High Gear

Simon Mottram injects some cool into cycling, writes Jeanette Wang

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 February, 2013, 7:43pm

A kaleidoscope of colours, a mishmash of graphics and a generous splattering of sponsor logos - all served up on microfibre fabric. That's been the typical cycling jersey for decades; big on performance and skinny on style.

Frustrated with what he calls horrible and bad quality offerings at bike shops, Simon Mottram decided to make his own cycling apparel that would cater to riders like himself: middle-aged, discerning and with the disposable income to spend on higher quality products.

Mottram, then a brand and marketing consultant, launched Rapha in the summer of 2004 with three staff and five products.

Headlining the range was the "Classic Jersey". The black jersey had a white band around the left sleeve and came with white arm warmers; the white jersey had the opposite colour scheme.

Instead of polyester, merino wool was used. The jersey had a great cut and thoughtful pocket design. The Rapha logo was almost invisible, black on black or white on white. The price tag was significantly heftier than similar products on the market, and continues to be. A Classic Jersey is now £130 (HK$1,600) - more than double the price of the average cycling jersey.

It seems there's a market for such understated quality. The London-based company has 70 employees across four continents, selling more than 140 products to more than 55,000 active customers worldwide, reached mainly through the internet (rapha.cc). Sales for 2012 were £18 million, a 40 per cent increase over 2011.

"For a long time, cycling was a niche sport. Cyclists were happy to just wear awful stuff because they didn't want to be seen," says Mottram, 47, who has been obsessed with cycling since his first glimpse of the Tour de France when he was 18. "I like to be proud that I'm a cyclist. People should think, 'Wow, he looks really cool'. It annoyed me that nobody else saw that."

The range has since expanded, and the Classic Jersey is the best-seller with more than 50,000 sold. In line with the global bike commuting trend, there's a city riding range that includes collared shirts, blazers and khakis.

In 2007, Rapha began collaborating with Paul Smith, a fellow cycling enthusiast and fan, including on a range that featured a polka dot pattern and hi-viz purple.

The amalgamation of sportswear and fashion, says Mottram, simply reflects life and culture. "People have more active lifestyles and are becoming more body and health conscious, so I think it's right that fashion grabs hold of that."

Prada, Ralph Lauren and Stella McCartney, among others, have tried to cash in on the cycling trend, but none have been nearly as successful as Rapha. Mottram's advantage is that he's a cyclist and his own customer.

In January, Rapha launched a four-year partnership with professional British cyclists Team Sky - which includes Tour de France champ Bradley Wiggins - a shining endorsement of the performance and quality of Rapha products.

"I find the balance [between performance and style] very easy to come by because I don't think you should ever have to sacrifice one for the other," says Mottram.

Slick branding has helped, too - Rapha markets the sport, but also uses the sport to market itself. It takes the suffering and scenery of cycling, packages it using a distinct turn of phrase and design, and presents it romantically through photography, film and prose.

Hidden in many products is a story label that tells of a historic moment in the sport. Inside the zippered pocket of my women's jersey lies the story of French cycling great Raymond Poulidor, the "Eternal Second" in the 1960s and '70s at the Tour de France.

"The sport has so much richness and history, and it's a shame to just make it this technical thing that you do to get fit. If you do, you're missing out on a whole world of enjoyment," says Mottram. "We put [the labels] in there just to celebrate the sport."

Some have criticised Rapha's marketing as pretentious. A group of cyclists in Portland, Oregon, even created a spoof website internationale.teamjva.com that pokes fun at the brand they describe as "masters of the aspirational school of selling luxury goods".

"It's never that comfortable when people parody you, but it's definitely a sign of success," says Mottram, who thinks the site is well done. "But I don't think these guys understand the appeal of the sport. Because if you understand that it's about suffering and finding yourself, then it makes sense that we make films and tell stories."

The brand's success has come much quicker than Mottram expected, and he knows he has cycling's growing popularity to thank. Future plans include growing internationally, increasing content that focuses on the experience rather than product, and helping to make cycling the most popular sport in the world.

"As long as we can continue to understand what the sport is about, and project and communicate it really well, our future will be bound up with its future."