"Nothing is complete until it is"
it's the 'second album' syndrome, only in this case, applied to an altogether different realm. from the depths of a genre filled with incongruously coloured polyester and lycra, arose rapha, from their then kentish town headquarters in a former piano factory. that first offering of white or black sportwool (long before any of us had the faintest idea what sportwool actually was) with a contrasting hoop on the left sleeve was, to place not too fine a point upon it, a breath of fresh air. many of today's cyclists will be blissfully unaware that there was ever a big bang from which cycling apparel was desperately trying to escape but bereft of any ideas as to how that could be achieved. today's landscape of coutured garmentage is an altogether different place than it was at the end of last century.
the problem, as many a simon cowell curated boy band will be aware, is not simply how to follow up that initial success, but build upon it, offering a range of products that fill corners of the cycling wardrobe we scarcely knew were ever there in the first place. as rapha head towards their 13th year in the peloton, there are still those who think the whole imperial works regime is merely a very clever marketing exercise for which most of us have fallen, hook, line and sinker. if that truly is the case, you have to admit, they're darned good at it and we're nowhere near as smart as we thought we were.
rapha ceo, simon mottram, was a brand consultant before his obsession with road cycling brought him to invent rapha. in those early days, you could call the office and he'd often be the guy answering the phone. it will likely not suprise you to learn that is no longer the case. as rapha has grown, expanding across the four corners of the globe, matters have necessarily become more corporate and judicious delegation has long been the order of the day, not least of which regards matters of design. imperial works is well populated with quality designers, but someone has to oversee all that creativity, channeling it in ways that happily marry quality with vision.
that man is alex valdman.
he's scarcely a newcomer to cycling having previously worked at giro sport design, nor is he unfamiliar with the world of garmentage, having spent time at levis. it doesn't seem too unreasonable a question therefore, to ask what brought alex valdman to rapha?
"There are jobs, passion projects, careers and then there's purpose. In the sea of products, content and brands I saw the name Rapha shine through as a place with purpose and a greater mission than just making product. It appeared to me, looking from the outside, that such clarity and simplicity can only come from the refinement of a very complicated purpose. Rapha's simplicity and modernity attracted me. Simon's (Mottram) work aligned with my values and even before I met him, I knew that I wanted to come and work for him."
many would argue not against valdman's position at rapha, but the true purpose of that position. after all, the company reached its ten year anniversary party overlooking the london stage finish line of the 2014 tour de france with a healthy vigour. no need to move along; still plenty to see here. in truth, rapha's output over the past twelve years has displayed an exemplary design ethos, one that seems well established. does alex see his current role as 'simply' curating the same path, or are radical ideas afoot?
"I respect what was established. It's on a par with many iconic products out there in the world. The question is, does everything have a shelf-life when you're dealing with technical products?
"You're constantly pushing innovation forward. Which will always turn the page. I believe in the theory of evolution and it guides our philosophy of constant modification. Nothing is complete╩until it is. And until that moment happens, we will keep striving for the perfect experience by experimenting and tweaking to create the most distraction free ride."
over the course of the years between 2004 and the present day, there have been several entrants into the cycling apparel market traipsing out the well-worn cliché that when time came to add to the cycling wardrobe, they simply couldn't find the very items for which they searched. in today's arguably saturated world of cycle clothing retail, you'd have to be very, very hard to please not to find something that works for you. but that often means the very act of choosing one over another is harder than it ought to be; a nice problem to have. amongst a sea of jerseys, jackets, bibs and armwarmers, what sets rapha apart from its competitors in terms of design?
"That we will go the extra mile time and time again to ensure a better experience. We cross the world in search of technologies, components and vendors that will move the needle forward. But more importantly, we have deep relationships with our community and those relationships give us numerous opportunities to create for the needs of ourselves and others."
though the flak may have abated slightly in recent times, rapha has frequently been on the receiving end of pointed criticism over its pricing. i recall a small poster from an early version of the wall of pain that adjoined simon mottram's desk in kentish town; it said 'it's good that you're used to pain. now, about our prices." though i'd be the last to pretend that their price-range is 'low-cost' in anyone's theory of economics, rapha often seemed to suffer where others were free to tread. it was rarely seen as a level playing field.
however, earlier this year they released the core range, a collection of jerseys and shorts that still said 'rapha' but with a price tag under the magic £100. was this the result of perceived customer demand, or an exploration of what could be achieved where cost was a principal factor in the process?
"We didn't ever talk about price. We talked about refinement without compromise. Quality without fault."
it would be naive to consider the cycle clothing market to be not a part of the world of fashion, every bit as much in thrall to the whims of change and trend. no doubt many of us consider the wearing of a wool molteni jersey to be at least one step removed from the world of the catwalk, but it would surprise you just how few thus dressed are particularly well-versed in the palmares of mr merckx. for reasons more affiliated with commerce than with need or desire, the world of fashion has almost unilaterally settled into a release schedule that goes like this: spring/summer followed by autumn/winter. does alex ever find the ritual need for these releases restricting, or is that a part and parcel of the industry that has become almost sacrosanct?
"We've unsubscribed from that ritual for something more bespoke to us. As we are truly global, we ship hot weather product at the same time as deep winter product. We divide the year into two halves to help╩us organize the collections."
if you've spent any appreciable time in the saddle, you will be already aware that cyclists have relatively few, yet demanding needs. some more than others. it is the job of companies such as rapha to satisfy those demands, always bearing in mind that more often than not, those solutions will be harmful to our bank accounts. to hark back to that woolly molteni jumper, just such an item was once thought of as 'state of the art' in a time when the art was more of an unexplored concept than a tangible reality. technology has now intervened. but does the design process commence with the properties of a given fabric and how it might offer a particular solution, or does the design go looking for a material that fits the intended purpose?"
"Both. Sometimes you know what you are looking for to solve a specific problem and find something unexpected that triggers the imagination to re-imagine what riding could be."
technology, of course, has bedfellows other than those that ride a bicycle. moore's law regarding the annual doubling of transistor numbers per square inch on integrated circuits is currently on the verge of becoming irrelevant, as apple and its peers move computing power away from the desktop and into your hands with increasing rapidity. the occupants of one, infinite loop have taken on the mantle of offering solutions to problems that we hadn't realised were there in the first place. and doing so with a consummate sense of style.
i have often maintained that rapha is cycling's equivalent of apple computer. not only are both companies' design solutions admirably elegant, but the marriage of style and substance, more often than not, ultimately seems most equitable. apple's recent iphone video concerning alex valdman would seem to at least partially acknowledge that contention. how did the apple connection arise?
"It's interesting you ask that. It goes back to the cycling community's magnetism. Like-minded people hanging out with like=minded people. Like with most people that ride, the brands have shared values and shared passions."
as i shared above, rapha was born almost exclusively from one man's passion for the sport, a passion that encompasses every aspect of its legendary heritage and a mission to share it with everyone who comes within a brake cable's length of a bicycle. one side of that fervour manifests itself in a customary wednesday morning staff bike ride from imperial works, a massed participatory event evidenced by rapha's substantial area set aside for bicycle parking on the ground floor of imperial works in tileyard road.
it would be an odd individual indeed who joined the imperial ranks without their own passion for two wheels and a derailleur. thus, though it seems almost churlish to ask, is alex a keen cyclist?
"I am a California cyclist who is still adjusting to getting out on traffic dense, rainy mornings. That process 'sucks' for the first hour. However, the proximity to great European roads is spot-on coming from the West coast. Riding in the old world never gets old."
tuesday 18 october 2016..........................................................................................................................................................................................................