An interview with Solo Cycle Clothing
Based in New Zealand, Solo is a small but rapidly expanding cycle apparel brand that takes its inspiration from the heyday of cycling. Started by two friends who loved the styles worn by the pro riders from the 1950's - 1970's, their apparel is worn around the world, and retailed from some of cycling's best known bike shops, including Condor of London, Mellow Johnny's in Texas, and ZukiBike in Tokyo. Here in the UK, Always Riding is a premium online e-tailor to the brand.
The following questions were put to Solo during one of Always Riding's regular Skype chats with owner and designer Paul Mason, and Gayle Brownlee of Solo.
Hi Guys! Where does the name Solo, and the inspiration behind the brand's strap line 'you are not alone' come from?
Firstly – Hi Pete! The original thinking behind the name came from the Solo breakaway – which is the hardest thing to do in a race, but if it comes off, it’s the most beautiful way to win. I also wanted an ‘international’ name that would sound good in many languages. From a design perspective, I was after something short that would lend itself to a great logo which would work across a range of uses – labels/packaging/advertising etc. It’s a really simple name but the logo took a bit of designing. As soon as the elevated ‘L’ for the podium place and the stylised wheels of the ‘O’s’ fell into place, I knew we had it nailed.
Our strap line of ‘you are not alone’ was originally intended to tell our customers ‘Don’t worry, we love classic style cycling clothing as well – you’re not the only one.’ On reflection we thought the strap line worked on many levels. While cycling can be a very sociable sport, most cyclists spend fair amount of time cycling by themselves – but are always aware of being part of something bigger. Apart from making great clothes we really like bringing people together. The Solo Clubroom pages on our website are full of great stories and photos sent to us from cyclists all over the world.
So it's fair to say that whilst Solo's collection might look 'exclusive', the mindset you have is that Solo is a brand for every rider who shares a common passion for retro inspired cycle clothing?
That’s right. We’re not big on the idea of having ‘limited edition’ clothing with crazy price-tags. If you’re buying a custom designed, hand-made frame then you’ve got something limited edition. I don’t think this should extend to clothes. We think that while our clothing may cost a little more than some, every cyclist should be able to afford it.
Solo's Classique Jersey Collection is inspired by the truly great cyclists and nations, and because of this, Solo is becoming known for producing highly original, creative and eye catching jersey designs. When you sit down to design a new piece, where do you find, or look to for inspiration?
We try not to focus purely on the jersey designs of the era but look at the design from that period as a whole. Because we’re basically inventing a sponsor or brand from scratch, we want to make sure it looks authentic. We research company logos, typefaces, industrial design, advertising etc. And while we use a Mac to get the final design together, we don’t design anything that wasn’t possible without a computer. Hopefully that makes sense! The final design is nearly always simpler than the initial concept. It takes a bit of self-discipline to stop adding things! All of our Classique jersey designs are only 2 or 3 colours.
Do you ever bring in ideas from outside of the cycling world, be that art, music or mainstream fashion? We can't help noticing a slight Mod feel.....
Guilty. I’ve always had a thing for the Mod look. I’m actually writing this on Paul Weller’s birthday... We try to use a design style that compliments our clothing in the way it’s presented. It’s amazing where the influences come from. I was checking out some Bridget Riley paintings before our last photoshoot and we ended up with these ‘op-art’ inspired backgrounds. Mainstream fashion is not such an influence, but music definitely is – music, art, fashion; they’re all connected. And yes – we did rip-off, sorry reference, Weller’s ‘Changing Man’ video for our Solo video.
The fixie scene seems to have been an inspiration for your latest photo shoot. Are they FIXIE INC. bikes we can see in the background?
They certainly are. The Peacemaker is Gayle’s fixie – which she absolutely loves. The other bike is a Betty Leeds which I have on loan until the Eurobike expo in September. Then I have to give it back! It’ll be a sad day. The bikes are both beautiful steel machines. The Betty is FIXIE Inc’s geared road bike (SRAM Red on this one). The design, workmanship and attention to detail on both bikes is amazing. We’re good friends with the guys at FIXIE Inc. as we have the same sort of customers. Anyone wanting to see their bikes ‘in the flesh’ should check out Mosquito Bikes in London.
Do you plan any other collaborations with brands outside of the apparel world in the future?
Nope – no plans. Our collaboration extends to sponsoring the odd event. These are usually a bit different to the norm such as the Melburn-Roobaix in Melbourne, Australia organised by our friends at Fyxomatosis. I’ve just designed a paint scheme for a custom bike being built by Baum Cycles – the bike will tie in with the release of the new Irish Classique jersey. It’s going to look fantastic – watch this space!
Whilst doffing a cap to the past in their design, Solo's knee warmers, arm warmers, and the popular Équipe Jersey all utilise modern day versions of fabrics typically used in cycling's golden era; I'm thinking specifically of wool for example. Would you say that marrying a retro feel with modern technical innovations, like New Zealand's own MAPP Matrix Merino, is one of Solo's strengths?
What we like about the Mapp fabric is that it’s an innovative fabric that performs exceptionally well, but still has all the things we like about the old wool clothing. Some of those old wool/acrylic jerseys look amazing but you wouldn’t want to wear one day in, day out. There was definitely a moment in cycling history where technological advancement and style parted company. We like to think that in Solo clothing, they aren’t mutually exclusive.
How much time and energy goes into getting the right finish, from the zips, silicon gripper and general detailing for each piece?
It’s a long process. As a graphic designer I’m used to measuring in millimetres. The apparel industry works in centimetres which is a good way of describing the difference between us. We insist on a level of detail and accuracy not usually associated with garment manufacture. Something which is usually considered acceptable is often not good enough for us. We rework and refine a LOT of products before we sign them off. It can be a frustratingly long process but we want things perfect.
Once designed, what's the next step in the production process? Presumably if it's a new design for an existing collection then the fit and finish has already been worked out, but what about for completely new pieces?
We work on them from several angles. The basic design is broken down into component parts which are sampled separately then all bought together. Followed by lots of testing. We also have to consider things like: how much it’s going to cost to get made; what a realistic number to produce; pricing structure for wholesale/retail; and how we will be marketing it.
So R&D is a pretty high priority?
It certainly is. There’s no substitute for testing new product on the bike. We try to have a few people testing at the same time to get a range of riding conditions and opinions.
Following on with the retro theme, what sort of feedback do you get from rider's who have just encountered Solo, or have been out for a ride wearing a Solo piece for the first time?
Easily the most common comment we get from people seeing Solo clothing for the first time is: ‘That’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.’ It’s very satisfying for us seeing that people ‘get’ what we’re about. Most people who have only seen photos of our clothing are really impressed by the vivid colours and the quality of construction and detailing. I had the great experience of showing some samples of our clothes to what I hoped would be a new retailer. I opened my case and someone in the shop saw the jerseys and wanted to buy one then and there. It was an easy sell to the retailer from there... It was also pretty neat when our manufacturers started seeing cyclists wearing our clothing. They would ring me up to tell me they’d seen a guy wearing a St Neith jersey cycling past! And we also get lots of guys telling us their girlfriend/wife/partner has given their Solo jersey the seal of approval. Which is great for them as it means they can buy another!
Do you see the benefits of being a small company, that you can quickly integrate rider feedback into both new and existing products?
As well as wearing Solo clothing ourselves, we have a group of friends who do a lot of testing for us. All the models featured on the Solo website are friends and cyclists. They do A LOT of km’s and wear Solo for most of their riding. We also get plenty of feedback from customers though the Solo website and we keep in regular contact with our retailers. The white Équipe jersey was a good example of a suggestion from a friend that we then put into production. We didn’t think white would be popular, but it’s a best-seller (Thanks Mick!). Likewise we’ve upgraded our socks to the new Luxury Merino Wool versions and our arm/kneewarmers have been improved.
That leads nicely on to my next question - what's in the pipeline for Solo fans this year?
A lot! The new Irish Classique jersey has been delayed (now in production - Ed.) due to a change in manufacturers and we can’t wait to get it out there. It should be on sale in July. We have a whole lot of new products scheduled for release later this year including Retro Tech Bibshorts (now released - Ed.). There’s been a big demand for Solo bibs from our customers and we’re very excited with our design. I won’t say too much more but we’re pretty confident they’ll meet our goal of being the best pair of bibs you’ve ever worn.
So, the most important question! Do you still get out to ride regularly? We hear rumours of a brioche ride....
Ah yes. If ever there was an incentive to ride it’s the coffee and brioche awaiting us at the end of our regular Wednesday and Friday Solo bunch rides. We have a great group of friends who get together for the early morning ride – it’s a fantastic way to start the day. I get out probably 4-5 days a week and we both cycle around the city wherever possible. Gayle races quite a bit and has got some pretty impressive results. No racing for me but I do a few century rides and social rides.
Will Solo riders in the UK have a chance to meet with Solo and go for a ride in the near future?
I’ll be in London soon after Eurobike (early September) this year and would love a chance to meet some of our customers and go for a ride. I’ll be visiting our London retailers so hopefully we can organise a ride. I lived in London for a few years in the late ‘80’s/ early 90’s and rode with CC Islington. It would be cool to catch up. I won’t have a bike with me – so I’m a 56cm frame!