Nigel Cabourn: Clothes for Outdoor Heroes

Mountain climbers, Action Men and fashion conscious young men have all sported Parkas. Nigel Cabourn bought them back from bootcamp to boutique. The perfect coat for these cold conditions...
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Mountain climbers, Action Men and fashion conscious young men have all sported Parkas. Nigel Cabourn bought them back from bootcamp to boutique. The perfect coat for these cold conditions...

Hillary where's that sixty quid you borrowed from me?

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'The showstopper is the orange parka,' says Nigel Cabourn. 'When it comes to mountaineering, Edmund Hillary, with Tenzing Norgay, is the top man. And this is what he wore to conquer Everest.' Two years ago, British designer Cabourn recreated that parka to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hillary's success. It was instantly hailed a modern fashion classic, which is just as well it retails at £650. But this parka was just one part of a limited-edition collection that captures all the rough-andtumble heroism of mid-20th century British man. Man at war, man on the mountain, man at sea until Cabourn reintroduced duffel coats, tough woollen jumpers and waterproof-cotton cold-weather jackets, you were most likely to find this stuff being modelled by Action Man. But now there is a new appetite for the look of high seas and high slopes; the collection was snapped up and retailed by some of Britain's hippest and swankiest stores, such as Duffer Of St George, Microzine, Start Of London and Liberty.

If, like me, you are the sort of armchair explorer who can just about manage to drive a 4x4 to the nursery, watch Ray Mears braving the wilderness on TV or march down the nearest high street to hunt down clothes designed for Nature's extremities, then Nigel Cabourn's classic limited-edition Everest Collection is the Holy Grail of outdoors wear. Not unsurprisingly, it's had its fair share of customers among rock bands and celebrities.

'That young lad, the chef who wears Duffer Of St George' offers 56-yearold Cabourn when asked about celebrity customers. Jamie Oliver?

'That's him. He bought one of the Harris Tweed jackets from the collection at Microzine in London.' Liam Gallagher, Ant and Dec and British Hollywood action star Jason Statham are also fans of the label Statham modelled for Cabourn before he hit the big time with Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and The Transporter.

For Cabourn, the collection is a return to basics: 'The guys that climbed Everest didn't have "mountaineering" clothing. They converted military garb, so it was more like World War II gear.

Many early mountaineers climbed in Harris Tweed jackets and the like, not the specifically designed artificial fabrics the guys have today.' The main picture in the company brochure (above) is one taken of Hillary and his team in Antarctica in 1957 as they set off to reach the South Pole a feat they accomplished on January 4, 1958. 'I have the same jacket that [explorer] Taffy Williams is wearing, and I went all the way to New Zealand specifically to photograph Hillary's orange parka. It's in a museum in Christchurch.'

The collection has attracted sales all over the world, especially Japan and America, where 'Britishness' is in vogue: 'All Japan's top shops took the collection and it's still selling. In Vermont, America, one guy took everything and sold 400 items. Not bad for one shop.'

Raw materials for his clothes are provided by British companies such as Gloverall, the UK's leading duffel-coat supplier, and Cookson & Clegg, based in Lancashire since 1860 with a long history of supplying the British armed forces.

Cabourn is proud of this military legacy, believing that it serves to enhance the authenticity, hardiness and 'British' feel of the range. He comments, 'All of the factories selected to make the clothes have been producing clothing over the years for the Ministry Of Defence. This has provided a good foundation for the utilitarian feel of the designs.' Indeed, flicking through the Cabourn brochure can feel like reading a book on the history of British all-weather and combat gear. The section on his Morris Snow Tracker Coat says that it is made in the same way as the coat first made by Charles Mackintosh in 1822. It is created by taking two pieces of cotton and spreading a rubber solution between them, rendering the garment completely waterproof.

It is in his homage to the parka worn by Taffy Williams on the South Pole expedition that the technology of the early 20th century finds full expression. Cabourn's clothes are made of Ventile, discovered in the Thirties. With war looming, the Government realised that there would be a huge requirement for new types of combat gear. After research, Ventile was created a naturally breathable cotton with a weave that makes it waterproof. Once war broke out, it became invaluable for seamen on convoys in the Arctic Ocean.

Hitherto, when torpedoed by German submarines, the men would not survive for more than a minute or two in the icy water the new Ventile coats brought that time up to 20 minutes, hugely increasing their chances of being rescued by another vessel in the fleet.

As regards the performance of these traditional textiles against modern synthetic fabrics, Cabourn is unequivocal: 'These textiles and fabrics are at least as good as modern synthetic clothes, and if you look at the case of Mallory, the scientists are now confirming what we believed all along.' He is referring to the case of legendary British mountaineer George Mallory and his ill-fated 1924 attempt on Everest. In 1999, Mallory's body was found near the summit. The ice had kept the corpse and the clothes in a remarkable state of preservation, giving a team at Lancaster University's textiles department a unique opportunity to examine them. They found that the clothes were both lighter and more durable than their modern equivalents.

For Cabourn, the collection is the culmination of 30 years in the business.

Cabourn: never knowingly cold

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Unusually among designers, he has managed to keep his independence, and it allows for a degree of quirkiness when I ring him, he tells me he has to be quick as on Monday nights they have a staff table-tennis competition in the converted Dutch windmill that serves as his offices. It is clear that the Everest Collection has been a labour of love.

He confides, 'For my next project, I'm thinking of designing a collection around Michael Hawthorn, the first British Formula One Champion. He won it in 1958 and then died the following year. And above all, he was a fantastically stylish guy.'

He says, with pride, 'My clothes are vintage. They have a real story behind them, the clothing has a heritage it's not just about highfalutin fashion.'

WHAT IS IT?

The Cabourn Everest Collection is a replica range of rugged outdoor gear worn by great adventurers of Empire.

The clothes are British and made from traditional fabrics, such as Ventile (100 per cent cotton), goosedown feathers and Harris Tweed.

What it costs The collection ranges from the 'Lewis' Fair Isle Sweater at Pounds 150 up to the 'Ed' Goosedown Anorak at Pounds 650.

Why you want one These clothes are far warmer and far more stylish than cheap-looking synthetic gear and will become collectors' items.

Where can I get it For a full list of stockists including Duffer Of St George and Liberty visit www.cabourn.com

WESTON SNOW SMOCK

Nigel Cabourn: 'I own one of these original Fifties smocks and, like them, my version is 100 per cent Ventile, totally windproof.

If it's -40, snowing and you're on a sledge, this is exactly the sort of thing that you'd want to be wearing.'Pounds 395

FAIR ISLE SWEATER

'I was watching footage of the 1957-58 Antarctic expedition and saw John Lewis wearing this.

During the war, all wool came from New Zealand and Australia they called it 'colonial wool' and my version is pretty much an exact replica.' Pounds 150

GOOSEDOWN ANORAK

'My favourite piece. Mine comes in yellow or, like Ed Hillary's, orange.

I've used a Ventile outer, with a real sheep collar and coyote hood. The lining is breathable Pertex, and there is a layer of goosedown feathers in between the two.' Pounds 650

Click here to buy a Nigel Cabourn Everest Parka