Rav Matharu tells FS about his journey from playing at Elland Road to designing Savile Row-inspired streetwear for Kendrick Lamar...
We’re sitting among the clothing rails at Rav Matharu’s London studio when he starts telling us about his first career.
Jacket £450 Officine General; Shirt £210 Saint Lauren at Flannels; T-Shirt £60 CP Company at Cruise; Trousers £195 Clothsurgeon; Necklace Goro's; Rings model's own
“I had a trial for Leeds when I was 12,” he says. “I was smaller than everyone, but I scored three headers. The coach Andy Beaglehole said I was like ‘a young Gary Speed’. I liked that, he was my favourite player.”
This was Leeds before the dramatic decline; a club who consistently finished in the top six and eventually reached the 2001 Champions League semi finals. Matharu developed as a player in the youth set-up, and signed his first professional contract upon leaving school at 16.
“I moved into digs, trained every day, cleaned the first team’s boots. Each day, we had a lavish breakfast – good nutrition was just coming into football. Leeds had a good youth team; the year I joined, they’d just won the youth cup and had young players like Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell and Iain Harte, so the standard was high.
“If we had a long away trip, I’d get a Shoot magazine or a Match magazine, and draw Jurgen Klinsmann or Georgi Kinkladze. I remember there being so much talk and excitement about Klinsmann when he arrived [in England]. And Kinkladze was one of my favourite players. I used to draw players and draw boots. When the first Predators came out, I got my own Lottos and glued bits of bike tyre onto them to see if the ball swerved. Because at the time Predators were basically just rubber attached to the boots.
“Football boots were the thing. We’d always go to Sports Soccer in Bradford, it was a massive store and they had some next level football boots. I remember looking at Asics Japans, the Testimonials. I think they were like £300.”
Jeans £129.99 APC at Cruise; Nike Jordan 1 trainers model's own
With a squad of household names competing for both domestic and European titles, the chances of a young player breaking into Leeds United’s first team were always going to be slim, and aged 20, Matharu received some news he’d been half-expecting. His professional football career was over.
“It was hard to progress because there were internationals playing in the reserves, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll leave now if you can pay me up.’ It was a mistake looking back, because I should have stayed at the club to keep fit while I was trialling elsewhere.
“I started travelling up and down the country trialling at clubs: Man City, Hull, Derby. I spent some time at Leyton Orient, too, where I played against the Indian national team. That was a highlight,” says Matharu, whose parents emigrated from Punjab and Mumbai. “I got the biggest cheer coming on,” he adds, smiling.
“I played really well on trial with Hull, and all the other players were really positive, but then the club came back to me and said they could only offer me a month-to-month contract. I was really getting sick of football. Not the game itself, but constantly getting rejected. It felt like a bit of a kick in the teeth for me – one month I could be there, and the next I’d be back on the road trialling and looking for another club. I said to myself, ‘No, I’m going to go back into education and focus on my second passion: drawing!’”
Matharu earned a GNVQ in art and design, and an A-level in art, and then headed to Loughborough for a one-year foundation course. Among the reasons that he selected Loughborough was its reputation for sports, and the opportunity to continue playing football. Yet his interest in the game quickly waned.
“It felt like such a fall from grace because I went from having my kit washed and food laid out and then it was like, ‘Shit, I have to clean my own kit and do this and that.’ The standard just took a huge drop in such a short space of time, and so I fell out of love with the game.”
After earning his Art foundation, Matharu headed to London College of Fashion, where he lasted just over three weeks before dropping out.
“The cost of living in London against anywhere else in the UK is ridiculous. I couldn’t really afford to live there, it was hard for my mum to finance.
“I moved back to Leeds and worked in shops for three years, just drifting. At the time, it seemed dull, but I learned a lot about how fashion works, how consumers work, how fashion retailers work as well as relationships I’ve made with people I’ve later gone on to do stuff with.
“At the time, it was, ‘What am I doing here? I need to sort my life out,’ but looking back it was really valuable.”
Well into his 20s, Matharu applied to art school in Leeds and began studying fashion. He arrived on a course full of 18-year-olds excited about going out for freshers’ week, but, being slightly older, knew he had to make up for lost time.
“When I first went to university, I couldn’t sew, but when I started the course, I was slightly older than the rest of the group. Ninety-five percent of the group was girls, and everyone was getting ready for freshers week and getting pissed – I was there to work, get my degree and learn as much as I could. I learned to sew really well in my first year because I spent so much time on it. By the end of the year, I was the best machinist in my class. I wanted to learn more about how garments are constructed, how things are put together and how patterns are made to create shapes. I spent a holiday with a tutor sewing one piece – that was almost like a tipping point. I went from being shit at sewing to being quite good.”
Jacket model's own Stussy X Alpha Industries
Academic institutions tend to favour traditional methods, but Matharu was more into a world of hip-hop, sneakers and wider streetwear.
“A lot of the tutors didn’t really understand where I was coming from. They didn’t know who Shawn Stussy is,
so in some ways it was like I was educating them. They were teaching me how I could apply those things into high fashion or merge the two. I think I paved my niche instantly, because there was all that street element and a love for really refined clothing, well constructed clothing. I like to think it’s like a merging of the two.”
It was a university tutor who gave him his nick(and later brand) name. “I used to cut patterns with a scalpel and my tutor would always be like, ‘Ah, you’re like a surgeon!’”
Robe £470 Clothsurgeon; Jumper £20 Folk at Cruise
After stints working at other brands, Matharu finally decided to take the plunge and started his own business, and Clothsurgeon (the label) was launched in 2012. From a small studio, he started designing bespoke streetwear, taking a classical tailoring method and applying it to contemporary menswear. He began with a small group of clients, and his first major breakthrough came when rapper and style authority A$AP Rocky was photographed wearing a Clothsurgeon piece before the official unveiling of the debut collection.
“That helped fund the website,” he recounts. “It covered the costs of the first collection, and so it really helped develop the brand.”
Each year the brand has grown, twice moving to bigger studios. We ask Matharu to talk us through his process.
“We offer a bespoke service,” he says, “but not just for suiting – you can go to Savile Row for that. You come in and make whatever you like, and choose fabrics and silhouettes. If you have an idea in your head, nine times out of ten we can do it. Basically, you come to me with a new idea or something you might have seen somewhere, and we develop it from there. Take your measurements, choose your fabrics, choose trimmings, lining colours, prints. Then you can have it oversized or perfect fit. About four weeks later, you come back in for a fitting and if it’s fine we complete the piece. I don’t think anyone else in the world does this, or to the level we do it, it’s a quality made product and it’s made just for you.”
Best of all, Matharu has grown the Clothsurgeon brand organically – there’s no advertising spend, and no official ambassadors; just a growing collection of loyal customers, looking for the ultimate in well-made, hard-to-find clothing.
Jacket £POA Clothsurgeon; Levi's LVC jeans model's own; T-shirt £60 CP Company at Cruise; Trainers £39 Converse at cruise
Pictures: Jamie Baker
Want more like this? Check out December's FS magazine.