In the grand scheme of brand history, heritage-inspired cycling apparel label Rapha is still in its relative infancy, having started only eight years ago in 2004. In this short period of time, the brand has garnered an intensely loyal following amongst cyclists of all walks of the sport — a loyalty that can only be explained by Rapha’s incredible devotion to carefully cultivating not only their brand, but stoking a passion for the lifestyle and the sport itself. They also sell “luxury performance” cycling apparel, but in the grand scheme of the brand and the vision of its founder, that’s almost beside the point. KTC Manufacture Magazine recently had a chance to sit down with Simon Mottram, the founder and current Chief Executive at Rapha, to chat about the brand’s roots, its philosophy, and how he set about identifying his market and establishing his brand, before developing a uniquely niched product that tied it all together. Here are a few excerpts:
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
Yes, my name is Simon Mottram and I am chief executive and founder of Rapha. Before doing this I spent 15 years as a brand and marketing consultant. Before that, years and years ago I was a chartered accountant and I took the unusual step from this into design and marketing because that was what I was always interested in. I managed to make this work for me, so I had a lot of experience of advising brands on development and strategy etc…particularly luxury brands.
Which brands were these?
I did a lot of work for high-end drinks and high-end car brands, Aston Martin and Jaguar. This was 15-20 years ago. I also did some work for Chanel and Burberry, brand evaluations for those guys.
So you understand this market then?
I lived in that world a little bit and I enjoyed that world. I couldn’t really afford to be that big a participant in it but if you think back ten years ago it was pretty exciting and there were lots of interesting things being done. There was lots of talking regarding the direction that the luxury market would go, from being simply expensive and exclusive to making it fit with this democratised ‘internet world’. That is exactly where we (Rapha) fit. There are a number of brands, such as Apple even, that are kind of luxury in the sense that they are beautiful and curated and the product is incredibly well thought through. They are pretty exclusive and yet we all have them. So the question was how do you manage such ‘mass luxury’. I did a lot of work around these things and the idea of Rapha came from me being a customer and being a rider. I would go to my local bike shop and walk in with my wallet open with the intention of buying something. I wouldn’t want to buy a bike every week so I’d look for a cap or something that would connect me with the sport and I would walk away with money in my wallet because what was on offer was really horrible. It was bad quality, it was positioned badly, and nothing was ‘talking’ to me. It became a huge frustration and an obsession to find a better way of doing it. What I realised was that there was a gap in the market for people like me who were a little bit older, a bit discerning and had money to spend on something authentic and wanted a better quality product. People like me wanted something super focused and not just for everybody. I spent a lot time travelling the world with my work and talking to people about bikes and realised that there might be a few more people like me out there and this is what Rapha became eventually. A market opportunity that I saw and a personal passion mixed with professional expertise.
So having identified what you wanted to do, how easy was it to get the ball rolling?
I knew I was OK at doing the branding sort of thing but I didn’t know anything about making products. I knew nothing about online retail either. Back in 2000–2001 there wasn’t much online garment retail anyway, so all the basic bits were missing but the stuff about building a brand I was good at.
So how did you deal with the online ‘democratisation of the luxury market’?
Well, I’m not sure that we really have concluded that yet. I think it’s a constant journey that we’re on, certainly as a brand that has started with nothing. We are on that journey because for the first few years of our time we sold a very little amount and there was only a certain amount of people who could get it. We sold out all of the time and although this probably helped build the brand, you shouldn’t really sell out, and we try not to these days (laughs). When you’re a young brand and you are growing quite quickly you do tend to sell out and the people who bought it are the early adopters, the style leaders, the people who are first in the group that see something new. So there was an amazing exclusivity about it, as you just couldn’t get it. People had heard about it but didn’t really know about it. Now we are eight years old and in London you see it, in New York, in San Francisco, in Tokyo it has presence. So Rapha is now much better known and we are obviously trying to grow. We are not attempting to be purposely tiny though. We are happy to grow but then the question becomes ‘how do you keep it special?’
It’s about having a strong opinion?
So as you developed the brand, how did the product develop?
Well, the brand came first and continues to come first. The whole idea about Rapha is about the sport and how tough it is and how beautiful it is and the experience of it.
You know as a rider that the experience of riding a racing bike quickly over long distances, over difficult terrain is so incredibly positive and life affirming and invigorating. For me the greatest moments of my life outside family stuff is those moments on a bike when you’re probably a kilometer from the top of a climb, not when you’re at the top because that’s when it’s over, when you’re almost there but you’re not sure and you think you just might make it. For me it’s nirvana. If only you could bottle that up! It is a brilliant sport yet most people think it is geeky and laugh at you when you walk into the office in cycling shoes.
Avid cyclists and marketing aficionados alike will appreciate the rest of this fascinating interview, which can be found here.