The art of giving unsold clothes and cast-off fabrics new life (AKA upcycling) has become big business. In the past couple of years we’ve seen growing momentum among independent designers and emerging labels to create one-of-a-kind pieces using discarded materials and deadstock (old fabric that hasn’t been used). It was only a matter of time before major fashion houses started to catch on. Take Upcycled by Miu Miu, a limited edition collection of 80 reworked vintage looks from the 1930s to 1980s. Or Maison Margiela’s Recicla line of repurposed and upcycled garments from varying sources and periods. Even luxury brand Chloé’s spring 2022 collection by rising star Gabriela Hearst features a range of deadstock materials.
As a new generation puts the importance of a brand’s environmental impact on the same level as “what’s going to look good on the gram”, it’s not surprising the upcycling trend is en vogue – even for labels not known for their sustainability efforts.
But long before it was cool to flaunt your environmental credo, a London-based brand called RÆBURN was already revolutionising this pocket of the fashion industry, showing how impactful and innovational upcycling can be.
“I like to joke that I’m a dinosaur in this [upcycling] conversation,” founder Christopher Raeburn tells RTÉ. Over a decade ago the British designer was discovered by industry expert Susanne Tide-Frater during London Fashion Week (where he was showcasing his first collection: eight pieces made from a single parachute). Asked by the British Fashion Council to mentor a new ecological brand, Tide-Frater chose RÆBURN, telling the Guardian it was because of its “radically different vision from what was then considered recycled”.
Raeburn’s designs and concepts have always felt alarmingly original (in the best possible way). From the beginning he’s used old military goods – including kites, vintage parachutes, 1940s battle dress denim, unused life rafts and other unused stock – to make practical and stylish streetwear. He might not have been a household name back then, but it didn’t take long for the industry to start taking notice. In 2015, he was named the breakthrough designer at the GQ Men of the Year Awards. Five years later, he took out the environmental category at the British Fashion Council’s acclaimed Fashion Awards.
Images by RÆBURN
Still, despite that success, the name RÆBURN might not feel familiar to those outside the fashion world. But we’re confident you’ve come across culture-makers it’s had a major hand in influencing. Like gen Z’s favourite second-hand platform, Depop: it did a collaboration with RÆBURN during the pandemic which provided tools to make a reversible bucket hat using old fabrics.
The brand has also partnered with The North Face to create rucksacks from unsalvageable jackets, global skincare brand Aēsop to create hand-crafted pouches using reclaimed 1960s aeronautical navigation maps and Italian luxury brand Moncler to create an entire 20-piece collection.
In 2018, Raeburn stepped his career up even further, becoming the first-ever creative director of footwear brand (and icon of hip-hop style) Timberland. Tying laces with a multibillion-dollar corporation that has an enormous environmental impact might seem inverse to Raeburn’s previous work. But as he explains to Highsnobiety, the job gives him access to technologies and innovations that small brands can’t access and “the opportunity to make change at a truly global company that’s very aware of its impact on the planet”.
Credit where it’s due – getting in front of and co-creating with companies that are worth billions of dollars is no easy feat. Not to mention the fact many brands now look to Raeburn for answers. “Today, I see RÆBURN’s place as a position of authority to a certain degree, of which I’m very grateful, because of the legacy of the work that we’ve done,” Raeburn says.
In our eyes, RÆBURN is one of the most beloved OGs of upcycling. But as the founder humbly points out, it’s ultimately a positive to be joined at the top by so many other brands nowadays.