Christopher Raeburn Discusses His Love of Functionality and New Role as Artistic Director at Victorinox for A Shaded View On Fashion

Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,
Since founding his label in 2008, Christopher Raeburn has always managed to stand out amongst the menswear designer pack. Recycled fabrics, a ‘Remade in England’ approach and ethically aware production methods make him a designer with a conscience, but his slickly tailored, urban reveller meets outerwear utility pieces are really the main attraction, striking the perfect balance between functional and stylish. The first designer to receive NEWGEN sponsorship for his womenswear and menswear lines in the same season, plus a British Fashion Award for Emerging Talent Menswear win in 2011, the industry has already given Raeburn its seal of approval.
En route to Berlin to start his new role as Artistic Director of Victorinox, Raeburn talked about his A/W 13 collection, outerwear memories, and what the future holds.
Your trademark piece is the parka jacket. Do you remember the first one you wore as a child? 
I’ve got two older brothers and we grew up in those jackets like Kenny wears in South Park, so we were around them from an early age. From the age of 13 to 17, I was involved in the Royal Air Force cadet scheme, so you’d come across different combat jackets as well. It’s kind of a linear pathway. The other thing that was influential was seeing Quadrophenia when I was really young. It was more of a constant stream rather than one specific piece.
Your A/W 13 collection was inspired by the Maunsell Sea Forts. How would you explain this season’s concept?
Those sea fort towers were built in the Second World War, it was about the re-imagination of what it would be like living on today in a very contemporary way, as opposed to an isolation. For me, the fascination is always this mix of archaeology and creating garments with new technology, adding a real modernity to them. That’s the original reference point, but then we worked hard to bring in some original fabrics dating back to the 1940s, 50s, 60s, new Italian fabrics and Japanese recycled fabrics. It’s quite a hybrid collection. The maps rather than them being printed on, are in fact original 1960s maps that were being used by the Royal Air Force. They were printed onto rayon at that time rather than paper, simply because it lasted longer and wouldn’t perish if it got wet or damaged. Those pieces are part of our Remade In England line for this season. 
What purpose does clothing serve for you personally first and foremost?
Obviously on a basic level, it’s protection first and the love of functionality. That’s very close to my heart. I’m always very keen on layering and working with different fabrics that you’re wearing for specific reasons. But then beyond that, of course the opportunity to experiment and wear amazing clothes is something one should celebrate as a designer, and as a human really. 
Not only do you have an ethical way of producing the garments through recycling fabrics but a bulk of production is done in England. When you were setting up your label, what was it about those two factors that made them an important part of your design ethos?
It’s pretty straightforward, to me it just made good sense. It’s really as simple as that, why would you not want to? It has always been about the quality of production as well. As the company has developed and grown, particularly for some of the more sportswear sides of the collection, we’ve looked at other places and manufacturers simply so that we can improve our quality. Here in the UK, we’re very well known for working with wools, leathers and accessories, but beyond that our background in sportswear isn’t traditional, so I think it’s about doing the right thing in the right place for the right reason.
But at the same time, still keeping with that ethical aspect of it, because there are companies where production is done outside of the country, but not in the best working conditions. Who else do you think is helping lead the industry in that respect?
Stella McCartney stands out in the way that she has worked but the deciding thing for me is how mainstream and mid-level companies can really make a phenomenal difference. I’ve closely worked with Nike on a project, self-motivated by Nike about how long-term they can change their design practices and make better choices, how ultimately as a designer one can make better choices. It’s absolutely fascinating because on the one hand, the work that we are doing I’d like to think is going the right way, but then in comparison to some of these giant machines that work on multiple levels, actually the influence you can have by advising can be really instrumental and make an exceptionally big change. It’s not just the case of high-end design leading the way. It’s about collaborating, sharing information, and educating, as well as allowing people to make better choices.
Especially on a consumer level, where people are responding well to that, wanting to purchase garments that are made in an environmentally friendly way. 
We never tried to sell ourselves early on as being ethical or sustainable. For me, it has to be design led first, because ultimately that’s how the consumer makes their choice. The real backbone of sustainability is just adding to that, but above everything else, it has to be a really good design to begin with. We’ve got fifty stockists worldwide, in order for your product to sell it has to be of interest first. What fascinates me is that a person likes the look of it, but then when they come over and read the swing tag or see the labelling, they understand more about the process and thinking behind the garment, the construction and materials that have gone into it. I’m not really one for standing on soapboxes or preaching to people, but if you can provide a better product, that’s quite an amazing thing on a lot of different levels. That’s really the challenge for me.
How did your position as Artistic Director at Victorinox come about and how are you feeling about it? 
I’ve worked with Victorinox for the last three years, starting with the Remade in Switzerland project, which was a really immersive extension to the work that I’d been doing. What I’ve continued to do is work on different projects with the fashion design team based in New York. During the course of those three years, I’ve become a lot more involved and started to consult more. The new position is hopefully the next step for the work that I’ve been doing, and above all incredibly exciting, because Victorinox is a company that I’ve know since I was very young. I was given a Swiss army knife when I was in my early teens, so that emotional connection that I have is really quite important. We share a great deal of the same values in this quest for quality and innovation. Even the fact that Victorinox is still producing all of their knives in Switzerland and employing 900 people there, that to me is fascinating in terms of the legacy that they have, being a fifth generation company. The exciting thing now is how I can bring my creativity and aesthetic to the whole division, which is a real honour. 
Are there any material innovations that you are planning to work with, what are the future plans for your label?
There have been the developments in Japanese recycled fabrics and now we are starting to think globally about where we are sourcing. In womenswear, we’ve started to work a lot more with Italian mills which is really good, but the next steps for the company involve the introduction of knitwear and jersey, really refining what we’ve been working on. The other thing that has been really rewarding is the introduction of our accessories line, because over the last three seasons it’s been a really significant growth. It’s almost becoming a company within the company, which we’re hoping to give its own voice to help it grow. But I’m very patient, what’s important is that what we do, we do properly, that we grow strategically at the right rate. I’m not thinking exponential quadruple growth every season. It has been about carefully mapping out what we are doing and why, making sure we’ve got the right partners and suppliers, that the product we are supplying is very good for the market.
As an outerwear-focused designer, what would be your ideal day spent outdoors?
I have to travel a lot, so enjoy just being in the UK. What I’ve started to do now in the summers for my birthday is a 24-hour challenge for charity. We started first by doing the Three Peaks Challenge which is in the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales and relatively easy with no real training. Then last year, we did the Welsh 3000s which is the 15 mountains in Wales above 3000 feet and you’ve got to get up and down all of them in 24 hours, which is considerably more difficult [laughs]. I am actually quite looking forward to planning the next one. It might be something in the Lake District this time, but I think the important thing is something UK-based and getting into the great outdoors.

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