The poster boy for one of the dominant trends in menswear right now is a 70-year-old northerner wearing loose dungarees and a big smile. British fashion designer Nigel Cabourn made his name creating clothes based on vintage workwear and military pieces that are as tough as the people who wore them first time around.
He’s been doing it for decades but now, many other labels are following his lead. As casual dress codes dominate men’s style, durable, functional workwear is the toast of menswear.
Case in point: rock and roll star Liam Gallagher has just played the biggest US talk show, The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, while rocking a brand new parka from Nigel Cabourn’s collaboration with skateboard brand Element (most of Liam’s famous parkas are Cabourn). The designer is buzzing.
He’s also nursing an ever-so-slight headache from the packed-out launch of that collection at his Covent Garden store the night before we meet. For a man who has just entered his eighth decade, you can’t say he isn’t slaying the hype machine at the moment.
Miraculous clean-up done-and-dusted, we sidle into the store the morning after to be greeted by a cheery Cabourn trying out a pair of thick corduroy trousers pulled up by some contrasting braces. “What do you think, lads?” his northern brogue punching through the store speakers. “Looking good, hey? Can you get us a pic in them for the Insta?”
Cabourn started his label making outerwear in the 1970s where his rise coincided with that of fellow Brits Margaret Howell and Sir Paul Smith (who got him his first break in London when they met in 1972). After struggling through a mid-career lull in the ’90s, Cabourn re-ignited in the 21st century, a resurgence built on the three tenets of building hype in the fashion game – big-name collaborations (Timex, Converse, Fred Perry, Peak Performance), a profile in the Far East (“the bulk of my business is in Japan”) and a killer Instagram feed.
“My daughter showed me how to do the Instagram three years ago,” says Cabourn. “I only had 4,000 followers when I started and now I’m nearing 200,000. I think it’s helped the brand a lot, even though I never thought it would.
“I do it all myself. Most designers don’t want to show themselves but I think it shows that if you’ve got a bit of a personality, have plenty to say and actually look pretty good in your own stuff at 70 years of age, then putting yourself out there can work really well.”
Name: Nigel Cabourn
Based: Newcastle, UK
Known For: Refashioning vintage military and workwear pieces for modern men
Style Heroes: 1958 Formula One World Champion Michael Hawthorn and Everest Mountaineers George Mallory and Sir Edmund Hilary
So how does a man in his seventies play the Insta game as good, if not better, than the kids? Well, Cabourn’s down-to-earth manner and northern sense of humour is a welcome change of pace from the average pouting ‘influencer’. And then there’s the look – best described as a cross between a ’50s explorer about to mount Everest and a debonair factory worker – something Cabourn has cultivated for years.
Having made his name with outerwear, the late-career comeback was helped along by his restarting of then-defunct British workwear brand Lybro, which had made uniforms for factory workers through World War II.
Heritage workwear reigns in his personal wardrobe choices. A typical look will involve open-collar shirts made out of heavyweight Kuroki denim, sleeves rolled up, a loose chore jacket thrown over the top, baggy dungarees hanging from the shoulders and a pair of chunky-soled low tops on his feet – the result of a collaboration with his good friend, the Japanese shoe designer Mihara Yasuhiro.
“For me, it’s history where I pick up my style. Not David Beckham.”
Cabourn spends six months of every year travelling the world on the hunt for vintage clothing to inspire his collections and treats his Instagram as more of a travel blog, documenting these travels.
“I buy something like £50,000 worth of vintage clothing a year,” he admits, pointing to a row of cotton Ventile smocks from World War II he has on display. “It’s a lot, but it’s necessary. I use Ventile a lot on my outerwear. The Liam Gallagher collab is Ventile.”
For Cabourn, all of his pieces need to be embedded in fashion’s rich back-catalogue. And if he looks good in them that’s just a bonus. “Who’s my style hero? What’s wrong with you? Me, of course. Nobody wears the stuff better than me.”
The Style Signature: Dungarees
“I live in the dungarees,” says Cabourn. “I like them baggy. I could wear them 34, but I like to wear a 38. I like things oversized and comfortable.”
Cabourn estimates that the brand sells 8,000 pairs of dungarees every year. The style he is wearing is based on a multi-pocketed monkey pant worn by the United States Marine Corps in World War II, combined with a 1942 US naval dungaree with stand-out clips down the side holding them together.
“When I design something I might take three different pieces to make one piece. That’s why I have 4,000 vintage pieces. It’s the way I think. How can I stuff as many different things I like into this one piece?”
Now an established item of clothing in this decade’s workwear revolution, it’s best to take them loose like Cabourn and style everything below in a slimmer fit for a nice contrast between the pieces. Don’t forget to roll up the hems either to tap into that true workwear style.
“They feel better and you can move about easier with them rolled up. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have their trousers rolled up.”
Nigel Cabourn’s 5 Essential Style Tips
Layers, Layers, Layers
“I always wear the three layers. It’s interesting and adds depth. I wear an army tee with a button collar from Merz b. Schwanen under the main shirt. Worn open so you can see those layers. And then I wear my Marks and Spencer vest under that army tee.”
Get Your Basics In Order
“I have about 20 of those Marks and Spencer undershirts. I love them. I don’t want to run out of them. The M&S T-shirt I wear with everything. I always have it deliberately poking through. I think it looks damn good having that bit of white cutting through underneath.”
Consider Your Shades
“I’m always in army green or navy primarily. They’re military colours you know. They look smart. And then I have two caps in each colour to go with all my outfits. You wouldn’t see me wearing a blue hat with khaki. You’ve got to understand the complete outfit. I always wear the right shoes, the right socks. Everything I wear is considered. Except me.”
Have Your accessories Tell A Story
“My friend, who I’ve had for about 50 years, gave me the whistle as a present. I had two whistles, both are World War II but I gave the other one to Mihari [Yasuhiro] as a present. So if you check my Instagram you’ll see us both blowing our whistles. It’s something I do just to be an arsehole.
“My daughter made the pendants for our 70th birthday. It’s a baby whistle and an arrow. I wouldn’t usually wear silver. I think it looks a bit ’70s. But my daughter got it specially made for me, y’know. And we’re selling copies of it in the shop as well.
“And then the beads around my wrists are because I’m a ’60s kid. I fancy myself as a dug-up hippy. I’m not wearing anything for the fun of it though. It’s all got a meaning behind it.”
Double The Time
“I wear two watches. I’ve just been on a long haul in Japan and Australia and then while I was away the IWC watch stopped in Japan and the other, a Lemania, in Australia. £7,000 worth of watches broken.
“I picked the idea to wear two watches up from the mountaineers on the 1951 Everest expedition. I presume it was in case one packed in. They’re both beautiful watches and they both packed in on me. Hope I’m not going to pack in next.”
To check out the latest Nigel Cabourn collection, click here