In Depth: the Short Cactus Work Jacket
Every once in a while with Nigel Cabourn there’s a curveball served up that sits outside of the main collection, with its own story to tell. This time around, it’s the Short Cactus Work Jacket—a hip-length chore jacket which combines the classic work-jacket shape with a unique all-over cactus pattern. Whilst the main inspiration for this season’s collection came from the heyday of British motor car racing, this stand-out jacket is instead based on an original Cabourn design from back in the 1980s.
Whilst the concept of ‘vintage’ clothing had nowhere near the recognition it does now (outside of a few niche sub-cultures), even back then Nigel’s design process was heavily informed by the past, and just like today, many of his 1980s creations were modern reworkings of garments he’d picked up on his travels, tweaked and repurposed for the current age.
The piece which inspired the original Cactus Jacket was a vintage U.S. work jacket from the early 20th century, which was designed with mining in mind. With a similar, utilitarian design to the ‘bleu de travail’ chore coats worn by French craftsmen at the same time, these American work jackets were intended to be straight-forward and hard-wearing. The buttons were big, the pockets were plentiful and the hardy fabrics could put up with the rigours of back-breaking toil. The fact that vintage jackets from nearly a century ago can still be purchased (albeit for fairly hefty sums) just goes to show how tough these things were.
Not just a simple repro job, the first Cactus Jacket mixed classic work-wear with a pattern that looked like it’d been torn from the pages of a wild west comic—instantly turning a relic from the past into something fresh. The new Cactus Jacket continues this theme—it still retains that classic shape and pattern, but the wool fabric it was originally made from has been replaced with denim.
And those cacti aren’t just printed onto the denim—that intricate pattern was woven into the fabric itself using a jacquard loom at the Nihon Menpu mill in Japan. Founded in the 1920s, this small mill in the Yokohama prefecture began to produce denim in 1965, and since then has become one of Japan’s most revered denim mills, famous for its fleet of vintage looms and mastery of traditional dyeing techniques.
From customised 1920s Toyoda looms (made before the brand switched to four wheels and became Toyota) to the specialist jacquard loom which helped produce this year’s Cactus Jacket, these historic machines work slower than their modern counterparts, giving the denim a slightly softer, more relaxed feel when compared with mass-produced fabrics.
Whilst the fabric was made in Japan, the jacket itself was put together in England—at the Mackintosh factory in Lancashire. As well as their eponymous raincoats, this factory regularly makes jackets for Nigel Cabourn, and is the place responsible for crafting the recent Liam Gallagher collaboration smock, the Cameraman Jacket and this season’s Nam Coat, to name just a few. Attention to detail here is second to none, and Nigel and his design team work closely with the factory to make sure even the smallest elements are just right—from the curved stitching on that pen-pocket, to those custom ‘Authentic’ buttons.
It’s a rare example of a remake matching (or perhaps even surpassing) the powers of the original. The shape has been neatened up a little, and the fabric has changed, but the core ingredients have stayed the same—it’s a cactus-covered work-jacket, made in England, crafted to the high standards you’d expect from Nigel Cabourn. And well over 30 years on, it still turns heads.