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Design classics: lessons from cult icon Nigel Cabourn

By Andy Myring | Director and head of design

The Maverick Group

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September 28, 2022 | 7 min read

Despite 50 years in the fashion industry, Nigel Cabourn remains a cult designer. Andy Myring of The Maverick Group continues his series on maverick designers with a deep dive into Cabourn.

A row of military uniforms

Enduring design icon Nigel Cabourn continues to take inspiration from classic military style / Hannah Wernecke via Unsplash

Military clothing and history: enduring influences

Nigel Cabourn was born in 1949 to a father who laid signal lines in Burma and India during the Second World War. He discovered his father’s field service book in a drawer, kindling an enduring fascination for 20th century history – a world of military men, mythic sports stars, and brave mountaineers.

Then came the Vietnam War, with an equally deep effect. A teenager at the time of the conflict, Cabourn imagined what it would be like to be drafted, and loved the jeans ‘n’ army surplus style of the ‘flower power’ generation. While he hated war, Cabourn was deeply interested in the history of forces clothing, particularly British and American uniforms. He preferred the American, utilitarian look, “more paratrooper…with more pockets”, over the more formal British style. You can see elements of both in his designs.

Cricket Clothing Ltd

Between 1967 and 1971, Cabourn studied fashion design at Newcastle College of Art & Industrial Design. As he couldn’t “imagine anyone employing him”, he set up in his own company in his third year, at the age of 20. Against the advice of many, Cabourn opted to stay in the north of England, setting up his studio against a backdrop that evoked northern spirit and tenacity. Cabourn’s first label was Cricket Clothing Ltd, which took inspiration from The Who and other popular Mod bands.

In the seventies, a vintage RAF pilot’s jacket changed everything. It was given to Cabourn by a young Paul Smith, sparking a life-long interest in vintage reproduction. Cabourn began collecting vintage clothing in 1978, combing vintage stores and market stalls for British military uniforms, workwear, and exploration clothing.

Smith put Cabourn’s new vintage-inspired items on sale in his Nottingham shop and introduced Cabourn to the Village Gate Stores, helping him break into the London scene – not easy for someone from ‘up north’. Cabourn’s big breakthrough was the ‘Regular’ jacket, a suede-trimmed canvas coat. It sold over 10,000 pieces between 1970 and 1972.

International success

Over the next 10 years, Cabourn’s reputation grew, with collections showing alongside those of Vivienne Westwood, Margaret Howell, Paul Smith and others. His eponymous label went international, proving popular in Japan and greater Asia. Cabourn continued to seek out the best vintage clothing – a quest he describes as “an endless journey”. Today, his collection is said to be worth around £2 million and includes over 4,000 pieces.

This vintage collection is a rich source of ideas for new designs, and Cabourn draws inspiration from pieces, and a library of almost 3,000 books on everything from rare military clothing to the glory days of sport.

Cabourn often adds new dimensions to his pieces by partnering with brands large and small. He insists that any collaboration must be in harmony with his own brand’s DNA and reflect its values, refusing any purely commercial exercises. To date, Cabourn has worked with the likes of Aigle, Eddie Bauer, Red Wing, Armor Lux, Converse (resurrecting the 1970s Chuck Taylor), Taylor Kent & Co., Liam Gallagher, Mihara Yasuhiro, Yogi and Umbro.

Brand Cabourn

Today’s Cabourn brand is composed of four lines: Nigel Cabourn Authentic (classic heritage garments made in England); Nigel Cabourn Mainline (influenced by Japanese fashions, fabrics and production techniques); Lybro (the 1927 British workwear brand, re-interpreted for today’s world); and Nigel Cabourn Army Gym (a sportswear line reflecting Cabourn’s interest in exercise and fitness). Every collection is designed to last, with products that get better with wear and age.

There’s also perfection in every feature, from the brim of cosy beanie hats to the stitching on rugged dungarees. Cabourn’s love of precise details and fabrics (for example, Harris Tweed and Ventile) results in cool, stylish pieces that offer comfort and durability. He reimagines the vintage detailing of the past, creating a modern street style that wouldn’t be out of place in Tokyo or London.

One thing's for sure: Cabourn is a romantic, obsessing over the tale behind every collection. Each piece is rooted in inspirational stories of great endeavors involving real history and people, from George Mallory and Edmund Hillary to tennis legend Fred Perry. To Cabourn, the clothes are just one part of the puzzle; the culture around the clothes is just as important. His unique vision references the past with so much depth that you feel that the clothes are part of that story.

Now in his seventies, Cabourn remains young at heart and inherently maverick. Though business seems to be booming, I’m sure this astute and intelligent man would have taken the same rocky road wherever it had led.

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