Not Just Your Average Cyclist

Divisive for its pricing and well respected for its styling, Rapha is a hot topic on the cycling scene. For a number of years the popularity of the sport has seen a significant increase thanks to international sporting events such as the Tour de France and the Olympics. Isabel Carmichael meets Head of Design at Rapha Alex Valdman for a whistle stop tour of how he wound up working at one of the world’s most influential cycling clothing brands.

Alex Valdman

Alex Valdman, Head of Design at Rapha

The discourse surrounding the cycling world can be polarising, and as such there is often a large amount of discontent amongst the distinct factions that exist within this ever growing world. There are the cycling enthusiasts; Lycra© wearers who take to the roads during weekends, they own equipment and have superior aerodynamics and they are fairly smug; the hipster cyclists for which helmets aren’t necessary, backpacks are, they often have beards (except for the girls) and wear whatever they want, because they don’t care. Then there is the rest of us, where we belong is unclear, we like cycling and sometimes we get messy doing it. The common ground is of course the activity but the common problem is the clothing, because not everyone wants to wear so-called ‘cycling clothing’ every time they get on a bike. So what if there was a nice middle ground option that would allow you to cycle freely, look good, sweat less, if at all, and look smart enough to arrive at your destination without having to immediately change? Thankfully this exact question was once posed by Rapha founder Simon Mottram who took matters into his own hands and set up the company. Around about the same time, the now Head of Design at Rapha, Alex Valdman was thinking the same thing.

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Track Jacket with Merino Wool Sweatshirt, constructed using a soft and breathable merino wool and Lycra blend

How it began

As pipedreams go, Alex Valdman’s went pretty well. Imagine the scenario; a frustrated non-professional designer and student-skater-turned-hedge fund manager is spotted on the street wearing a homespun hoodie. He is praised for his innovative design work and individual style; he is catapulted into the design limelight and ends up hanging out with Kanye West in LA.

So goes the story of Alex Valdman.

It was 2005 when Valdman, third generation tailor and finance student decided to throw in the towel on his studies and pursue fashion in a serious way. Some fairy tale-like coincidences ensue and the rest is history as they say; designer gets spotted, quits finance school with two classes still to complete, guesses the email address of the right person and winds up in LA for a while with Kanye West advising at his former streetwear brand Pastelle. Time passes and before long he gets headhunted, aged 26, by Levi’s to head up Global Menswear Design with a cool $2 billion worth of revenue to turnover on his shoulders. Flash forward a couple of years and a move to Europe; skateboards are now professional road bikes and Valdman is bringing cycling clothing into the modern age.

Still perhaps considered a baby in the design world, Valdman has, in his own words, matured and aged quicker than the average thanks to a serendipitous decade of off-chance meetings and a desire to create well designed and fashionable (without being fashion-led) streetwear. It won’t be until 2016 that Rapha debuts Valdman’s first full collection (there are a couple of pieces currently available); the best is yet to come we are told.

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Above from left: Rapha Track Jacket, contemporary tracksuit jacket for insulation and utility in the city; Rapha Cotton Trousers with a slim fit and gradual taper at the lower leg, for everyday use on and off the bike.

An understanding of fabrics was established from an early age thanks to Valdmans’ family influences. His mother, a designer; grandfather; a tailor and father, a software engineer at Adobe; all were prominent forces in his Ukrainian upbringing which saw his family move around Europe before settling in San Francisco when Valdman was a child. Despite initially ignoring his inherited talents and pursuing the commercial route at business school, his experiment in the word of finance was short lived, even with initial reservations by his immediate family. “I went to school to study finance but I hated it. I was working at a hedge fund doing stock analysis but I was thinking about streetwear and skating [all the time]. Back then bikes and streetwear were emerging trends and there weren’t many brands producing good quality streetwear. I didn’t have any money so I went to a fabric store to see what I could get.”  This notion for wanting to improve quality in sports and streetwear was also something shared by Rapha founder Simon Mottram; they just didn’t know each other yet.

Fortuitous guess

It was through a fortuitous guess on Kanye West’s email address that the pair ended up in touch. Valdman spent the summer in LA with West working on his streetwear brand, later crediting him as a defining influence alongside his family to his working ethos. “He’s a brilliant dude. I was 25 at that time. He put a lot of heart and soul into his music so to see him put it into a different medium was truly inspiring.” It wasn’t long after then that he was in touch with Mottram at Rapha and things started to move from streetwear to cycle wear via denim.

Valdman’s time at Levi’s was also instrumental, recognising that it was quite an achievement to “breakthrough a well-established ‘old-school brand’ mind set” at such a young age. It was there he fine-tuned his craft, learning about twists on yarns and micro engineering; skills which he utilises daily at Rapha when deliberating endurance materials for cycling.

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Founded in 2004 by freelance brand developer Simon Mottram with currently only four stores worldwide in London, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo, Rapha isn’t yet a cycling clothing giant but it is making a big noise with new outlets planned for the coming years. With a number of well-known cycling professional fans and weighty brand associations – Team Sky switched from partnering with Adidas to Rapha in 2013 and they have since collaborated with Paul Smith – Rapha is spearheading the cycling movement worldwide.

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Price and quality is something very much associated with the brand; Founder Mottram even once alluded in an interview to the brand being like the ‘Marmite’ of sportswear. People are divided by the cost; a jacket will set you back at least £200.

Rapha prides itself on its level of test rigour and the craftsmanship of those who design and make the garments. Surprisingly to some, many Rapha garments are made in China with some fabrics sourced in Japan. The brand is concerned by its carbon footprint and environmental impact and as such it has worked out that it is more eco-friendly to handle some of the creation process in Asia. As Valdman explains, “China gets it right because [it] has had 40 years to learn how to do things well and therefore the craftsmanship can be superior [to Europe]. We source some fabrics in Japan because there is nothing else like it in Europe, so it is easier and much more environmentally stable to bring things directly from Asia.”

For a brand that started out with the ambition to create good-looking and well-designed clothing for cyclists whatever their background, it has formed a community. Rapha even has its own members club that organises cycle activities for the intrepid cyclist. Valdman is heavily involved with these trips and regularly attends, wearing Rapha, naturally wanting to road test garment durability and style. He adds, “when you’re obsessed with something you naturally want to know everything about it – the notion is that you want to wear things in and not wear things out – so fabric takes on your character, that’s all you care about.”

Please find further information and shop online at Rapha.cc

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