Sunday, January 9, 2011

why rapha wants your love

I've been wrestling with Rapha for some time.

Rapha designs and sells some of the loveliest garments and accessories in the bicycle industry, bike togs with a whiff of Saville Row and New School Cool that fit mostly sleek, wiry-muscled bodies with a measure of money and leisure time that sets them apart from The Rest Of Us; and this vibe is just subtle enough to make people want to buy the stuff.

I want to admire Rapha more, I do; their marketing technique and timing are certainly to be admired, even envied, by those working in bicycle retail. But the combination of the high price point, the cut and fit of their garments and the vaguest whiff of classist exclusionism just stops me in my tracks. Perhaps their sense of studied, barely-concealed elitism is part of the appeal; everyone wants (or learns to want) the things they feel excluded from for one reason or another.

Examples of this sort of marketing abound:

--Cars were marketed in the same way, back when Henry Ford realized that mass production of cars would bring the price down just far enough to make cars available to a larger critical mass of middle class customers, thereby ensuring enough demand to grow and support his business without suddenly cheapening it by making cars available to the lowest-class laborers at the same time (that would come later).
--Nike's $150 Air Jordans and Cross-Trainers back in the 1980's gave a lot of people pause, just long enough for many to break open their piggy banks and sell off household goods to come up with the bread to buy the shoes. (In a sordid sidebar, urban teens began shooting each other for the shoes, but I digress.)
--Paul Frank (not Smith! thanks to an observant reader for the fix), the graphic, um, artist (sorry, his coloring-book zoo animals are not to my taste) whose stuff has appeared on everything from bike chainguards to sweaters to umbrellas to lunchboxes, has enabled hundreds of manufacturers to sell their products for a considerably higher price just by having those animals and his signature slapped on them.
--Today we see this same blend of hype, coolness and subtle hints at old class divisions with an added touch of misplaced nostalgia, as "Tweed Rides" are popping up across North America, offering participants the chance to pretend, for a couple of hours, that we live in a simpler time; wear your tweedy jackets, knickers and tea-length skirts, hop on that vintage, lugged-steel bicycle and come ride through history with us as we enjoy a slow-paced afternoon on quiet backstreets or country roads.
It's a lovely idea, if you can find a quiet enough street or road to complete the illusion. And on the surface it's probably a lot of fun. But the subtle messages of cool, of hype, of classism, still lurk beneath the surface, and I just can't stop paying attention enough to suspend my suspicion and join in the fun.

The higher price of certain consumer goods is half of their allure.

I first learned the term "aping the rich" in a high school economics class some thirty years ago. Mr. Tatum (who, if still with us, would be in his 80's by now) cautioned us against this phenomenon, saying that half the time people buy stuff because someone else has it already and we want to be seen as being Cool Like Them. At its basest level, he explained to us, Cool Like Them often -- usually! -- means Rich Like Them. Manufacturers and advertisers know this, and use that desire to figure out how to push our buttons to make us want the cool things, or at least cheaper knock-offs of the same. If we're spending our hard-earned, limited money on these nice things then we have less of it to do work of real significance with -- like getting a college education or taking vocational courses that will help us in our adult lives; or using those resources to help the less fortunate, because a rising tide lifts more (if not all) boats. And while Mr. Tatum wouldn't go as far as to suggest a conspiracy between the government, multinational corporations and Madison Avenue, I and a few of my classmates connected those dots in class discussions as we wondered aloud what would happen if many more of us ignored the hype, shopped more judiciously and saved our resources in order to effect real social change.

For the children of mostly working-class parents in Gresham, Oregon, the message fell on mostly-deaf ears. It was 1980 and we were heading into a boom-time, the glorious Reagan years, a time of increasing personal wealth and personal cool.
The message was actually heard by a much smaller percentage of kids, kids who were too smart, too skinny or too fat, too thoughtful; kids who were already chafing at the socio-economic mores being impressed upon them -- but in 1980 that percentage was far too small to be powerful enough later on to effect the kinds of change we thought about.

The former group wanted nicer, better lives than their parents had; they wanted out of the trailer parks and tired little bungalows that lined Gresham's streets in those days, and anything that would help them be seen as somehow better than all that was a potential ticket out of there, into a world of nicer homes, nicer cars and good jobs, with weekends off and as much fun as could be crammed into them.
The latter group, the tiny minority of geeks, nerds and other "weird" kids also wanted out of Gresham; but had a sneaking suspicion that it would be by their own strength, wit and cunning that they would escape, not because they managed to blend in chameleon-like with a socio-economic group to which they already didn't really belong.
As a part of the latter group, and after several years of trying unsuccessfully to fit in, I was already planning my escape. Mr. Tatum's message was simply another tool in my box of useful information, and something I never forgot.

A couple of years ago, a reader of my blog at its previous address read a posting about Rapha there and sent me a Rapha winter cap, a gift, to show me that Rapha wasn't all bad. It was a nice cap, warm and soft, and it served me well on those cold winter days. But early this fall, when I found myself with a choice between another free cap that fit my head better and the Rapha cap, I knew I'd get more money for the Rapha cap if I sold it -- simply because it said "Rapha" on it! -- and so sold it locally for enough money to pay my natural gas bill that month. I used the allure of the Rapha name to make myself a few extra bucks, guilt-free, off of someone else's hypnosis.
Okay, that sounds really, really harsh and even judgmental. Fair enough. But I've worked in the bike industry long enough to see just how insidious the marketing of Cool can be, and just how many people out there are willing to dive in and buy the hype, no questions asked. So no, I don't feel guilty. Because it's too late for guilt. I figure a lot of these folks had their chance to dig deeper, to ask the harder questions about how and why we are influenced to buy things, and they simply didn't ask. Of if they did, they didn't believe the answers.

If someone today were to offer me free Rapha goodies, I expect I would turn them down. Because I have enough tools in my box. And one of the best tools I've acquired is the knowledge of how to create my own Cool, without any help from Saville Row or Madison Avenue.


rickrise said...

Hear, hear, Beth! An excellent post.

Yes, the tweed/Rapha is elitist. (I know my own products are similar, but I struggle to keep teh price relatively low and still make them locally--Rapha's are sewn in the "Far east," according to their website.

Unfortunately, an elitist image is just what may bring the middle classes into cycling, as it brought them into driving. An interesting read is Andre Gorz's "Social Ideology of the Motorcar." Strongly recommend it.

Janice in GA said...

+1. I've had the same thoughts re Rapha and some of the other "cool" brands. It's hard to resist, though, wanting to be part of the group.

bikelovejones said...

I am familiar with Gorz's work.
Because I have such serious issues with class to begin with, I find Gorz's theory a bit of a tough sell.
Far more compelling for me is "Energy and Equity" by Ivan Illich. The way he draws connections between energy, transportaion, travel speeds and class is remarkable and makes so much sense. I nearly cried the first time I read it.

EvoDavo said...

The smart folks at Rapha have managed to convince people to buy the emperor's clothes. When I ride I pass people and other people pass me. On my rides I've seen lots of people wearing Rapha. None of them have ever passed me.

bikelovejones said...

Davo -- this is a non-sequitur that fails to mention your speed and prowess on the bike, clothed or not.

OldPad said...

Appreciate your insights here. We find that the majority of people who appreciate Rapha is because they have a long-term positive experience with quality product. And, they also enjoy our marketing & philosophies.

Sounds like you could use a new Winter Hat- just let me know.


bikelovejones said...

Dear Slate -- thanks for your perspective. I'm all set for hats (I have only one head, so I can only wear one hat at a time just now), but thanks for your kind offer.
Happy riding in 2011! --B

Jim G said...

"The higher price of certain consumer goods is half of their allure."

Hammer --> Nail --> BANG!

Geoff said...

Beth, your description of Rapha's appeal in the first paragraph is evocative and right on the money.

I also think Slate's right to suggest that the marketing alone would have quickly dried up and blown away if the Rapha goods (the kit anyway -- that's all I've tried) weren't quality.

Finally, I think you've confused Paul Smith (menswear, Rapha collaborator) with Paul Frank (monkeys)!

bikelovejones said...

All good points, and thanks for the last name correction. I've fixed it in my post. (Clearly I am not cut out for the "lifestyle" kind of life.)
Cheers --B

Pimadude said...

I think that much of the marketing appeal of Rapha products is similar to that used by Ralph Lauren. It's the siren song of "you can be like us". "Us" being rich and supremely confident of one's place in society. It isn't completely surprising that Rapha comes from England, the home of Bespoke goods for the wealthy.

Wrinkled Linen said...

Slate's response was certainly civilized. Points for poise.

JeffOYB said...

Aw, don't pick on tweed! ...But good provocative post, anyway!

Tweed doesn't equal Rapha. Tradition doesn't equal expensive. Classy isn't the same as classist.

Dress-up covers a lot of messy turf. Have you ever seen Cosplay? What a scene!

I'm going to make a Viking outfit for XC skiing, with antlers, cape and more. I think that kind of impulse is close to Tweed Rides. Play-acting can hark back to simpler times and direct adventure -- which isn't necessarily bad even if it has a "power" component. It can even be practical. My Viking outfit will be fine to ski in. I think it'll look cool, too, in an outrageous way, flying through the forest. It'll inspire me, at least! I think it's fun bringing acting to an area that usually doesn't have it. Cycling hadn't experienced much in the way of fun dress-up until Tweed came along. It has jarred what is considered to be OK bikewear. That's a good thing, I think.

Of course, most tweeders are thrifting their stuff. But thrifting is also elitist, come to think of it. There's not enough for everyone.

Maybe it's more of a problem when something is expensive for what it is. Like, it was cool when Rapha sponsored a free party at NAHBS, but less cool that I can't afford their mag. But it's only their loss when they exclude people. Just like maybe it's your loss for dismissing ye olde tweed!

Maybe a problem is also people who won't get out of their niches to see how their neighbors live. ...Like roadies who won't ride a bike to get groceries.

It seems likely that Raphies can both merge into and diverge from such zones.

Hey, I'm wearing vintage plaid Woolrich as I type. Is that OK? : ) There's a tweed blazer hanging on a hook not 5 feet away -- it keeps me warm in my cold basement workshop as I rivet half-price leather'n'canvas bike luggage -- and it never needs washing.

Oh well, back to the shop! :) Have a good one, Beth!

JeffOYB said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JeffOYB said...

I agree with what RickRise said. And with what Beth said. There's room for all. I've long suspected (and posted) that if elite citybikes were made then some CEOs/celebs would bike to work and bike to fancy events and then the rest would follow... Seen from one side it's sketchy, from another it's cool.

bikelovejones said...

"Of course, most tweeders are thrifting their stuff. But thrifting is also elitist, come to think of it. There's not enough for everyone."

On this one point I would have to respectfully disagree w/Jeff.

The reason we call them "thrift" shops is because people who couldn't pay full pop could usually find something at a thrift shop for a more affordable price.
(And unless you live out in the toolies, there is plenty of used stuff to go around for everyone. We throw so much stuff away EVERY DAY in this country that there is no lack of leftovers to choose from.)

Nowadays a lot of that stuff is called "vintage" and is sold for much more money, which takes all that lovely tweed out of the realm of truly affordable. THAT's where the elitism comes in, I think.

The irony here is that today, people who mostly make more money than I do are buying tweeds at thrift -- oops, vintage -- shops so that they can enjoy an activity that was once reserved for the working classes -- very few of whom could afford cars and so they all went riding together. That simple pleasure was the extent of their weekend fun.

Which part of that "gentler" time are the Tweed rides evoking? The quiet backroads part? The working-class-Sunday-outing part? Or the vintagey-cool tweed and steel part? And how much is someone willing to pay to participate in this lovely costumed tableau?
It all depends on whom you ask.

In any event, the folks at Rapha are smart and perceptive; and in this case they anticipated the fad enough in advance that they could steer the bike where they wanted it to go. (Do I personally appreciate where it's going and how it's getting there? Not yet.)