2019 marks the first decade of Christopher Raeburn’s eponymous label. What began as the designer’s fascination with reusing military garments has turned into the brand’s key guiding principle. Today, everything the studio does is filtered through the REMADE, REDUCED, RECYCLED mantra. Over the years, staying true to that ethos has made the company synonymous with sustainability (yes, way before it was cool), radical openness and collaboration, earning Christopher and his team numerous recognitions, brand partners and legions of devoted fans.
Following the success of its pop-up shop at London’s Coal Drops Yard late last year, the label recently launched its first permanent retail location in Hackney. Open five days a week (Wednesday to Sunday), the Raeburn LAB is an incredible experiential space (part-shop, part-studio) where anyone is welcome to browse and shop the collections, explore archive pieces and Lab exclusives, all while listening to the sewing machines and lively conversations of the Raeburn team who are making the magic happen there and then. The extraordinary space also hosts workshops, studio tours and repair days to fully embed fashion lovers into the Raeburn universe.
As Raeburn prepares for the next chapter of the brand, we sat down with Jolyon Bexon - Raeburn’s newly appointed Head of Retail - to hear more about the importance of experimentation in physical spaces and mixing sustainability with impeccable design.
How has the brand evolved over the years?
Raeburn started 10 years ago and we’ve always been fascinated with the use of materials, how we can reuse the resources around us. We’ve had real fun with military and utility garments, parachutes and life rafts and have always aimed to do something really special and interesting with the way we produce that also has a really strong identity.
Over the years, and especially over the last couple of years, this has been honed in on something that is sustainable. I know the sustainable topic has become really big recently but actually, as a brand, we have always looked at how we can behave responsibly, but also have a lot of fun along the way with the way we connect with people.
The whole ethos of the brand is around reusing, recycling, repurposing. How does this translate to Raeburn’s collections and how you operate as a business?
Our products have three pillars - REMADE, REDUCED and RECYCLED. The REMADE part of the business is the heart and soul of the brand and very much the storytelling element. It’s how the brand started - taking existing materials and garments that are already beautifully made and reimagining these materials as something brand new. It’s almost a celebration of the garments, bringing them new life, giving them new silhouettes and shapes and putting a completely new angle on how they could be worn and who could wear them.
"What has been regarded as waste has now become a resource and that is a really great way to plant the seed and transmit the idea of the Raeburn brand"
- Jolyon Bexon, Head of Retail, Raeburn
I’ve always said that they are our haute couture range. They’re very limited and they’re numbered. If your business was a pyramid and at the top was the small number of pieces with the highest concept - that’s where the REMADE bit is. It’s the part which gets you the press attention and tells the story about the brand.
I also call them [the REMADE garments] the Mind Bomb pieces. We always try to talk about what we do but when I show you a jacket remade from a life raft you get it. It doesn’t matter if we don’t speak the same language or if you’re new to fashion. When I show you that garment, it’s a very tangible way to understand that we’ve reused it into something that could be worn again and given a new life. What has been regarded as waste has now become a resource and that is a really great way to plant the seed and transmit the idea of the Raeburn brand.
And then the other two pillars - RECYCLED and REDUCED - are the pieces that are more wearable, commercial. They certainly help us in terms of sales because not everyone wants to wear a life raft. The RECYCLED garments are very easy to wear, very functional. They are made from recycled polyester and recycled plastic bottles, which we can produce at a higher volume. And the REDUCED part includes very simple things to wear such as jerseys, sweatshirts, sweatpants, t-shirts, made from reduced organic cotton, beautiful and soft. Both the REDUCED and RECYCLED have also quite nice price points so that people can buy into the brand, it’s a much more easy entry point.
Over the last few years the role of physical spaces has changed. What are your plans for the physical Raeburn retail spaces?
Firstly, the Lab is a place that supports the business, that’s key for us. We already have the space and there’s so much that could be done with it that it seems crazy not to use it to help the business.
Secondly, it needs to be a place to inspire and educate. That can mean from bringing 10 primary school children in for a tour and hopefully planting the seed in their brains about how we should better use our materials and how we can behave as consumers; to inviting elite media and influencers and spreading our message. It’s a space that we can create excitement about the brand.
And the third point, which is really interesting, is that it is called the Lab for a reason. It’s a place of experimentation. That could be from how we host an event to how we create products.
We are so flexible and agile with our design team that we’ve dedicated time every single week to work on Lab production. If I feel like we’re missing an opportunity for a product, we can test that. For example, we felt that there was an opportunity to create a small bag that at the right price point, made out of interesting materials that we already had. There’s no reason why we couldn’t create that and have it on the shop floor within a week. We’d experiment with products that we think would hit a sweet spot, offer function, be of real commercial success for us and delight the customer. We can trial it in the space at a very low risk and if it is a real success we can create more pieces or extent that to online. And potentially, if we think this is a really strong piece, we can make it part of the collection. But if we make three units, and they don’t sell - that’s fine. The Lab lets us trial an idea to gauge the price point, process, and the results before we invest in it.
Going forward, we will look at expanding the retail business. That will be the really exciting bit because we’d have to think about how to we take the Raeburn experience, what’s happening here, to another location. You can hear sewing machines going in the background. We have to really think what would have as much impact in other locations as this does because the storytelling and the message has to be very very strong. How do we create an environment that’s going to inspire people and get them to think differently? We don’t want to open generic shops, there needs to be something special about each space. And that might come from collaborations or events or general operations of the store, the use of the shop. It’s going to be a fun journey.
How do you mix sustainable practices with great design that people actually want?
We have to be very honest with ourselves about why we buy clothing. And it’s okay to buy clothing because you want to look good or be portrayed in a certain way. It’s the responsibility of the designer to make sure that we have a garment that fits well, performs well, is comfortable and offers function. And then, as a consumer, you hang to it much longer and respect it much more, which absolutely makes you a better consumer.
The important aspect that goes along that, which doesn’t super seed it, is the fact that if you buy Raeburn it’s always something that either has reduced impact or made from recycled materials. That’s definitely one of the selling points and really seals the deal for people, makes them feel happy about choosing a brand that acts in a responsible way. But we still fully understand that people buy clothing that looks and feels good. And that’s fine.
Over the last year sustainability has entered the fashion conversation in a big way and we’ve seen both brands and governments trying to change things. What is your take on that? Do you think that the industry genuinely cares or are the majority of brands doing it because of the PR-element? How do you react to that as a brand which has been operating in an ethical way from the start?
I’d start by saying that in no way are we perfect. We’re certainly not saying we are 100% there. We need to always challenge ourselves to perform better, behave better, to be more responsible. If we’re going to talk about something we need to back it up.
I wouldn’t want to talk about any particular brand but if a brand really wants to make a difference is to act and to do something quite sweeping. I was actually impressed by Coca-Cola recently when they came out and revealed exactly how much plastic they use every year. I thought that was a really important first step from a brand like Coca-Cola, which said ‘This is where we are and we want to improve this’. It was laying the cards on the table. But imagine if Coca-Cola could improve their impact and that would filter down to so many brands who will take their lead.
The biggest thing that companies can do - from H&M to Sainsbury’s - is to communicate where they are on their road to being more sustainable. We’re not expecting H&M and Zara to suddenly become sustainable brands but what we want from them is honesty about where they are and what their plan is to improve.
Raeburn LAB is open Wednesday - Sunday. For more info click here.
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