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.

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