The Propagation of Style

The Rapha Effect

The Luxembourg stealth project (Team Leopard) finally rolled out the hanger. Like everyone else I've been intrigued by the prospect of the world's most formidable team (based on individual past performance). I imagined, even expected something fresh considering the circumstances of the team's creation and its implicit rejection of the old guard.

I wasn't disappointed, the besuited team looked good against that B&W mountain projection and the "true racing" tag line has promise, in fact it all felt familiar. Why, because I think it bore the unmistakable influence of Rapha. The new website, the team kit, even the slightly over-the-top neck scarves borrowed a little from our Perren Street favorites, but in a good way.

Rapha has no patent on black, distinctive striping, asymmetry or high-contrast black and white photography. They'd be the first to admit all these elements have graphic precedents stretching back decades, if not centuries. Their brilliance, and I don't think that's an overstatement, was to pull all the elements together with an inspired narrative and unflagging good taste. The result has been distinctive and iconic; classic cycling recast in modern terms. And now seven years after their humble beginnings they shape an aesthetic that other companies emulate.

I'll start with rĂª the new venture Wilfred de Kruijf and I just launched. I've been a designer for twenty five years and worn so much black since adolescence that it actually became part of my studio's identity. My love of B&W photography goes back even further, but I owe Rapha a debt of gratitude for proving that the visual elements I've always loved can appeal to a cycling audience.

The Rapha influence is or has been evident in the identities of Team Sky, Primal, Outlier, Panache, Baum, Enigma, Peloton Magazine and now Team Leopard-Trek to name a few. Consciously or unconsciously the Rapha effect is out there.

This is not to say that cycling industry designers have no originality. The truth is, there's nothing truly new under the sun. Look hard enough and you'll find prior art for everything. Influences are everywhere, in fact designers are known for keeping piles of reference material around to stimulate creative thinking.

As it turned out I think the Leopard Kit is quite distinct from the Team Sky and Garmin-Cervelo designs, but it did have me wondering out loud whether the UCI might step in at some point to prevent too much black in the peloton. Imagine the difficulty in covering race moves if everyone looked the same, especially in poor conditions. To my Twitter friends who thought I was ignoring cycling history and teams who wore black kits in the past, that wasn't my point. Free of the 140-character limit, I hope I've made that clear.

And Luke, take something for that migraine, you started this.

10 Responses to The Propagation of Style

  1. Luke says:

    Hi Michael, great post… it’s very flattering that Rapha is name-checked whenever someone uses black… ;) (and I’m sure I speak for all the creative people who’ve been involved with Rapha over the years when I say that). But I think there’s something deeper that needs to change in pro cycling before teams can really develop a strong and enduring identity – and I don’t think it’s just about design and style.

    The real problem, as I see it, is that the fact that the identity of cycling teams is completely dominated by the sponsor. They have nothing else that gives cycling fans something to grasp. Taking British Football teams as an example – Manchester United FC is “Manchester United” (or “Man U”)… not “Team Sharp” or “Team AIG” or now “Team Aon”. Same goes for Newcastle or West Ham or Wolves…

    In cycling it’s the sponsor that dominates. And when the sponsor bails… then the name, the identity, ‘the brand’ is lost. No one cared that Fassa Bortolo was (is) a Italian building supplies company. It had a lyrical name, great riders and a beautiful kit. Who wasn’t gutted when the team evaporated? A part of cycling history just disappeared.

    Constant changes to the name of a sports team, insurance company, any brand… are an almost insurmountable communication problem. You simply can’t create anything with a lasting identity that connects with the fans.

    If you look at the names in cycling that have had continuity, Bianchi for example, you see that it has generated an incredible wealth of passion, love and loyalty amongst fans. Obviously it helps that Bianchi is a bike brand… but the history is incredible – from Coppi to Ullrich… the simple design and use of the celeste green follows on from this. It’s great design, built on a solid foundation and it’s had enough time to become utterly iconic and a part of history.

    Maybe ‘Leopard’ is an attempt to address this, but I see it going the same way as ‘Slipstream’ which is now merely an incongruous patch of argyle pattern on the Garmin-Cervelo kit.

    Until teams and sponsors have the confidence to use the corporate brand less overtly and have something else to provide continuity, then teams will never have a chance to build a proper following and a strong brand – the kit design will be dominated by ugly corporate graphics and colour schemes.

    [Pulls on Mapei training top - which probably caused the Migraine in the first place]

    • Luke,

      Completely agree with your analysis. Major bike companies like Trek and Specialized invest a fortune in product and support for pro teams plus a myriad of sponsorships for race teams at various levels across many disciplines. If some of that money was consolidated they could certainly afford a pro team of their own. Cervelo’s effort showed that a medium sized manufacturer couldn’t go it alone. Pity, since I really liked their philosophy to see the team work for their customers as much as for results. For a company who’s first bikes showed little graphic identity, their team kits really nailed it IMO. I loved the white inversion design they did for the TdF. The extracted e may not have made any “literate” sense but it was a clever bit of graphic design.

      Cycling companies may be the only ones with the necessary long term commitment/brand per your Bianchi example. Breaking with the current pattern of title sponsor in the team name will require guts. I wish Leopard had managed to avoid the hyphenated Trek identity, but I expect everyone will refer to them as Leopard in the vernacular. Media will be obligated to use the fullname I suppose.

      As you know so well the prominence of multiple title brands on kit is a designer’s nightmare. Evidence Rapha-Condor-Recycling which showed that even Rapha has problems creating something powerful when saddled with at least one lame sponsor logo.

      Setting aside all the negative stuff Michael Ball brought to the table, I really thought Rock Racing was an exciting new chapter. The multiple (even race specific) kits were fantastic. Being a clothing company I believe Rock actually produced them themselves. They opted for less durable lycra throughout that allowed for full sublimation which in turn facilitated using every square inch of the kit. Sponsors, apart from Cadillac were minimized. Like major sport’s team, Rock was thinking about marketing their kits from day one. Slipstream has probably tried as hard as any team to go that same marketing route, but of course not with a pure brand.

      thanks again for contributing your insight.


  2. kurt says:

    Like women’s accessories, I find color is best used as an accent rather than the main event. Showing just a hint to the outside of character percolating underneath. A full color billboard kit is akin to dropping your trousers and yelling here it is!

    The leopard kit is nice, but I still prefer Rapha Racing or the TeamSky kit.

    Best of luck to the newly formed team and I am routing for Andy come this July. Let’s hope he grows a pair and makes good on his threat, ” I will get my revenge”. Last year his revenge looked like Contador’s puppy. Andy needs, dare I say it, a little American Badass Lance in em’ if he thinks he’s going to take the spaniard down a notch.

    Can’t wait to see what the champion stripes look like on the new kit and Fabian.

    Rapha style is second to none and I for one cannot wait to see more of it’s influence on the peloton.

    Ride on

  3. Daniel says:

    Like many others, I think the overall aesthetic smells a little too much like that of Rapha. This happens in many areas of design–a question of when influence and collective-design-conscious crosses over into simple plagiarism.

    Like you, overall I think this propagation of style is a good thing, recognize that the elements were all there before Rapha and am willing to give Leopard-Trek the benefit of the doubt. I do love how the sponsors seem to have taken a more subtle approach to their representation on the kit. Now if we can just get (primarily American) bike makers to stop plastering their name in huge stickers all over their frames. (“HEY DID YOU KNOW THIS IS AN S-WORKS FRAME? BY SPECIALIZED? Because it is. IT’S S-WORKS! BY SPECIALIZED! COME AROUND LOOK AT IT FROM ANOTHER ANGLE, I’LL TELL YOU AGAIN IN THIS LOUD VOICE!”)

    I think the sponsors, not the UCI, will control for too-many-black-jerseys. They, after all, want to be seen and understood to be the brand behind the team. In the meantime I’m going to enjoy the more subdued color scheme of the group. Cycling had languished in a neon-like palette for far, far too long.

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  5. Henry says:

    Rapha brought back the understated classic look that was standard on all jerseys -when teams were owned by one big sponsor like Renault and had one name: Molteni, Bianchi, etc.. Once Fignon ushered in the modern team system along with multiple sponsors and Assos introduced sublimated graphics on synthetics we got the current NASCAR look. It seems bike and component manufacturers followed the trend of the new “PRO” look.

    Perhaps sponsors are getting more sophisticated in their branding and ad requirements when it comes to team kit and if RAPHA was a big influence in that then good for them. I like the trend.

  6. frank says:

    rapha is inspired from cycling history itself. the bianchi jersey was pretty similiar. there was no rapha during that time…

  7. Jon Moss says:

    “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and no exception here.

    It does take cues from Rapha, and no doubt, many other brands who have successfully used the black and white design direction.

    I’ve never thought about the fact that the team is so sponsor orientated before and Luke is spot on with his thoughts and reasoning.

    I really like the Team Leopard look though – unstated elegance, and features my the colour that I always seem to like whether in clothing, webdesign or logos (that blue). I’m looking forward to seeing it on the road.



  8. Henry Porter says:

    Gotcha on the brand ID, sponsor logos, cycling tradition. Things might as well look decent, sure.

    But all this strikes me as bit effete and unmanly. Fancy!

    Did I say that aloud?