The Heritage Post interview with Nigel Cabourn
Nigel Cabourn is one of the best known and most consistent fashion makers when it comes to “rugged wear”. In this interview he tells us more about his relationship with vintage clothing and what keeps him fresh and young.
Interview • Stefanie Kobayashi | Photos • Nigel Cabourn
Nigel Cabourn, thank you very much for your time. This issue is about Army Green, among other things ...
Nigel Cabourn: That’s probably my central theme in life. Well, actually, military green and navy blue are the only two colors I really wear.
Let’s start at the beginning? How did you get into making fashion?
The thing is, I was very lucky. I was 17 in 1967 and 21 in 1971. Between ‘67 and ‘71 there was flower power, British and English pop music, there was the Vietnam War and I was in fashion school studying clothing to work in fashion. Most of the things that inspired me back then led to fashion design.
Did vintage clothing play a role back then?
Vintage clothing first came to my mind in 1968 when I saw Americans wearing green army field jackets. Some of them were from the Vietnam War, but some were from the 1940s, and they wore them with 501 Levi’s.
But I didn’t really discover vintage until 1978, when I became very good friends with Sir Paul Smith. He used to work for me – and he introduced me to Vintage. That was actually the first time I realized you could go into vintage stores. I really didn’t know that vintage stores existed. So I had been in the business for almost ten years before I started buying vintage – at 38 years old.
What was your style before that?
When did you start your own fashion brand?
I started doing business under my own name in 1971, and called my brand “Cricket,” like the famous game. In 1984, I changed the company name from Cricket to Nigel Cabourn because it was a trend in the 1980s to not just have a brand name, but to use your own name.
Do you remember the moment you held that first vintage flight jacket in your hand?
Absolutely! (laughs) How could I forget? It was given to me by Paul Smith! Paul had worked for me from about 1973 to 75, and around 78 he became a designer himself. He was showing his collection with his girlfriend at an exhibition in Paris and brought me an R.A.F. jacket in army green with a very special button placket. Paul said to me, “Nige, this is what you should do. You should make army jackets like this.” So that’s what he put in my head in Paris in 1978.
This was a Royal Air Force flight jacket from World War II – they call it the British flight jacket.
When I saw this garment in 1978, this vintage piece, I was so inspired, so excited – and I asked Paul to take me to where he bought it. He took me to the Porte de Clignancourt, the Paris flea market, and I saw about six vintage collectors there. I couldn’t believe it – the amount of ideas and details that were on vintage pieces! It immediately gave me new inspiration for the rest of my life. That was the beginning of my great passion for vintage clothing – and it is the backbone of the Nigel Cabourn brand.
You once said that your collection is at least 4,000 pieces .... do you still keep track of them when you’re doing a new collection, for example. Do you look for special pieces or do you browse?
Both. When I do a collection twice a year, I first think about a concept. Let’s say George Mallory climbed to the top of Everest in 1924. So if the year is 2024, that’s the hundredth anniversary since George Mallory was supposedly the first person to reach the summit of Everest. Okay? Maybe he did, but Edmund Hillary snagged the title. Okay. So when I have that as a concept, I look in my library – I have a big library of books and a big library of old clothes – so I take all the fabrics and all the ideas from the old books that have to do with the 100th anniversary. And anything that I don’t have, that I don’t own, that’s where I go and find it and buy it.
Is there a special piece in your collection that you absolutely love? And do you buy it?
Usually, yes. Ninety percent of the time, I buy it. Yes.
To be honest, if you have 4,000 pieces – if you spend 40 years finding special pieces, in addition to the ones you already have – I would say I have a lot of special pieces. I used to have a favorite piece. But every time I had a favorite piece, I changed my mind. The favorite piece is often what I bought last.
It must be impressive to see a piece of your own like that with a stranger’s patina ...
A fan once told me – it was probably 25 years ago – “You know, one day your stuff is going to be cool vintage.” That still rings in my ear. But now the business is 50 years old, actually it’s 52 years. I’ve been doing it for 52 years and collecting vintage since 1978, so 44 years. (Sighs contentedly).
Do you actually see a new “vintage” coming up yet?
I actually see Nigel Cabourn as vintage emerging! I visit all the vintage stores and markets and always find my own stuff from the 1970s or 1980s. Personally, I wouldn’t call them vintage, but there are a lot of my pieces now.
Is that a good feeling for you?
(Laughs) It’s fantastic, yes! It’s very nice. Especially when I find a piece from 1970, I feel really honoured.
You grew up at the time of the Vietnam War. What’s your assessment of that war today?
Well, to clarify what my inspiration is, it’s World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, ok? So it’s four wars, okay? Then my inspiration comes from Everest, from Antarctica, okay? Those are my favorite topics. So when it comes to Vietnam – of course Vietnam is the most modern vintage military clothing that I use. There’s of course the M-65, the cargo pants, all the things that I wear. So the Vietnam War influenced clothing when I was in fashion school, and the subject was on my doorstep at the time. And of course it was full of inspiration because it was American fabrics. The World War II and Korean War styles that were reproduced by the Americans were repeated in different ways in the Vietnam War. So the Vietnam War was very important to me for the design.
Are you interested in politics?
No, not at all. Absolutely not. If I was interested in politics, I wouldn’t use military clothing. For example, if I decide that I want to use African Corps from World War II, I use African Corps, and that has nothing to do with politics. I use it for the details, okay? I have some rules that I have in mind: I’m not going to use a high-level Nazi uniform in any way, but if it’s about the uniforms in an African corps or even something that I know has a bad connotation because of the war, then I can use German stuff. I mean, I use the German Luftwaffe because of the paratroopers with all their pockets and details and elements of the Afrika Korps. I use the German army as well as the Italians. But I don’t use any of the stuff that we don’t want to use. You know, the Gestapo and all that crap. That’s the only policy I have on clothing. Nothing else.
You do have an intense relationship with Japan that still holds ...
When I started with Japan, it was in 1979. I met my potential new partners in ‘79, and in 1980 we started negotiating with them. Then, in 1982 and ‘83, I did a joint venture in Japan and opened my first store in Tokyo in 1986.
How do you see the country and the people?
Well, the people are fantastic, I love the food, I love the vintage style. You know, I find the best vintage pieces in the world in Japan. I love Okinawa and all these places where the Americans fought in World War II. I’m very interested in the museums in Japan. You know, Japan gives me a lot. I’ve been there about 60 times. I like the people and it’s a great place to travel.
Do you produce mainly in Japan?
I basically have four brands. My main brand is Nigel Cabourn. Nigel Cabourn “Authentic” is made in England. Nigel Cabourn “Mainline” is made in Japan and Nigel Cabourn “Army Gym” is made in Portugal. “Lybro” workwear is produced in Hong Kong. That’s how we split it up.
What do you focus on in terms of production?
The most important thing for me is really that the design and the garment are well thought out and reflect what I really want to do. Okay? And then, of course, the fabric comes second. I’m very fabric oriented. So it has to be a great fabric. I prefer British fabrics or Japanese fabrics. Okay? But I also love Italian fabrics. I’m pretty specific about what I really like. Obviously, I like nice zippers, nice buttons, nice snaps. I don’t use garbage in garments. With Lybro, the rules are a little bit out of order because it’s a different job, although the standards are very high here as well. But the “Made in Japan” and “Made in England” products are an integral part of what I believe in. And that’s what the brand is built on.
Are you a romantic person who likes to tell heroic stories when you design your collections?
I think I must be very romantic, yes. Even though no one has ever asked me that question. No one has ever told me I’m romantic, but I must be. You know, even if I look at the most famous war photographer in the world, Robert Capa, during the Spanish Revolution in 1937, he had a girlfriend named Gerda Taro, who was also a famous photographer, and I did a whole story concept about those two people. It was a kind of love affair, between two of the best war photographers in the world. It’s always about heroes. So, yeah, I must be pretty romantic about design when I design. Absolutely.
You’re over 72 years old now ...
Don’t print it, I’m 73 – we’ll keep it a secret, okay?
What are your plans for the future and what keeps you young?
First of all, my plan for the future is to work until I die. That’s my plan for the future, no kidding. How I keep myself young ... Because I do the things I really love – you can see on my Instagram how happy I am. And that keeps me looking young. The key is to do what you love to do. If you do that, you’ll have a long life. No retirement! People running around, drinking and eating too much ... If you work all the time, you always have a goal in mind.
By the way, how is Uwe? Is he doing well? Would you please say hi to him, I miss him and thanks for putting my ugly mug on the cover of your magazine. Okay?
Absolutely. Thank you so much Nigel!