were we confident of sufficient funds, had the design expertise in the first place and the savvy to provide marketing backup, any one of us could have pretty much any type of garment made to our specifications, be it for leisure, sport or any other reason. it's not that hard to do, because i checked. if manufacturing ethics are of concern, it may narrow your choices a bit, but all is still doable, and the latter is very likely to be a priority if making even a small change to the way the world works is deemed necessary.
as cyclists, we are, rightly or wrongly, associated with saving the planet, mostly due to our conscious/conscientious choice of transport. this green-ness and soft shoe shuffling does rather take a knock if viewed in the light of the amount of traffic both terrestrial and airborne that it takes to run and televise any form of professional cycle racing, but the bicycle itself is a vehicle of little impact, both physically and environmentally. it is, therefore, very much in keeping with this philosophy that many associated products try to be as ethical in their sourcing and natural in their fabrics as possible. i can't be the only one to have noticed the decided upswing in the number of merino wool jerseys, socks, caps and the like within the past few years. while its production may be somewhat limited to certain parts of the world (mostly new zealand), there can be little denying it's renewability, as long as there's plenty of grass.
modern thinking, as well as modern technology, has allowed the alloying of merino with other fabrics, both natural and man-made. only last week i reviewed a baselayer consisting of a 50/50 mix of merino and polyester. in order to supply the demand for most of these products (and let's be clear, our own mythical garment with which we hypothetically started would likely be no different), much of the manufacture is automated, thus ensuring a consistency that is unmatched in the world of hand-made. there are benefits to the supplier here, in that they can virtually guarantee that my jersey will not only be the same size as yours (assuming that's the size you ordered), but identical in colour and quality.
in a mechanised world such as ours, this places a greater emphasis and pride of ownership on hand-made goods, as well as supporting the artists and artisans who keep such skills alive, if not solely as an end in itself, but also to those for which it is a means of economic survival. see, you probably didn't realise just how far reaching your bicycle ownership really was.
the word activism is probably more associated with volunteers chaining themselves to the gates of a nuclear reactor, or powering a rigid inflatable between japanese whaling boats and a school of hapless whales. but there is a considerably softer side, of meaning and approach signified by the word, allowing for a form of activism that does not hit the news headlines, but likely creates more of a long-term effect in far more subtle ways.
apolis activism are a two year old company residing at the rather appropriately named traction avenue in los angeles; three brothers, raan, shea and stenn parton, built their business on a vision of creating a bridge between commerce and sustainable development: the word apolis translates as global citizen, effectively a world free of flags and borders. it sounds almost like the valedictory speech from a prospective miss world candidate, but the difference here is that apolis is making it work, predominantly through partnering with others who can make each part of the dream a reality. visit their website and one of the first things you'll come across on their activism page is an invitation to any who wish to partner with them in this global trade network. they take their world seriously.
much of the current and historical output from the minds of apolis could be categorised under the heading of fashion; there's not very much there that i could see myself wearing, though their partnership with cc filson company for the philanthropist briefcase had me rather intrigued, using as it does, cotton from jinja in uganda, an initiative developed by the non-profit invisible children. however, vision rarely stands still for long, particularly when it's a three-way street.
the cycling connection arrived by way of the parton brothers' delight in cycling, an activity of which they knew little in terms of the supply and demand of its associated apparel industry, but employed that well worn cliche 'they knew a man who did: slate olson. 'apolis initially reached out to us last summer. i knew of them most recently from something they had created with filson (the philanthropist briefcase), a seattle company who i've loved since i was a kid.' the choice of rapha as a partner for a new cycle clothing project was likely an astute one. rapha have grown from naught to almost pre-eminence in a mere five years in the uk, while their north american presence has completed an impressive ascendency in only three. raan, their designer, had been working on a few designs and was keen to see if there was some opportunity for us to do something unique that crossed fashion with cycling; something that felt very right as a way for us to continue bringing cycling style to the broader conversation of men's clothing.
the upshot of these discussions and conversations between apolis and rapha, resulted in both parties agreeing on a sweater with the shape and look inspired by a more athletic half-zip track top, but done more luxuriously. slate says that the thought behind it wasn't too dissimilar to some of the early iterations of the merino jersey but 'much more refined in shape finish and material'. the decision was taken to create what is now known as the transit elite sweater; 70% merino wool, 30% cashmere. 'the idea of pulling on a hand-made cashmere blend sweater instead of a fleece or track top post-shower, post-ride is exactly right.'
in bhaktapur, nepal, there is a citta women's co-operative that has created a haven for displaced women to gain skills they can use to provide for their families while keeping their cultural traditions alive. it's a laudable concern born out of necessity rather than for pure commercial gain, and it's a co-operative previously known to those at apolis. however, in keeping with their status as activists, apolis felt that there was more to be done aside from merely having the trans elite made in the foothills of the himalayas, before shipping back to the usa.
tourism in nepal is not at the level to which it could be sustainably developed, a fact realised by shea parton and a fact that he could see working in favour of both parties. cycling in particular is an attractive and pragmatic way to travel around the country, so the decision was taken to assemble a suitable group for a cycling visit and documentation of same. the intention was, not unnaturally, to gain promotional narrative and illustration for the new garment as well as some subtle promotion of nepal's tourism attributes. shea parton, cole manness (of rapha continental fame), film-maker dave christenson (the guy behind many of the continental videos) and photographer jeff clark took themselves and bicycles (road bikes rather than mountain bikes) off to nepal.
with its╩mountainous himalayan area to the north and the land that time forgot resting╩in the valleys below, your mind begins to wander, imagining what the area looked like prior to human arrival. once we'd landed, we were surrounded by locals trying to help us with our bags╩and offer car rides to our next destination. nepal thrives off it's tourism╩industry, so we were treated extremely well during every encounter with the local people. the words are those of cole manness.
'terraced fields etched in the sides of the mountains, farmers working in unison╩with their fields,╩women walking to their respective huts toting large packs filled with hay and other grains to feed their goats,╩colorful marigold fields as far as the eye could see...truly amazing.╩ the roads are mostly╩asphalt with the ever enjoyable spattering of dirt and gravel mixed in, (i'd like to think that's to keep the exploratory cyclists happy╩and never too comfortable). we were greeted with smiles and looks of bewilderment due to the fact╩that road bikes are much more of an anomaly than an everyday sighting. the skinny tires and drop bars were a constant attraction with the╩villagers who are more used to seeing motorbikes, trucks, and the occasional mountain bike. to be able to ride and tour at the pace that╩a╩bike allows, made this trip all the more special and memorable. when you see╩nepal at such a slow pace, you're able to enjoy and╩absorb with╩every sense, making for an unforgettable╩visit.'
one of the aims of the trip was to pay a visit to the citta co-operative where the sweater would be hand-kintted and sewn. dave christenson described those employed at the citta women's co-operative as 'very traditional nepalese women, very family oriented. their basic day starts at 5am when they wake up, prepare tea for the whole family and get their kids ready and off to school. their day at citta starts at 10am and finishes at 5pm. they work on a variety of different garments. they're all very skilled at what they do and to watch them work is something in itself. watching them together, you also really get a sense that its a bit of a small family there at citta as well.
'I was very surprised to see how much work goes in to making the sweater, from watching them finalise fit with cole, to looming the yarn all the way down the line to the final tags being sewn in...it's a huge amount of work and attention to detail in every sweater. it was a great experience to see it all come together.'
the trip was documented in diary/journal form on the apolis website, illustrated with jeff clark's photos, giving a tantalising insight into the land and country behind each and every limited edition transit elite sweater (the sweater is likely only available in 400 individual pieces, bearing a combined apolis and rapha tag). sooner, rather than later, there should be a dave christenson video of the trip. of course, many thousands of miles from home, in a country not noted for its western home comforts, it's likely that not everything would go exactly to plan.
cole: 'during the trip we were exposed to a movement and possible revolution of epic proportions. the maoist conflict is an everyday struggle,╩paralleled with ever-changing╩circumstances not hidden behind closed doors, but seen in the streets, on the buses, discussed in restaurants, and in the papers. we╩saw the most evident presence of these communist supporters while╩pedaling away╩for our first long road ride in nepal. a bandh, ('closed' in nepali), is a communist strike that literally shuts down the entire country. road blocks guarded by nepali youth armed with sticks and home made╩hammer and sickle flags, exist to╩alarm and stop any possible traffic from entering or moving about the country. local businesses close their doors, street╩markets╩disappear,╩and traffic ceases to exist as cars and motorbikes╩are threatened with smashed windshields, slashed tires╩or flipped over and burnt╩rigs. we braved the undescribable power of the╩bandh and began╩our ride, met almost instantly with rising crowds where the tension could be felt in the air. unsurprisingly, we were the only bicycles on the roads and our photographer rode the only motorcycle, so all eyes were on us as we passed through the numerous roadblocks, all the while╩keeping our eyes open for possible hostility. in the end, we╩were allowed to pass with╩a╩surprisingly friendly 'namaste', echoing from the mass of protestors.╩ this, again, provides you with an idea as to how much tourism╩is relied upon to provide the country with a burgeoning monetary sustenance. because we were obviously not nepali and stood out as a group that had nothing to do with their struggle, we were treated kindly and allowed to pass all of the roadblocks without harm.'
roadblocks and maoists weren't the only travesties to be thrown in the path of the intrepid rapha/apolis venture party. dave christenson explained that 'there was a petrol shortage during our time in nepal, and people would wait in massive lines for 12-18 hours for the allotted three liters of petrol per customer. despite being on bicycles, this affected us because our photographer jeff clark was on a motorbike and we were constantly worried he'd run out of fuel while we were 60k out from our base in kathmandu. he did a lot of coasting with the engine off to save gas.'
the apolis/rapha transit elite sweater is now hard (well, soft really) fact; pre-ordering is now being accepted via the apolis website, and it should also be available via rapha.cc in the fullness of time., or at least by the official release date of february 15th. i asked shea parton if this was the start of a number of apolis cyclewear items, but he said that they had no plans to continue this specific trend, though he wouldn't rule out another project in the future related to cycling. 'we have great admiration for rapha, and what they have achieved in such a short time. it has been a privilege and a joy to partner with slate and rapha america, and i certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility of repeating the process in the future.' it's worth noting that this is the first instance of devolved autonomy within the rapha empire: when approaching this from the outset, i contacted perren street and was diplomatically pointed in the direction of portland. ' it's the way it has to happen occasionally', said rapha ceo, simon mottram.
the final words belong to cole: 'to me, this sweater is more than just another article of clothing; it reminds me of what good can arise when we look to others that need assistance for assistance. the trans elite will╩help╩the citta organization╩continue on their sustainable track, and bring a small piece of cashmere softness to the apres-cycling community. i'm extremely╩honored to have╩played a small╩role in the process of making this sweater come to fruition while raising awareness about the great work that citta does; not only in nepal, but in many other countries around this wonderful globe.
american pricing for the transit elite sweater is $396 (uk price is likely to be around £300), it can be obtained in sizes xs through to xxl, arrives complete with a rapha story label, and is only available in the colourway shown. not only will any prospective purchaser receive one of the finest garments available in the world today, but know that they're doing their bit to make this a better world for those with less than many in the west.
and it already has history.
posted monday 1 february 2010..........................................................................................................................................................................................................