WHAT ELSE? is a series for Highsnobiety by writer/director Paul Black. What’s it all about? Call it the “What Else Factor,” a person with something else besides the thing(s) he or she is usually known for. What else is on the cards? What else should we know? The style of each piece is spontaneous and intuitively responsive to the Voice of its subject at the time of the interview. Next up, Nigel Cabourn.
Nigel Cabourn is an honest, intelligent and sensitive man, with humble Scunthorpe roots, though more renowned as a Newcastle legend (where he has lived for donkeys). Born in 1949, the son of a military man, he is a real character (with opinions) who has survived as a menswear designer for forty-odd years.
I love chatting with Nigel. It’s not easy to get a word in edgewise because he’s a great and enthusiastic storyteller. You can’t really fault him for it. He’s earned his right to talk shop, and his Lincolnshire accent does have a lovely timbre. He talks straight, and he’s clear about what he wants to say. Often times you think he’s repeating the same story he told the last writer, but there are few original stories, and it is all in the telling anyway. Nigel does it with good, positive energy, and you see all his love and passion for life and story in the clothes. He’s authentic.
We begun our conversation on the subject of Paul Smith. He had seen my film about Paul and he thought I should know about their connection. I didn’t realize, Paul began his sartorial career as a fashion retailer and agent. It makes perfect sense. His business turns over a billion dollars a year. You got to know what the people want. Anyway, Nigel met Paul in ’72, two years after he had begun to design menswear. He needed a place to sell his wares. Paul was his man, and it was Paul in fact who introduced him to the idea of vintage, by way of an RAF (Royal Air Force) jacket, and that lit a fire under Nigel that today burns stronger than ever. Paul started selling Nigel’s stuff in his original Nottingham shop, and he got Nigel into Village Gate Stores in London. It was a coup for Nigel to break into the London scene. Again, not many menswear designers in Newcastle, circa ‘72.
We got to talking about his dad and it really started him on the fundamental roots to his interest in heritage menswear. His dad laid signal lines in Burma and India during World War 2, and it was Cabourn Sr.’s Field Service book from that period that sparked another fire in Nigel. The diary had sat quietly in a draw for many years, until Nigel opened it and found a guidebook of sorts; a way to the beginning of a period of British heritage that saw the “baby-boomers” turn everything upside down, shake it all out and reimagine a bold future with a firm grasp on tradition. This was Nigel’s frame, great men of the fifties and sixties: It all kind of began with his dad, for whom Spring/Summer 2008 was entirely dedicated. It has always been about the climbers George Mallory and Edmund Hillary, the footballers Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskas, the legendary tennis champion Fred Perry, and more. Many more.
It’s obvious, Nigel is about mountaineering, early 20th century militarywear, old tennis legends, table tennis, football (soccer) and tailoring - all wrapped up in the spirit of rock ‘n roll. It’s a look and feel that epitomizes the best of “heritage” today. His clothes are not cheap, but you really ought to have something substantial of his in your rotation. His work ticks many boxes: A cool spin on traditional, cut slim, incredible attention to fine detailing, wonderful fabrics, made to last, timeless, bold and strong. You feel good in his clothes. You feel like they’re proper clothes. And most important, you just look so damn good in ‘em!
He keeps talking. He tells me the collaboration with Fred Perry made him realize young people like his stuff. But I tell him his stuff is too expensive for the kids. He bristles a bit, but of course he knows it’s true. I ask him if he had ever thought of doing some kind of “high-street” collaboration. He doesn’t seem to like the term, but he stays on track. He tells me he prefers to call his newest evolution a “diffusion” range. I’m smiling. Fair enough, “high-street” is a bit down-market for a guy who truly values craft and heritage. He tells me about his collaboration with Lybro, a British brand established in 1927 that made British workwear industrial clothes. He bought the ailing company and breathed new life into it by doing a Cabourn X Lybro collaboration, and it seems to be a good one.
It makes perfect sense. A storied workwear company and Nigel Cabourn. I naturally ask if the look of the Lybro collaboration is in the realm of my favourite piece from the Spring/Summer 2015 Authentic (Made in England) line, the 6-Pocket Tenzing Jacket. Yes, exactly! He tells me that’s precisely the piece that fits the mold. The Lybro thing launches this winter and it comprises roughly 20% of Nigel’s output. He says it’s kind of in the world of Engineered Garments, that sort of price point. Still not cheap, but as a lover myself of EG, I’m very excited to see how this materializes – literally. Cabourn X Lybro Spring/Summer 2016 will comprise 30% of his output. Okay…so I wasn’t wrong for bringing up the “high-street” thing. Diffusion does sound better though.
I continue listening. I love it. One of my great pleasures is listening to old boys and girls weaving yarns. Nigel loves to talk about history, where it all came from. The Fred Perry collaboration for example; few people know that Fred Perry was a table tennis world champion before he became the greatest British tennis player, who, prior to Andy Murray, was the last Brit to win Wimbledon, in ’34, ’35 and ’36. Nigel insisted they build the Fred Perry collection around the table tennis theme, and it worked a treat. The next iteration of the collaboration is based on another little-known fact about Fred Perry - that he trained extensively with Arsenal Football Club during their invincible “Bank of England club” era of ’34-’38. The collection will have a mixed flavour of football, cricket and tennis.
Nigel will always go back into the past for direct inspiration, and put a twist on it. When it comes to his constant stream of collaborations, he tells me he mustn’t alter the DNA. He cites Junya Watanabe doing all that strange stuff with Levi’s. He has great respect for Junya, and he’s a total Japanafile, with several stores in Japan, and a mainline Japan collection. But he wants to keep it real, or not bother. And true to form, he has turned down some lucrative offers of collaborations, such as Moncler. He says if he can’t improve slightly on something that's already great, or if it’s going to be a case of making something for someone else that steps on his own work (ie. Moncler X Cabourn hurting his unparalleled Everest Parka), then it’s not worth it. It’s not all about the money.
I ask him about his experience collaborating with Red Wing and Viberg. Both collaborations are, in my mind, outstanding. To look at the Munson boot from a distance, you know it’s strong, but you might not jump to grab it. When you do get a hold of it, and try it on, it’s an altogether pleasant experience. Cabourn’s Munson looks almost clunky on the shelf, but slip into it and it fits like a glove, and looks svelte. The experience of making it was a good one he says, and that makes perfect sense. Red Wing selected the Munson from their archives because it was designed for best comfort for marching in World War 1 - and Red Wing knew who they were dealing with. Nigel of course thought it was perfect. He added the Harris Tweed lining and the roughed-out vintaged suede. The result is sublime.
The Viberg Service Boot is something I own, and I have to say, this is perfection. Nigel has been a friend and mentor to Brett Viberg (third generation Viberg leader) for several years. Brett asked Nigel to collaborate. Nigel brought Brett a Service Boot, what might be called a Hob Nail Boot in 1916. Brett created a revised iteration with Cabourn’s preferred roughed-out distressed suede. The rest is history. As Nigel says, “Brett just got on with it.” The Service Boot has become a Viberg staple. It’s truly a remarkable piece of footwear. No joke. Very expensive, but worth every hard-earned penny – especially when you work hard and know the value of a penny.
I air to the value of hard work and appreciation because these virtues are what Nigel Cabourn beholds in his menswear brand. Quality and character seem to be the two words that epitomize the Cabourn canon. We talk about the Made in England tag on his Authentic line. The clothes aren’t somehow assembled off-shore and finished with some detail in England, then labelled “Made in England”. These garments are made entirely in England, at good factories that Nigel takes care to stay within close contact throughout the process. The question I ask, does that make these garments necessarily better than those made abroad? The answer is no. Nigel doesn’t have anything against making things in Portugal or locales further afield. He says the quality can be great. And why not? People are people. If you want quality, you make quality. He keeps it simple. The real issue with this scenario is you have to decide whether or not you want great cookie-cutter quality or CHARACTER!
Nigel’s clothes have great character. He is a great character.
Written by Paul Black for highsnobiety.com.
Many thanks to Jeannie Adams at Cabourn.