Retro Cycling Apparel: Designs Old and New
Words: Paul Maunder Illustrations: Matthew Burton • From Issue 70
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Last week, out for a ride in the lanes south of London, I saw another cyclist wearing an RMO jersey. Readers of a certain age will remember RMO as the French team of the late 1980s and early ’90s that included notable riders such as Charly Mottet, Marc Madiot and Thierry Claveyrolat. The team’s jersey was understated and stylish: white, with mid-green side panels and a series of red, blue and green swooshes. Stylish as it was, it’s one of those jerseys that has been lost in the crosswinds of time. The pro team jerseys that stick in our collective memory are either design classics like La Vie Claire or design horrors like the Castorama fake-dungaree outfits. Or the Carrera fake-denim shorts. In fact, anything designed to be a fake is inherently a design no-no. To my knowledge, the RMO jersey hasn’t been produced as a vintage replica, which means that the rider I saw last week has probably owned and cherished that garment for more than 20 years. What love!
Words: Paul Maunder
Illustrations: Matthew Burton
This sighting, a veritable Proustian moment, took me back to the late ’80s, when I was obsessed with replica proteam kit. Every week I would buy Cycling Weekly, which at the time was Britain’s cycling bible and the only way to get information about the sport, and I would flick immediately to the back pages where black-and-white ads listed products of precious beauty: PDM short-sleeve jerseys, Hitachi shorts, Superconfex peaked winter hats. What I coveted most was team winter kit, because I could wear it while out riding through Oxfordshire and pretend that I was a pro getting in the winter miles. If I found what I wanted I would circle it, then badger my father into phoning up whichever mail-order firm in Northern England was selling, to order it with his credit card. The wait was agonizing. But eventually the postman would bring the little squidgy parcel and the breakfast table came alive with the intense vibrancy of printed Lycra.
The thought never occurred to me that to wear a pro-team replica jersey was somehow sacrilegious or embarrassing. I liked to show my allegiance to a particular team. And as far as I was concerned, the more riotous the colors, the more obscure the sponsors’ names, the more wacky the shapes, the better. And I wasn’t alone. Out on the road I often saw other riders in team jerseys and no one seemed to care about having mismatched shorts, caps or socks.
When I saw the retro RMO man, I was wearing black head to toe—like an overweight mime artist or an underweight nightclub bouncer. I probably looked pretty ridiculous, in an understated ninja-like kind of way. The dominance of black kit is thankfully now starting to wane, but the palette of most cyclists is still very muted. And how often do you see a serious cyclist wearing replica team kit? If your riding buddy turned up in full Bora-Hansgrohe kit would you let it pass without comment?
The type of cycle clothing that sells is, of course, dictated by the sort of person buying that clothing. Britain’s cycling boom over the last few years is usually attributed to the MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra). This is an over-simplification; the newcomers to cycling are more diverse than this stereotype. And yet one thing is true: If you discover cycling as a 30- or 40-year-old, your tastes are well-formed and your aesthetic attitude to the sport will be different from someone who fell in love with bike racing at 10 years old.
Alongside writing, I have pursued a parallel career in fashion retail, working in the buying departments of two London-based department-store chains. This is not luxury couture fashion, nor is it high-volume, low-price, pile-it-high. It’s somewhere in the middle—brands that call themselves premium, brands that are using their name to sell large quantities of handbags, sunglasses and bottles of eau de parfum.
The explosion of internet shopping and the emergence of retail behemoths that deliver by drone have put this traditional type of retail under pressure. In Britain, the traditional town centre bustling with shoppers—a social, civic and commercial space—has been slowly dying. Many have become ghost towns, shuttered and lifeless. Convenience is everything. If I think of something I need, I want to order it on my phone and see that it’s been shipped same day.
We are all promiscuous these days—with our credit cards that is. We’ll buy from whomever has the right product at the right price and can get it to us quickly. Ideally with a personal touch—but that’s less important. We still care about brands, but perhaps we’re not quite so in awe of them as we used to be. Since Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo” we’ve come to understand that a brand can be little more than a thin and shiny veil.
In cycling we work with a rather confusing matrix of brands—there are pro teams and there are the manufacturers who supply them. One of the consequences of the long, painful implosion after the Festina Affair in 1998 was that trust in teams was eroded. Enthusiastically supporting a specific team started to look naïve. A kind of hopeful wariness set in. Rather like not throwing yourself into a love affair for fear of getting hurt. The manufacturers of cycle clothing and components came out relatively unscathed from the doping crises of the last 20 years, and those that have been successful have seen that building their own brand, their own audience, is the way to go.
Still, we’re promiscuous aren’t we?
So innovation is key…and attention to detail. Here, the cycling-apparel industry can learn from the mainstream fashion industry. Here are a few examples:
ONE. Create a world. Fashion brands know that to be credible, they have to stock every type of garment: socks, neckties, underwear, knitwear, formal wear, tracksuits—the whole lot. How many cycling brands are there that only make half of the products you need to go out on your bike? It’s fine to specialize, but do it in something technical, not socks!
TWO. People want to be seen to be wearing a brand that they think is cool. What most cycling brands haven’t realized is that most of us spend our days not on the bike. And when we’re not on our bikes we’d still secretly like to be identified as cyclists, and cyclists who know our stuff. This becomes particularly true of older customers who, generally speaking, can’t be bothered with the vagaries of fashion and want comfortable casual wear that gives the right signals to those who are in the know. Casual wear for cyclists is going to grow in 2018 and beyond.
THREE. The 80/20 rule. This retail rule of thumb relates to the fact that 80 percent of retail sales comes from roughly 20 percent of the lines. In other words, there are big-volume sellers that make most of the money, while the rest will end up in the end-of-season clearance bins. But…among those slower lines will be some with garish or weird or innovative design. They might not sell, because most of us are naturally conservative, but they sure look good in the shop window. These are the brightly colored shirts that catch the eye and make us think we’re about to become a wild and creative individual before we lose our courage and buy yet another blue check. Cycling jerseys should be the same—even a brand that’s known for its understated palette should switch it up once in a while, do something crazy. The customer won’t buy, but they will like the sense of humor.
FOUR. Finally, the dull but important topic of phasing. In fashion, “spring/summer” starts in late January; “autumn/winter” starts in August. It sounds crazy, and the idea of buying heavy knitwear in August can be depressing. But it works. The brands know that, above all, their loyal customers want newness. They want to look ahead to the outfits they’re going to be wearing when the weather turns. In cycling we have to wait until March before there are any comprehensive summer ranges available. The manufacturers are being too literal. They think that their customers buy new kit when they need it. But we are more emotional creatures than that. We buy short-sleeve jerseys because we want to go out on our bikes in sunny weather. Whether we actually do or not is irrelevant.
There will always be a space for technical innovation that improves the quality of our riding experience. Yet the brands that will really grow over the next few years will be the ones that tap into our minds and understand our lives.
I’ve been ranting. I apologize. You’re probably thinking: Well, why doesn’t he go and start his own cycle clothing brand? Maybe I will. And while you wait for my beautifully crafted range of garments to appear, take the time to get out there. To the shops, I mean. Cycling is, like, sooo last season.
Follow Maunder on Twitter @PMaunderpaul. Check out his new book “Rainbows in the Mud: Inside the intoxicating world of cyclocross.”