Rapha: brand capitalises on the concept of cycling gear as a fashion item – The Guardian

The morning commuter peloton can be a sight. While professional cyclists whizz through tours in a blur of neon Lycra and bulging quads, dedicated amateurs often resort to makeshift gear such as flapping Sports Direct jogging bottoms and sweaty cagoules for the schlep to work.

Simon Mottram, the chief executive of the cyclewear brand Rapha, is the cycling world’s equivalent of the fashion police, and a rush hour ride across London last week only reinforced his belief in the need for his upmarket gear. “The amount of people on bikes was amazing because it was a sunny morning but actually nine out of 10 looked absolutely appalling,” he says. “Not only did they look terrible but the stuff they were wearing …” He tails off muttering about sweaty high-vis jackets and the probable chafe caused by baggy shorts.

Over the past decade Rapha’s stock has risen sharply among fashion-aware cycling aficionados as gruelling long-distance road races and triathlons replace the golf course in the affections of “mamils” – a phrase coined by analysts at the research company Mintel as shorthand for “middle-aged man in Lycra”. Last year Rapha sales jumped almost 30% to £63m as it tapped latent demand for fashionable cycling gear and opened stores – or “clubhouses” as it calls them – as far afield as Seoul and Chicago.

The London-based business founded in 2004 by Mottram, a former branding consultant, got this far in the race under its own steam but recently hired an investment bank to look at options for its future, which could include a sale. Despite its flash gear – Mottram’s commuting outfit of reflective jacket, tights and overshoes would give little change from £500 – it has had less than £6m of external investment from shareholders over the past 13 years.

“We’ve had to trade our way to success,” says Mottram. “We’ve got enough capital to keep growing the way we are growing but you are always thinking, could you go faster?”

Founded in the days before the crowdfunding campaigns that supported companies such as Brewdog, it took more than 200 meetings for the entrepreneur to secure startup cash for Rapha, with some of the pot drawn from friends and family who remain shareholders. It resulted in an unusual set-up with Mottram owning just 12.5% and the remainder shared among a group that includes the private equity firm Active, which has 20%.

“Fundraising was very difficult at the beginning because there was no obvious market and I had no track record of creating clothing or building an e-commerce business,” says Mottram. “I’ve always been a minority shareholder so have had to make it work.”

Last year Rapha was said to be on the shopping list of Catterton, the private equity arm of the luxury goods group LVMH, which has since bought the Italian bike brand Pinarello.

Who would be the right backer for Rapha? “We’re not sure really,” Mottram says. “I’m really happy with the ownership we have. They have been massively supportive. The thing outsiders don’t realise is how pure what we do is. I’ve been allowed to create the perfect model of what I think a consumer brand should be.”

Rapha might not be a household name but in the tribal cycling community it is a “Marmite” brand at the centre of fierce forum debates where detractors see it as the fiefdom of wealthy metrosexuals or the “Raphia”. Named after a defunct French cycling team from the late 1950s, it has unashamedly sought to market a lifestyle – selling everything from luxurious merino jumpers to £20 embrocation creams and bespoke holidays in the Alps where you can “reconnect” with your bike on gruelling cols. It even has its own riding club with 9,000 members paying £135 a year for perks including free coffee in its clubhouses.

“We are totally in love with the sport,” says Mottram. “We love the product and think the product should be as good as the sport. I care about how I look and perhaps that makes me a shallow person but why on a bike should you not?”

Mottram acknowledges the brand is out of reach of some pockets and last year it launched a range of more affordable gear that included jerseys for under £100. “We have carved out a market at the top,” he says. “The future is to keep that quality but to reach more people. Aldi does a cycling jersey for £15 to £20 but we won’t do that because that isn’t really a cycling jersey – it’s a piece of polyester. But we do need to make our pricing more accessible.”

Like an overweight mamil, Rapha’s head office in a converted warehouse in north London is bursting at the seams, and an injection of new funds would presumably accelerate the search for larger premises. Inside, the white-painted brick walls are adorned with cycling memorabilia, while the reception cum coffee bar buzzes like an Apple store. Whereas most companies would put bike racks outside, Rapha’s ground floor is dominated by several rows with new employees indoctrinated into its bike-mad culture.

“Rapha is by its nature a premium lifestyle brand with its clubhouses and holidays,” says one industry executive with knowledge of the sector. “If I was Simon I’d be looking for the support of a luxury brand or the private office of a wealthy family, who will let him carry on doing what he’s doing, rather than a private equity firm. There is a lot more mileage in the brand but there is a need to professionalise some aspects of the way it is run.”

Official statistics point to cycle use increasing in the UK with 3.5bn miles cycled in 2016 – 23% above the figure for 10 years before – but the experience of mainstream chains such as Halfords points to a nation of fair weather cyclists with peaks and troughs as the euphoria created by Team GB is dampened by summer rides in lashing rain.

The global market for cycling paraphernalia is estimated to be worth $47bn – five times that of golf – according to the consultants OC&C, with Rapha seeing scope to move beyond this year’s target of 20 clubhouses to 100 around the world. “The dream for Rapha is the same as for cycling,” says Mottram. “I don’t want it to be a niche sport which has a little boom then goes back into its shell. I want it to be mainstream and for Rapha to be at the centre of making that happen.”

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