VIDEO Brand Day Out: Are Rapha Who They Appear to Be?
November 28th, 2016
November 28th, 2016
Anna is a jack-of-all-bikes, and has been riding and racing in a myriad of genres for over seven years; from World Cup level cross-country, to grass roots coaching kids on the road.
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It’s now common knowledge that Team Sky will no longer be supported by Rapha after this year. There is no particular reason behind this decision, other than the contract had come to an end and it was time to say goodbye. It is clear, however; that the team had served as more than just a marketing exercise, often giving Rapha valuable insight into pro team needs, from 'cold black' fabrics to keep them cool in hot countries, to Team Sky-coloured reflective stripes to make their black kit more visible while out training.
It is this appreciation of learning that caused Rapha to celebrate their end, with Le Depart, rather than simply move on. This is one of many small things that add up to make a very unique and inspiring company. It’s no secret that Rapha are a comparatively expensive brand of clothing, and their seemingly elitist attitude to teams and target audience has created something of a 'marmite' brand according to The Guardian; you either love them or you love to hate them.
Personally, I hadn’t had enough experience with them or their clothing to make up my mind, but when each designer talked to me about the amount of research into fabrics, the length of time in design work, and the amount of testing hours that go into every product, it became apparent why price tags may not be the same as more common lycra outfits. Plus, I'm not sure if they realise it, but they're doing so much more than just challenging the clothing industry, they're challenging our values. Here's how I came to a final verdict that surprised even me.
Walking through the doors of Rapha's British HQ in London, I was mistaken for thinking I'd accidentally followed the address to their cafe. Greeted by cake, coffee and a full-time, in-house barista, I was immediately envious of the Rapha working culture, and I hadn't even made it passed the bike storage area with the full-time mechanic sitting at the back (yeah, I know, right?). I grab my flat white coffee, pass a board full of employee photos proudly posing with their bikes and head upstairs to where the magic happens. The environment is what I imagine Google to have looked like in its earlier days; except Rapha have bike rides and coffee machines instead of pool tables and bean bags. The decor has a muted warehouse chic about it with plenty of proud Rapha memorabilia on the walls and in the rafters.
The most prominent of features is the 'St Raphael' logo painted boldly in red across a white brick wall. "It’s no secret". Says Lead Designer, Graeme Raeburn, "It's a beautiful script and a beautiful story from cycling's past". Outsiders have pointed the finger at Rapha for stealing the logo and faking heritage, but in house, Rapha employees are not only aware of the logo’s origins, but they celebrate it. "Simon bought the rights" continues Graeme as he explains the nod towards a time when corporate sponsorship was banned from racing and teams were set up in rider's names instead. "Everything Rapha does is celebrating the history and heritage of the sport", Graeme finishes. On discussing the origins of the Rapha logo, Lara and Ian, who manage the Pro Team Marketing, seem almost excited to get out their employee handbooks, but before I could get my mitts on it, they remember that it’s not for public eyes.
This is a running theme throughout the day, as everyone is genuinely excited about what’s going on around the office, and they can’t wait to shout about their work, but greatness takes time. Nothing seemed to be hidden for reasons of superiority, more for reasons of perfectionism. Nothing was released until it was exactly as it should be.
"Perfectionism is something that lives in all of us here", says Designer, Maria, "this place is basically a factory for super intelligent, creative people". It’s nice to see that Rapha has as much passion for design and textiles as they do for cycling. “cycling is really competitive, and designing is really competitive, in a positive way” continues Maria “it's a good thing, because it pushes everyone to be better and better”.
And then it suddenly clicks; cycling isn’t the universal language here, as I would have initially thought, it's the passion for innovation with a side-helping of competitiveness that just so happens to translate very well into both aspects of designing the clothes as well as using them. It also occurred to me afterwards that this has been somewhat lost in a rather saturated market of cycle clothing, seemingly only putting efforts into new patterns rather than new technology. The market has become lazy with these products and Rapha are one of few shaking it up out there, and we have these competitive employees to thank for it.
you don't feel like there's anything out of your capability when you're in the environment Rapha fosters
"Do you know about Wednesdays?" says Pro Team Category Manager, Ian Fleck, with wide-eyed excitement. Apparently, Wednesday mornings are reserved for cycling, and you don't have to be at work until 1pm, as long as you are cycling. Further more, CEO, Simon Mottram, gets rather upset if you choose work over cycling on Wednesday mornings too. Now this is a working culture I can get behind.
Lara, Pro Team Executive, has worked at Rapha for a grand total of three months, but, despite not classing herself as a cyclist before working at Rapha, the infectious passion from other employees in the office soon had her entered into the coming L'Étape du Tour; an amateur race over one of the hardest stages from the Tour du France. "the only reason I felt like I could do it was because I was surrounded by people with experience and passion" says Lara, "you don't feel like there's anything out of your capability when you're in the environment Rapha fosters". Lara casually mentions a 120km ride at the weekend and it’s clear she’s now part of the club for life.
You only have to look at rugby, where sensor-equipped compression tops can measures an athlete’s heart rate and metabolism, to know that our sporting garments have not yet peaked.
The Rapha employees are a mix of cyclists and a mix of characters. A quick scan of the employee photo board and it’s hard to pin down a ‘type’. There is a really good split of women and men, plenty in lycra and loads in dresses or casual city wear. There’s a fair few road bikes, many of them tourers or vintage, and plenty of commuters too. Oh, and one rebellious BMX bike in front of Graeme. “we used to be full of cyclists, but now we're recruiting specialists, perhaps from other sports" says the BMXer, "but we do immerse them in cycling.
Everyone is motivated and excited by the sport in some way". It's a good way of thinking. If you only ever hire cyclists, you limit your field of vision. You only have to look at rugby, where sensor-equipped compression tops can measures an athlete’s heart rate and metabolism, to know that our sporting garments have not yet peaked.
The Price Tag
Society has become accustom to clothing presenting itself as fashion items, and with fashion ever-changing, and clothing becoming even more affordable, clothing has unfortunately become something of a disposable item. If you continuously buy cycle clothing on a budget and watch them wither away after a season of use, you won’t be blamed for thinking that spending more money isn't worthwhile, but what if it did last? What if you have a £200 jersey that lasts for four years instead of a £50 jersey that lasted for one? And what if it came with a lifetime warranty and crash-replacement privileges too?
you see that our garments are expensive, but it's about the value of each product, like durability
“We put so much time and effort into every single component” explains Maria, "you see that our garments are expensive, but it's about the value of each product, like durability". My mind immediately clicks to the hotly debated Special Edition Reflective Crew Neck, often referred to as ‘that £350 jumper’. What you don’t get from this damning label is why it is a £350 jumper. “it's a really expensive yarn on that one, hence the price point,” Graeme says, “Reflectivity is getting more sophisticated. We've now got this highly reflective yarn that we can actually put through a knitting machine. A couple of years ago it was very chunky, very scratchy, and the manufacturers were having a nightmare with it breaking”.
Suddenly, £350 for that level of research and length of development time doesn’t seem excessive, it seems justified, and limiting the jumper to a "Special Edition" is not for reasons of exclusivity, it's acknowledgement that not everyone can afford, or even should afford, such a garment. "It's a showpiece" says Graeme. And what a piece it is to behold. It's a work of engineering art, and has become the experiment to thank for reflective yarns being woven into their socks and overshoes, rather than reflective print that peels away and falls off.
We've now got this highly reflective yarn that we can actually put through a knitting machine. A couple of years ago it was very chunky, very scratchy
What once was considered groundbreaking to cycle clothing, is now a somewhat aesthetically undesirable solution to safety. The notion of 'high-vis' conjures up images of fluorescent colours and road-worker style stripes of silver. The Special Edition jumper is a symbol of a shift in times, as well as the cost of innovation to move with those times.
Customers want functionality, performance, aesthetics and durability, but that comes at a price. Rapha have been experimenting for years with high-vis, knowing that getting it right would need them to marry function and form. This is not an easy task, nor is there a fast solution, it appears. Sure, they could make good looking clothes, and they could make functional clothes, but then they'd be no different to anyone else on the market. They're filling a gap that's in demand, and I applaud their desire to make things really last as well as perform.
Performance vs Style
When Rapha learned new insights from Team Sky, they didn't just apply their new-found solutions to just their Pro Team clothing, they filtered it down through their entire range, even touching on the City range, because no matter what the product is for, or how a customer wants it to look, cycling performance is always at the forefront of Rapha's priorities. "They both grow and morph together" says Designer, Maria, as I quiz her on whether aesthetics are more important than performance, "we don't look at the fashion scene, we get inspired by the athletes and problem solving for them".
I've often seen Rapha garments to be items that only wealthy hobbyists can snare, but it seems it's not all that cut and dry.
Rapha clearly have their own style, but this is not just an identity thing, it stops things going out of fashion, and Rapha are not into throw-away garments. This is also apparent in their attention to durability and functionality. "The level of design that you see here is as much as you'd see in a fashion house, but then it's combined with performance testing", explains Lara.
Each garment spends at least 1500 hours in test, on the bike, before it goes to production. "We put so much time and effort into every single component on the garment, which is really hard to communicate", continues Maria, holding a waterproof coat complete with reinforced drainage holes in the bottom of its expandable pockets, "you see that it's expensive, but it's about the value of each product, like durability, and we make sure it lasts you". As a modestly-paid journalist, I've often seen Rapha garments to be items that only wealthy hobbyists can snare, but it seems it's not all that cut and dry.
everyone wants us to wave a magic wand and make these amazing fabrics
"I don't think there's any other sport in the world that can be as demanding on fabric as cycling; it's got to be as light as possible, as durable as possible, resistant to light, to sweat, it's got to be breathable, it's got to have high-vis, and be quick drying," Graeme lists, "everyone wants us to wave a magic wand and make these amazing fabrics". The scale of their task becomes quite clear, as does the need for so much research and development, and that doesn't come cheap.
Being British vs Going Global
It’s obvious that Rapha’s designs, innovations and general performance have taken them from being a British brand to a global brand, and a very successful one at that. They’ve just opened a flagship store in Chicago and they are increasingly popular in Taiwan and Japan. I’ve noticed that this world-wide takeover has given the brand a slightly corporate image, especially to us British riders. As if the fact that they’re successful and no longer ‘niche’ means they should no longer command the respect, like a punk band that accidentally got a song about ‘sticking it to the man’ in the pop charts.
What’s happened here is that they’ve become popular because they’re still as good as they ever were, and continuing to innovate is a ridiculously hard, yet commendable, feet that has caused their global dominance. Rapha do not look upon themselves as ‘British’, they just happened to be born there. It seems that pulling themselves back to Britain, or aligning themselves with only British connotations limits their scope for progress. This is not a corporate, world-domination, way of thinking, this is a universal, mind-expanding, true entrepreneurial way of thinking. It's about taking into consideration all cultures, all users, and all reasons for cycling that highlight the problems that Rapha need to solve with their clothing. "that feeling of going for a ride is a universal one" says Graeme.
Rapha is designed for every cyclist, not just the wealthy ones, well, unless you're a baggy shorts-wearing mountain biker of course. That's not on the cards just yet, but triathletes might be welcome soon.
My Verdict on Rapha
I wonder if the price tag is what sets Rapha up for a particular image, especially with those who can’t (or feel they can’t) afford their garments and services. I have friends that will pay a lot of money for a set of carbon wheels, the justification being performance advantages weighed up against longevity. When Geoff from Accounting rocks up to a cafe ride with his £1,000+ Zipp wheels and a £200 Rapha jersey, why is it that the jersey that is the point of contention?
Rapha may not have been set up to mean something to everyone, but their underlying ethos should. I no longer wish Rapha were cheaper, I only wish that I could afford them.
I admit that I have been guilty of spouting the “is it made of gold?!” argument in retort to garments I can’t afford, but it was reassuring to speak to the designers and find out that their motivations are not as money-oriented as I had once feared. I learned why pricey items are just that, and my eyes were opened to a way of thinking that favours sustainability over affordability.
The price tags on Rapha clothing are not plucked out of thin air, they are made up of fabrics and experiments, research and development, design and innovation, trial and error, and strong perfectionism from every employee involved in the Rapha operation. Whether you can afford Rapha or not, or even like the looks of the clothing or not, they have a set of values we should all be demanding from every brand we own; performance, durability and innovation. Rapha may not have been set up to mean something to everyone, but their underlying ethos should. I no longer wish Rapha garments were cheaper, I only wish that I could afford more of them.