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rapha and the consumer love-hate thing

Posted Nov 18 2008 12:21am
I have an admission to make.

Although I do a fairly decent job of living within my means most of the time, I occasionally succumb to a desire to own shiny things, sometimes things that have almost no practical value. This is my male side coming out. As we know, men are crows. Crows like shiny things. Especially bike-geek crows. Bike-geek crows love shiny things that are bike-geeky.

Most of the time I'm good at feeding my thing-lust by scavenging: I find seemingly dead freewheels in the metal recycling, clean and re-lube them and bring them back to life. (Most of my scavenged freewheels are good for at least six to twelve months and when compared to 30 bucks for a new one they save me a ton of money.) I find clothing hanging on nails at construction sites, and on bridge railings along my commute; not junk, but good stuff -- my present fall-spring jacket is an old Carhartt work jacket I found hanging across the rail on the Steel bridge bike-ped path, soaking wet and just in need of a good home laundering. I find used bike clothing at work, stuff that can't be re-sold for various reasons and is abandoned there after the seller is told we can't offer him money for it. I take it home, wash it, mend it, and wear it. Stuff I find and can't use I sell or barter for stuff I want. I admit that now and then I have graced the inside of a dumpster to find cool things there too. My beloved Burley rain jacket, now nine years old and irreplaceable, rocks a couple of off-color patches where I encountered some barbed wire in a clumsy, non-lethal crash; the patches are seam-sealed and it shows.

Once in a great while I may lust pretty seriously after something brand new (I admit that I'm saving up for an Oregon Randonneurs club jersey as we speak -- I'm in the club, it'd be nice to wear the jersey). But most of the time I manage to avoid the new stuff and feel some vaguely smug self-satisfaction at my resourcefulness.

But then, well -- just when I thought it was safe to own this quirk and still get out of the room unscathed by a strange, searing desire to participate in excessive consumerism, enter Rapha:

Rapha is a British company with their US office here in Portland. They sell some of the most beautiful, decadent and expensive bicycle clothing in the world. Want to spend $85 on a silk bandanna or $750 on a limited-edition tweed cycling jacket? You can at Rapha.

Somewhere in the middle of their catalog are a few items that are actually in line with other high-end cycling items: there's a beautiful wool-blend winter cycling cap that, at $55, competes with other caps I can easily find at upper-end bike shops in Portland. If I didn't already own a perfectly fine wool cap I might be tempted to save up for the Rapha. Or, more likely, I'd be tempted to find a reasonable facsimile for half the price because spending 55 bucks on a cap would make me feel nervous.

But mostly what Rapha sells that I find both pathetic and fascinating is a sense of fitness and style that is out of reach by most of us. The men (Rapha makes NO women's specific cycling apparel) who model Rapha's clothing are in their 20's to 40's, and are all very fit, strong riders, mostly from the UK. They're ruggedly handsome in that "new James Bond" sort of way (the American-based riders are handsome in that "boyishly sweet/emo" sort of way, but I digress). And somehow they find time off from their day jobs to ride all over hither and yon and write about it, crazy-hard rides that require them to go on shorter training rides in between just so they have the legs to get up the epic mountains they write about. There's a whole world of access and leisure time and derring-do in their adventures -- and indeed, in their very look -- that lies very far beyond the smaller life I live.

Of course, some of it has to do with gender -- Rapha make no women's clothing and women have always been given short shrift in the bicycle media so we know that the intended target market are men in their 30's to 50's. (Remember that they're also selling youthful vigor, something that speaks loudly to men in their 50's with gray hair and slowing time-trial splits). But along with the whole gender privilege, Rapha is also selling class privilege cannily marketed as "fun", "adventure", and "style". If you can afford -- really afford -- to shop at Rapha, then you obviously belong with a crowd that's several cuts above the riffraff.

But Rapha does it very carefully -- in among the standard offerings of wool-blend jerseys and tights, they also sell a sense of eternal quasi-youth through their "fixed" series of shirts, knickers and jackets; you may not look exactly like a bike messenger, but in Rapha clothing you might look like a former bike messenger who went to school, got an MBA, and "made good" without giving up that sense of rebel style. It's a little insane and creepily insidious.

Then to top it all off, in order to help sell this strangely convoluted image they host various events in Europe and the US that invite the youth to participate, even though many of them cannot afford to buy Rapha's super-fancy clothing. Rapha are basically just using these sleek, young cycling heroes to help sell their clothing.
Go to the Web site and look at the videos from the "Oregon Manifest" --

( )

--and see what I mean.

And yet. And yet. Rapha makes some very nice stuff that I'm sure would be VERY comfortable to wear on those long fall and winter rides. And the ugly admission is that, if I made the kind of money they're hinting at, and didn't have the middle-aged Jewish lady's belly that my Sweetie insists I ought to learn to love a little more, I just might spring for something in their catalog.

It's probably a very good thing that I don't make much money, and that I AM the resourceful woman I am. I think that while I'm out on errands today, I'll keep my eyes peeled for a promising dumpster.
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