Alex Valdman is on a mission. As Rapha’s Creative Director, he doesn’t necessarily want you to love lycra, but he does want you to love cycling. And if his design career can be taken as a prediction of the success of this mission, then prepare to buy yourself a leg-dedicated razor — Valdman entered the design world with a reversible hoodie built from materials he purchased at Jo-Ann Fabrics before quickly moving up the ranks to work with the likes of Kanye West, Levi’s and Giro. Now, at Rapha, the Soviet-Russia-slash-New-York-raised enterpriser is harnessing the simple and the abstract in an effort to make cycling the most popular sport in the world.
As with cycling, Valdman’s take on design focuses on the process, the journey. “It’s why I’m a designer. The best design is point A to B, not point A to B, C, D, E. It’s not about taking detours, it’s about solving the problem,” says Valdman. And despite Rapha’s inherent style appeal, design shouldn’t be overly consumed by visuals. “I think most people don’t want to be decorated by a designer. Let your personality be the decoration of who you are, not the product.” Those hesitant to embrace the sport will appreciate that notion; the Flyweight Bib, a highly complicated yet visually simple technical garment, is the perfect example of the idea at work. We recently had a chance to pick Valdman’s brain about how it came to be.
Rapha’s Flyweight Bib Shorts were designed with lightweight four-way stretch fabric for cycling in hot and humid climates.
Q: What’s unique about the Flyweight Bib? What were you designing for?
A: It’s the most technical bib on the market right now. Typically a lot of these warp knits need to have a certain compression. When I say compression, I don’t mean compression tights, but the ability to really hold your body parts together, your soft tissues. So something that has the right force, strength, elasticity, but also that modulus that helps you recover. We sought out a lingerie maker, basically, because that machinery is much finer — so the yarn is much finer. The big challenge was, “How do you still get that modulus from a fabric that is much finer?” Because when it’s much finer, it’s also much lighter. You still want that stretch, you want that power that holds you together. And so the first step was finding that fabric and testing it — testing it dry and testing it wet. How can you create a grip where it doesn’t feel like it’s a big donut around you, something that feels like it’s singular? That’s a big word that constantly gets used — singular. Because if you’re not creating singularity, it just feels like you’re piecing together objects that shouldn’t really be integrated into one another.
Q: You’re talking about different components of a single garment, yes?
A: The uppers, the binding — elements that you need to actually hold the product together to help create not just the product, but to create something that disappears when you wear it. Because if you can notice certain elements of it, it’s not a great product. The best products are the ones that you don’t notice, they’re just working in the background.
Q: What was the starting point, the impetus, for the Flyweight Bib?
A: Hot and humid climates. We didn’t have anything in the range that serviced Singapore or Washington, D.C. in the summer. You know, places that are just absolutely all-encompassing — you feel like you’re in a steam room when you’re riding. We wanted to create something that made that riding experience more pleasurable.
Q: What does the development process look like?
A: It’s not just saying, “Let’s do this and that.” You start testing eight different options for upper materials and you try to stick your thumb through it. You try to see how it reacts in the wash with darker colors. Does it pick up on the different pigments and dyes from, you know, black nylons or black polyesters? You start thinking about the elastic properties of the binding. How can you create elastication that is compressive, but at the same time not restrictive? That balance is really difficult to achieve because you’re on the bike bent over and you’re standing up. That just becomes a mathematical problem. Then you have to grade that into all the different sizes. So you make this perfect medium, then you have to make a perfect XXL, a perfect XS. That journey, that process, is what the design is. It’s not the final product.
Q: What would you say the biggest challenge in the design process was?
A: The fabric failed wear-testing numerous times. The sampling material that we had originally was different, the third proto was different, and the fourth. We kept working with the mill on trying to get consistency in the fabrication. That was the biggest roadblock. When you select a fabric, that doesn’t mean that when you order bulk, that it’s going to behave the same way. So it’s wear-testing, wear-testing, wear-testing.
Q: How many iterations do you typically go through for a product?
A: With a jersey, with enough experience you could get to a good place in two or three iterations. Bibs, eight to twenty. I can’t think of anything more complicated than bib shorts. Because you have the chamois component, you have the modulus component, you have the upper component — and all these things have to work together and integrate. It takes a long time to master.
Q: What problem are you solving for at Rapha?
A: I think the biggest problem is how you make cycling more popular. I don’t think two wheels are better than four, at all. I drive, you know? I love motorsports. But, I do think that there are benefits to cycling that go beyond anything else that’s out there. When man invented the bicycle, he invented a human-powered machine that, as you use it more, you get fitter, you get smarter, you get more perspective, you build camaraderie, you build a community, you build your lifestyle. That’s the biggest challenge, making people realize the benefits of cycling go far beyond transportation or commuting. There’s so much to be gained from it personally. I’m not saying it’s more than a sport, it’s not a cult. But it has changed me, for the better. I’m proud of it.