A chat with James Fairbank of Rapha

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A few years back we were at an event organised by It’s Nice That, where we heard this guy called James Fairbank giving a talk. James was, and is, Head of Brand at Rapha, who have been making high quality cycle gear, used by many of the biggest names, and teams, in the sport, since 2004. He made an impression, and it wasn’t long before a connection was made between Rapha and Matt Blease. Matt, a keen cyclist himself, had expressed a strong interest in working with Rapha, and was soon collaborating on projects quite regularly. You may remember his illustrations for their celebration of the Tour de France – #morethanarace, his appearances in their magazine Mondial, and the recent set of post cards he created for their Rapha Cycling Club membership pack.

As Matt has just provided illustrations for a new series of Rapha t-shirts celebrating the upcoming Spring Classics of the tour of Flanders, Paris Roubaix, Giro d’Italia, La Doyenne and the Tour de France, we thought it was a good time to find out a little bit more about James and his role at Rapha.

What was your background before you joined Rapha?

Before joining Rapha I was the head of UK sales and marketing for Carhartt WIP. I started on the shop floor as a sales assistant and worked my way up through wholesale, then into marketing.  That was an eight-year journey. Prior to that I worked in a bike shop for a couple of years and dropped out of a Geology degree.

What came first for you, brand management or cycling?

Definitely cycling. I grew up in the Cotswolds and caught the tail-end of the golden era of mountain biking, before moving to London. The lack of obvious trails in town led to road racing for a couple of years before London’s bright lights proved to be too much of a distraction to train properly and I picked up a BMX.  That 20” bike took me all over, and the friends I made led to the job at Carhartt. Once I hit 30, my body started falling to bits and I started riding a road bike again. I joined Rapha shortly after.  Now I ride a bit of everything, apart from BMX.

Brand-wise, I was very fortunate to work with some talented, passionate people at Carhartt and had a huge amount of support from Edwin Faeh and Ben Joseph. I’d always been brand-aware and was obsessed with early Silas – all of Ben Sansbury’s art direction and Sofia Prantera’s design work. I was lucky to share an office with Gareth Skewis of Slam/Palace/Pointer fame. He introduced me to Ben, Fergus Purcell, Mat Fowler and a load of other inspirational folk and this opened the door to a host of extraordinary influences – from tattooing to the PWBC [Palace Wayward Boys Choir – a highly influential collective of creative skateborders]. Looking back, I was just in the right place at the right time, and just about sharp enough to sponge it all up.

Is being a keen cyclist a prerequisite of joining Rapha?

It is to work in the marketing department. If you don’t genuinely love riding, how can you explain to non-cyclists what they’re missing out on? Outside the marketing department we try to hire world-class people, then turn them into passionate cyclists.  In many ways, that’s the first job of the brand department.

How did you become part of Rapha?

I knew the original editor of the magazine Rouleur, Guy Andrews, from my time at the bike shop. Guy was a gloriously opinionated fixture of the london bike-racing scene and the founding editor of a magazine called Rouleur.  Road cycling was a very different world in 2005 and the early issues of Rouleur were extraordinary.  Both Rapha and Rouleur opened a door to a world I knew existed but had never seen presented in such a way. Guy needed some help with the launch of a book in 2009 and, via Carhartt, I agreed to help him. Guy then introduced me to Simon Mottram, the founder of Rapha. Simon’s a very convincing man and I fell for his vision immediately.

How would you describe your role at Rapha?

It’s changed a lot over the years, as you’d expect. When I joined, there was only one other full-time member of the marketing department. In the early days, I was so focused on taking what the brand was and introducing it to more people, without compromising standards. Now, things are very different, but the aim of the brand remains the same – Rapha exists to help make cycling the most popular sport in the world and my job is to support that aim by producing legitimate creative that honours the sport.

What do you look for in collaborators on the brand?

People who’re capable of using their talent to articulate why cycling’s such an incredible pursuit. This requires a deep understanding of both Rapha and cycling.

Are you a fan of illustration in general?

Yep, Carhartt used illustration to front most of its campaigns from its inception in Europe to 2010-ish, and I was a judge for the AOI awards in 2008 (I think).

How did you first hear about Matt?

I’m pretty sure it was through one of our designers, Adam Sharp, and Olivia at Breed introducing his work to us. Matt did some illustrations for a zine we produced, called the Doppio.

How do you think his style fits the brand?

He’s funny without trying to be and it’s extremely obvious that he understands cycling intimately. The humour’s important, it’s such a difficult balance to strike.

Do you have a favourite among the collaborations with Matt?

It isn’t something he’s done for us, but the drop bars not bombs patch is perfect.

What can you tell us about the Spring Classics t-shirts?

That they’re supposed to be a secret…

And finally, what do you have lined up next for the brand?

The launch of a media channel and a report that takes a detailed look at the state of the professional sport of cycling.

The images below show a selection of work that Matt has created for Rapha.