Representing the creative future

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Graeme Raeburn: “Nothing you make is ever completely sustainable”

Christopher Raeburn’s performance director (and brother) shares his guide to building a brand based on prosperity

In his previous job at a performance sportswear brand, Graeme Raeburn designed for efficiency. How could he make the lightest, fastest, most breathable sportswear possible? Since being poached by his designer brother Christopher last year, Graeme has added another criterion to his checklist: designing responsibly. Everything RÆBURN makes is remade, recycled or has a reduced impact on the planet, but their ethos runs deeper than that. The brothers are building a brand for future prosperity, incorporating community and rearranging their values. Here, Graeme shares the guiding principles of RÆBURN design.

Sew the story into the garment 

“Ræmade is what we’re most well known for. We take existing materials that are otherwise redundant and reinterpret them into apparel. We’re always really careful to celebrate the original features, so we can tell the story in a new garment. With the parachute logo, it’s very easy for somebody approaching the brand for the first time to understand that journey, whether they buy a remade parachute piece or an organic cotton T-shirt. Play some tricks and tell stories. This might be an internal label displaying the provenance of the material, or something more subtle, like a coloured thread that runs through the entire collection – the same colour as the original safety jacket or parachute.”

Design for repair and rejuvenation

“Every Ræmade piece produced in our London studio comes with a lifetime repair service, to keep the clothes away from landfill. In the traditional model, someone receives a garment and that is the job done for the brand. I really like the idea that the hard work actually begins for a responsible design company at the point of purchase. If you’re producing something, you should be accountable and responsible for that product to the end of its life, no matter where it is in the world, no matter who’s using it and no matter how many times it’s been passed on between different people. If you make something, you have a fundamental responsibility to make it as durable as possible, physically and emotionally.”

Grosgrain parachute detail on a Raeburn jacket

If it isn’t recycled, reduce the impact

“There will always be a desire to have newness and new experiences, so how do we cater to that with a massively reduced impact on materials and people? For the Ræcycled garments, we work with a mill in Japan that spins plastic bottles – P.E.T. bottles – into fibre and weaves them into fabric. There is small-scale production of this in the UK, but there is a very high level of innovation and quality coming from Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan. Ræduced means minimising energy or water consumption, or using organic cotton. We’re exploring biodegradable options, but that is a very broad term.”

Build transparency and trust with your suppliers

“I’m always amazed that global manufacturing events like Premiere Vision are so secretive. All the booths are shielded off and it’s very much a closed environment. Now there are lots of amazing, disruptive businesses that are completely inverting that, publishing their supply lists and costing information. Look at which other brands a factory is supplying. If it is a company with a good transparency record and a sustainability report that holds it to account, you can be reassured that the factory is part of that positive audit network. So you can sort of stand on their shoulders. You can add a personal touch by celebrating a factory; by sharing the journey to develop your products, showing them in a magazine, or being worn by our customers. I think that really cements the relationship and makes a huge difference to those people.”

The Raeburn Lab in Hackney, where tours and workshops take place

Break it down into manageable chunks 

“It’s important not to get overwhelmed, because it can be really daunting to look at this wall of so many different topics and interlocking, overlapping things. Nominate two or three topics you can develop in the short- and long-term, so you’re breaking things down into manageable chunks. There is so much information available now and designers are sharing resources too. We’re part of a WhatsApp group Phoebe English made which is a fantastic support network for sharing knowledge. As an industry, we need to do a better job of provoking curiosity and getting people to ask questions about the provenance of everything. Fashion has a very long, sprawling supply chain. It touches on every single one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. It’s a very complex issue, but that means there’s plenty of room for creativity and lots of different solutions.”

Give back to the community 

“We work with charity on three levels. Globally, we support WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature). Every season has a mascot animal and people can sign up to our fortnightly mascot-making workshops, where we use studio offcuts. It costs £80 per person, all of which goes to WWF. We currently have a small resource online to explain different materials and principles, but we’re hoping to grow this to include downloadable patents for our offcut animals. That way, we can have a global community of people participating. A giant neon orangutan is a crazy thing to look at, but it means that people then come into the studio and ask questions. That sense of playfulness sparks people’s interest.”

“Nationally, we work with Cancer Research UK. For example, a percentage of the profits from our Umbro collaboration for Spring/Summer 2018 went to the Bobby Moore Fund, which is part of Cancer Research UK. Then on a local level, the proceeds from our studio tours go to Off Centre, which works with families and young people on our doorstep in Hackney. We were offering free studio tours, but people would book and then not turn up because it was free. So we had to put in a £5 charge, which was a happy accident because it allowed us to make a charitable donation. Commitment to the tours is now much higher because of that financial commitment.”

One of the stuffed animals made from studio offcuts

Recalibrate your value system

“There are some great initiatives now that put other values in front of profit and turnover. You can become a Certified B Corp, for example, which means you champion social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. Education, inspiration, knowledge are other core parts of what we do. We really value knowledge exchange so, as well as workshops, we work with a young people’s career network called The Outrunners. So we invite young people who are interested in fashion careers in to make a T-shirt and have a studio tour. And every Tuesday lunch-time we show a film or have a presentation internally, so everyone in the business can start thinking and participating in these issues.”

Streamline your supply chain

“Because we work mostly in-house, we can conceivably design, develop, make and manufacture a product in the space of a week if we wanted to. If I have an idea on the weekend, I’ll come in to mock them up and make some samples. I’m not sure how many businesses are actually able to do that. As a designer, it’s a phenomenal luxury. We create the samples and patterns ourselves, so it goes to the supplier 95% completed. That minimises their investment and risk massively. It’s a very efficient process.”