Long before the Jumpman appeared on PSG jerseys or Pharrell and Skepta created on-pitch heat for the biggest players and clubs in the game, Clothsurgeon creative director Rav Matharu's life was geared towards two fields that have gone from being distinctly different (2000) to inseparably intertwined (2021): football and fashion.
Just like most young boys or girls growing up in Britain at the time, Rav had ambitions to become a pro baller from the age of seven. After fulfilling a lifelong dream to play for his childhood club Leeds United, Rav would leave the game to chase new endeavours off the field and take his passion for fashion and craftsmanship to new levels.
Obsessed with the performance product that he played in at Elland Road, Rav channelled his attention to detail towards clothing, with his design output and love for sportswear eventually inspiring the inception of Clothsurgeon.
The East London imprint specialises in creating bespoke pieces for everyone from Dave to Edgar Davids down the years, and while the label counts the likes of A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar and Drake as fans, Rav insists Clothsurgeon’s approach is dedicated to creating bespoke pieces “for everyone.”
Clothsurgeon’s latest work is with UK athletic giant, Sports Direct for a capsule titled “Just A Game?!”. Celebrating the camaraderie and togetherness of the nation at major tournaments like Euro 2020, the collection digs into the sportswear giant’s archive to deliver upcycled pieces that blend a mix of slick tailoring with 90s-era football nostalgia.
Fusing Rav’s two life passions of football and fashion together, the ‘Just A Game?!’ capsule represents a full circle moment for Clothsurgeon, inspired by his everlasting love for the beautiful game and groundbreaking style ethos.
Rav Matharu has a journey in both fields that is truly like no other so to celebrate the launch of his Sports Direct collection, we caught up with him to discuss his roots into the game growing up as a football-obsessed Leeds lad to becoming one of the best British labels in the business.
VERSUS: Hi Rav! Firstly, how did this collection and partnership with Sports Direct initially come to life?
Rav Matharu: They reached out to us directly with the idea of doing something around football – which for us was a really authentic story, obviously. We loved the “Just A Game” brief, because anyone who plays the game know it’s something much deeper than that.
People compare football to a religion, but I would say its more of an obsession or passion – once you’re in, there’s no way out. You have to follow your team through thick and thin. So when I saw the brief and what they were trying to capture with it, I just delivered my take on it – the collection is very much referencing my story within the game.
It’s about my story within the game. I was once completely lost with football and not knowing what I wanted to do in the game. Back then, anxiety and depression weren’t really talked about – it was very much a case of “just get on with it”. When I was falling out of love with the game, it was a broken time for me. So with this collection, we wanted to channel a feeling of “broken, but better”. That broken time in my life made me more resilient and made me realise I needed to do something better with my life, something better.
Creating a collection where we were repurposing old shirts into something new through upcylcing seemed like the perfect way to represent that. Blending streetwear culture and a Saville Row tailoring approach to sportswear is what Clothsurgeon is all about – and it’s also an authentic way in which we do things with out craftsmanship.
Upcycling is a huge trend. Lots of brands are hopping on nowadays, as much as it is an essential for imprints in 2021. Is sustainability something that has always been central to your work?
We have three pillars to the brand; ready-to-wear, bespoke and reconstructed pieces. We’re not a fully sustainable brand, but repurposing old items is always something that we’ve looked to do with our approach. We wanna carry on expanding this with everything we do in terms of collections and collaborations going forward.
I think with the collection – and all of your work down the years – you can really see that. It’s always very heart on sleeve…
I’ve always strived for perfection with what I do – I think that derives from my sporting mentality with things. From a young age, if I wasn’t the best, I’d get upset – so I had to go away and try and be the best. I think this comes through in a nice positive way through this collection.
With your background in football at Leeds United, how intent were you with pursuing football as a career when you were younger?
I started when I was 7 years old. That’s the same time when the 1990 World Cup was happening – that’s what got me obsessed with it. Gazza was in his pomp, David Platt scored that goal against Belgium live on TV… it was electric, and I was hooked.
I remember telling my mum at the time saying “I don’t want to play any of these toys – I just want to play with this football.” As a kid, I would take a ball to weddings, parties, car parks, you name it. I would go there and kick a ball agains a wall and get better.
My headteacher at primary school sent me for a trial at Leeds City Boys, which was the local schools team where the best players at schools in Leeds would link up in play. The best players from there went to trial at Leeds United. I remember scoring a hat-trick in that game, and that’s what landed me my first pro deal. I was quite small, but I actually ended up scoring a header too playing in midfield, which I think impressed people!
You joined Leeds at a crazy time for the club – Champions League Semi Finals, signing Rio Ferdinand for record fees, finishing Top 4 the Premier League. What was that experience like?
We had such an incredible team at the time. We had full internationals playing in the reserves while you were trying to get into the reserves yourself! We had Scotland captain David Hopkins there, I was cleaning David Batty and David O’Leary’s boots at the time, and this was a time where the young lads like us would get tips. I remember Batty being so tight with his tips! I’d definitely tell him now if I ever bump into him again (laughs).
But yeah, as a local Leeds lad, being a part of that was just massive for me. Particularly being a British Asian lad there too, it was even bigger. Even at that time, people were asking why there weren’t any British Asians playing at the top level – a question which is still getting asked today. But having your family as season ticket holders, signed at Elland Road – I was living the dream.
On that last point, we’ve seen the likes of Hamza Choudhury and Yan Dhanda speak out on the lack of representation of British Asians playing football at a high level in the game. How important do you think figures like that in the game are for the next generation of British Asian players?
When Harpal Singh and I were growing up at Leeds, we were flying the flag for British Asians in football – but we didn’t really have anyone to look up to. But I’ve always thought, if you’re good enough, you will make it. If an Asian player was to break through and do really well, then the whole of the country would get behind them.
The whole of the Asian community would also support that player no matter who they played for, too. I hope seeing more and more British Asians playing at a high level, it will have a snowball effect in the game.
So from signing that deal as a young boy to transitioning out of the game, what were your next steps in terms of changing your path towards fashion?
At 20, I slowly lost my love for playing the game personally. I was set on playing as a professional for Leeds United, but such was the competition at the time, my career never really hit those heights regularly. It was a gradual slide down the divisions at the time – so I just decided to switch it up and leave the game at a young age.
I’m really glad I made that choice when I did at the time. I had mates that were living pay cheque to pay cheque from games they played on the weekend – but it’s just not a sustainable lifestyle. I was so lucky to have another passion to channel my energy into. I was lucky enough to go to Loughborough and continue doing art and design there while playing football at the same time.
What were your next steps towards creating Clothsurgeon?
From there, I got a place at London College of Fashion at Central Saints Martins. I was there for 2 weeks, but I dropped out due to the expenses of living in London. I dropped out and started working in retail, living for the weekend and enjoying myself – buying expensive clothes but not really doing anything with my life. I needed to pursue what I wanted to do back at Loughborough, so I went back to Leeds to study design – and I went there to study, and study hard.
The ‘Clothsurgeon’ name came about in my second year because I’d just be constantly cutting patterns with a scalpel and my tutor would say, “oh you’re like a surgeon.” So I set up a blog and a website. When I graduated from Leeds, the first job I applied for was a designer at Sports Direct. I didn’t get a job unfortunately and it was kind of based in the middle of nowhere. But as I said, I always loved the apparel, the boots, the shirts, the design around the game.
So you’ve always been fascinated with the product involved in the game?
I was always drawing kits or boots thinking about creating my own sort of thing. Obviously we had to put our all into the work we did on the pitch, but other than actually playing, that’s what I was focussed on. I was always concerned about how my socks looked, should I wear them over my knees, which way I should put my shin pads on – all of that. I’ve still got the Nike Tiempos I wore back in the day.
I remember using elastic to strap down the tongues of my boots back in the day as I thought it would give me an edge with ball striking. Then when Mark Johnstone brought out the Predator range with adidas was unforgettable for me, too. I remember being so influenced by that design I cut up a bike tyre and glued bits of it out on to a pair of Lotto Ruud Gullit boots I had back in the day.
But even as far as what trainers I was wearing with certain socks to away games… wearing the right brands like Lacoste back in the day, it was an obsession from a young age.
That was a time when the technical performance side of boots or shirts was really taking off for the first time, in that era.
Yeah, I mean it was a time when people were still eating pies and chips before match days! Now players have bespoke meals designed to help improve their on-pitch performance – there was none of that back then. It was a different, different time. Boots were just leather, largely. There was no real technology going into boots. Performance-wear was just starting to become a thing, with breathable kits emerging around that time too. I’ve always wanted to do a performance range with Clothsurgeon, actually, I’m sure in time I will.
What’s been Clothsugeon’s ethos, from the get go? And how have you approached developing the imprint?
Everything we do is bespoke, and we don’t really have a demographic of people we create for specifically. It could be a 65-year-old man who wants to by cashmere right the way through to a 21-year-old who wants to buy a reconstructed tracksuit – our work is for everyone. Scaling that concept over time over eight years has seen us grow organically. We had a lot of hype around the brand in the past when the likes of A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar and Drake wore our pieces… but while I was grateful for these nods, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as just brand that dressed rappers exclusively.
I really wanted to create something wholesale for the consumer and what they need. We will continue to work with partners like Sports Direct and tell different stories in different ways. We’ll keep developing products, collections and collaborations steadily grow over time.
Who were the sort of players you were looking up to stylistically or flair-wise at the time? Was there any ballers that made you want tor wear something or play a certain way?
Ginola, Kinkladze, Jay Jay Okocha, and of course Eric Cantona who broke my heart when he left Leeds for United. But people who did things their own way, in their own mode, those were the guys I loved watching.
The Euros is typically a time where the whole country comes together. In a time where everything is very divided, societally, do you believe football can be a powerful force for unity and good?
I think that’s something that really echoes what this campaign, ‘Just A Game?’ is all about. Football has the power to bring people together. Most of my Indian friends all support Liverpool – and my only explanation for that is because when they first came over and got into football, Liverpool were the best team at the time. There’s now a community of Indian Liverpool fans from London and across the country united with their affiliation with Liverpool because of the power of the sport.
That’s the message we’re also trying to convey with the collection, too. There are dark times – but it’s always darkest before the dawn. Things will always get better, and this collection – just like the Euros itself – celebrates that and prove football is more than “Just A Game?!”.
The Clothsurgeon x Sports Direct collection drops exclusively on SportsDirect.com Friday June 11.