Why designing pro cycling team kit is such a tough job
It’s time for cycling’s very own festive seasonal advent calendar: every few days we get to open up a new browser window revealing precisely how the two-dozen individuals that make up a cycling team will be enlisted as two-wheeled billboards for the coming 12 months.
Each year there is the good, the bad and the ugly. And the usual questions. Where will Sky put their stripe? Who will pull a stunning design out of the bag? Which teams will experiment with a shade of light turquoise? Is green/blue/pink/white the new black? Will Ag2r La Mondiale still have brown shorts? (mais oui!)
Coming up with those pro team kit may sound like the dream job for a designer and cyclist. According to Iris Slappendel, someone who is well placed to understand, it’s not. The former Dutch national champion, a graduate of industrial design, has turned her part-time design projects into a full-time job since hanging up her wheels in 2016.
Having worked on pro team kits, plus the leaders’ jerseys for the inaugural Women’s WorldTour and the Dutch cycling team kit for the 2016 Olympics, she is now designing her own cycling clothing, along with musettes and bags made from reclaimed leather, under her Iris label.
“It’s a very difficult thing to do, and actually not much fun because you have so many sponsors that have to be on it,” Slappendel says of team kits. “And that is the difficulty: to fit together sponsors who have their own brand identities and colours.”
Cycling teams still overwhelmingly design kit based on the concept of blasting a blank canvas with a blunderbuss full of logos. It’s old fashioned, as if sponsorship doesn’t work unless your corporate logo is in rider’s armpit or hovering over the wheel arch of a team bus.
Euro-charm: Quick Step’s 2018 kit comprises a mish-mash of logos
There is still something oddly charming about those kits with a clashing mish-mash of obscure Euro brands, but all those stipulations about particular logos or specific colours are obstacles to good design. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Read: Ten terrible cycling kits
Slappendel – who recalls recently creating an outfit for a team according to her principles before a sponsor weighed in and changed the design to make their logo more prominent – thinks that many cycling teams are missing a trick.
“How I approach my own kits is to think about what’s cool to wear and not about what brands need to be on it,” she says.
“With a team kit you want it to stand out – to be different from other teams – but at the same time you want fans to like it and buy it.
“When you design a kit, you always do it with the sponsor in mind but the best would be to not to think about the sponsor but to make a design you would love to see, what would be a cool kit, and then incorporate the sponsor.”
She diplomatically choses the old T-Mobile kit as a classic example of good design: “just a simple design with the black bibs. Though it was very brand oriented – because T-Mobile was big – it was a cool kit. You could still wear it today.”
Slappendel’s own inspiration comes from her life, from “cool colours and crazy combinations” from a recent cycling holiday in Nepal to pro cycling itself.
She identifies that a higher proportion of followers of women’s cycling ride bikes themselves, giving the women’s side of the sport a unique opportunity when it comes to kits: not everyone wants to ride around advertising German kitchen units or Belgian silicone sealant.
Read: Brand reps – how cycling companies choose their ad models
Look at how Rapha have successfully moved beyond the traditional logo-ridden outfit with their Canyon-SRAM kit. So too have Drops Cycling, now Trek-Drops, with their multi-coloured stripe identity.
“They’re not so old fashioned. They’re more willing to have a different approach because they have different fans. There is no woman who wants to ride with a huge Rabobank logo or something on it. They wanna have a cool kit.
“That’s what I really loved about the Specialized-lululemon kits in the past there was never a big lululemon or Specialized written on it, but everyone recognised it and it was fantastic.”
The subtle touch of Specialized-Lululemon’s kit still made a big impact
But of course, sometimes there’s no accounting for the fact that some people just don’t care about their cycling kit looking good.
“If cycling is part of your identity and you want to be part of a sub culture, then you find it very important.
“Then you get people like my dad,” she laughs. “Who thinks, ‘although I drive a Mercedes and I spend money on my car, but I’ve had these bib shorts for 10 years and they’re not falling apart yet so I’ll still wear them’.”