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Graeme Raeburn at Rapha interview

Rapha gilet
James Spender
24 Apr 2015

The lead designer for Rapha talks fabrics, revolutionising cycling caps and catering for the whims of Team Sky.

Cyclist: Do you have to have a schooling in cycling to be a Rapha designer?

Graeme Raeburn: I think that a love of the sport is essential, but I wouldn’t necessarily say a schooling. Cycling’s no longer that slightly arcane and guarded sub-culture, so while many of the people that come on board here are interested in the sport, they don’t necessarily have a huge amount of cycling background. It’s important not to be tunnel-visioned, there are so many different states and attitudes and expectations to cater for among cyclists – the pro rider and the commuter are very different.

Cyc: So what state are you in?

GR: I studied clothing and fashion and have always been interested in cycling, although it was mountain biking originally. When I finished my degree I had a studio space with my younger brother [fashion designer Christopher Raeburn], and his housemate was the cousin of one of the Rapha founders. He said I should come in to speak to the guys as I’d be well-suited to working here. That led to me being made full time about seven years ago. Since then I’ve seen Rapha grow from a single unit warehouse to a global company.

Rapha graeme raeburn

Cyc: And you’ve managed to pick up a pretty big pro team along the way. How has Team Sky changed the way you do things?

GR: Well, the brand’s Pro Team kit really started with Rapha-Condor in 2010, and Team Sky kind of inherited the direction we were already headed in. Working with the pros has given us so much more insight, and I guess authenticity. Everyone has an opinion on overshoes or jackets or legwarmers, and it’s not unusual for riders to actually take a pair of scissors to their team issue kit or sew in some extra stitching here or there. That feedback is invaluable, and it trickles down to the customer.

Cyc: So is there a kind of pro team hotline, like a Bat Phone, only with blue accents?

GR: Almost! We do get lots of riders call and make requests, and we get to find out about modifications to existing kit. For example,
a few years back riders were chopping off the arms of their jackets so they could put them on more easily when wearing gloves. That fed back to us, so we thought why not embrace that? We started making the Pro Team Race Cape with special bands on the sleeves so, if you want, you can cut them down without the edges fraying. Then this autumn we’ll launch a product that is just thigh warmers, because Team Sky are taking their kneewarmers and chopping
them down.

Cyc: Aside from the pros, how does the design process work? Who informs what garments you’ll make next?

GR: Things come about in a series of different ways, like right now a lot of it is customer led. We’re getting very popular in Korea and Japan, where it’s hot and humid, so we’re looking at very light, breathable clothing. We’re also always thinking of different ways to present styles and shapes, and lately we’ve developed that design process to become a bit immersive. So when we were doing the Autumn/Winter 2016 Pro Team collection we made videos and sounds and served up vials of energy drink and Powerbars on cocktail sticks, so you’re tasting that chemical tang and you’re taken to that place.

Rapha bag

Cyc: Who finally signs off on the new products?

GR: We have a panel or committee – it sounds quite official when I say it like that! But they all have different areas of specialism, and Simon [Mottram, Rapha’s owner] is brilliant, really hands on. He was instrumental in designing the touring lightweight shorts designed to protect your modesty while being great to ride in. We also have testers all around the world, so we can send things to test counter-seasonally, so for Spring/Summer 16 we sent things Down Under. It’s a pretty rigorous process, and lots of things get dropped, or rather not released – we keep working on them. It’s not just me waltzing around Zoolander-style creating stuff!

Cyc: Do you find you have product ideas that you simply can’t bring to life because the technology isn’t there?

GR: We are beholden really to the materials and manufacturing processes. We do some fabric innovation ourselves, but there are people further up-stream than us – yarn suppliers, people making the machinery – and we need to wait for them to perfect the technology before we can use it. We use various textile mills in Europe and Asia, and while most love solving the problems we bring them, there are one or two where it’s mad to even try to make them do something different. What they do make is beautiful, but they haven’t moved with the times at all.

Cyc: How is technology changing?

GR: The knitting machines, for example, are now capable of making really, really fine knitting gauges that offer a tremendous amount of cover from a very dense knit but very light fibre. Outwear is another constant innovation, with highly breathable, waterproof fabrics. I think more versatile products are going to become more and more popular. Stuff you can wear in variable temperatures without layering up or taking things off, handy for changeable weather and high altitude, but that you can wear on a warmer day too.

The other big thing is aero. The resurgence of the Hour record is fascinating, and along with the Rio Olympics next year will make that hundredth of a second technology front page news, and that will inform new silhouettes. Hi-vis will be here for a while yet, and there will be more considerate use of brights, paired with classic black or neutral grey for a sophisticated look. Alongside will be more sophisticated textures too, as I think customers will get tired of block, sublimated prints. I’m still a fan of jet black, though, as I’m not quite good enough to ride ‘Euro’ like the old Lampre or Liquigas kits.

Rapha belgium

Cyc: We heard you might also be making sunglasses soon?

GR: Ever since I’ve been working here that’s something we’ve always been looking into. There’s another team working on it so I don’t know everything about it and am not really allowed to say too much. But I do know we’ve approached it in a slightly different way – less sportiness and more luxury to put us in a different category, more up against luxury clothing brands.

Cyc: Where do you take your inspiration for your designs?

GR: Pretty much anywhere, there’s so many amazing active sports out there innovating all the time. Like snow sports, where you have to be hugely aerobic but you need a lot of insulation and weather protection, or swimwear, where you want to really pare things down to be as sleek and trim as possible. Fashion awareness is really important too [Raeburn has a large pin board covered in catwalk model photos], and military tech actually informs things quite a lot. They are experts in layering systems for example, and that ends up on the commercial market. Then there’s football and rugby. You know in rugby it’s now pretty standard to have built in GPS trackers in shirts to monitor things like heart rate and track fatigue. That would be phenomenal to see in cycling, wouldn’t it? Great for the coaches and the fans, live tracers for position, speed and things like that.

Cyc: Don’t you ever worry you’ll run out of new ideas and new directions?

GR: Well, just look at bike tech. You look at a bike now and you think, ‘What more could be improved?’ But then look at a bike from three years ago and it looks dated. And take Formula One – those guys can do four wheel changes in 2.5 seconds, and yet you look at how primitive a wheel change is in a Grand Tour, it hasn’t changed much in 50 years. So it’s still exciting times all over the bike industry.

Rapha team sky

Cyc: Are cotton caps still acceptable?

GR: Definitely! They’re not going to get replaced by bandanas any time soon. For me, the peak down, but it depends on your face. I wear one at my desk with headphones when I’m trying to concentrate; it’s a bit like wearing blinkers. In fact it would be great to make one with a really huge peak for just that. In fact I’m just thinking now – perhaps you could wear it back to front and the long peak could make it really aero for time-trials. I’ve seen some pretty, umm, interesting stuff that time-triallists have made themselves.

Cyc: Could you ever back something that was ugly but performed exceptionally well?

GR: I’m not sure we’d commercialise something that wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but then again, we’d figure it out so it was. I think we do a pretty good job of that, taking something and making it attractive. Like hi-vis – we spent a lot of time tailoring that shade of pink [Rapha’s signature colour]. Not too pink, a bit of orange in it. It’s no accident. But regardless, even with performance clothing there’s a psychological aspect that comes into it, which is does someone want to wear it?