Rapha – How they started

How Rapha started the design and development of their cycle brand

Making design integral to the business

A tight integration of all the company’s activities is an essential part of the brand’s success, insists Scheybeler.

‘The design of our products is the core of the brand, but everything we do has to reflect the same values,’ he explains.

To achieve this, design is a core responsibility for Rapha’s senior management. Mottram and Scheybeler are intimately involved with all key design decisions, from product prototypes to catalogue photo shoots. ‘Design can’t be an afterthought, you need to build it in at the start,’ he continues.

At the same time, Rapha is a highly outsourced organization. Six full-time employees handle product development; marketing and order fulfillment but detailed design, sourcing and manufacture are all outsourced. ‘We use a network of freelance designers and small agencies to handle this work,’ says Scheybeler. ‘More often then not they are cyclists themselves and they bring their own passion to our concepts.’

Core members of Rapha’s extended network include Message, the web design agency that helps with the back-end design and functionality of its website, and Blue Associates, a clothing design and sourcing agency, for liaison with manufacturers and material suppliers. The company has also collaborated with clothing designer Paul Smith.

Managing such a loose network of contributors to produce a cohesive product range is a challenge for Rapha and the process has been a significant learning curve for Scheybeler. ‘I was a creative type in my old role; other people did the organizing: now it is really important that we get the product development process under control ourselves.’

To do this, Rapha has adopted a formal approach to the writing of briefs for every new product, carefully discussing and documenting as much as possible about their vision for each new product– who it is for, how it will be used, what it will be made of, what it will cost. Together with rough sketches produced in house, this brief provides first the company’s designers and later its material suppliers and manufacturing partners with a thorough understanding of the requirements.

Manufacturing takes place across the world, with items produced in the UK (London, Somerset, and Scotland) China, India, Spain, Vietnam and Italy. Increasingly, production is moving to the Far East, although Scheybeler insists that this has not been for cost reasons.

‘We actually found ourselves going to the Far East for quality reasons,’ he notes. ‘We do source from Italy too, but so much experience has been lost from the European textile industry that it was difficult to get the manufacturing expertise we needed.’

Tested to destruction

User testing has been at the heart of Rapha’s product development process. The founders started by testing the products themselves, before eliciting the help of London cycle couriers for prototype evaluation.

‘Couriers are very hard on clothes,’ explains Scheybeler, ‘They wear them a lot, probably don’t look after them very carefully, they carry heavy bags and they don’t wash them as often as perhaps you might expect!’

The result, he explains, was a lot of destroyed clothing in the early prototype phase and a considerable amount of invaluable feedback on durability and design features.

Today Rapha also sponsors its own cycle racing team, in association with leading London cycle retailer Condor. The team not only serves to raise the company’s profile at racing events, it also acts as the perfect test bed for new designs.

Rapha’s founders remain adamant that they will not be shifting the core values of the company to encompass other sports, or even other areas of the sport of cycling.

So while mountain bike enthusiasts might be buying Rapha clothing today, they won’t be seeing products targeted at them. That still leaves the company with room for growth. Worldwide, the bicycle industry is worth in excess of $20billion. In developed markets, this expenditure is split roughly in half between bicycles themselves and accessories and clothing.

Within its target niche, though, Rapha has been quick to exploit opportunities for expansion. To date the company has done this in two ways: by broadening the range of its products and be exploiting even narrow sub-groups within its target audience.

Rapha’s original series of jerseys and caps, for example, has now been expanded to include leg wear, gloves, rain gear, luggage and branded accessories developed in partnership with other companies – including a heart-rate monitor and an elegant training diary.

The company has also produced a more informal range of clothing aimed at the fixed gear movement. Fixed gear bikes are a simple, single speed design popularised by cycle couriers and city commuters, who value their robust, low-maintenance characteristics and the cachet associated with the fact that they are more difficult to ride than conventional machines.

‘We are debating internally how we take these sub-divisions forward,’ says Scheybeler. ‘It will be an interesting balance; we want to develop product ranges for specific types of cycling, while keeping the overall offering consistent.’