In conversation with

James Fairbank

Marketing Director, Rapha

Introduction

Introduction

We’ve never visited an office with a culture quite like Rapha. A cycling library, a chalkboard with the year’s cycling goals, and row upon row of bikes.

“Every employee at Rapha can take Wednesday mornings off to ride as long as they make up the time and don’t drop anything,” says James Fairbank, Marketing Director of the world’s coolest cycling brand. James has been with the team for eight years and overseen much of its success – and subsequent cult following – in the UK.

Who would have thought people would get so excited about lycra? Well they don’t, really. Part of Rapha’s meteoric rise is down to their standing for more than a mere product. They have published inspirational essays, two print magazines and coffee table books, all while sponsoring events and commissioning videos, like the Gone Racing series which launched earlier this year after two years of research. Whether you like bikes or not, we can all learn something from the ‘ride or die’ approach of Rapha, and James’s team.

Question and Answer

What kind of stories did you enjoy growing up? Do you remember noticing brands from a young age?

I fell in love with Brian Jacques when I came across his Redwall series in the mid-eighties. There was something about the scope of his writing that left me spellbound, it was so descriptive. The other writing that really sticks out was Peter F Hamilton, good vs evil an an epic scale again. I was lucky enough to grow up in the middle of the Cotswolds surrounded by natural beauty and was a bit of a dreamer so came late to brands. But, once I’d been exposed I got caught: Levis of the Nick Kamen era probably kicked it off, all that storytelling. Joe Bloggs was a big thing, laughable for a kid from the Cotswolds who’d never set foot near a nightclub. Beyond that the Bristol skate and music scene was a big influence: Danny Wainright and Massive Attack. Then I moved to London and riding became my all.

"I fell in love with Brian Jacques when I came across his Redwall series in the mid-eighties"

What were you doing before joining Rapha? And what appealed to you about the brand?

I worked for Carhartt Work In Progress for eight years. I was riding BMX at the time and knew a few people who worked in their stores, we were all part of the same scene and I ended up taking a job as a sales assistant and worked my way up to run the business in the UK. It was an extraordinary education and I was extremely lucky to have the support of the owners. Rapha came onto my radar when I was introduced to the founder by a mutual friend, I’d raced road bikes in my early twenties and loved the physical side of the activity but the wider sport lacked ambition and the clothing looked awful. Rapha was different and in 2010 the sport was changing rapidly.

How important is internal brand culture at Rapha and how would you define it?

It’s the glue that binds and we’re defined by values that link us to the sport: Love the Sport, Suffer, Think for Yourself and Inspire Others. Every employee at Rapha can take Wednesday mornings off to ride as long as they make up the time and don’t drop anything. We run quarterly office rides and a beginners program for staff. Cycling really is placed at the centre of everything we do… Having said all that, there are plenty of people who don’t ride but we all have a passion for something and we all understand the values.

“We’re defined by values that link us to the sport: Love the Sport, Suffer, Think for Yourself and Inspire Others”

What are some of your favourite stories you’ve told through Rapha?

In the early days, those I worked on with Max Leonard, Ultan Coyle and Jack Saunders. They’re all dear friends who’re hugely talented. A little film we made called Assynt was probably the peak of that period: a beautiful part of the world, a cracking little idea, no money and some amazing roads. More recently I’m hugely proud of the Gone Racing series, that’s the first piece of work born from a two-year research project we commissioned back in 2016.

And how do you ensure they work across different platforms?

Going back in time, it all looks so simple. If you made a film, you made it in 16:9 and pushed it out in the same way across all platforms. Our mobile-centric World has changed things completely and I don’t think we’ve really figured how to use the different formats and platforms to extend the story, we aren’t alone here. If everything hits a certain quality and honours the sport, that helps to tie it all together.

Can you tell us a bit about Mondial – what was the decision process behind publishing a printed magazine. What's the goal of it and how do you measure its success?

Mondial was the second magazine we started. The first was Rouleur. We wanted to create something that aspired to be the zenith of road cycling content in printed form. It was beautiful but sadly unsustainable. That doesn’t mean print hasn’t played an important role in our brand though, and we’ve produced a number of exciting photographic and coffee table books over the years.

Which other brands do you think are telling stories in interesting or creative ways?

In sportswear: Vollebak, District Vision, Salomon and Nike. Gucci, for such extraordinary control across all platforms.

What three questions do you think brands should ask themselves before a collaboration?

Who’s the customer?
Is this legitimate?
Is this something we could do alone?

James's Storylist

Books

  1. The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques
  2. XXX by Peter F. Hamilton
  3. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
  4. Naples '44 by Norman Lewis

Magazines

  1. London Review of Books
  2. Pleasure Garden
  3. Gourmand

Podcasts

  1. Talking Politics by David Runciman
  2. The Bike Show by Resonance FM
  3. WEFUNK Radio by WEFUNK
  4. The Dissect Podcast
  5. Imaginary Advice by Ross Sutherland

Newsletters

  1. Jim Seven by James Hoffman (archived)
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