Developing Women's Cycling Kit: A Q&A with Rapha's Product Team

We take a look behind the scenes of Rapha's product design process for women's apparel and Canyon-Sram's team kit

In a male-centric sport such as cycling, it’s still far from normal for brands to put time and money into developing women’s-specific kit. Finding the right fit, shape, and sizing within good-quality technical wear can be a challenge, but behind the scenes at Rapha, the product development of their women’s kit is a dedicated and detailed process.

We asked some of those involved in the product development process about the story behind women's garments at Rapha. 

How do you approach designing kit for women vs men both technically and in terms of what each wants out of their kit?

Hannah Britten, Product Engineer: “We feel that all too often women’s products and innovation can come second in the world of technical clothing, so we are extra passionate about the women’s products. We are currently developing a Women’s Down Jacket and the motivation around that – to create a better version of the men’s jacket for women – has been a real energiser to the project.”

How much research and development goes into making a single item, for example a women’s jersey or pair of bibs?

Hannah Britten, Product Engineer: “Once the designer hands the design over to the development team, this is where the product is brought to life. Typically, for a totally new product we would see at least two prototypes in our base size then see a full size set. This can take nearly a year to develop, at each proto stage, the designer, developer and garment tech will analyse the garment in fine detail – both the outside and inside of the garment is scrutinised.

We'll discuss the merits against the product brief to make sure we are meeting the criteria. We consider the customer – will adding/removing certain features be the right decision to make this product best in class for its use-case? Being riders ourselves also helps, we can empathise and get in the customer’s mindset too. Each garment will be fitted using the same fit model so we can ensure that the fit of the product is dialled to perfection, though we are careful not to tailor the garment to this person – we recognise that we'll be making this for many different riders. 

The development team would typically visit factories twice a year (in pre-covid times), which helps to work through the development of a more complex garment and to understand the factory’s capabilities. It's also great to put faces to names that we might usually just email. That helps to build stronger partnerships, which helps us achieve incredible garments.

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Throughout the development we will be getting the garments wear tested, including for specific fit points – chamois position is a crucial one! Once we have got to size set this is a great chance to see it on some more varied people and collect more insights – we often use people in the office, and sharing things like the Outdoor Voices samples for wear testing was especially exciting as you could feel the energy and appetite for the collection even just from being in the office.”

How did the Rapha x Outdoor Voices collection come about and how were the pieces developed differently from past collections? Why was it important that the collection was designed by women, for women?

Hannah Britten, Product Engineer: “The Outdoor Voices collaboration was an interesting project. The bibs and shorts were kicked off in-house with the Atelier team making the patterns and initial samples. As the collection’s objective was slightly broader than simply road cycling – it was based more around adventure and recreation – it was an exciting proposition. 

When we were at the size set stage I pulled in a broad range of women from across the company to wear test the pieces which was really exciting as the feedback we got was really positive on the product's new direction. There was a real energy around the project as we were creating something exclusively for women after making a lot of men’s focused products, everyone really went the extra mile to put the work in and make something functional and beautiful. As the collection had such a detail-driven focus, seeing things like the prints or trim details was so exciting as we were doing something so unlike what had been created before.”

Detachable bibs are an increasingly common feature on women’s bib shorts, why did Rapha decide to introduce this feature and how does the overall design of the bibs need to be changed to accommodate it?

Agata Jasinska, Product Designer: “We’re introducing the detachable bib detail more and more in women’s range as it’s practical and improves the riding experience for women. Especially in the winter time when you have lots of layers on, if the thought of having to wrestle them all off simply to use the bathroom is enough to prevent you from wanting to go and ride your bike outside, it just makes so much sense to remove that obstacle through design.

In terms of design the main goal here is to make these very easy to use, intuitive. We don’t want to over complicate this feature, making sure that clip and construction are very low profile and unnoticeable when riding but at the same time to give the same comfort as regular bibs. We have to make sure that we don’t compromise on chamois stability, so analysing how the straps work with the clip and the waistband is another thing we have considered and tested extensively.”  

What was the inspiration behind the graphic design of the original Canyon//SRAM kit, and the motivation behind making it so different to conventional kits at the time?

Nicky Hodge, Graphic Designer: “Most kit designs are safe, so we wanted to do something contemporary, different, and playful. The idea behind the original galaxy kit actually came from the team – they wanted the kit to make them feel like a superhero, so who better to ask to visualise than a Marvel superhero illustrator? We reached out to [graphic designer] Doaly to make it happen.”

In 2019 Rapha Designer Angelo Trofa worked closely with the team and Doaly to create the striking new look, described by former rider Tanja Erath as “powerful on the one hand yet playful and dreamy on the other.”

Doaly: “I wanted the art to be kinetic and show speed. It’s all about the energy it conveys, just like the riders themselves. Seeing it on the road is crazy.”

What was the inspiration for the 2021 galaxy kit?

Nicky Hodge, Graphic Designer: “For this evolution of the kit we wanted to work with Doaly again after the success of last year. The main aim was to add more depth and focus into the design, utilising his skills and building on the previous year's design while keeping the kit recognisable to the riders and fans.”

What are the key differences when designing kit to be raced in and stretched to the limit vs training or just riding?

Harry Osborn, Product Designer:We aim to create the world’s fastest kit for the world’s best athletes. This means utilising athlete insights to lead product innovations and getting feedback on kit ridden by the pros in the biggest races – the ultimate test of any performance product.

Our Pro Team range for men and women provides racing and training apparel which is optimised for high output racing and training. This means each product has to be suitable for hours of tempo efforts whilst still keeping the rider comfortable in the weather conditions – whether that’s close to freezing, pouring with rain or a hot and humid day.”

To see Rapha's range of women's apparel, click here

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