In the mid-1950’s, Marlboro Man rode into view for the first time, inhaled deeply and in doing so reassured American men that smoking a filtered cigarette would not emasculate them.
You’d be forgiven for asking what a grizzled cowboy has to do with cycling, but Marlboro Man remains a superlative example of how the model chosen to front an ad campaign can transform the fortunes of a brand.
In the competitive cycle clothing sector, rival manufacturers battle to establish and maintain a loyal customer base. And with new labels popping up with the regularity of Thomas De Gendt in a breakaway, a clear identity is essential.
Few sports are as concerned with performance and style as cycling. What we wear defines which cycling ‘tribe’ we belong to, so though brands may differ on how they present their clothing, their respective models play a vital role in helping them connect with their target audience.
“The choice of the people who are wearing the products is absolutely crucial,” explains James Fairbank, Head of Brand at Rapha, who casts his shoots with fastidious care. “If you don’t get it right then people will not believe and if people don’t believe in things then they just will not buy.”
Potential customers will quickly spot if a model is not a cyclist, so traditional modelling agencies are snubbed in favour of friends, associates and cyclists sourced via social media, but Peter Velits, co-founder of Isadore Apparel, expects a little more: “They need to have some spark and be a cyclist, but they must like the brand and identity, otherwise it doesn’t work.”
Chris Puttnam, founder of Velobici, maintains that if you select the right models for your brand, they will breathe life into the clothing. “I’m very fortunate to have very good friends that have a diverse look and I’d much rather see people in the garments. The different facial expressions of a person tells the story, they give us the ‘cool’, we just supply the costumes!”
Location shots of riders looking suitably epic are not for all and in the case of Endura and Castelli, it helps when you have endorsement from the pro peloton to showcase new arrivals. Team Sky’s Christian Knees and Elia Viviani front the latest Castelli catalogue and positive feedback from professionals is an unambiguous, persuasive technique – if they benefit from the R&D, then it’s a given that those of us in the amateur ranks will too.
Assos similarly have the BMC team at their disposal but have largely relied on the clenched poses of ‘Assos Man’. For over a decade, Andrea Zamboni has been the face, or rather the body, of the Swiss label. A pharmacist by day, an Iron Man and avid cyclist when time allows, Zamboni is understandably upset when some question if he has ever ridden a bike in anger.
Assos originally employed Zamboni as they were seeking a model with the requisite musculature, but the fact that they have stuck with this formula for so long is a reflection of a brand with a bullish confidence based on heritage and reputation.
How different from the visceral narrative pioneered by Rapha. In their quest for authenticity, Rapha go to great lengths. The images adorning their website are not the choreographed shoots you might think, with riders required to grimace through hill repeats until the photographer nails the shot.
The rides, Fairbank is keen to point out, are entirely real and mapped out, with the team carefully selected to showcase the clothing and also bring their respective character to the shoot.
They do occasionally use pro riders and former Team Sky rider Michael Barry features in their current Autumn/Winter collections, but it’s never about the name, but the chemistry that evolves within the whole team. Fairbank aims to provide an aspirational, transportative experience, inspiring us to cycle in a similar spectacular landscape . . . ideally wearing Rapha clothing.
It’s an approach shared by French brand, Café du Cycliste. Co-founder and Creative Director, Remi Clermont, selects models who embrace the spirit of the brand and, like Rapha, the riders are photographed on genuine rides. “As a result there is no acting needed. They naturally embody our brand because they are somehow part of the story.”
Sporting a luxuriant beard and strong Gallic features that recall the stoic faces staring out of grainy black and white photographs of those fin de siècle editions of Paris-Roubaix, Fred Giovagnini has become a regular fixture on Café du Cycliste shoots.
The manager of a construction company on the Cote d’Azur, Giovagnini is also a fervid cyclist, clocking up more than 20,000 kilometres every year, who came onto Clermont’s radar when he began frequenting the company’s café in Nice.
“Only genuine cyclists can convey the spirit of the brand, so Fred is the perfect example. His passion [for cycling] shapes his body, attitude and posture.”
Ultimately there are several factors that dictate our choice of the cycle clothing brands we wear, though it’s unlikely the model used will be clincher.
On a subliminal level, however, they are part of the persuasive process. We recognise them as fellow cyclists and we want to emulate them and buying the clothing they are wearing might just help us achieve that goal.