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Women on the frontlines

Fashion / Interview

There are some clichés that end up actually being true: others less so. When we land in Newcastle it’s raining – which doesn’t really surprise us, even though it’s August. A typical British August here up north. For Nigel Cabourn, however, that’s just part of the story.

Our host greets us in his two-storey converted garden house, which overlooks a lush green lawn. And perhaps the clichés or at least the perception of the British that other countries have, that makes Cabourn and his apparel so very attractive. After all not many people can claim to being more famous in Japan than in the UK.

Nigel Cabourn is a true original and that’s exactly how he lives and works. Who else, past the age of 60 can boast of keeping himself fit by playing table tennis every day? In front of his atelier is a Victorian house, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, and at the back the garden that – very fittingly – backs onto a cricket pitch. The garden house is where Cabourn meticulously crafts his collections with his small design team. And crafting is a term that should be taken literally in this case. Because Cabourn is a figurehead of the heritage movement. Not only does he dare to reconstruct old patterns, adapting them to today’s zeitgeist with plenty of sensitivity and creative ideas, but the original materials also inspire Cabourn. The textile manufacturers in Newcastle and the surrounding region are certainly kept busy and they are able to demonstrate their full range of skills and expertise thanks to Cabourn’s exacting demands.
The designer has been in the business for over 40 years, and he’s been collecting vintage clothing for almost as long. He invests around 50,000 euros a year in his collection, which covers the years 1910 to 1960. His focus lies on uniforms from the past century as well as work and outerwear from the twenties and forties. He has around 4000 items in his archive. During our conversation Cabourn is continually pulling examples out of the cupboards in his studio, while at the same time recommending his favourite second-hand store in Florence ‘Ceri Vintage’. At his side: Agnes Kemeny, about half his age and since the beginning of this year responsible for the Nigel Cabourn Women’s Collection, which will be making its debut on the market this autumn/winter. But although the two colleagues seem very different at first sight, it turns out that they make the perfect working team.

Nigel, have you always been such a huge vintage fan?
Nigel Cabourn: I was certainly always interested in history, even when I was doing my fashion degree in Newcastle between 1967 and 1971. That was the time of the Vietnam War and flower power, which both definitely influenced my style back then. And of course pop music – Small Faces, The Who, The Kinks, all the mod bands, as well as the cool American surf sounds, like the Turtles. I was 17 years old when I began studying. I loved scooters and the Union Jack, Pete Townshend was my style icon. If you want to take a look at these … (Nigel Cabourn points at some drawings on the wall), they are clothes I designed during my studies. The influences are clearly visible, although you mustn’t forget that in those days we weren’t taught menswear at fashion schools – so where else could I get my inspiration than from the outside world?

Really? There were no menswear design courses?
NC: Not in the sense we know it today. Fashion wasn’t really focused on brands, but rather on the major couture houses. If someone studied fashion then it was with the aim of working for Yves Saint Laurent etc. That never interested me; I wanted to make menswear, for people like me. But 98 percent of the teaching staff at the college were female and taught womenswear. I was over the moon when I found out that one of the male teachers knew a lot about tailoring. So I was able to veer away from the official curriculum and began to do my own thing. And then in the fourth year of my degree course I launched my own label …

… which was called ‘Nigel Cabourn’?
NC: No, my first brand was called Cricket. I’ve only been around under my own name since 1983. The idea came from Japan where it was preferable to market a designer made of flesh and blood rather than a brand name. That made sense to me.

Speaking of which: thanks to a joint venture in Japan your work as a designer on two different markets. You have two separate collections running under your name.
NC: That’s right. There’s the ‘Authentic’ Collection that is designed by us in Newcastle and also made here in Britain, mainly with materials that are ‘Made in England’. And then there is the ‘Mainline’ collection for the Japanese/Asian market, recognisable by its green label. That is also developed here, but the production takes place in Japan, where an additional small design team is based. The general tenor of the label is a little younger, more fashionable – the ‘Authentic’ line is focused completely on the idea of British craftsmanship. Selected styles from the ‘Mainline’ are also available from European retailers in addition to the ‘Authentic’ collection.

From this autumn/winter season there will be a new addition to the Nigel Cabourn portfolio: a womenswear collection that you designed, Agnes. How did you come to work for Nigel?
Agnes Kemeny: Nigel und I met through a mutual friend at the Milan textile trade fair. It turned out that Nigel had heard of Ferenc Puskás and also knew a fair bit about Hungarian football in general – an absolute first for anyone I had ever met abroad. I found that incredibly refreshing, particularly within the context of the fashion world in which we both work. But what really kicked off our working together was our common interest in vintage and old-school fashion drawing.
NC: Agnes’ personality fascinated me right away. Especially because I was surprised by how enthusiastic she was about vintage. That’s usually more of a man thing – women aren’t usually that bothered about the whole heritage and authentic aspect, at least in my experience. And when Agnes showed me a few of her sketches on the laptop it was obvious what I had to do: ask her if she wanted to try doing a few designs for the womenswear line. It was already in the planning – originally for winter 2013 – but until then I hadn’t really put much thought into it. What the design team in Japan had brought to the table by that time was too similar to the menswear originals and so I found the look was still too masculine, which is why I asked Agnes to take the ‘Everest Parka’, a core item from the ‘Authentic’ line, deconstruct it into its single parts and remodel it to create something that would suit Nigel Cabourn Woman. I was more than impressed by the result she presented to me just one week later.
AK: And then Nigel asked me to rework the ‘Mallory Jacket’. At first I was quite reluctant to take this wonderful tailored jacket he’d sent me, a real classic, made of Harris Tweed, and simply rip it apart. But that’s what he wanted.
NC: And I was proven right: around one and a half weeks later I received a photo which Agnes had taken of herself in the mirror whilst wearing her version of the ­‘Mallory Jacket’. That convinced me once and for all. Not just that the former men’s jacket seemed incredibly feminine, but it also had something unique, something inimitable. In addition came the fact that – and I am not exaggerating here – she was the perfect model: the jacket suited her down to the ground (which you can see for yourselves on the Nigel Cabourn website: editor’s note). And it ended up with her taking five days off, coming to Newcastle and us taking a tour round the local production sites. That was in November last year – by January Agnes was working for me full time.

So everything went much faster than planned?
NC: You can say that again. By January we were already at the Bread & Butter in Berlin with the samples, by February we had 20 orders, from people who already stocked ­Nigel Cabourn in their menswear range and who also wanted to have us for their women’s section – in my opinion exactly the right platform for the first season. Karl-Heinz Müller, who is a great supporter of the Nigel Cabourn philosophy, placed a substantial order. For the first six months Agnes and I took care of the collection singlehandedly and then we got the Japanese team on board.

Nigel, you talked about the ‘Nigel Cabourn philosophy’. How important is the ‘Made in Great Britain’ tag?
NC: ‘Made in Great Britain’? That’s an imperative with an exclamation mark. Not only because the ‘Authentic’ line is made here in England. One of my main inspirations as a designer is British history, especially the years of great discoveries and expeditions. Just take the ‘Mallory Jacket’: it’s named after the English mountaineer George Mallory, who died in 1924 during his ascent of Mount Everest. To this day, no one can be sure whether he made it to the summit or not. Whether he was perhaps the first one, rather than Edmund Hillary – although Hillary also inspired me, as you know: the ‘Everest Parka’ made Nigel Cabourn what it is now, ten years ago. The parka was the centrepiece of a Limited Edition that I launched on the 50th anniversary of Edmund Hillary reaching the summit of Mount Everest. It was the starting signal for a restyling of Nigel Cabourn, in terms of our authentic approach to historical themes as well as in terms of the craftsmanship. Before that the label was still to some extent vintage orientated, but more commercial.

In my opinion, authentic fashion in the guise of craftsmanship is clearly a major future trend. Aren’t you ­worried about imitators?
NC: No, most of what comes on the market are just cheap copies. You yourself call it ‘the guise of craftsmanship’. In contrast, what we have to offer is genuine craftsmanship – and that is, especially in womenswear, a true challenge. Not just where the materials are concerned, right Agnes?
AK: In the case of womenswear a large part of the challenge is to retain the typical Nigel Cabourn details. For example the large pockets, which, by the way, you can see in photos dating from between 1900 to 1918, which show women in uniform. I think that pockets like that look very unusual and fresh on modern jackets. But the question is always: which details can I retain, and how can I retain them without changing their proportions? After all I have to make them fit the female body, which is more finely structured than the male. Playing with the cut is a key factor with these items and there is a whole lot to learn. The other tricky topic is – as Nigel mentioned – the textiles. The British-made textiles, which substantially contribute to the hallmarks of the label, tend to be quite unwieldy. And what also doesn’t come into question is stretch. Stretch denim has always been a problem for me. It’s simply so lacking in durability and doesn’t keep its shape well, but it is a popular material in womenswear. For the S/S collection we developed a fit that also works well with selvedge denim. The art is to modify the archetypal Nigel Cabourn clothing in such a way that it doesn’t overwhelm the female physique.

How do you manage to do that? Can you give us an ­example?
AK: The best example is Harris Tweed, a wonderful, incredibly authentic material. The challenge was to make this material lighter and softer so that it could flatter the female silhouette, without rendering it feminine to the point of cliché. Not an easy task for the textile manufacturer who had the job of supplying the goods and will continue to do so.
NC: We now work with so-called featherweight Harris Tweed. But, just to clarify: our womenswear might be based on the menswear but Agnes’ job is not restricted solely to remodelling masculine jackets for women. For example she has just designed a land army dress – and that’s exactly the direction Nigel Cabourn Woman could go in, in my opinion. I trust Agnes completely and want to see more of her talent.

Sounds as though Nigel allows you plenty of creative freedom Agnes. What message do you see for Nigel Cabourn Woman? Is there, for example, a era that particularly inspires you?
AK: I am fascinated by the First World War, so I share Nigel’s penchant for uniforms. Whenever I hold the original pieces from that period in my hands, it really touches me and makes me feel nostalgic. Because this garment was robust enough to survive the war. That is proof of quality that demands respect – and that respect grows when I try to recreate the original and then transform it into a version for the modern day. Why the First World War of all times? It is a time that changed the lives of women in the long term – they had no alternative: they had to reinvent themselves and develop new strategies for their lives. Whereby, the current collection is dedicated to Gerda Taro, who was killed during the Spanish Civil War. She was the first female war photographer in history to die in conflict. She was a German-Jewish woman and Robert Capa’s lover. She also got him his first big commissions and was a kind of manager for him.
NC: Gerda Taro was a strong, young bright woman, full of enthusiasm – a woman passionate about her work who wore military garb, but was by no means masculine. After Agnes and I did some research, we were so fascinated by her that we drove to Paris. That’s where Taro and Capa lived together as a couple and we begged the current tenants of the apartment until they finally let us in. But getting back to the First World War: I needed at least five to seven years before I had gathered all the books that gave me a deeper insight into the nature of the uniforms of this time. Recently I sent some images and photos to the Imperial War Museum – the ones in London and Manchester. And I hope they will be willing to lend us some very rare pieces so that we can study them in detail and perhaps use them as a basis for a pattern in the future.
AK: But it’s not just the topic of uniforms that’s exciting. It’s the twenties, and the forties and fifties in general. There was so much social upheaval going on then. Different movements were formed – in literature, art etc. Cultures influencing each other. That’s also what Gerda Taro represents: the cosmopolitan photographer.

Without wanting to compare apples with oranges: aren’t we going through pretty turbulent times ourselves? Buzzword: economic crisis. And doesn’t that also lead us to a different image of women, or a new female (consumer) behaviour?
AK: That’s a complex question – and I can certainly answer yes. If you ask me, there is a growing gap in the world of fashion: between fast fashion and the competition to see who can offer lowest prices, and luxury fashion for luxury prices. But especially in my generation and amongst women, there is a growing yearning for high-quality manufactured products. Sustainability and an awareness of quality represent deceleration and craftsmanship: creating a contrasting programme to the standardised trends of the globalised world. The fact is: the more women are emancipated in terms of career and private lives, the less relevant the classic female attributes become, also from a visual point of view. Or, put another way: the less she embodies the classic female cliché in her life, the more she’ll want to opt for an individual outfit. I think women want to be more authentic than the greater share of labels give them credit for.
NC: I think in this aspect Agnes embodies the Nigel Cabourn woman perfectly. She comes from Hungary, later living in the GDR, growing up behind the Wall. She knows what it means to get up every morning to do gymnastics without complaining. Agnes’ personal story gives her a particular feminine strength.

Where will things go from here, as far as Nigel Cabourn Woman is concerned? Are you planning any shops?
NC: You mean purely womenswear shops? No, not at the moment. First of all we will be distributing the women’s collection via selected retailers in Europe, Asia, North America and Russia, in addition to our own stores in Japan. ‘The Army Gym’, that’s the name of the flagship stores in Tokyo and Fukuoka. In addition to Nigel Cabourn, we also stock collections from our friends like Red Wing, Filson and Viberg. When it comes to the topic of retail in general, we are planning a few of our own shops outside of Asia – in London, preferably near Dover Street, and in New York. Just like in Japan, we would like to stock 80 percent Nigel Cabourn – men and women – and 20 percent other labels here too.

Nigel Cabourn has been involved in a few collaborations, for example with Converse. Would a womenswear cooperation be an option?
NC: Of course, why not? Of course it has to be with the right partner. Converse is a positive example in terms of raising of our profile. The name Converse also helped us to be taken on by Colette in Paris. Collaborations can certainly help to break down barriers for lesser-known names.

Nigel, one last question for you: you invest 50,000 euros a year in your vintage collection. Have you ever thought about opening your own museum?
NC: Actually, there has already been an exhibition of some vintage items from my collection that had inspired me for my ‘Everest Collection’ – at Northumbria University where I used to study fashion. That proved to be very popular and something along those lines could certainly be a good idea for the future.

Agnes and Nigel, thank you very much for the in-depth insights into your work.