Photographs Pete Drinkell
In a rare joint interview, the Raeburn brothers reveal how a shared ethos and childhood in the Kent landscape inspired them to climb to the peak of British clothing design – Christopher with his own fashion label and Graeme for cycle clothing brand Rapha…
From their shared digs in South London, two designer brothers settle down to reflect on their very British success stories: Christopher Raeburn, founder of the eponymous fashion label, and his brother Graeme, who holds the title of ‘lead design – product innovation’ at Rapha. In discussing everything from their formative years to their most frustrating habits, they reveal their secrets, their influences and their shared interest in technical innovation. Along the way, they also – inadvertently – reveal eight rules of successful design…
Find your own fun
Graeme Raeburn: It’s inevitable that we’ve fed from each other, don’t you think – and that’s amplified in our respected field. I’m trying to think of an equivalent, I can only think of the Chapman Brothers! A lot of it is down to our father’s influence – being very practical and instilling that in us. He had a nine-to-five job working for the council, but he also had a workshop and would always be tinkering with old cars. If something needed to be done, he’d always figure out a way to do it himself. I think that probably had a big impact on us.
Christopher Raeburn: I think where we grew up in Kent was also very influential. It was four miles to the nearest shop, so we just had to make our own fun. That comes into having a fairly creative mindset. We didn’t have a video player until – well, Graeme, you would have been 18? We just didn’t have that many outside influences that would otherwise have impacted on us. So you end up just making stuff and doing things for yourself.
CR: We weren’t brought up in a cave! Or raised by wolves. Before this gets too weird…
GR: …but that idea of packing your rucksack up for a day and going out into the woods, or going off for an explore on your bike and being responsible for yourself, keeping the bike running. That sense of self-sufficiency is still something that we really value in our work to this day – to be designing products that are versatile.
CR: Also, Graeme and I and our older brother Stuart were all in the Air Cadets. Between the ages of 12 and 17 we were doing all this mad stuff – learning to fly gliders and helicopters and doing crazy walks and all of that.
GR: Camouflage and concealment…
CR: Yeah. Spending every Monday and Thursday learning all of this stuff. At the time I thought it was normal. But once I got to university, I realised it really, really wasn’t!
GR: Chris picked up on one thing, now he’s creative director of Victorinox. There was quite a significant moment when I was about 11 and Chris was going to secondary school; we were given a basic model Swiss Army knife, which was a hugely symbolic coming-of-age moment; what that represented. I think the sibling rivalry came into how many functions you had on your knife!
Education, education, education!
GR: When we went to do our foundation course [at Kemp Institute of Art & Design in Maidstone], we had a hugely inspirational tutor who took us and moulded our malleable young minds into the direction of fashion.
CR: Yes, she was called Jane Howarth. I think both for Graeme and I, what was particularly appealing with the fashion or product design courses was being able to research an area thoroughly, and then starting to sketch and actually making a prototype all the way through to a final product. We’ve talked about this a lot over the years – how we’re actually as much product designers as we are fashion designers. And applying the human factor to that from product design philosophy – how people will use that, what else they’ll be doing during the day, the lifespan of a product. I think that’s probably where some of the more practical side of our design comes from.
GR: I remember this fantastic product-design tutor who was very enthusiastic; a small guy with a big wiry moustache. One day he said to me, ‘Sometimes at the end of the day, the best palette is the one you’ve been working from.’ In other words, just get on and do it, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re doing something. That was quite a nice wake-up call.
CR: Except I think he said it with more swearing! It was all about teaching you to be fearless; not to be afraid of making mistakes. I often come back to that; the need to push things even further; how as a student you thought you could do anything, and how we can re-spark that. Of course you worry about paying people’s wages and rent, but it’s about good design at the end of the day, and as Graeme said, just getting stuff done!
‘Where we grew up in Kent was very influential. It was four miles to the nearest shop, so we had to make our own fun’
Finding your own path
CR: Graeme’s always very modest, but he is three years older than me, and you look to your older brother to find out about the world. When I was still at school, Graeme was on his foundation, then went on to university, and finally got into the Royal College of Art. All of which looked like bloody good fun for a start, but also something I thought I could approach in a slightly different way. I think Graeme’s a lot more technically minded, whereas I’m in more of a fashion space than a performance space. There’s something quite interesting there – between us we’ve got quite a wide range of skills.
The exciting thing is that now in our adult creative lives we’ve been able to work together again. We’re often asking advice of one another, from the basics of finding the right people all the way through to what one or the other thinks aesthetically about a product. And it’s quite exciting to have that level of trust. Now to have it with two slightly different experiences, with one of us focused more on the mid-to-high-end fashion retail world, with catwalk shows and everything else, and obviously Graeme with Rapha. Ultimately it allows for some really healthy conversations. We’re not looking to pursue the Adidas / Puma model of sibling rivalry in the near future!
GR: There’s definitely a shared value set in terms of function, performance, aesthetic and beauty. But then we’ve got our own idiosyncrasies. It’s quite interesting that often the outfits we wear will be a mixture of Rapha and Christopher Raeburn products, crossed over. Actually I have some friends who said they’ll quite regularly ask each other, ‘Which Raeburn are you wearing today?’
CR: But it’s been fascinating for me to find we do share quite a lot of customers, which we found when we did the Rapha x Raeburn project. I guess a lot of that must come down to the sensibility of the products.
Recognise what works
CR: We probably had some of our more heated discussions about design when I was doing my degree and Graeme was at the Royal College. I realised that Graeme was very, very thorough about everything and that it was about creating products that have really good design. I think either you’ve got it or you haven’t. For Graeme and I, although aesthetically things can be different, there’s an understanding between us as to what works and what doesn’t. It can be hard to pinpoint, but that’s half the fun.
GR: Yeah, trying to identify what has that value, and the reason behind it. I think that’s true for both Rapha and Christopher Raeburn – there’s a real depth to the products, there’s a story, there’s a reason. So if you’re a cyclist, you’re not just buying a product at Rapha, there’s a real story behind it which is connected to that motivation for getting out there and riding.
CR: It still comes back to things like the Swiss Army knife. There’s this shared emotional attachment to items. I think that’s what my customers at Christopher Raeburn expect; the provenance of the fabric, the quality, the craft. And how you can tie all those things together.
GR: And I suppose the fact that people can visit your studio, Chris, and see how those products are actually made.
CR: Ha! See our crazy world.
GR: Didn’t you personally deliver a jacket to a customer recently?
CR: Oh I love it. Anything I can do to go out and meet customers and understand why they’d want to buy, say, a remade sheepskin coat in the height of June… It was because they couldn’t get it out of their mind for six months. And if you can be making products that create that much of a pull, that’s quite exciting isn’t it?
Remember the importance of conceptual design
CR: Not to sway this too much to Christopher Raeburn, but one of the things I’ve noticed of my own company is it has to be a kind of radical pilot fish on the conceptual side. Obviously with Rapha it’s now a big company that’s producing thousands of garments. But for CR, if anything we need to be more radical and push things further.
GR: Having worked on a few collaborations at Rapha, the exciting thing for me is really to be able to get into a space that we never normally do. Collaborations all over the place these days, but with Paul Smith or with Christopher Raeburn, they were great ways to prompt us to think in other ways about the materials we’re using, or the palette or styling. I think it’s really super-healthy.
Know your past – and how to use it
GR: Having that link to the past, the respect for the heritage and understanding is so important to me: to remain authentic. Certainly within cycling, being able to reference the past, and those historic riders and places, is essential to what we do. And that’s what makes the sport so exciting now.
CR: I think what’s critical for CR though – and I suspect for Rapha as well – is it has to be about modernity. It’s never about replication. There are brands out there that I have enormous respect for, like Nigel Cabourn – but I’ve tried incredibly hard myself not to collect too many original garments. The truth is we still have close to 6,000 in the archives! But while we may use original wools or leathers that are 60 or 70 years old, we’re using those authentic fabrics to produce something modern and relevant and new. That’s really the key.
GR: I think that’s where Simon Mottram, the Rapha founder, has done a fantastic job, referencing the past but in a contemporary way. Even with simple things like the Rapha armband – originally riders would just wear regular sweatshirts or tops. So to denote the team they were riding for, they would wrap a piece of ribbon or cloth around their arms. It’s details like that, done in a modern way, where we are able to connect with the past, but to keep it sharp and modern.
The origin of the name also has a bit of history. It’s from a 1960s feeder squad for the Tour de France. They couldn’t have commercial sponsors then, so this guy Raphaël Géminiani, who was an ex-racer, founded the team under his own name, but actually got a drinks sponsor because there was also a drink called St Raphael – or Rapha. It was clever marketing. So there’s a bit of heritage there, which has been brought into a modern, appealing format.
CR: I didn’t know that. We’re all learning!
‘Graeme is without doubt the most stubborn person among us. Which is a positive, too’
GR: For Chris, his best characteristic is just diving in and getting on with it. The enthusiasm for… risk-taking is not the right word…
CR: I think the best phrase I’ve heard about me is ‘violently optimistic’!
GR: Chris’s worst characteristic is probably letting his bike get into a hell of a state, which is one of my pet hates! I had to have a few Zen moments and say nothing because I knew it would just annoy you, Chris.
CR: But not for a few years! I’m quite good now.
CR: Graeme is without a doubt the most stubborn person among us. Which I think is often a positive too. In terms of genuine, thorough technical aptitude and producing products that will work through and through, and that will continue to work, I think he’s amazing. And that’s where I’ll leave it!