“I was living the dream there for a while,” says Rav Matharu, as he sits and talks to us in a basement studio in London, where he is living a very different kind of dream today.
And yeah, he sounds wistful, as any sports mad Leeds lad might, who played football for Leeds United’s youth teams when Leeds United were a club in the semi-finals of the Champions League, who eventually had to let that dream go.
We weren’t totally sure how much Rav would want to talk about it; sometimes when you leave a life behind, that’s where you leave it. But now that he is Rav Matharu, clothsurgeon, and living a new dream as one of London’s best designers of genre-modifed menswear, working with artists like Nas, he has all the perspective he needs to look back to those days and appreciate the memories.
“We were pretty much spoilt,” Rav tells us. “I lived at the Academy at Thorp Arch for two years, and it was like a big holiday camp.
“We’d wake up in the morning, clean the professionals’ boots, and go for some breakfast. That was all laid out for you, and you could have whatever you wanted. Then we’d go to train, which was what we all loved to do. Then we’d have lunch with all the first team players and staff, obviously banter filled. We were so well looked after, all we had to do was play football, which we were obsessed with – then every now and then we would go out and enjoy our hard work on the pitch.”
Looking at the photos that, from time to time, Rav posts on Instagram, it’s amazing to see how far back his association with Leeds United goes. There are photos from 1992, of young Rav posing with a football, proudly wearing the Admiral home kit of the League Champions and Charity Shield winners; in the blue-and-yellow striped Asics kit, just like David Batty or Brian Deane.
“My school headteacher sent me for trials to Leeds City Boys, which was the representative side for all the schools in Leeds. I was ten years old. A select few from the LCB team where then sent to Leeds United trials.
“I was a little smaller than everybody else, but I had an amazing trial and scored about three headers. Andy Beaglehole was the youth development officer, and really took to me, telling me I rose like Gary Speed.
“My dad would send me and my cousin to the Ian St John Soccer Camp every summer. Eddie Gray, the Leeds legend, used to take training sessions. He remembered me when he saw me at Leeds United, because I’d once won some boots for being player of the camp – ‘You’re that lad who won that pair of Umbro Speciali!’ It was nice to be known and remembered by someone you admired and watched videos of.”
You can tell that sort of attention from a legend meant something; still means something. Leeds United, at the time, was a club filled with superstars, and young, dream-eyed youngsters like Rav, working as hard as they could to get to where Alan Smith, Harry Kewell and Jonathan Woodgate had got to. The first team. The Premiership. The Champions League.
“The atmosphere at the club was incredible,” says Rav. “The energy at the club was contagious and it spread like wild fire, from match day at Elland Road, it filtered down through the reserves, the youth team, the canteen staff to the laundry ladies. The place was buzzing with positivity.
“I remember when Tony Yeboah was just god. I didn’t play or train with Yeboah, but I was at the game against Liverpool when he scored that amazing volley. And I remember watching Jimmy Hasselbaink take free kicks in training, nobody I’ve ever seen could hit a ball as hard as him. Ian Harte could hit a ball but Jimmy just pinged it off two steps. It was ridiculous. All the youth team would watch him, we would all be trying to hit it like that in the playground the next day.
“Probably the best in training was Robbie Keane, he had the quickest feet, he was amazing. Harry Kewell was incredible in that one season when he ran everyone ragged. Lucas Radebe was a true chief, the nicest guy, who had a quality of making you feel secure and protected. Mark Viduka and Nigel Martyn would spend some time in the boot room with us cracking jokes. Nigel had shocking banter, but had a fair few stories.
“And David Batty. Nobody could get the ball off him. No chance. He’d let them get close and then no, he’d just lay off a simple pass and start again. Only the players who played with him know how good he was, an unsung hero, and I felt that’s just the way he liked it. I used to clean the club captains boot’s, also the manager’s, David O’Leary. Your professional would give their boot boy a tip at the Christmas party, I remember Woody gave one of the lads £1,000, Duberry £600. I was rubbing my hands thinking, happy days! What am I going to spend this money on? And I was waiting all night. I got nothing! Neither of them gave me a Christmas tip. If they’re reading this I hope they’ll forward the cheque in the post.
“I was in the age group with Anthony Lennon, Aaron’s older brother, and everyone was talking about Aaron coming through the age groups below us. You knew from a young age he was going to be exceptional. He used to play in the same team as James Milner, so you can imagine Lennon and Milner together, just tearing other teams apart.”
That was the standard in a first team squad of international stars; that was the standard in the under-14s. That was the standard an eighteen year old at Leeds had to reach to stand a chance of playing. There was pressure on all the youngsters, and additional focus on Rav and teammate Harpal Singh when the media’s search for the next young Leeds stars uncovered a rarity – two young Asian players with a shot at playing in the Premier League. Their careers – particular the older Singh’s – became a cause célèbre, and then subject to closer scrutiny in 2000, when first team players Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer were charged for their involvement in an attack causing grievous bodily harm to an Asian student in Leeds.
“There wasn’t really extra pressure on me and Harps,” says Rav. “It was there in the back of our minds, that if we broke through to the first team there would be a lot of media attention on us.”
For Rav, the story stopped just short of a dream come true: a first team appearance.
“I don’t think I got close,” he says. “Maybe I’ll tell people different in the pub after a few drinks, but I don’t think I was near to breaking through to the first team at Leeds. There were internationals playing in the reserves, it was hard to progress. I remember being on the bench for the reserves against Sheffield Wednesday, and that was probably the closest. Chris Waddle was playing for them and I was watching him, remembering idolising him at the 1990 World Cup.
“It was hard to break into that team because it was doing so well. There were internationals in the reserves like Jason Wilcox, David Hopkin. It was a club where you had to do exceptionally well to even get on the bench of the first team.
“I think Aaron Lennon and James Milner were the only ones who really made it at the top level. Everyone was on the lookout for another club, or going for trials when they were still with Leeds. Frazer Richardson got into the team; Frazer was an animal, pretty sure he had a six pack when he came out the womb, he was solid. Jamie McMaster was doing well; Caleb Folan went to a few clubs and is still playing, last time I spoke to him he was out in Myanmar, he is a spiritual brother, that area of the world really suits him. Simon Johnson also played in the first team, I spoke to him recently. He’s starting his own football camp to help people who come out of professional clubs at a young age, to try and develop them, give them a chance at another club.”
We suggest that might have helped Rav.
“It might have. I think I just lost my love for the game after a few trials. I was going round lower league clubs, and was like,” – Rav starts laughing at himself, remembering waking up from that dream world – “I have to wash my own kit? Make my own food? What is this? This is strange! I was offered some month-to-month contracts. But that didn’t seem like it would get me anywhere.”
“I was kind of lost for a couple of years,” says Rav. “I probably should have stayed at Leeds to keep up my fitness levels. I trialled at various clubs, considered going to America; my agent kept trying to get me to Portugal or somewhere.
“I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I didn’t want to work in sports therapy or coaching, it just wasn’t for me.
“I had to look for a job. I started working in retail and it was hard – people who knew me from Leeds, who knew me as a professional footballer, coming in and saying: ‘Oh. I thought you were a footballer.’ It felt like a fall from grace.”
That’s not an unusual script; professional football is notorious for discarding talented young players without support to help them find a new direction, and young men all over the country have experiences like Rav’s when they step outside of the dream world of the Premier League. But then, when they come to talk about that lost time, it’s usually in a confessional tell-all about the decline that followed, the dangers of a dream.
Not Rav Matharu.
“I always used to draw,” he says. “I was into clothing and footwear and designing. It seemed like something I could do.
I really wanted to learn more.
“I went to Loughborough University to do a foundation degree in art and design, and was then offered a place at London College of Fashion. I went there for two weeks but dropped out because the expense was too much. I moved back to Leeds and worked in retail for three years, but I always felt I had to do something more with my life. So I picked up my studies at Leeds College of Art.
“I didn’t know how to sew. I didn’t know how to cut patterns. But I knew I had a good eye for fashion and clothing, and from a young age I’d always wanted to know how it was put together.
“I put in long hours. I learned how to use the sewing machine, learned how to cut patterns, and read many books. I guess I worked harder than my peers at university because I had to, I was a little bit older and knew what I was there for. I was about twenty-five and they were all nineteen, going to freshers dos, and I was well over that scene. I knew Leeds, so I knew the nicer places!
“I was just focused on my degree and getting the most out of it. And then moving to London and trying, and hopefully doing, something.”
People say things happen for a reason, and while the years in retail might have felt like a fall from grace, they gave Rav a valuable tool for his climb to London, and back to grace – an enviable, and valuable, collection of trainers.
“I’d worked at Size?, and I’d been living at home not paying rent – the easy life! – so I just spent all my money on trainers. I had an amazing collection, something like four hundred pairs, with a lot of valuable collectors’ pieces. And that’s how I funded living in London. You get a shed for like a thousand a month in a terrible area, but that’s just what London is. It took about a year to start getting paid so it was a struggle, selling off sneakers and working it out somehow, and mum was always there to support.”
Rav was head designer at bespoke streetwear brand House of Billiam for three years, but without the creative control he need to feel like he was fully using the talents supporting his new dream.
“I had just married Parv,” says Rav. “I had been told on my honeymoon that the brand could no longer afford to pay me. It was a blessing in disguise, because it just pushed me to do my own thing, but it was extremely daunting. I was coming back from honeymoon and basically didn’t have a job, living in London, where costs are ridiculous. It was a case of, this has got to work, so we’ve got to do as much as we can to make it work. As much as it was scary, equally, it was exciting.
“When I moved to London I always had the intention to start my own brand. The name was born at uni; a lot of people cut patterns with scissors, but I would always use a scalpel, and my tutor would constantly tell me I was like a surgeon. I’d built a small website and registered the name clothsurgeon, but didn’t really do anything with it until it was time to do my own thing.”
The clothsurgeon vision and philosophy is simple. The clothes are scalpel sharp, streetwear delivered with the timeless razor judgement of classic menswear. Bespoke pieces and tight collections that operate through individual expression, sometimes celebrating an inspirational figure like Garrincha, the Brazilian football legend who entertained more than Pele; sometimes celebrating the inspiration of the clothes themselves.
“We concentrate on quality fabrics, quality production,” says Rav. “You can come in and create a wardrobe of quality clothes; we offer a full bespoke service where you can make whatever you want, timeless silhouettes with a contemporary edge that can last you a lifetime. Beautiful overcoats that will not go out of fashion in your lifetime. A bomber jacket, a suit, whatever it is.
“It’s generic modification of what clothing is to menswear. Altering the fabrics, altering the fits. We do a double-breasted overcoat that is not classically oversized to fit over every layer, it’s fitted so you can wear it with a t-shirt. There’s a different silhouette to it, but you see it as a classic piece.”
The designs can be eye-catching in first blush, but the depth is in the dependent subtlety of Rav’s eyes and ideas.
“It’s nice to create something a bit more subtle and unique, through hidden details, fits, certain elements that we can do. I like putting pieces together and outfits together. If someone came in here and asked for ten pieces they could wear for the rest of the year, I would easily be able to do that. Jackets, pants, tops, rotating so it looks like they’re wearing something new and different every time.”
The brand, website and a small collection came together in October 2012, “And just sort of took off,” says Rav. “We were supported from the start by blogs like Hypebeast and HighSnobiety, who just loved the products and would always feature us.
“We sold really well just through Instagram and Facebook, but then we’ve had some great celebrities who love the bespoke side. A$AP Rocky championed that. We did Tinie Tempah’s tour, Jessie J’s tour, Jess Glynne’s tour; various hip-hop artists come in for bespoke appointments, which is amazing.
“Nas in particular. I’m a huge fan of Nas and met him, and he was so cool. He loved what we were doing. Every time he’s in the UK he says, let’s catch up, what have you got for me?”
Rav still has the breathlessness of a fan when he talks about working with an artist like Nas, but mixed with pride at how that relationship is maintained.
“We’ve built relationships with superstars,” he says, “But that’s because we’re providing something. We’re not just fans. We’re bringing something to the table that they admire, so it’s mutual respect.”
We, at this point, is Rav and Parv, working with teams of interns between a production unit, and a workroom below a coffee shop.
“It’s becoming harder to find space in the cool areas of London,” says Rav. “I think people think we’re a lot bigger than we are. They don’t expect to come to a dungeon below a coffee shop. A humble space.
“But we’ve gained a lot of trust from a lot of people, which is so valuable. People buy from the website, £700 jackets, without touching them or trying them on. That’s trust.
“We’re growing slowly and organically, and working hard. It has been scary. It’s still quite scary now, when you do a collection – is it going to do well? Is it not? There is constant pressure.”
There’s also, in clothsurgeon’s fairly brief three-years-so-far existence, constant thrill at where the scalpel is taking them. Consulting for brands such as Asics; a window at Selfridges; appointed as ambassador for the prestigious Rolls Royce; attention-grabbing experiments like the Reconstruction Project, that crafted Nike fleece sweatpants into full suits, jackets and overcoats.
“That went crazy,” says Rav. “We didn’t really plan to sell that, but there was this huge demand. That Reconstruction Collection is now stocked in select stores worldwide.”
Working on brand-building with Asics prompted Rav to dig out the classic photos of young-Rav in his Asics made Leeds United kits, but it also took it him to Japan, where the Far East work continues through regular collaborations with Monkey Time/United Arrows.
“I love working with them,” says Rav. “Japanese people are perfectionists. Their levels of quality lift your levels. You think they’re going to be picky or selective but actually it’s just the way they operate, and that lifts your standards throughout everything you do. Going to Tokyo for the first time was an inspirational trip, seeing how they become obsessed with certain trends and sub-cultures, and take it to the next level.”
A new collection is on the rails when we visit, and a clutch of collaborative projects are ahead for clothsurgeon. But Rav and Parv won’t risk a jinxing comment.
“Nothing is done until you see it,” says Parv. “We love that freedom, to create what we want when we want, and not follow a regular fashion cycle that doesn’t work for us, that’s not what our brand is.”
“I think the longest we’ve ever had to make a collection is two months,” says Rav. “It’s because we can. I can turn around a sample from idea to garments in twenty-four hours and know it is exactly how I want it, because I’m making it myself with the exact fabrics. Once you have a customer engaging with your product and they really like it, they want to get on and buy it now, not wait six months.”
“We’ve done that since day one,” says Parv. “Build a collection, shoot a look book, then it’s available on the website soon after.”
One ongoing collaboration they could confirm was a visit from Monkey Time/United Arrows to the UK.
“We’ll take them out for drinks and ping-pong,” says Rav. “I just hammer them. I still have that competitive edge, I hate losing. They love playing ping-pong, and being the polite people they are they admire me wanting to win.”
“Rav takes no prisoners,” says Parv.
“I initially thought I’d take it easy, because I expected them to be quite good. Table tennis is popular in Japan. But then I just started smashing it.”
“Then he tells them, oh, I was junior champion of ping-pong,” says Parv. “Was that a lie, by the way?”
“I was junior champion of West Yorkshire at eleven,” states Rav. “Our headmaster at my primary school, Mr McHugh, was obsessed with table tennis. He set up table tennis club after school and he loved it, and really tried to develop our skills.”
Rav smiles at the memory; another time when hard work meant skills; when skills meant success.
“I wonder if I could find that trophy. I would love to have that trophy back.”
Maybe adding table tennis makes it three things Rav Matharu is good at. Maybe there are other things too. Maybe there’s no limit to the dreams Rav could live. He has the formula: dream, work hard, skill up, succeed.
“I would love to design a cricket kit,” says Rav. “I keep reminding Nike that I’m here, because I’d love to get involved designing with the Indian cricket team – they’re the only team sponsored by Nike, so that’s three obsessions: Nike, India and cricket.
“Or a Leeds United kit’s something I’d love to do. First thing I’d do is speak to die hard fans, discuss favourite kits over the years, do something nostalgic with it, but add the functionality and breathability of modern fabrics.
“I loved the Umbro kit when Leeds won the league in ’92. And I remember David Batty and Gary Speed wearing Asics boots with the massive tongues, these £300 made in Japan football boots. I’ve still got some old Puma stuff from my time, old training kit with the numbers stitched and marker-penned on.
“I still remember when we found out Nike were going to be sponsors after Puma. I thought it was amazing. Nike boots, Nike kits, Nike tracksuits! That was the golden era for me.”
The golden era in football, at least. The golden era in the life of Rav Matharu? Maybe he’s living it. Maybe there are plenty of dreams still to follow, plenty of risks. Plenty of hard work. What will be his golden era? That question will have an interesting answer.
First published in TCT