Bespoke Design – Leeds College of Art

Tour de France frenzy is currently rocking our little continent of Yorkshire so Leeds College of Art took it upon themselves to invite some influential characters in the cycling world to their ‘Creative Networks’ event.

I hadn’t attended one of these events for quite a while, which is stupid considering they’ve had people such as James Jessop, Kevin Cummins, Wayne Hemmingway and Jamal Edwards as guests; so a couple of us headed off to my old college to drink beer and eat burritos from El-Topo.

Bespoke Design talk

Alice Marsh, buyer, product and brand developer at the Turner Contemporary opened the ‘Bespoke Design’ talk. As a keen cyclist for many years (for both pleasure and commuting in and around London) Alice talked about how bike brands have changed in the last decade – for the good of everyone.

The age of bright lycra and high vis geeky sportswear has transcended to designs influenced by Paul Smith and blogs like Copenhagen Cycle Chic, which now deliver practical and stylish gear that can be worn on the ride to that client meeting, but also be kept on for the duration.

Alice sited several great inventions/products that have contributed to this very new looking cycling landscape – the Hövding airbag is designed like a hood and made in an ultra-strong nylon fabric that inflates upon the event of a crash. Levi’s Commuter Range is ‘designed for and by cyclists’ and features details such as subtle hoods on stylish jackets and water repellent fabrics used for the jeans.

As a mountain biker I prefer to hide my lycra under a pair of baggy shorts and a ride along some muddy trails, and whilst I do have admiration for the design and innovation that surrounds the world of road cycling, I’m not really massively into the sport.

Saying this, I was very keen to hear what James Fairbank, Head of Brand and Central Marketing at Rapha Racing Ltd, had to bring to the cycling table.

The Rapha brand own a very distinctive segment in the cycling market it appears (high-end clothing) but like all of the speakers at the event it was clear that the product and brand were born out of a desire to create a place/space/product that could not be found, at a satisfactory level of quality, elsewhere in the cycling landscape at that time.

Jumping forward quickly in James’s talk, he said that the decision to open a shop took a very long time to reach but ultimately it was born out of the habits of cyclists as there wasn’t a natural place for them to sit, chat and watch the cycling on TV. (eg. The Rapha Cycle Club, London –

Rapha Cycle Club by Brinkworth, London

James also passed comment on why another passion of the cyclist sits so well under their brand – their love of good coffee; “People come in for a great cup of coffee and possibly leave with a piece of Rapha gear.”

It was immensely interesting to hear James talk about his personal responsibilities within Rapha and how it is his mission to keep the essence of the brand on track no matter where or how big the brand becomes. He did play down his part a great deal, I felt, as he paid great credit to the creators of the business/brand saying that the foundations had been set at such a great level.

Marketing conversion percentages and business growth spoke big volumes (something in the region of a 21% click-through rate on emails – compare this to an average of 0.3% for Joe Public brand). Rapha clearly have a brand that engages very well with their audience.

“Glory through suffering’ –

Nice looking gear with design and manufacturing to really build a long-term brand on, it seems.

Next up… a Q&A session with Restrap founder Nathan Hughes.

I really warmed to Nathan, again a product that was born out of the dissatisfaction of having to use inferior products. I love the work ethic of Restrap, the family feel and also the simple aesthetics of what you can wear/use. It’s a shame they haven’t ventured into the MTB market in some shape or form – I may well still buy a t-shirt.

Nathan went on to talk about an issue that they, and other similar small brands have faced when trying to get products stocked with some of the larger retailers. Alice Marsh, who had now taken on the interviewer role had real empathy for both parties on this one, she completely got how hard it was for retail buyers to give single product offerings from companies the attention they deserved, on the other had she is an avid promoter of the small brand and entrepreneurs who are driven by great design.

Union of Pedallers

The ‘Union of Peddlers’ is a distribution collective of small yet bespoke bicycle brands whose aim, as a collective, is to give the products a chance to be seen by the retail buyers – you can learn more at:

Gerry Newton was last up but gave a very entertaining talk. He seemed to be in the very privileged position of being able to talk about a passion of his – bike design. Check out his, and others view at


Thanks for tuning in, Michael.

Michael Freemantle
Head of Design, 10 Associates