We’re long time friends and fans of Nigel Cabourn so it was a pleasure to get invited to the launch of Nigel’s latest collaboration with American skate label Element last week at the Army Gym store in Covent Garden, London.

While the collaboration might come as a surprise to Cabourn fans, the crossover actually has a deeper synergy than what you’d expect from a skateboarding brand out of California and a vintage military repro brand from the North East of England. Taking cues from skateboarding’s early days, the US military design of the 1960s and classic American hunting garb, they’ve created a range of parkas, smocks and utility vests perfectly honed for modern-day skirmishes. As you might expect, there’s quite a lot to talk about with this stuff, but before we get into the finer details in our interview with Nigel below, it probably makes sense to give a little bit of a primer on Element and what they’re about.

Before Element, there was Underworld Element, an Atlanta-based skate brand founded in 1992 by skateboarder turned graphic-design maestro Andy Howell. With a strong hip-hop influence, Underworld Element helped usher in a baggier, graffiti flavour a million miles away from the day-glo designs associated with skating in the late 80s, and their 1993 audio/visual masterpiece, Skypager is still rightfully regarded as a stone cold classic today.

In 1994 the Underworld in the title was dropped, and when Howell left to pursue various other artistic endeavours, it was left in the capable hands of Johnny Schillereff — a fellow creatively-minded skater who had already been working on the brand’s designs. The earlier, more ‘cartoony’ visual style was lost, and Element was born.

Since then Element has released countless videos, sponsored everyone from early street-skating fore-father Natas Kaupas to boombox aficionado Chad Muska, and pioneered all manner of lightweight board designs — all whilst retaining that trademark tree logo. Over the last few years Johnny has developed Element Wolfeboro — a collection of tough outdoor gear taking inspiration from his ancestors, who in 1926 built a lakeside cabin in the rugged mountainous setting of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. It’s this range that Nigel has lent his design hand to.

When they first hit the drawing board, both Johnny and Nigel were keen to look at the seemingly disparate worlds of 1960s skateboarding, military clobber and hunting gear for inspiration. On the face of it, this might seem like a slightly curious blend, but one thing that unites skateboarders, the military, fishermen and hunters is that need for functional, hard-wearing clothes — and all activities traditionally rely on hardy cotton twill. Here we speak to Nigel on the collaboration and hear his inspirations behind the 10-piece collection.

Skateboarding has always been rooted in functional clothing and reappropriation of workwear. What were some of the research points you looked to when creating this collection?

Well it was a bit of a funny situation. A lot of people said to me, why are you doing skateboarding Nige? It is a good point, but the reality of it is when I did the first limited edition in 2003 I met a very interesting guy called Rey Gautier, who happens to be running all the creative side of Element now. He approached me at Pitti in Florence and said why dont collaborate with us. He was already doing a collaboration with Jeff Griffen. So I thought if he’s doing a collab with him, it must be alright. So we had a talk and I thought yeah, especially when he told me the owner was an American guy who was 50 and he’d been in a military family and his farther was in the US Marine Corp and served during WWII. So this got me thinking, if I can put military to skateboarding. He also showed me a picture of a vietnam soldier in 1968 on a skateboard. I thought ‘fucking this sounds cool, which is why I’ve done it.

Thats nice that its happened organically like that and its not the traditional Cabourn collab, not to mention opening up the Cabourn brand to a wider customer.

No its not the traditional collab, but in a way I’ve been a bit lucky because when they asked me to do it two years ago I think things have moved on a lot in two years and I think streetwear is really really important so I’ve had to face up to it. I do need a younger customer as the business grows more and more. I also just done a collab with Timex as well so I thought Element and Timex its a bit of a younger customer and I think its working really well for me.

Its a nice collection for a younger consumer to get into as its got a lot of Cabourn elements and details but because they’ve done it and they’re traditionally a more economically priced brand I think it gives someone a chance to buy Cabourn at a more affordable price. Like the Timex it gives you a chance to buy the look at an entry level.

You have an extensive archive. What kind of items did you reference and did you find any new vintage pieces through the project?

Well it was easy as I said because I had this reference point of the owner of Element who’s father was in the US Marine Corp in WWII that meant of course it was going to be US Marine Corp as inspiration. I had a couple of really brilliant books on that and of course I love all that clothing from 1940-1942 with all clips and double pockets, so I thought it was quite an easy project. When I looked at the books of the US Marine Corp they had this rucksacks with spades in them and I thought why not take the spade out and put in a skateboard. It was a really inspiring project to mix military and skateboarding, which seems impossible but it actually worked out quite well.

Were there any new archival pieces you discovered along the way?

Well finding the actual rucksack that carried the spade. Obviously the spade and skateboard are of a similar form when sat in the rucksack so it seemed like quite a natural progression to combine this idea. I think also the clips, which I do use for Cabourn anyway, worked really well on the Element collection as they are features from the US Military Corp uniform. So there were quite a few things that I crossover.

Can you tell us about the “Crazy Camo” and the history behind it?

Obviously we look back at Cabourn. I tend to look backwards rather than forward. Winston Churchil once said “you wont learn anything without looking backwards first” so I always look backwards and look forwards after. The camo came from a Cabourn jacket in 1986 where I came up with the idea of funking up the camouflage and making it in 6-7 bright colours. One of the lads that worked for me came in one day with a 1986 jacket he’d bought on Ebay and I thought “fucking hell did I really do that jacket in those psychedelic colours?” I asked if I could borrow it as I thought it was perfect to do a funky off-the-wall 7 bright colour camo for Element. So thats what I did.

How did the creative process between the Cabourn and Element teams work in bringing the collection to life? 

It worked really well. When Rey and the Element team first asked me to do the collaboration and we talked about the Marine Corp and everything else what I did was I went back to the office, saw the whole design team, told them the whole story how I saw it and we went and pulled all original US Marine Corp pieces from my archive because I’ve got 4000 pieces; I’ve got one of everything. We put them on a rail and mixed it up with some other funky pieces I thought could work for skateboarding. Then Rey called me up and said are you ready to have the meeting, and I said yes and headed to Biarritz with two packed suitcases where I merchandised the whole thing and created the 10 pieces that were going to launch on the first Element collection.

Was there any compromise in fabrics and design between the two brands?

There’s tons of compromising. At the end of the day when you do a camoflage, generally it isn’t applied to the fabric that well. Some WWII camoflage is put on ventile which is ridiculously expensive and looks great but you can put it on a fairly economical poplin which is what I did with Element. Element does have a very tight price point, much tighter than anything we’ve ever done so it was an interest project to do something a bit more commercial and better price point. We’ve ended up with some incredible prices and already today since we’ve launched we’ve already sold 8 pieces in the first morning. And of course I had Liam Gallagher wearing it, he popped up in my feed wearing it on a recent TV performance in the States. And I thought where the fuck did he get that jacket from? He obviously bought one in America because it launched there slightly earlier. He looked great in it.

Now more than ever there seems to be a real interest in functional clothing, particularly in streetwear. How have you seen this impact you’re brand? Have you noticed interest from consumers outside your traditional audience?

Well the thing is, my brand is an old brand, its nearly 50 years old. So I tend to follow what I follow and do what I do. Obviously I’ve always been of discreet style and done some funky stuff so for me it just keeps going. I don’t really jump into anything particular I just keep going on the same path.

There are not many brands in the heritage/repro sphere that are as coveted and collected as much as Nigel Cabourn. What are some of the key ways you’ve kept the brand relevant for so many years?

I think it’s me. At the end of the day the brand is 50 years old and Im still doing it. I started it in 1970 and its now almost 2020 and I’ve still got control of the design process. Obviously I’ve got a good team and a good team out in Japan, but my key role is to go around the world which I do buying the best fabrics and the best vintage and put it all together create good stories and get inspired. I’ve just been to Australia and Japan for 5 weeks, I use that as a big inspiration because all of a sudden I see American clothes, Australian clothes mixed with Aboriginal art on them and I think wow thats a great idea for AW21 and off I go. So through all my travels I pick up lots of ideas so thats what keeps the brand really fresh. Im inspired by my travel as well as great vintage clothing.

Amy and I are big fans of your instagram and the education and insight you give. How does this open approach impact your follower engagement?

Im pleased you said that because I don’t think a lot of people realise how much I do actually openly give away. Im a great believer in what you give out you get back. I really believe in that. With the Instagram I like to show people what I do and I like to inspire people because I know it will come back in another way for me. So thats the way I think. I think if you’re building an instagram you’ve got to make it interesting and be different from everyone else. And by being upfront and showing the process of how I work it pays back and I’ve got a lot of followers through it.

Whats one of your favourite pieces from the collection?

I’ve got so many favourite pieces. You’ve got to understand, vintage shopping 6 months of the years, whether Im in Tokyo, New York or Melbourne, I’m in the best vintage stores. Im always buying pieces I never thought I’d own. Even if I look at the German snow parka, which when I used to see it for sale 15 years ago was like £5-6000 and I thought Im not paying that much for one piece. I actually found one in Prague for £600 and I bit the guys hand off. My favourite pieces change from season to season because I keep finding rarer and rarer pieces.

Can you tell me about the lookbook and where it was shot?

When we did the collaboration, Element were very visual and more film orientated. Its not like a collaboration I’ve done before because they’re very much about the visual and filming. Generally with collaboration its about the product. Here it was about product, film and vision and using a really famous skateboarder. So they asked me where we could shoot it. We were originally going to do it Iceland or an exotic place but we ended up deciding to do it in Newcastle, because we’ve got a great coastline in Tynemouth. So we actually filmed it all along the Tynemouth coast and its all really local. Im obviously living in the North East of England and it made sense to do it there.

Who are the people in the lookbook?

We had the lookbook modeled by pro skater Sascha Daley, who’s sponsored by Element and is one of the best in the World and also Cabourn friend Lauren Yates of Ponytailjournal. When we started to do the collection I took Emilie, the womenswear designer, with me to Biarritz and we discussed about whether the collaboration should be a unisex collection and Rey said yes. So Emily got involved with doing some of the womenswear styles. I invited to Lauren to come to Element with the idea to become the face of the womens and because we’ve got such a good relationship she came onboard. She’s the face for the women’s side and going forward we will do more womenswear.

The Nigel Cabourn x Element collection is available now at END clothing as well as The Army Gym Nigel Cabourn store in London.

The Army Gym
28 Henrietta Street London, Covent Garden