THE RISE OF RAPHA

They have re­de­fined the cloth­ing land­scape, but how did they do it? Ur­ban goes 1-on-1 with Si­mon Mot­tram, the brains be­hind Rapha...

Urban Cyclist - - Con­tents - Words James Witts Por­trait Ge­orge Mar­shall

We’re in the cap­i­tal to in­ter­view Si­mon Mot­tram – the founder of the lux­ury cy­cling cloth­ing phe­nom­ena

Tell us where the idea for Rapha cloth­ing came from.

I’d been rid­ing my bike since I was young and fell in love with cy­cling when watch­ing the Tour de France on Chan­nel 4. I was also one of those guys in the early 90s who rode to work when no- one else did. Con­dor Pista was my fixed-wheel of choice. The only oth­ers do­ing that were mes­sen­gers and a few weirdos – like me. I reached my mid-20s and cy­cling grew in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to me as a leisure pur­suit. And it was around then – we’re talk­ing the mid-90s – that the idea of a cloth­ing brand be­gan to per­co­late. Why? Be­cause I was frus­trated with the cy­clist’s Rapha were founded in Lon­don in 2004, launch­ing their de­but range with a month- long ex­hi­bi­tion in East Lon­don’s Tru­man Brew­ery. En­ti­tled ‘ Kings of Pain’, it show­cased six heroes from cy­cling’s golden era and be­yond: Fausto Coppi, Jac­ques An­quetil, Ray­mond Pouli­dor, Tom Simp­son, Eddy Mer­ckx and Bernard Hin­ault. As well as rep­re­sent­ing the suf­fer­ing (and joy) of cy­cling, they dressed in a style that pro­vided the in­spi­ra­tion for Rapha’s break­through into the cy­cling ap­parel mar­ket. Core to Rapha’s huge growth around the world, in both city and road mar­kets, has been a glo­ri­ous aes­thetic, pre­mium price and its in­spi­ra­tional founder Si­mon Mot­tram. And it’s Mot­tram who Ur­ban se­cured an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with to talk fash­ion, su­per­high­ways and Brexit… cloth­ing lot. For many peo­ple cy­cling’s the most im­por­tant thing out­side their friends and fam­ily. Why would you want to wear some­thing so ugly? You must have per­for­mance and style be­cause the sport is so im­por­tant – so beau­ti­ful and tough.

Can you re­mem­ber your en­try into the bike- cloth­ing mar­ket?

Our first prod­uct, which is still one of our best- sell­ers, was our black Clas­sic jersey fea­tur­ing a white stripe; in fact, it was a top- seller for 10 years – a jersey to wear all day in all con­di­tions up and down moun­tains. It wasn’t a rac­ing aes­thetic; it was some­thing more el­e­gant and wear­able. As an aside, we re­designed the Clas­sic top last year for the first time in 12 years and made 12 changes to it. That was tied in with fit, zip­pers, bond­ing, con­struc­tion de­tails… very sub­tle changes. It was a bit like a BMW 5 Se­ries that’s evolved over 20 years but in tiny in­cre­ments. As for our ur­ban range, the first batch was a but­toned, col­lared polo con­structed from Merino wool. It had pock­ets on the front and echoed of days gone by. Then in 2005 we launched a range called ‘ Fixed’. The fixie thing was just start­ing and ur­ban

gear was tak­ing off. So we’ve been heav­ily into the city sec­tor for around 12 years now. I think the only brand around at the time that touched upon the ur­ban sec­tor was Swobo [who con­tinue to this day].

Where do Rapha take its de­sign cues?

We’veFrom whenoften la­belled­day things al­ways one, were delvedas we a looke­dretro more into or stylish.a back vin­tage­few at places.We the brand,were sport which try­ing wasn’tto recre­atethe point­the past be­causeor any­thing.we weren’t But there was a style in the late 60s/early 70s that was so much nicer than the mid-90s. Again, those ref­er­ences could be rather sub­tle, whether it was the cut of a col­lar, the way a but­ton fas­tens a jersey or the way pock­ets are de­signed. That went hand in hand with a strong ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what is out there in the world of fash­ion, whether that’s men’s or women’s style. We were the first to do that. For de­fined many by man­u­fac­tur­ers,cy­cling; for us it’s cy­clinga muchis big­ger thing. Why shouldn’t you have a jacket that looks as good as an amaz­ing coat from Acne Stu­dios? Cy­clists are hu­man be­ings, too, and we’re part of a world where style is per­va­sive, so you can’t ig­nore it. We also take cues from our own past whether it’s a bright pink cuff on a city Merino top or O-ring pulls. We made those be­cause they’re easy to grab in bike gloves. We now use them in many of our city prod­ucts be­cause it’s very Rapha.

Where do you source your ma­te­ri­als?

Tra­di­tion­al­lyvis­it­ing­be­yondWhen you cy­cling­fab­ric start we fairsin out would searc­hand that’s sport­strav­elof what the the showsyou right world have fab­ric.to do. and Ba­si­cally,work with you them find re­peat­edly.a few mills Overyou trust­the last five years or so, we’ve de­vel­oped an in­creas­ing num­ber of pro­pri­etary fab­rics. So the Clas­sic jersey that we talked about, that used to be wo­ven from SportWool and we were the first peo­ple to use it and then oth­ers fol­lowed. Then over the past five years we’ve de­vel­oped a pro­pri­etary ver­sion of that called RPM – Rapha

“We were of­ten la­belled as a retro or vin­tage brand, which wasn’t the point be­cause we weren’t try­ing to recre­ate the past or any­thing”

“You don’t have to race to love cy­cling. It’s not the nat­u­ral end point. It is for many and that’s bril­liant but you can get as much sat­is­fac­tion from rid­ing around town”

Per­for­mance Merino – which is our blend of Merino and polyester. We con­tinue to use that in many of our jer­seys. You en­joy the per­for­mance ben­e­fits of Merino, like high wick­ing, odour re­sis­tance and com­fort, plus the struc­ture and strength of syn­thetic wo­ven into it. That means you can weave in pock­ets and throw them in the wash without shrink­ing. When it comes to out­er­wear, we’ve worked with a num­ber of mem­brane tech­nolo­gies. In fact, we ran a study a few years ago where we looked at 12 lead­ing wa­ter­proof fab­rics, each of which we tried in the same gar­ment so we could make a fully in­formed fi­nal choice.

Your love for cy­cling is clear but does that love stretch to the race cir­cuit?

In my teens I didn’t join a club and start rac­ing, and by the time I’d re­ally fallen in love with cy­cling in my mid-20s I was mar­ried and be­gan to have chil­dren. I made the big mis­take of not es­tab­lish­ing a rou­tine of train­ing and rac­ing be­fore I had a fam­ily! But I’m an en­thu­si­ast and that’s fine be­cause you don’t have to race to love cy­cling. It’s not the nat­u­ral end point. It is for many and that’s bril­liant but it doesn’tmuch joy have from to sim­plybe be­cause rid­ing you around­can get as town. Mind you, I’ve com­pleted a few sportives in­clud­ing L’Etape du Tour [where recre­ational rid­ers com­plete a stage of the Tour de France]. I first did it back in 2000 where it cov­ered the Alps and was very tough. There were only about 50 of us from out­side France be­cause there wasn’t the cul­ture that’s per­me­ated the UK of go­ing for re­ally long rides. Now GranFon­dos and the like are part- and- par­cel of what peo­ple do. My reg­u­lar train­ing route for that event in­volved cy­cling to Re­gent’s Park, Rich­mond Park and up into North Lon­don to Hert­ford­shire and Buck­ing­hamshire, and I’m still do­ing that at least once a week with Rapha.

Are work rides part of the Rapha DNA?

We have a Rapha ride ev­ery Wed­nes­day, which I do re­li­giously. It’s my only mo­ment of the week to tick off a long ride. But with 180 peo­ple in our Lon­don of­fice, we don’t all ride to­gether. In­stead, there are rides that go out to the four cor­ners of Lon­don. I’ve rid­den with a group of mates and ex­tended mates for 20 years. I rode with eight of them yes­ter­day, in fact, but cy­clocross rather than road. In the

win­ter and into spring we of­ten do a cross ride of 3- 4hrs. The usual rou­tine for a cy­clist is a long ride at the week­end and a few smaller spins in the week, but I had to re­verse that be­cause I have a dis­abled child so rarely have time at the week­end.

Tell us about bal­anc­ing work with rais­ing your dis­abled son.

Os­car is 22. You’ve prob­a­bly heard of the autis­tic spec­trum of dis­or­ders. He’s at the ex­treme end, which means he’s non-ver­bal and not toi­let trained, so he re­quires an in­cred­i­ble amount of sup­port ev­ery day. I’m mar­ried with two other won­der­ful chil­dren, but two defin­ing fea­tures of my adult life have been the pur­suit and build­ing of Rapha, and look­ing af­ter Os­car and try­ing to find the best path for him. In some ways, though, Os­car’s sit­u­a­tion gives me greater fo­cus. If I’m go­ing to spend time away from Os­car, then I need to make it count. This isn’t some kind of game to create pretty pic­tures. The other thing is Rapha needs to work be­cause I need to bring in the money; my wife gave up work when Os­car was di­ag­nosed 20 years ago to look af­ter him full- time. There’s a hor­ri­ble risk when you have a se­verely dis­abled child that it to­tally de­fines your life, but it’s im­por­tant that you don’t be­come a ‘dis­abled fam­ily’.

How has the cy­cling land­scape changed since your for­ma­tion in 2004?

When we launched, there were no signs that the UK was go­ing to be the most vi­brant and lively cy­cling mar­ket, which I think it is now. It was be­fore Bei­jing, the Lon­don bomb­ings and the fixie boom, and since then the boom has been phe­nom­e­nal. We’ve been lifted up by that wave and cy­cling is now much more of

the cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion than it used to be. In many ways, it’s more le­git­i­mate, even though it’s still a bit of a niche sport packed with chal­lenges to mak­ing it more pop­u­lar, whether that’s safety con­cerns for com­muters or dop­ing.

How safe do you per­ceive cy­cling in this coun­try?

I city ac­tu­al­lythan out think in it’s the far coun­try­side.safer rid­ing Peo­plein the in cities now – cer­tainly in Lon­don – you’re more used to see­ing rid­ers. But out on coun­try roads, where you have high hedges and sunken lanes, and cars drive much faster than in the city, it can be more dan­ger­ous. The rise of com­mut­ing in key cities is phe­nom­e­nal – it’s a revo­lu­tion. Prod­ucts have been de­vel­oped to sup­port that revo­lu­tion, whether it’s cloth­ing or hel­mets, light­ing or se­cu­rity.

What are your thoughts on Lon­don’s Su­per­high­ways?

“There’s a hor­ri­ble risk when you have a se­verely dis­abled child that it to­tally de­fines your life, but it’s im­por­tant that you don’t be­come a ‘dis­abled fam­ily’”

I have to say that when the Su­per­high­ways were first mooted, I was scep­ti­cal be­cause fun­da­men­tally I feel that roads should be shared be­tween all forms of trans­port and cars should bloody well slow down. It sounds ro­man­tic but in other parts of the world it is the case. In Ger­many and Hol­land, for in­stance, there’s a pre­sump­tion of guilt on the part of the mo­torist if there’s an ac­ci­dent. In the UK that law doesn’t ex­ist. But things can change. Which would be won­der­ful be­cause it’s bet­ter for every­body if the streets are cov­ered with pedes­tri­ans and cy­clists rather than large lumps of metal with one per­son in. So I still think that’s where it needs to end up but I’ve come around to the Su­per­high­ways; in fact, there’s now one planned to come down from where I live in North Lon­don to Re­gent’s Park and con­nect with the oth­ers. We’re hope­fully head­ing to a bet­ter fu­ture where we have fewer cars in town and, more im­por­tantly, fewer trucks. But ul­ti­mately we’re a small, con­gested is­land. When you look at Ger­many and France, they also have this amaz­ing net­work of par­al­lel cy­cle paths. And not like the cy­cle paths we have but like roads along­side roads, but they have more space to do that.

And are many of those main­land Eu­ro­pean rid­ers dressed in Rapha?

Around 75% of our busi­ness is ex­ported, and we talk about four re­gions that are roughly the same size. So the UK is one re­gion. The rest of Europe, which I like to think we’re still part of, is a lit­tle larger. Then the US, which is a lit­tle larger again. And then there’s Asia Pa­cific. That Asian mar­ket is our big­gest cus­tomer base and in­flu­ences the way we de­sign some ranges. For a long time we de­signed solely for the UK but if you’re in Sin­ga­pore, with high hu­mid­ity and nearly 30°C ev­ery day, you need light­ness and breatha­bil­ity.

How will leav­ing the EU af­fect Rapha?

Well, per­son­ally I think leav­ing the Eu­ro­pean Union is a tragedy and dis­as­ter, and I pull my hair out. Pro­fes­sion­ally it’s in­ter­est­ing. Be­cause we’re in­ter­na­tional and a global brand, we deal in dol­lars and Eu­ros. We also sell in Yen and other cur­ren­cies. So we’re deal­ing with lots of cur­ren­cies all the time, so not be­holden to the UK mar­ket. So we’re kind of in­sured. But any­thing that cre­ates fric­tion and adds un­cer­tainty and con­cern is a dan­ger­ous thing for any busi­ness. We don’t want it to be any harder than it al­ready is, but I don’t think we’ve seen the ef­fects of Brexit yet. It’ll start to be a con­cern if there’s a rise in in­fla­tion and a down­turn. But over­all as a busi­ness we’re in a for­tu­nate po­si­tion.

Fi­nally, what does the fu­ture hold for Rapha?

The thing that I al­ways point to is build­ing the com­mu­nity. We have 185,000 cus­tomers around the world and 10,000 of those are mem­bers of the Rapha Cy­cling Club. Tied in with that, we’re look­ing to open more club­houses; in fact, we re­cently opened two more in the United States – one in Seat­tle and the other in Boul­der. So we’re now up to 15 glob­ally. Ur­ban, life­style, ca­sual… that’s a huge fo­cus for us as well. There are only so many hours a day I can wear Ly­cra. But I’m a cy­clist all day, ev­ery day, even when not rid­ing. So we see those prod­ucts as be­ing ever-more im­por­tant. De­spite no longer part­ner­ing with Sky, we’ll also con­tinue to be ac­tive in the race scene be­cause it’s fun­da­men­tally the heart and lifeblood of the busi­ness. Yes, we might spend a lit­tle less time in wind tun­nels but I’ll tell you some­thing – skin­suits are noth­ing com­pared to cre­at­ing trousers that re­ally work on the bike – and off it – in the rain!

Left Rapha em­ploy­ees at their home – and for­mer abat­toir – of 18 Ti­le­yard Road, Lon­donAbove Rapha of­ten look be­yond cy­cling in search of de­sign in­spi­ra­tion

Bot­tom left Rapha’s mar­ket­ing strat­egy in­volves open­ing more cafés and club­houses Be­low The Shadow Blazer is all about form, fit and func­tion… and a pre­mium price of £400

Right Rapha also run cy­cling trips, which in­clude the oblig­a­tory post-ride mas­sage

Be­low Over 180 peo­ple are em­ployed at Rapha’s Lon­don head­quar­ters

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