To the man on the street, the name Nigel Cabourn is likely to draw a blank.
But for anyone working in the menswear industry, the name of the British menswear designer, fashion consultant and collector is likely to bring a sigh of hushed reverence.
"Ask Joe Public and they've never heard of me," concedes Cabourn.
"But then sometimes people don't hear of people trying to do something special. Most people haven't heard of Steve Cropper out of Booker T and the M.G.'s, but he's probably the best guitarist on the world. It's a funny world."
Cabourn is the man who left fashion college to launch Cricket, a seminal 1970's menswear label that gave us the budgie jacket and loon pants and reinvented Harris Tweed; who gave Paul Smith one of his first jobs; who, like Smith, is a cult figure in Japan, where product heritage is often more important than the fleeting trendiness of the label; who has one of the world's largest private collections of rare utilitarian menswear, sometimes paying up to £3,000 for individual items. ( "I can put the expense down as research, " he smiles ); and whose own designs - time honoured, archive inspired pieces updated in fit and fabric for today - sell out almost overnight, despite hefty price tags. "It's not that I'm clever, it's just that I have a very good eye for functional vintage," Cabourn says. "it's about taking ideas from maybe four or five garments and then getting the contemporary pattern cut really right. A lot of designers have collections they work from, but I've invested in some of the greatest menswear you've ever seen, everything from mountaineering outerwear to American sweats and Second World War Japanese uniforms.
Buy a real piece of vintage and 15 years later you're still noticing details for the first time. You can't say that about clothes by many of the big designers today."
Certainly Cabourn takes his research seriously. When he designed a parka in homage to Edmund Hillary, Cabourn flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, and obtained special permission to photograph the coat Hillary wore on his climb up Everest. Cabourn is equally committed when it comes to British manufacture. He already employs domestic labour where possible, and a new entirely British-made range is in the pipeline, it won't be on the racks for long.
"What we do isn't really about fashion. If it turns out to be fashionable then so it is," says Cabourn who is wearing an old Levis Shirt, 1951 US Army cargo pants, vintage Red Wings, one of his own waistcoats and Ralph Lauren socks ( "With a logo on, which I hate," he says. "why would anyone want to wear a logo I don't know" ) "We're just into making the very best item of it's kind - the kind of thing that fathers might pass down to their sons. We don't do it to sell a lot of it."
Words by Josh Sims.
Portrait by Neil Gavin.
Originally published in the Observer by Tank Men's Fashion supplement Spring 09.
& carefully retyped by One-up.