How Rapha pedalled its way to success in cycling fashion

By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News

  • Published
A cyclist wearing Rapha clothingImage source, Rapha

Simon Mottram, the founder of upmarket cycling clothing company Rapha, happily admits that his business has a polarising effect on people.

The cause of the divide mainly comes down to the high prices that the UK firm charges.

You either think that spending £110 on one of Rapha's jerseys is worth it, or you consider it far too expensive, especially when you can buy similar products from other brands for less than half the amount.

"Some people love us, and some people don't like us, and that is fine," says Mr Mottram, the 49-year-old chief executive.

"But our stuff is really good, and if someone is going to spend, say, eight hours on a bike... then their clothing should be really good.

"I don't want to make bad shorts or jerseys just to hit a [lower] price point."

Image source, Rapha
Image caption,
Simon Mottram standing outside Rapha's store in Soho, central London


Founded in London in 2004, selling directly to consumers via its website, Rapha is today one of the biggest names in cycling clothing.

On track to see its annual turnover surpass £50m this year, it supplies the kit to Team Sky, the leading British professional cycling team that includes 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome.

And most importantly, its products are bought in their hundreds of thousands by cyclists around the world.

Rapha's popularity is a far cry from the difficulties Mr Mottram faced when he was first trying to secure funding to start the business back in 2001.

A lifelong cycling enthusiast, he says: "It took me 18 months to raise £140,000, which is not a very good success rate.

"I had more than 200 meetings to try to get that money."

Image source, ERIC FEFERBERG
Image caption,
Rapha has kitted out Team Sky since 2013

Mr Mottram says he was seen as a risky investment at the time because it was a number of years before the current boom in the popularity of cycling began.

"No bank would touch me," he says. "Who was really interested in cycling back in 2001 and 2002? It was just something us weirdos did.

"And there was the fact that I had no experience in either selling clothing or running an online business."

Mr Mottram, who had previously enjoyed a career in brand development, was finally able to secure the funding from six wealthy private investors and "a long trail of friends and family".

The overall investment deal meant that from day one he only had a minority stake in the business.

Word of mouth

Mr Mottram says he came up with the idea for Rapha in 2001 because he was fed up with what he saw as the poor quality of available cycling clothing at the time.

He says that most garments didn't fit well, or were made of uncomfortable materials, while others only came in garish colours.

"I used to be appalled at the products available."

Image caption,
Rapha's growth has been helped by an increase in the number of people cycling

So while continuing to work as a freelance brand developer, advising the likes of BP and Peugeot on finessing their images, in his spare time he worked on his idea for a new cycling clothing company.

Mr Mottram wanted to design and sell clothes that looked good, fitted properly and worked well in terms of the support, comfort and protection they offered.

Drawing up initial jersey designs, he settled upon the name Rapha after he was inspired by photos of a 1950s road bike team called St Raphael.

Image source, Rapha
Image caption,
Rapha introduced a range of clothes for women in its sixth year of business

He then started to meet designers, research fabrics and visit potential manufacturers. With initial products made, and a website made up, the firm was open for business.

Rather than pay for advertising, Mr Mottram decided to use his expertise as a brand expert to build up Rapha's profile via word of mouth alone.

To help launch the business in 2004 Rapha held a Tour de France exhibition in a fashionable building in east London, inviting movers and shakers from the professional road bike racing community and cycling journalists.

And from the beginning Mr Mottram worked hard to make Rapha an inspirational brand, posting glossy videos and long-form essays on its website, exalting the joys of cycling.

Soon sales started to take off, and the firm turned over £300,000 in its first year.

'Carte blanche'

However, it was in 2007 that sales "really started to motor", as cycling suddenly started to become fashionable in the UK.

Mr Mottram puts this down to a number of factors, including the Tour de France visiting London that year, and the growing popularity of the government's Cycle to Work scheme, which enables people to get bikes at a reduced price and encouraged more people to commute by bike.

Image source, FRANCK FIFE
Image caption,
Rapha says it got a boost from the Tour de France visiting London in 2007

Then in 2008 the GB cycling team dominated the Summer Olympics in Beijing, topping the medal table with eight golds, four silvers and two bronzes. And Team Sky rider Sir Bradley Wiggins won the 2012 Tour de France.

With such successes inspiring more people to take up cycling in the UK, the biggest group of new amateur cyclists turned out to be middle-aged men, who were given the nickname "Mamils" - middle-aged men in Lycra. And these men more often than not have the money to buy Rapha's clothing.

The deal with Team Sky came in 2013, after Sky moved to Rapha from German sportswear giant Adidas.

Image source, Clive Rose
Image caption,
The continuing success of the GB cycling team has also helped boost interest in the sport

Now employing more than 250 people in total; as well as the website Rapha has four bricks-and-mortar stores in London, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo.

More outlets are in the pipeline, as it continues plans to expand around the world, while its products are made in China, Italy and Portugal.

Mr Mottram still only has a minority stake in the business, but he says this has never concerned him.

"If I had a single shareholder who was domineering and trying to change my strategy, I would have found that very difficult," he says. "But I have been given carte blanche to frame the thing the right way."

He adds: "I know we could make a successful niche business, but I never dreamed we'd get this big."

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