and buy it now.”

A decade in, Tide-Frater predicts a happy birthday for the designer. “His time may have finally come,” says Tide-Frater. “I strongly believe that only authentic designers and personalities like Christopher will give weight and credibility to the topic of sustainability which now has to be all our top priority.”


Scarlett Conlon

The GuardianTramp

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