James Pawson, Sportswear Designer at Rapha – COOL HUNTING®

In 2004, Rapha revolutionized the cycling clothing industry by starting to make more stylish, comfortable and innovative gear, pushing back the garish (often juvenile) styles that dominated at the time. From the use of merino wool – and updating it by blending it with synthetics for less sagging and faster drying – to the premium elements found in designer clothing, the brand’s dedication premium fabric, sophisticated construction and aesthetics for sleek, elevated bike gear. Respect for the brand has only grown over time, and today Rapha is renowned for its quality clothing and accessories that last.

While the brand has always been for cyclists, the new City Collection (featuring a three-in-one coat, sweatshirt, overshirt, and pants) not so subtly a change for Rapha. It’s no surprise that the creator of this collection is James Pawson, who admits he wasn’t exactly a serious cyclist when he joined the company five years ago, after working with G- Straw Raw and the artist / designer. Aitor Throup, whose projects almost always resist orthodoxy. The City Collection was created as an amalgamation of performance gear and streetwear. Pawson tells us, “It was really 80% off the bike, 20% off.” As such, there was room to ignore Rapha’s figure-hugging figures and distinctively “athlete-by-default” mindset. We recently chatted with Pawson to learn more about the collection’s flagship: the Gore-Tex insulated field jacket– and how that illustrates higher level direction for the brand.

You said you owed a debt to Massimo Osti, the founder of the Italian sportswear brand CP Company. Why and how does this relate to the City Collection and beyond?

We were thinking about the City Collection’s design brief and I think maybe I just received one of his books or saw an exhibit or something that really piqued my interest. I loved his experiments, his clash of materials, his clash of fabrics – taking military concepts and really taking them out of context. There was some really exciting stuff there. It got me to look at some of the classics, and it’s the M65 Field Coat, which is like an icon in the United States. He’s an icon of men’s fashion, period. It has been referenced by so many designers for so many years. I’ve always wanted to do something with it and it seemed like a really interesting opportunity to make a modern Rapha interpretation of it.

From Field Coat to other garments, there are more boxy silhouettes in this collection, which Rapha generally avoided in the past. Can you tell us about that?

Previously, Rapha was quite thin, quite adjusted. With this range, it was such a balance between that Rapha sartorial benchmark and attracting new customers. It allows the City Collection to be worn a little oversize. This allows Rapha to rejuvenate. It is also true that performance does not always have to be obvious. With these parts we show that you can have functionality, it’s just in the background.

Can you indicate this background performance?

With the Field Coat we try to tell a story to Rapha customers, but in a pretty subtle way. The shell was taken from our classic windbreaker jacket (which uses a Japanese lightweight woven shell), then the detachable liner liner is taken from our Patent Insulated products. So there is that extra layer of detail. Because if your customers were to buy the product on a bike, I want them to have the same sensory experience – the material echo would be like, “Oh, I’ve felt this material before”. Even if you don’t really think about it, it’s the authenticity of our products. You’ve worn it on your bike, you know it performs and lasts. Few brands bring this level of legitimacy to their lifestyle products. And we have more to come with that kind of thinking, so it’s really exciting.

You’ve built three rooms in one with the Field Coat. Take us on a tour of the liner, which was designed as a standalone garment.

The lining is designed as 100 percent streetwear. You can wear it with hoodie, you can wear it with T-shirt. The idea was to not only extend the temperature range of the Field Coat – so you can take it on its own and wear it in the fall or add the liner and wear it in the winter – but also to give people two separate coats, this which is not what they did with the M65. We’ve updated the quilt pattern to a rounded rectangle, and it’s a pattern you’ll see more and more of in future products. All successful lines get some kind of subtle signature.

Can Rapha’s signatures, like the pop color of hi-vis pink, work in the transition to streetwear?

We have to own it. It’s our signature and it’s something I’ll always hold onto. Brands spend years trying to get these signatures. The Levi’s tab is perfect, it can’t be any other brand. How can you do that with Rapha, but subtly? This is our challenge.

Rapha already has it with the little story labels (which tell anecdotes and tales) hidden inside every room. In the City Collection, these are not stories about bikes or cycling races. Once again, the brand goes much further.

To the right! It shows the level of energy that we have put into what we are doing. I spend a lot of time researching, and for this collection I was leaning into town planning and became obsessed with how designers thought they could design cities. There is this book called Dream towns of Wade Graham and he looked at people like Le Corbusier, but also failed ideas, like a ring road that could have been built and that would have destroyed the West Village in Manhattan. I wanted history labels to tell people how cities evolved. If you can learn a cool detail about a city in a city product, that’s great. It’s that kind of surprising depth that brings people back to us.

Images courtesy of Rapha

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