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Manufacture – Rapha interview

April 11, 2012

Following on from the post I did recently on Manufacture (find that here) comes this interview on the site with Simon Mottram, the founder of cycling brand Rapha. Glenn Kitson spoke to him in an attempt to get the inside track on Rapha and they’ve kindly let me republish the interview here.

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?

Yes, definitely!

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.

I get called a social worker when they see me with my bike.

“Why can’t you afford a car?” Exactly, you can be the wealthiest person in the word and still ride a bike. Attitudes are changing and it is very exciting that it is taking off the way that it is.

So, my drive was that this is such an amazing sport and that not enough people know about it. I would sit there years ago before the Internet at midnight watching crackly Eurosport coverage of a second division race in Europe that was amazing but I would sit on my own like a social leper thinking this is crazy that more people don’t love this sport. The brand is built all around that sport and that moment and that experience and how amazing it is that that sort of suffering gives you.

The guys in cycling are all media trained and hide behind sunglasses and helmets these days. They have become jockeys now, by and large. But if you look slightly further back to the 80’s, 70’s, 60’s and 50’s, the human experience, the sense of the person as a rider was so strong and so charismatic and appealing. It’s a bit like boxing really, the human condition laid bare through the medium of sport. Over the years of following the sport I came across such wonderful photography and paraphernalia and that was how I believed the sport should sell itself.

This is how it feels and yet I go to the bike shop and all they have are hideous jerseys, some Japanese technology and some spotty kid who doesn’t really get it and doesn’t understand why it is so appealing. So that is where we are with Rapha, this is where it comes from.

How do you express what Rapha is about through your products?

With the products and the product is really the sport. I would think why am I squeezing into a bright yellow Assos jersey that makes me look like a spaceman and only makes me look good one day a year when I am tanned and I have lost a bit of weight. Why am I doing this? This sport should make me look great and make feel great so lets make a better product.

A lot of our drive is to improve product and to make it better. Lets make a product that really is truly great to reflect that the sport is great. The sport is also really hard so don’t just want a sweaty waterproof jacket, you need a waterproof jacket that also breathes because it’s really tough. So why compromise? You should have the best and be offered the best. People don’t think twice about paying £400 for a skiing jacket or a sailing jacket because they understand that it’s either freezing cold or that there are going to be huge waves. Cycling is really tough and yet everyone was only selling £40-£50 jerseys and therefore they were crap and made from rubbish materials. Their features were terrible and not very well thought through. We thought, lets change all that.

This leads us to production, how did your relationship with KTC develop?

It came about because when we started, none of us had any experience of garment manufacture so we used a couple of agents to handle production and develop and source products and one of those agents was working with KTC. Initially the idea for the products came from us.

We would do rough designs and sketches and would work with the agent to turn them into proper formed specs. They would take these to the right factories and earn a commission. That’s now all gone and we don’t use any agents at all. We have a big in-house team now who do it all for us but initially this was the only way we could operate as we didn’t know enough about garment manufacture. We originally approached KTC to make a key piece of outerwear because these are the guys who make the best stuff.

We had to negotiate as we were very small still and there was questions regarding minimums, could we get these guys to make for us? The boot was definitely on the other foot, not that it is exactly on our foot now but it is a much more of a partnership than it was at the start. Initially with all our manufacturers it was a struggle to get anything made and KTC are high end, so they had high minimums and required a high deposit. We started slowly but what we are trying to do at Rapha is for every category to work with the best manufacturers, best in terms of quality. Cost comes into it but we are lucky as we have a premium factored into our price so we can actually go for the best product and the best production and KTC for a number of reasons fits the bill.

There seems to have been a trend for manufacturing on these shores over the last few years. KTC don’t do that. What’s your take on that? 

We are keen to be up front and honest about where we make our products because we have good reason to be. We work with the best people and I think our customers are very discerning and intelligent and very interested and care where our stuff is made. I think it’s important for most people nowadays but our particular customer is very interested. There is a lot of myth making regarding Chinese production and equally there’s a lot of truth. From a political point of view I have as much concern as anybody but for that matter, I have concerns about the United States too.

As long as the companies we work with are doing the best possible work to the right standards and ethics then they are the right people for us and it doesn’t matter whether they are in China or Mexico or Somerset – if they are the right people then we want to work with them.

You mentioned the Rapha customer, who is buying your product, how do you see them? 

Well, initially the Rapha consumer was me but I’m getting a bit old now (laughs)! At the start, the vision of the brand was very much about the male psyche but now we find ourselves selling more and more to women so we have had to adapt that slightly. So that’s quite an interesting journey for us as a brand.

Originally, it was a man between 30 and 50 who had disposable income. Not the youngest guy on the block but not too old either. Quite a successful person in aspects of life but also interested beyond that and passionate about cycling. It was very easy because I was that person, so any decision about marketing or product design or service or any aspect of what we do I could respond visceral as a person. If I liked it we did it or if I didn’t like it we didn’t and that’s still a lot of what we do. But as I get older and become more of a part of the industry we have to be careful. I have to make sure the rest of the team are bringing some of that knowledge and speak to our customer base to get more insight from them. It was incredibly liberating that we could cut through all this. We didn’t need any focus groups or research stuff because we just knew.

It’s almost focused luxury?

Yes, the focus is part of the model that is most important. It’s never been properly articulated before but it is the fact that it is premium; it’s the fact that it is direct to the consumer. I think this is critical because if you care that much about the sport and your customer does then why would you let anyone else get in the way? You want a direct relationship with the customer. 

Bob Sheard (of FreshBritain) once said that the ‘truth’ of Rapha is that they have unearthed the romance of cycling?

Yes and I am very happy to talk about romance and the emotional side of the sport. I think it is very relevant but you have to be very careful. Romance and romantic is a very pejorative expression or word isn’t it? It can be taken to be not serious or perhaps not technical and not performance but for us it is about not making that compromise. We lead first with emotion. When someone sees the Rapha image it’s their heart talking and not their head but they will also need the reassurance that the product is good and correct and will fit well. So, all the rational side is very important but they are definitely making their purchase decision with their heart.

How do you communicate this with your customer?

Photography is very important. We are a marketing-led company and there are some components of that which are very important, one being photography. Right at the beginning a few people that I know suggested that engaging with photography would be really powerful, which was very good advice.

Now film is as important, the moving image and sound is again incredibly powerful at projecting the same idea.

It’s about the human being and the human experience, it’s not about the race, it’s about what is happening in the person’s head during the race.

To read more interviews in this brand series, go to the website here: Manufacture.

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