Made in England

For a British company focused on quality and innovation, finding the right designers, developers and manufacturers is key.

07 May 2013

For a British company focused on quality and innovation, finding the right designers, developers and manufacturers is key. Since the start of the 1980s, UK manufacturing has dropped from 30 to 10 per cent of GDP while much of the expertise has fallen by the wayside. So sourcing and producing textiles at home is something to be nurtured.

Brothers Graeme and Christopher Raeburn are two of the UK’s leading clothing designers; Graeme is product designer at Rapha, while Christopher heads up his own eponymous label. Rapha & Raeburn marks the latest collaboration between them and the result is a new collection of products all made in England, designed for city cyclists.

The brothers’ formative years were spent exploring the Kent countryside by bike, making ‘survival packs’ out of shoeboxes. Graduating to the Air Cadets, they also learned to man helicopters and polish boots. “You were shown all these amazingly functional things,” recalls Graeme, “uniforms and rucksacks, as well as machinery.” It proved an influential experience, one that eventually led Graeme to design functional clothing and accessories in a fashion context.

“When other kids were saving up for computer games, we were saving up for a Bergen rucksack,” says Christopher, who followed in his older brother’s footsteps, first to art school, then on to London’s prestigious RCA. “Our Dad was a very creative, hands-on person,” Christopher adds. “The unwritten rule was that if we could draw something during the week, particularly with measurements, Dad would help us make it at the weekend.” Little wonder, then, that both brothers share a love of practical design and attention to detail. As Graeme explains: “When we design, we always consider what the person will be doing, what environment they’re moving through.”

Graeme and Chris have been collaborating in one form or another since they were kids, establishing the first Raeburn design studio in Luton, on the outskirts of London. “We made our first collection from snow camouflage and parachutes, with no real idea who it was for,” says Chris. “One of the jackets ended up as an exhibit at an Imperial War Museum show on camouflage, between a Maharishi piece and a design by Jean-Paul Gaultier.” Remarkably, their grandmother’s wedding dress, also made from parachute silk, was exhibited at the same show.

The brothers continued to build momentum and, in 2007, were introduced to Luke Scheybeler and Simon Mottram, founders of the then fledgling Rapha. Thanks to Graeme’s love of cycling and Christopher’s understanding of pattern cutting, they soon developed prototypes for Rapha’s first City Bomber Jacket, Winter Collar and Overshoes.

Graeme was quickly offered a full-time position, while Chris pursued his own designs under the Christopher Raeburn brand. The brothers have maintained their working relationship and the contemporary approaches of both brands has helped join the dots for this latest collaboration.

The centrepiece of the Rapha & Raeburn collection for Spring Summer 2013 is the Hooded Wind Jacket. Constructed from military parachute canopies, the jackets are made at Cooper & Stollbrand in Manchester, England’s leading outerwear factory. Manchester was built on textile production, an industrial powerhouse of the Victorian era famed for its cotton goods and commercial links around the world. Cooper & Stollbrand reside in a redbrick building next to the River Irwell, on which barges once brought materials to the 200-plus factories that used to line its banks. While most have either closed or moved operations abroad, this unique company remains true to its original values, developing products for some highly coveted British marques, upholding the heritage of England’s second city.

Mike Stoll, the company’s MD, explains: “We’ve done all sorts, from gas suits to hunting tweeds. Nigel Cabourn and Paul Smith have both had pieces made here, so this parachute jacket for Rapha & Raeburn fits with our history of working closely with talented British designers.”

More than 70 employees make coats and jackets for brands such as Gieves & Hawkes, Aquascutum, Holland & Holland, Burberry, Albam and Brooks. They also have their own in-house label, Private White V.C. Crammed into the archives are tens of thousands of patterns and products, from Gore-tex hiking jackets to cotton raincoats for the Metropolitan Police. A lot of the fabrics they use are still made locally and while some of the machinery might be ageing slightly, it remains resolutely efficient. Above the whirr of machines, 76 year-old Jean Seddon, a factory-floor supervisor and Manchester City season-ticket holder, explains how things have changed: “Nowadays, people want lots and lots of details. A coat used to be just two pockets, two arms and a few buttons. You’ve got to be more skilful now, more versatile.”

Construction of the Hooded Wind Jacket is a time-consuming process, with a lot of skill required to work with the parachute’s finely woven fabric; it takes more than an hour just to deconstruct one canopy into the pieces from which the patterns can be cut. The machinists at Cooper & Stollbrand have also had to adjust their sewing machines, switching to finer needles in order to punch through the tight ‘cross-grain’ of what is a very strong fabric. The highly specific, and highly detailed nature of the design, means a close relationship with the manufacturer is imperative.

Graeme Raeburn: “A lot of people would just say no to a project like this, so there’s a huge advantage having a factory we can visit regularly to make sure the attention to detail is there.”

Talking through any problems face to face was key in the development of the jacket, Chris explains. “We first created a sample at my studio in east London, then worked closely with Cooper & Stollbrand’s technical team to refine that early prototype. We made significant improvements over six or seven versions before we arrived at the final product.”

The nature of the design and the material used means that every Rapha & Raeburn Hooded Wind Jacket is unique. Each has its own individual reflective race number on the back and, where possible, panels from the parachute canopies have been cut to include their original production numbers and issue dates.

Creating specialist pieces so rich in authenticity, inventiveness and craft is something Chris is understandably proud of. “That we’ve come full circle and had the opportunity to work together to make products to a very high standard here in England, it’s something I’m really excited about.”

Other products in the collection include a pair of Rapha & Raeburn Jeans, using the same performance denim as regular Rapha Jeans but constructed in Leicester. A Merino Henley, meanwhile, will be made at a factory in east London, but what all three products share is the functionality, style and attention to detail the brothers are known for. “It’s enabled both Rapha and Christopher Raeburn to create a collection that neither of us could have done without each other,” says Graeme.

To produce products of this quality and detail, in a country with a history of innovation and craft is an added bonus for both brands. “I don’t expect a resurgence in the glory days of British manufacturing,” explains Christopher, “but I feel you should do the right thing in the right place. We export a lot to Japan, Korea and China now and there’s a real love of things made in England. That’s something we should be very proud of.”