Rabbie Denim Glasgow
Robert Andrew Watson has made his name designing jeans under the moniker 'Rabbie Denim' (www.rabbiedenimglasgow.co.uk). The Glaswegian, whose bespoke jeans retail between £180 - £340, has been guided by his passion for his hometown and a frustration for stonewashed jeans to create his raw denim enterprise. I first heard of Rabbie’s needle work through my cousin Chris, who purchased his debut pair after seeing Rabbie’s appearance on Kevin Bridges: What’s the Story? (BBC, 2012). Vowing to never buy any other brand and joining a long list of impressive clientele, I was curious to know what was just so special about RDG.
When I arrive at Rabbie's studio, the radio is on and he is gliding around the different work stations making a brand new pair of jeans. "It's like an oven in here with this on." he complains while pointing to the iron press. I remark on how clean and organised his studio is while he moves round to stitch a back pocket, “When I left college, I dreamt of what my perfect workshop would look like - this is it. It’s somewhere, where the lassies that are training can’t wait to get here and they don’t want to leave at night." The "lassies" are Rabbie's interns and from the offset it becomes clear that his unbridled enthusiasm for the city is not only the magic within his custom jeans, but is also the driving force behind creating opportunities for young designers here in Glasgow.
“Every week I get my nut burst about charities asking for a pair of jeans to auction off, and I feel so bad having to say no to charity. Folk who hear about me and read my story think: he is clearly worth millions, he is clearly no struggling, he could give us a pair of jeans! I feel so bad because I can’t always do that, so instead I’m now going to be giving £5 of every pair that I sell to Cancer Research. My mum has nearly died three times to cancer so it's a cause really close to my heart. She gave up her life of design to bring up my brother, sister and I. I’m kind of carrying on her own passion and by doing that I hope she will feel, 'I’m glad I brought up the weans.'
My mother was a tailoress. I used to sit watching her as a wee boy and became really interested in it. When I started moaning about my school trousers being shit she said, ‘well you draw a pair and I’ll help you make them’. From then on I would help her and she would create the drawings I had done. Then I got to about 15 or 16 and my mum was like 'go and make the stuff yourself, you wee bastard' - that is what big designers do; they draw things and throw it at somebody to make, you need to do the hard work before you get to the top - so hopefully in a couple of years I’ll be throwing my designs at the lassies and I’ll be back to being a wee boy again.”
When you were growing up and drawing your own designs, what was your inspiration?
“Jeans man, see everybody that wore jeans in the 90s (when I was in my teens), every single guy had these crap jeans that were stonewashed to hell that ripped so much. They started stone-washing jeans in the 70s so that jeans wouldn’t last as long. They made it out to be a style but they just wanted to make more money. Throughout the 80s they were stone-washing and stone-washing jeans that by the time it got to the 90s, guys were walking around with their legs hanging out of the front of them. At that time I thought, ‘all I want is a nice pair of jeans.' My mum had a go at making them but they were never that good. I made a pair and ended up getting in to it. My dad also used to hand-sew hunting stuff, I don’t know if that is where I got my love for Harris Tweed but it could have been."
There has been a significant rise in jeans being tailored made with many designers using Japanese Selvage textiles, what made you choose English Indigo Raw denim?
“Cause it is gorgeous, just look at it man [places a pair on the cutting table]. It is so beautiful. There is something so soft about it and yet it is thick. The fifteen years I’ve been making jeans I think it's probably the nicest denim I’ve come across and that's why I’ve got so much of it. I ended up getting 8 rolls. I need to turn all of that into a shops worth of denim. I don’t know how many pairs are in there mind you‘ - 450 pairs or something. Each roll is the length of a rugby pitch.”
You've mentioned that stone-washing jeans reduces the quality of the denim, is this material much more durable?
“Oh aye, any denim that has not been stonewashed is good raw. A good thing to look out for in anything is a YKK zip. If it has a YKK zip, it means the company that has made the garment has cared enough to put a YKK zip in it (which is the best zip you can get) so they’ll have cared about the rest of it. If you are buying wee jackets, jeans, anything - look for the YKK zip. Honestly that’s it - the secret to good clothing - a YKK! Always check the zip.”
Compared to high-street brands the RDG logo is big and bold, what was the reason behind this and did you design it yourself?
“Yeah, that costs £3 to embroider. I’m really proud that it costs more to produce my badge alone compared to any other high-street manufacturers who would spend that, if not less, to make a full pair of jeans.
I love a big embroidered label, especially a Glaswegian looking one. I’m totally in love with Charles Rennie MacIntosh's work and I always have been since I was a wee boy. I wanted to come up with something that you might think was his own. I did the design drunk one night with a pen and grading rule. I woke up and knew that was the one.
My badges have changed from my first pair in college and my name has changed too. People started calling me ‘Rabii' because I was always scared to use the spelling like Rabbie Burns. Then I got to the point that I didn’t even want my name on it just 'handmade in Glasgow' before finally settling on the current logo and I think that one will stick for the rest of time."
The RDG catalogue includes a range of Harris Tweed cuts that can be inserted into the back panel of the jeans, do clients hand pick their tartan?
"It used to be bespoke, they would come and build a pair of jeans but I now do 3 or 4 different pairs with different panels of Harris Tweed. They are built the same way as the original pair. That is something that I’m trying to teach the girls, to think and design this way. They are designed like Lego they can take bits apart and then put bits back in with different materials as long as it is as durable as the denim.
If someone wants to spend lots of money you can put in a lot of different embroidered lines. This is me teaching the lassies [points to stitching on a pair of jeans] they've not quite got the hang of it yet, but I cannae expect young lassies that have only been doing it for months to be able to do that they way I do it, cause I’ve got fifteen years worth of practice. [Looks at another pair] I wonder if they are mine, nah they aren’t - that’s a girls one, I can tell but to anyone else they look they same [pulls at another pair] that's a pair I've done, I can tell from the lines being more parallel to one another.”
Do you think it is important for Scottish designers to support the textile industry here in Scotland?
"Aye for sure, that’s all I have ever done by putting tartan in the jeans. In the early 90s and early 00s all the big Scottish designers wanted to distance themselves from Scotland and Glasgow and disappeared down to London. I’ve always wanted to try and make something solid and special so that youngsters can read about me and think ‘wow this can actually be done in Scotland.' I think I'm the only one that has actually been so proud and brazen to put ‘hand made in Glasgow' throughout my time making jeans. However, over the last ten years I’ve started to see logos popping up now that has ‘hand made in Partick' ‘hand made in Scotland‘ - I don’t know whether that it has been me, but I hope that it has had some effect."
How long does it typically take to make a pair?
“If I had no-body here, nae lassies asking questions, none of them arguing I could make a basic pair in 2 and half hours. If I didn’t have a fag break and I was rushing, the pairs with Harris Tweed would take about 4 hours from start to finish.
On a normal day, I come in switch that bloody thing on [points to the iron press] it takes about half an hour to heat up, look in the book (if I’ve not got a pile that I’ve already cut) and see who is next. The cutting starts up here [large cutting table] and they get pressed, they go back and get laid out and the front and backs get taken over to the machines and it will go round the various stations to the finish - completely hand made in Glasgow which is the main thing”
What is like having interns?
“It has made me grow up, really made me grow up from a party boy, although I’ve been off the party for a while now but it’s almost like a party boy finding out he has a child coming and then having it and growing up. I feel like I have purpose now, because they say that they feel part of something that means they can stay in Glasgow and not go to London. Taking them on is probably the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.
[laughs] I’ve become a Dear Deidrie listening to them, sometimes I need to close my ears but I’m really enjoying it. I'm going to miss them all when they go back to their colleges.
I’m trying to employ two of them when the internship finishes at the end of the month. At the moment, I'm hoping to get funding from Creative Scotland - they are supposed to be helping companies like me because I’ve started an academy off my back - these girls are going to be getting certificates that shows they've worked here. I’ve promised to start taking students every year from both colleges (Clyde College and Cardonald College) whittle them down every summer and as the business grows take on another two from Glasgow to join the team but definitely more if I can.”
Should the Scottish fashion industry be doing more to provide studio space for young designers?
“Absolutely. That is what I am trying to do here in the Whisky Bond. I would love to get one of the massive units that is two or three times the size of this space. It would be amazing to have the whole place full of machines and even if all of the machines weren’t being used, it would be still cool at night-time to have other students come in and pay to use them cause they can't get into college and use their facilities at night. It would also mean having other designers around to bounce ideas off and create a hub that has never been."
What does the future hold for Rabbie Denim?
“Build Rabbie Denim slowly, I'm just about to launch a range of jeans for girls but most of all, I want to make an industry here that is solid for the youngsters. When I left college, I had no where to sell my jeans, I had nobody to get an internship with in Glasgow except from tailors and I was instantly like I need to build something. For years and years we tried to open shops but we never got any help.
I’m starting this new label called The New Glasgow, it gives the lassies who have been working with me an outlet. Once they know the jeans inside out I’m going to encourage them to do their own designs, I’ll pick out the best ones and that will be the New Glasgow label. Hopefully it means that they won‘t leave the city and can stay and design here.
I want to have a shop in town but I want it to be a hub where, again, it is for people who come out of college and have no where to sell their stuff - half of it would be my shop, and the other half would be run by the New Glasgow lassies”
In the time that we've spoken, Rabbie has almost finished another pair of jeans and in the process has shown us around the studio. From our conversation it is clear how much of a big heart he has for Glasgow and his determination to create an industry here for young people.
For more information about Rabbie Denim Glasgow visit his website, befriend him on Facebook or follow him on Instagram.
All photographs courtesy of Fiona Hunter.