Behind the Scenes at Rapha – The Coolest Brand in Cycling
Upon arriving outside Rapha’s headquarters at 18 Imperial Works in north London, I was very surprised to not see a single bicycle parked up outside. Not one.
Maybe Rapha’s 120-plus employees weren’t avid cyclists after all?
How wrong I was.
The reason for the lack of bicycles outside the building becomes immediately apparent once you step across the Rapha threshold… into bike park heaven.
When walking down a bicycle-friendly ramp into the Rapha foyer, you’re immediately greeted by rows upon rows of bikes hanging (in a nice way – not like a horror film). There must be well over 100 bicycles there. Lush bikes too. All dangling lovingly.
At the end of one of the rows, there’s a large pane of glass covered in white marker pen. Upon closer inspection, the pane has a list upon it with various personal challenges for the year written by Rapha’s employees. Not dull corporate goals, mind. Oh no. Targets include: “Ride Brompton with no hands”, “Win the Great Orme road race”, “Get back on the bike after baby” “10,000km or close to it”, “30 top UK climbs before 30th bday” and “Ride to work EVERY SINGLE day by rain or shine”.
Not avid cyclists? Yeah right…
But the dreamy bicycle parking isn’t the only impressive thing in Rapha’s foyer. There’s also a little café/reception area, covered in cycling memorabilia with cycling on the TV at all times.
And let’s not forget plentiful changing rooms and showers.
This really is cycling heaven.
Welcome to Rapha
Rapha revel in detail. It takes two years and countless tweaks and alterations from concept to a product being available to customers. Test, refine, test, refine, test, refine. It’s a relentless pursuit of perfection. When they’re happy with the adjustments they’ve made in-house, they’re sent off to the manufacturer for further prototypes to try out.
The area where most of this tweaking occurs is under close guard – meaning no photography – for fear of competitors ripping off their products before they’re even launched – it’s a legitimate fear for a cycling oligarch like Rapha. To give you an idea though, the setup includes plentiful racks of clothes, rolls upon rolls of materials and a room full of sewing machines and other such equipment – ready to make adjustments at any given moment. The future garments are hung up on rails, but are hidden behind a black cover – as if ready to be dramatically revealed at any moment.
If you’re not too accustomed to the Rapha brand, they are massive. So big in fact, that they were recently been the subject of a £200 million takeover bid by Aston Martin (yep, the car company), before being bought out by Walmart heirs, Steuart and Tom Walton.
Rapha’s growth has been strong, but steady.
Founded in 2004 by Simon Mottram and Luke Scheybeler, Rapha were one of the first brands to step away from garish cycling gear and bring in a new wave of minimal but eye-catching cycling clothes that look gorgeous. 13 years later, they are leaders in the upmarket cycling clothes and accessories territory.
As well as being obsessed with detail, Rapha also have an acute eye for design. From a personal point, I’ve never seen any online product picture look as good Rapha’s do – from any retailer, in any industry. You see the products on Rapha’s website and you don’t want to just wear them, you want to eat them.
With a brand and products that are so immaculately designed and curated, it’s almost a surprise to see that Rapha have something as common as toilets (they do).
A Love for the Sport – and the Commute
It doesn’t take long in Rapha’s offices to see that they don’t just like riding bicycles – Rapha loves the sport of cycling.
Cycling memorabilia lines the walls, and it’s impossible to turn a corner without seeing a nod to huge climbs and big races.
That said, my focus with Discerning Cyclist isn’t about the sport of cycling (although I have a great respect for it and the super human competitors that take part). My passion is about getting people on bikes. I love nothing more than seeing a town’s population rolling around in urban tranquillity on two wheels (Groningen <3).
Rapha City Collection
So, from a DC perspective, my main interest in Rapha is the ‘City’ collection – their clothing range aimed at commuters and people just getting around by bicycle. This range consists of polos, shirts, jumpers, jackets, jeans and all your typical everyday attire.
While Rapha does have both and men’s and women’s collection, the men’s side is substantially larger. But Rapha’s Digital Marketing Executive, Arjun Sohal, says plans are well underway to balance this out, “We want to grow the women’s collection to the same size as the men’s, you should see that coming to fruition later this year and early next year.
“It’s something we’ve hoped to do for a while because we’ve previously focussed a lot on bibs and jerseys [for female riders], which is geared more to the ‘serious cyclist’, who is more intent on going for a bigger ride on a Sunday – you know, they clip in and want to race. Whereas the city collection is built around the on-the-bike/off-the-bike philosophy. It works perfectly on the bike and looks great off it. So you won’t look like a bit of a lemon if you walk into a pub with the gear on.
“Even if you don’t ride a bike, there’s parts of the existing city collection that look really interesting, such as the wool wind jacket. In terms of style, these products are right up there with non-cycling fashion brands too. We want to create products that are really beautiful to look at, and are looking to grow this range over the next year or so.”
While at Rapha’s HQ I was lucky enough to try on a good few pieces from their City range. It was actually the first time I’ve tried out Rapha’s gear (I don’t know how I haven’t done so previously in the four years of running this website – although Ste is a big fan and has previously done reviews of the famous rain jacket and softshell trousers).
I’ve always liked the look of a lot of the products in their range, but not until trying it on (even if only for a few minutes) did I finally get why some people are completely obsessed with Rapha. Not only do they look so, so smart, but they fit like a glove and feel great against your skin.
On that point, it’s interesting quite how polarising Rapha is. On the one hand, you get cyclists who truly worship the brand (these hardcores are often paid members of the “Rapha club” and get exclusive kit), while there are many others who roam the corridors of social media who deem the brand to be rip-off merchants – there was even that Rapha parody website. I wouldn’t say Rapha is like Marmite – because I don’t think many can honestly say they find many of Rapha’s products disgusting – but it certainly reminds me of Apple. It’s an elite product offering, with a hell of an eye for design and an impeccably on point brand. But they’re also bloomin’ expensive. When you get hardcore fans, you tend to attract the other end of the scale too. Do they care? I don’t think so.
It’s fair to say Rapha is now more of a lifestyle brand than simply a fashion brand. It’s not just about the gear you’re wearing for Raphites (Rapharians, Rapharists… I dunno what to call them), it’s about meeting up, drinking coffee, going on rides together, being club members – the whole shebang.
If you step into a Rapha store (as I did in Spitalfields), you’ll quickly see what I mean. This isn’t really a shop. Yes, there are products for sale. But there’s also a café which supplies members with fine coffee. On the terrace, a group of people are watching the latest tour. Downstairs there’s a temperature-controlled vault with a static bike on which you can test all their gear in different climates. It’s fascinating how well Rapha have connected with their fans via their own take on social commerce.
“The ambition of the company is to make cycling the world’s most popular sport.”
These kind of things maintain the ‘exclusivity’ of Rapha, but many people would love to see more affordable products from Rapha. I asked Arjun whether Rapha have any plans to produce a range with a more accessible price point.
“In terms of what Rapha do, we actually have quite a big range of products, from the really high-end stuff down to the core collection, which is slightly more accessible print point with jerseys starting at £90 or £150 for a pair of bibs,” he said.
“We also do bundle offers which provide a decent discount when you purchase several items together – again making the products a bit more accessible.
“The ambition of the company is to make cycling the world’s most popular sport. So, for people that can’t afford to spend £190 on a pair of bib shorts, maybe you can get a pair of bibs and a jersey for a lower price it helps to break down the cost a bit and opens doors for newer cyclists – and the quality of the product isn’t any different to that found on the premium range. They minimise waste, so the protein jersey has an armband which means there’s two different types of materials which makes the labour cost and time to make it bigger. So, with the core collection, what we do is emboss the materials – meaning we can keep the same fine materials.”
With a £90 jersey deemed an accessible price point, I wouldn’t hold my breath on a “high street-priced” Rapha collection any time soon. But, hey, there are plenty of other great brands that do good quality cheaper gear. So, while you wouldn’t draw spots on a Jack Russell and expect him to be a leopard, why would you ask a leopard to behave like a Jack Russell?
Even if you don’t like the pricing, it’s hard to dislike the look of their products. I’ve always wondered where the ideas come from at an upmarket brand like Rapha. Is it a company free-for-all, results-based or a devoted creative team?
“It’s mainly design driven at the mo,“ says Arjun, “which I think is how it should be in terms of following our creative direction. If we want to progress in terms of new ideas and development, there needs to be a focus. We have a guy who works here who’s primary job is to look at future materials, so with that we want to push the boundaries of what’s available. And that’s kind of what Rapha’s all about: keeping the product beautiful, but also innovative.
“The basic breakdown is this: The Design team want do this, the Development team go “cool, that’s really beautiful, this is how we can make it look and work”. Resourcing then come along and say how much this will cost to make, and then between the three there’ll be a back and forth to get to the product right. Then Marketing, Communications and Campaigns do their thing, before Design comeback and do the artwork side of it. Then through to the secondary side of marketing, with the initial acquiring of the audience then CRM, paid media etc. So, all the parts are crucial for a successful product, but it all starts with Design.
“We also have an annual survey where we request feedback from our customers which we use to figure out our new collections. It’s sent to all customers and the Design team look at the feedback from that, as well as look at the numbers to see what sold really well and so on. With this they can then refine and improve existing products – so they’re not disregarding what they’ve done previously. A good example of this is the classic jersey. It was one of the first products that Rapha brought out in 2004. It was a really popular product made from merino and was super lightweight. Last January, we revisited the product and brought out the classic jersey 2. So, with the newer product the zip is more refined, the material’s 150RPM – so more lightweight, the collar isn’t so bulky, and on the back… there’s a zip pocket which is laser cut, there’s a lighter weight story label.”
What, even the story label is lighter?
“Yeah! We’re obsessed with the detail. There also used to be a pocket within a pocket for the pump, but now we just used a little hoop – which is a big saving. It’s these small little details which equate to a big help.”
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, one thing is for sure. Rapha is absolutely obsessed with cycling.