FEW CYCLING ENTHUSIASTS WILL BE UNFAMILIAR WITH RAPHA. THE BRITISH CYCLEWEAR BRAND WAS INTRODUCED TO THE WORLD IN 2004 (WHEN ROAD CYCLING WAS STILL VERY MUCH UNDER THE RADAR) WITH A SINGLE-MINDED MISSION AND AMBITION: TO CREATE THE FINEST CYCLING CLOTHING AND ACCESSORIES IN THE WORLD.
“When we started it was ridiculously niche and risky”
Taking its name from a drink linked to St Raphael in France, it was started by Simon Mottram, a former brand consultant for the likes of BP and Peugeot and self confessed bike junkie, predominantly out of frustration with the poor quality of cycle apparel available at the time: the terrible fit, the uncomfortable fabrication, the garish colours and the lack attention to the functional needs of the rider in the saddle.
As a true fan of the sport, Mottram wanted to create clothing (and associated paraphernalia) that looked great, fitted properly and worked. It was about offering discerning riders the finest fabrics and components to create apparel and accessories that offer road riders unrivalled levels of performance, comfort and style.
Generally regarded as the brand that created a road cycling lifestyle, this undimmed passion for the sport means that, today, Rapha is far more than just a product company. In addition to its online emporium of performance roadwear, accessories and publications, the Rapha brand now includes stores, luxury travel, and partnerships with some of the most successful and progressive names in the pro peloton, an endorsement of Rapha’s design philosophy at the highest level of the sport.
“When we started it was ridiculously niche and risky,” recalls Mottram. “It was a difficult business plan for a market people didn’t know existed. Even within cycling people didn’t know that there was a premium market that could be targeted. People would all say that people in cycling don’t spend money. We got a lot of knockbacks. It took me 18 months to raise £140,000. And I had more than 200 meetings to secure that money.”
With the benefit of hindsight, you can probably understand why. According to Mottram, most of the people interested in road cycling back in 2002 were ‘weirdos’ or couriers. Furthermore, he was a marketing and brand guy, who had previously worked as a chartered accountant, with no experience in designing apparel or running an online business.
“I used to say to people to forget what you think road cycling is,” he says. “I would tell them that it is the most amazing, uplifting, rewarding and beautiful sport in the world. It’s fitness, it’s social, it’s about discovery travel and culture. I would also tell them that people will spend a lot of money on the best sort of kit that combines style and performance.”
Mottram was right. Rapha hit the ground running and did pretty well from day one. “Even back in 2004 – because of the internet – you could reach a niche all over the world. So it was quite good to start with that niche, they got it because they are so passionate about the sport. There were so many people like that hidden away – the closet cyclists. I knew what we were doing would resonate with them because it resonated with me. We had a few years of doing that before the world woke up and realised that cycling really is quite a cool thing. By 2008 everyone else started thinking we should probably do something in cycling, when we had been going for four or five years. We had already made all of the mistakes and everyone else could learn from them.”
Rapha’s phenomenal growth has been helped by a surge of interest in road cycling, thanks to the popularity of the Tour De France (and the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Lance Armstrong and Chris Froome); the rise of the Fixie scene in New York, San Fransisco and London; the 2012 Olympics; even the UK’s Cycle To Work scheme, which enables people to get bike to commute to work on at a reduced prices. It has been further boosted by its sponsorship of Team Sky, the British professional cycling team. But let’s not forget its exceptional product range, some of which has been made by KTC since 2004, including its iconic jerseys and jackets.
"YOU WILL DO MORE IF YOU’VE GOT THE BEST KIT, WHICH IS WHY WE WORK WITH KTC. BY SELLING GREAT KIT WE CAN TELL MORE STORIES, BUT THE PASSION FOR THE SPORT ALWAYS COMES FIRST."
Mottram points out that Rapha is not a product led business, but a marketing led business: “We were never just about the clothing, we were about the sport. We want an emporium of stuff that connects people to the road sport of cycling, and the lifestyle associated with it. There were loads of great bikes. All the hardware was good. The shoes were okay. The helmets were okay (we thought at the time), but I hated the clothing I was offered. When we launched the garments were the biggest problem at the time. Clothing still accounts for 60% of what we do.”
“Product is one of the ways connecting people to the sport of cycling and that amazing moment on the bike. You will do more if you’ve got the best kit, which is why we work with KTC. By selling great kit we can tell more stories, but the passion for the sport always comes first. Naturally we are passionate about our product to a point. We would not keep on making great products if you didn’t need them to enjoy cycling.”
“Take our classic jersey – which is made by KTC - as an example. It was our biggest seller from day one. The look’s flattering, the fit is amazing, the fabric’s incredible. It was quite an expensive jersey at the time – quite an aspirational purchase, but every detail was designed specifically with a cyclist in mind. If you are on your bike for eight hours you need every detail to be considered – where pockets and ring pull placement, everything.”
"The reason we work with KTC is because we want company that absolutely turns out the best products – one that can rise to a challenge and deliver what they say they are going to deliver."
For the 12th year Rapha has re-worked this iconic piece in 12 different ways – different fabrics, different trims, different pocket layout, different details.
“The reason we work with KTC is because we want company that absolutely turns out the best products – one that can rise to a challenge and deliver what they say they are going to deliver. We want a partner whose process is quality and there output is completely to spec, reliable and that great care has been taken to make them like that. Nobody’s perfect and everyone messes up from time to time but KTC has messed up so much less than any other manufacturing partner of ours. Because they know what they are doing they run it really well and they really care about the output.”
“We also need to work with manufacturers who understand what we are trying to do. We are not a classic sports brand. We are blurring into fashion, we are active sportswear, but we’re very specific about cycling. We are quite a funny beast and quite peculiar in that way. There not many companies that are as specific as we are, so we need a partner that shows an interest in what we are doing. KTC has done that from the start.”
"IT WASN’T BECAUSE IT WAS CHINA AND IT EQUALS CHEAP. IT WAS BECAUSE KTC COULD DO STUFF WITH FABRICS THAT MANY OTHER FACTORIES SIMPLY COULDN’T DO."
But as a British brand you have to question why more of Rapha’s production is not sourced from the UK.
Mottram is keen to point out exactly why: “I am not massively pro made in the UK. I am only pro made in the UK if it is better made than anywhere else. I hate protectionism. I am definitely not a little Englander who wants to keep all the money in our island. I feel more European than British in many ways. So the challenge has always been who can make it best. We are charging more than many people, so we can probably pay more than many. So it comes down to who makes the best products. Ultimately that is why we ended up with KTC. It wasn’t because it was China and it equals cheap. It was because KTC could do stuff with fabrics that many other factories simply couldn’t do.”
“China is about perception and reality. It’s no longer where you go for your cheap stuff, you go for a certain quality level. There is a history of manufacturing there which is very powerful. It is a much less risky place to get stuff made than the newer countries. Perception is lagging behind”
And while Rapha recognizes that KTC’s stance on CSR puts it head and shoulders above most factories, Mottram says that Rapha does not like to put ethics on its sleeve, regardless of what’s happening behind the scenes. “We do what we think is right, but what we talk about is cycling. That’s what our job is, to inspire people about road cycling. We are passionate about building a culture about cycling, we can then pass this culture on to our customers. You don’t buy Rapha because it is ethically sourced and we care about our factories – which we do anyway – you buy it because it will take you closer to that amazing moment on a bike.” Quite right too.