If you ride a bicycle in any capacity, chances are that you’ve heard of British cycling brand Rapha. And if you have heard of them, you’re likely either love them or hate them. No brand in recent memory has incited such polarizing reactions from cyclists and trendsetters alike. Some love Rapha for producing fashionable, well-tailored quality products; others find that the brand is pretentious and overly hyped. But no matter where you stand, one thing’s undeniable: Rapha cares about the sport of cycling deeply and does what it thinks is best to honor the “most wonderful sport” in the world.
The person responsible for Rapha’s display of enthusiasm for fashion and cycling is the company’s head of brand and central marketing, James Fairbank. Fairbank worked in a bike shop and at Carhartt before coming to Rapha’s London headquarters, where he oversees everything from the brand’s look book, website, photography, print, cycle club, retail space and incredible films. While stopping over in London, we had the chance to sit down with him at the Imperial Works, Rapha’s HQ, for a quick chat.
Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Themselves. People should take time out to get to know who they are.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. I did a long ride about four years ago called Paris-Brest-Paris. [Ed. Note: the 1,200-kilometer road race is one of the world’s oldest and longest; James finished it in 61 hours 48 minutes.] The ride itself was difficult and there were definitely moments during it, after 60 hours without any sleep, that I was hallucinating enough to not enjoying it — and the hardest thing in that was that [the race] wasn’t that big of a deal to me. I was like — why am I doing this? The ride itself wasn’t that inspiring and there was quite a lot of training that went into this (laughs). And at that point I realized that ultra distance stuff is not for me. I admire people who do it and have that mental strength, but it’s not for me.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. Timing-wise, we just started putting down roots for what we’re going to be doing spring and summer of 2015. Obviously it’s quite a long way down. And there’s the relationship with [British professional cycling team] TeamSky that started two years ago. It has taken a long time to develop a relationship with the team and the riders.
After 60 hours without any sleep, I was hallucinating enough to not enjoying it. I was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. My bike. There’s a load of people that I’d really struggle without, but I rely on bike to provide a place where I can get away from my phone and everything else and let my mind wander. It’s important when you live in a city like London. You just need to get away.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: There are two facets to this. On one hand is my partner, Pip, [who] is a doctor. She inspires me daily because of what she does. My mom is a geriatric nurse and she inspires me too — both because of their selfless choices of careers. On the other hand, in cycling sense, I’m inspired by my friends — Ultan Coyle, who is a 24-hour time-trial champion, and Phil Deeker — and anyone who is sticking their neck out and trying to do something that’s beyond what they think are capable of doing.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. I always have a few books on the go. I’m reading a book called Levels of Life and another quite more functional book called Training for the New Alpinism, written by Steve House.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. Come to terms with who you are. Don’t go and try to change yourself.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. I really have no idea but I guess I want to be remembered as being a person who can be relied on. I always want to help people when things aren’t going well for them, which is sort of the definition of friendship to me.
Q. What is your background?
A. I did a degree in Geology. When I finished university, I went to work at a bike shop and raced road bikes for a couple of years in central London, which kind of taught me a little bit about the business of bicycles. Then I realized that the bike shop wasn’t going to get me far, and London’s other attractions started to distract me a little bit. I got a job at Carhartt around [the age of] 23 and worked my way up to the head of business, and was there for about eight years before I met Simon [Rapha’s founder]. I saw their first exhibition in 2004 and thought, “This is a brand doing it right”. I adored cycling, but no one [had] done [such] a great job of showing how amazing the sport was from a brand perspective. So I asked Simon to keep me in his mind; and here I am.
Q. What do you ride?
A. Depends on what I’m doing. If I’m doing road cycling, I ride a custom Ricky Feather steel bike as part of a racing team that I put together with Ricky called Feather Cycles Racing.
Q. Rapha changed the way people perceive a cycling brand — and more broadly, altered the notion of what it means to be a brand overall. What new challenges come with all this success?
A. I think the most obvious challenge is what happens when you become more ubiquitous. When we first started out, we were everyone’s little secret — both within the cycling [world] and the design community, who appreciated our film and photography. There’s currency in telling people about new things. It’s one of those things that if you have an inside secret of brands your friends haven’t heard of and introduce them to it. That kind of peer-to-peer marketing was very important to us in the beginning. Then when you become a company of certain size, you see a lot more people wearing Rapha. The issue [comes with] people who were early adopters who do tend to move quite quickly when they think things [have] blown up too big. The challenge here is: How do you make sure that you remain relevant to them? The one thing that keeps us grounded in that sense is making sure that we establish ourselves through honoring the sport and our commitment to quality — whether that is through creative output through products we make, since that is still the monolith: the way the brands arrange themselves. It’s so important for us to make sure that we pay attention to detail as the brand and number of customers grows.
It’s challenge for us because in the earlier years, we knew who our best customers were. And now we are kind of into a mailing list of 160,000 people — and we have a lot of people who are emotionally and financially invested in this business we don’t know personally. And that’s kind of terrifying — because you really want to go and say ‘Thank you very much’ to everyone. It’s something that we can be much smarter about by using data effectively and tailoring communications. So that’s probably the next challenge — and that’s the way we remain special to people, plus quality of product, quality of storytelling and quality of content.
Q. You’re likely aware that Rapha is a very polarizing brand. What are your thoughts on that?
A. We are acutely aware of it, and I wouldn’t say we set out to provoke, but we are very comfortable with being polarizing. If you leave people feeling ambivalent, I think, in brand terms, you failed. I would much rather people loved us or hated us than just didn’t feel anything toward us at all. We stand for something — and that is really important for me. I think that brands try to be everything to every person, and I wouldn’t know how to buy into that. I wouldn’t know what they stand for, what they are. I think we are all sort of bombarded by so many messages to effectively purchase something. If you can kind of say, “I know what that company is and I know what they stand for”, it’s absolutely fundamental to who we are as business. We don’t deliberately go out of our way to annoy people, but we are comfortable letting people making decisions. You can’t please everybody if you’re going to make a statement. Those two things are not mutual.
Q. Film/photography is very important component of your brand. Your photos are not necessarily about products; often, they’re about provoking emotion. Can you share how you guys approach film/photography for the brand?
A. If you go back a decade, Simon always wanted the brand to be owned by the company and not driven through wholesale. He wanted it to be principally online. So just showing unemotional product photography was not going to do anything in brand terms; there had to be a point of view. This sort of goes back to the polarizing issue as well: there had to be a point of view to the way that the brand was perceived creatively — and photography was incredibly important. The initial photographic direction was largely informed by the book we just republished called Kings of Pain, which features bikes — but mainly features humans and individuals because, you know, the feeling of riding a bike is sort of universal. Everyone knows what it’s like to have a bad day or to blow up or maybe struggle in the heat or to crash whether you’re a professional or an amateur. Especially if you’re an amateur you feel like you have this whole journey to go through.
I would much rather people loved us or hated us than just didn’t feel anything toward us at all.
Simon realized early on that if you can give an emotional point of view on what cycling is — make it fundamentally beautiful — that was going to work really well. So the original commission of Ben Ingham, the photographer who does all of our campaign work, was incredibly important. Ben shot 35mm B&W for years and now he does digital, medium format, but principally it’s the same approach, shooting people’s faces and landscapes, because it asks people to dream. I rely heavily on cycling to deal with the day-to-day, and we feel like our customers feel the same way. So the way that the emotional aspect is portrayed is incredibly important and film-making is kind of an extension of that. Because if you do something from a creative point of view — our take on cycling — and allow people to interpret it themselves just to get them thinking about their next bike ride, that bonds really tightly to the brand. Of course there’s a marketing function to this; but mainly we’re trying to think like customers.
Q. Cyclist should never wear or be caught wearing?
A. Nothing. I’m not down for naked bike rides or riders.
For the serious athlete in your life, check out our Holiday Gift Guide here (it include’s Rapha’s Kings of Pain.