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A chat with Nigel Cabourn

September 8, 2011

During my visit to the Cabourn studio, I got a bit of time to sit down and talk with Nigel, both in the studio and also during lunch at a nice little Italian restaurant just down the road.

During our chats he filled me in on his love of Table Tennis (he plays three times a week with an ex-British champion and is quite handy himself, although he admits to being beaten quite often), and we also talked about his early inspiration and about the business in general, so below is some of what we talked about throughout the day, plus some images of the vintage garments in the studio at the moment, a couple of ‘Ascent’ collection pieces and all of the other bits and bobs that are dotted around the place.

So then, let’s start at the start I guess – what exactly made you want to do all of this in the first place? 

Well it was the 1960’s and flower power was a big influence. I loved pop music and I loved the clothes and because you love the music and the clothes, you sort of analyse the people don’t you? So when I went to art college that was my only inspiration.

You’ve got to remember that in 1967 there were no fashion shops, there was virtually nothing! We had Marcus Price in Newcastle and another shop in Middlesborough, so maybe two Mod shops in the whole of the North East. We had the Animals, and all of those fantastic 60’s little groups like the Faces and Amen Corner, it was all very cool. That’s what inspired me as a 17 year old and when I went to fashion college at 18 that’s what was whizzing around inside my head.

Then by 1971 I had a full blown business and had started selling to all the local people and by 1973 Paul Smith was working for me as my agent and he was selling our product in London for me. It took me until 1978 to discover true vintage clothing and from then I’ve been completely taken over with that inspiration, and that was the start of my love affair with vintage. Now I’ve collected around 3000-4000 vintage pieces over the last 35 years and that’s what inspires the business.

That’s like a V&A exhibition in the making isn’t it? Have you thought about collating it all and showing it?

Maybe I will. I was going to do a book with Josh Sims not so long ago, because Josh introduced me to Laurence King who do all the fashion books. We were going to do a book together, Josh and I but I sort of backed off in the end because it’s such a massive job. I mean I had too much on; we’ve doubled our business every year over the last three years, so I decided to concentrate on that. And we’ve also got everyone wanting to do collaborations with us too, and we’ll be doing a collaboration with Red Wing for next year and we’re also doing a collaboration with Converse.

Ah, interesting…

Yeah, it’s great. So all of that’s in the pipeline too at the moment and should be out next year some time. I do my collaboration with Yuketen that I’ve been doing for a number of years…

That’s Japan only though isn’t it?

Yeah, it’s Japan only, just for out Army Gym’s over there. Now I’m also talking with Brett from Viberg who’s a good mate of mine and we’re going to do something together. We’ve done a boot together for Barney’s in New York and him and I will certainly be doing something again in the future.

Your popularity has certainly gone up over the last few years, how does it feel to be at a peak like this at the moment and how has it affected the business? It sounds like it’s grown at a massive rate recently.

Well we’ve managed to double the size of the company for the last couple of years but what we’ve got is still a fairly small organisation, employing about ten people. We’re not a big company, but nobody’s a big company on niche, otherwise you wouldn’t be niche. We’ve got a fair sized company though considering and we’re probably making around 20,000 pieces a year across everything, but it’s peanuts compared to big companies. We’ve got the two stand alone shops in Japan and we’re reasonably on target to open a shop in New York next Winter and we want to open a shop in London in the very near future too.

I think we make a very special product and for Authentic we make it all in England. So when you’re sitting here looking at it all, it’s made here, in 15 of the best factories in the country. Wherever possible I use British fabric first, but when I can’t do it, like with the camouflage – it’s very difficult to do camouflage in England today – so thanks to a couple of wonderful contacts in Italy, the camouflage fabric is woven there.

So Authentic is all about British, using UK fabrics wherever possible, otherwise it’s from Italy, and Mainline is my Japanese line, made over there from only Japanese fabrics, and I’ve done a collaboration which I’m really chuffed about for this season with Eddie Bauer…

Which is fantastic stuff…

Yeah, it’s a great, great collaboration. I did it because I love the product from collecting vintage for years as I always used to collect vintage Eddie Bauer, but I wouldn’t have tied up with them if they hadn’t agreed to make it in America or Canada. Basically Eddie Bauer today is made in the far east but all of the collaboration is made in North America. So basically I’m very fortunate to be able to say that I’ve got a British arm, a Japanese arm and an American arm.

As you know I’ve been in the business for 40 years and I’m really chuffed to be doing what I’m doing, I feel like the old hand at this now and I’ve always had the same sort of concept, but now my concept is even more focussed. I probably compromised when I was younger but not today. I’m at an age now where I don’t need or want to compromise.

Because you feel like you’ve got to the point where you can just focus on doing what you do best?

Yeah, I really do.

You also obviously made a conscious decision early on to stay in the North of England, do you think that too has helped keep you away from trends and let you just focus on what you want to make?

Well the thing is that living in the North East is just a different way of life. Plus you’ve got some quite prominent companies based up here, like Berghaus and Barbour and you’ve also got what we do, so you’ve got a real heritage of strong outerwear in this part of the country. Barbour are well over 100 years old, Berghaus are about the same as me, so around 40 years so that’s part of it. Plus it’s quite bleak up here at times so it’s perfect if you like outerwear and I’m very outerwear driven as you know.

Absolutely. One of the things I was going to ask about was the Utility range you did with Debenhams a few years ago…

Yeah, we worked with them for three years when they had the Designers for Debenhams, I’ve done it and it was a nice experience but it’s not something I could see myself doing again…

Did you think it was important, in terms of accessibility of your product, to do a range that was lower than your main one…

I think the strength with me really, being totally honest is what I’m doing now because it’s where my heart is. And we have the strength that someone my age can wear it and a young lad your age can wear it and that’s what we’re all about.

I meet a lot of my customers when I go out to Japan because a lot of them actually come to meet me. I go to Japan four times a year and when I’m out there not only am I doing the designing but I’m also working in the two Army Gyms, and all the Nigel Cabourn followers come to meet me. So every time I go over I probably meet between 100 and 200 of my customers, and these guys are spending incredible amounts on it and I’ve probably got around 1000 dedicated and brilliant customers in Japan.

Does it help to meet them and understand what they’re after in terms of product?

Absolutely, especially when they’re so committed. They love the product these people and it’s great to see. Other brands like Haversack will no doubt have it, it’s not just myself I’m sure.

And finally, out of everything you’ve made, what’s your favourite piece, one piece that really stands out…

What this season?

No, across everything, what the item you’re most proud of producing?

Well it’s probably the Everest Parka, we get them made in a factory owned by an ex-climber now you know, he’s done Everest and the like. He’s in his seventies now so obviously doesn’t climb anymore but loves it so much that he now makes outdoor clothes. 

Other than the Everest, I’d say the Mallory jacket, Cameraman and he Medical shirt. What I did in 2003 when we did the limited edition, I’d say that all of those pieces stand in my mind as some of the best pieces we’ve done and to be honest the limited collection I did in 2003 was the nucleus of what we do today. I’d say from 2003 we really became the way I wanted the company to be and I’d say over the last eight years I’ve really been making what I want to make. I don’t make anything I don’t enjoy.

And that seems to be really resonating at the moment as well.

And that’s why I think I’ve got such a great business, there’s no compromise and in my mind we make a great product.

For more information on the brand, or to find your nearest stockist, go to the website here: Nigel Cabourn.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Captain Haddock permalink
    September 8, 2011 1:40 pm

    Ace, thanks a lot!

  2. Smartypants123 permalink
    September 8, 2011 3:25 pm

    Excellent as always fella!

  3. September 8, 2011 5:04 pm

    Nice article that, Rob. But the most pressing question is…..who paid for the lunch, you or him? ;-)

  4. September 10, 2011 2:19 pm

    Great article… Well done!

  5. September 12, 2011 6:00 pm

    Great read. Thank you very much.

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