Alex Valdman has worked diligently and embraced the bumps and bruises of innovating in fashion and design. His early path in fashion was driven by the vanity of working with the likes of Kanye West and Nike, but in time he recognized vanity’s detrimental effects on a creator’s ultimate path.
Fashion’s greatest role serves as a signal to the outside world. What you wear, how you wear it, and the fit itself could all be collective cues towards a deeper narrative. But when the signals sent to others as a form of vanity become the dominant reason to explore fashion, can it have underlying and detrimental creative effects?
Alex Valdman’s early interactions with San Francisco’s vibrant skate culture would establish his perspective on what community and authenticity would entail. It would force him to establish an opinion that would serve as the backbone of developing an eye for design and an appetite for the creative struggle.
Connecting with Alex Valdman, Creative Director at Rapha, led us on his path from independent designer and brand owner, to overseeing one of cycling’s most respected clothing labels with eye-opening stops along the way with Kanye West, Nike, Levi’s, and more.
Alex Valdman: Hong Kong. Drunk at Ronin.
Eugene Kan: No, wait, how long ago was that?
Alex: Three years ago.
Eugene: It’s been three years?
Alex: Two and a half years.
Eugene: Two and a half years.
Eugene: I’m sitting in the cozy office at the headquarters of Rapha in London’s Kings Cross area. I’m catching up with an old friend, Alex Valdman. As Rapha’s creative director he’s helped the brand transcend cycling and become globally respected thanks to its branding, marketing, and, naturally, a highly desirable product that includes a network of brick and mortar clubhouses across the world.
These clubhouses around the world, and as far as Taipei and L.A., allow global Rapha members to pop in for a quick coffee, to borrow a bike, or to meet with a like-minded community. I’m actually not here entirely because of Rapha, but instead, I’m here for Alex’s fascinating trajectory that started with him making custom hoodies for the likes of Kanye West with his own brand to entering the corporate world with time spent with Nike, Levi’s, and Giro. His story is about realism and reinvention.
Eugene: So you and I met 2005, 2006?
Eugene: Something like that. In the most sort of… I guess at the time it made a lot of sense. We met on MySpace and I had just started at HYPEBEAST and I was, like, “Oh this is kind of cool, like someone’s hitting me up for HYPEBEAST related stuff.” How did you come across me?
Alex: I think I was on HYPEBEAST and I saw that there was an article written by Eugene Kan that I really liked. I forgot what the article was about. I wish I could remember.
Eugene: I wish we could open up MySpace and see that initial interaction.
Alex: Yeah, I deleted my MySpace and then they went out of business anyway.
Eugene: I think they’re still around actually.
Eugene: I think they’re like a music streaming thing.
Alex: I really wonder what their business model looks like right now.
Eugene: Yeah, I wonder where Tom’s at?
Alex: Man, I know at Dover Street there’s t shirts with Tom’s face on it.
Eugene: Oh yeah! What brand is that? I saw that some place.
Alex: I was thinking, man, if I bought this and I came in here with my team all the people in my team that are under 25 would they know what that is.
Eugene: Yeah, and would they be like, “Whoa, this is weird. Why is this lo-fi super pixellated photo on this shirt?”
Alex: I don’t know if anyone’s actually met Tom. But, thank you Tom, if you’re listening to this.
Eugene: Yeah, Tom is the reason why we met.
Alex: So big shout out to Tom.
Eugene: It’s interesting because I always look back at some of the friendships I made very early on in my quote-unquote professional career and those early friendships are arguably the ones that you still keep around. People like yourself, it’s been 12 years.
Eugene: A few days ago, right before I came to London we were sort of reconnecting on the past and also how we followed each other’s career. I think there’s a part of us that sort of grew apart when you left the streetwear world.
That’s when we no longer worked together as closely on a professional level. I think despite that, it was always really refreshing to see someone come from that space, carve out their lane, and develop their own path.
“The more I can do to help people get into the sport, bring barriers down, innovate, push technology, and create a platform that makes it easy for people to put down their phones and do something that is positive for themselves—that’s the journey I want to take.”
— Alex Valdman
“When you work on something that gives so much back to you, helps transform your life, and when you innovate helps transform other people’s lives—that feels like I’m making a positive impact.”
“I think everyone’s journey as they mature is, ‘What is real? What is truth?’ That comes from being curious about everything and trying to unpick people’s dogma and trying to unpick influence.”
“Shedding vanity is about finding the quality not the quantity, because it’s really easy to fill up your closet or your mind with shit that doesn’t matter. How can you simplify your life?”
Eugene: When you’re faced with the idea that actions should aim for a sense of purpose it can open up some interesting insights and challenges.
Alex: If you have full integrity or 90 percent integrity versus 20 percent integrity the rewards and the spoils are much different. It almost feels like more integrity you have it limits your ability to be successful within any kind of our respective industries.
Eugene: What would an example of that be?
Alex: I think when designers pretend that they’re designers and designing a range, but it’s really they’re the face of a really big fashion house that’s backing them. They’re preaching design values without knowing what they’re saying and they just sound silly to people who have dedicated their lives to the process of creation, innovation, and transforming our world.
I think it’s a slap in the face and I feel like a lot of them are just doing it for fame and profits. I’m not going to say any names, because I don’t know their whole story and their background, but at least that’s how it’s appearing through every kind of media outlet that I encounter.
They haven’t done anything to show that they’re legit and they have a really big audience. The reason I have a beef with it is because they have the power to make a positive impact, but they’re choosing to use their influence to drive consumer culture into a frenzy. They’re not preaching a message of social relevance or humanitarian relevance and they’re doing it for personal gain. And I have a problem with people who have a platform who are self-serving.
Eugene: A point of contention is that in a resource heavy industry like fashion how does one justify what they create. And in the case of Rapha and Alex what does it mean to create comparatively expensive cycling gear?
So just to challenge that thought, because I think I generally am in agreement with that, but if I was to be on the flipside how do you look at that when you work at Rapha.
You also have these amazing products that are, by price alone, maybe cuts a certain segment out. What is your sort of vantage point on that? How does Rapha push against everything you said and have an underlying purpose?
Alex: I think that’s a really good question. For me the thing that I love more than anything is seeing when people can connect together that are like-minded. What an activity does is it allows you to move to a city and find someone else who’s passionate about that activity.
They start forming a little community and then as you get introduced to other people you start forming a bigger community. What, as you know as someone who plays sports, when you have that kind of slightly traumatic physical experience of really pushing yourself and suffering or applying yourself and you do it within a team context, within a context of people, you get that bond. You get that oxytocin; you get that serotonin.
The product isn’t something that we market. What we try to market more than anything is the fact that there’s a community aspect of it. And in certain markets where we have more of a presence, so in London where we have a thousand people that are in our cycling club, there’s a real community.
Places that are more international that aren’t necessarily metro hubs, not so much. For me, it is kind of helping transform people’s lives and adding value to their riding. Product to me is…
Eugene: Which is the end of the road. It’s kind of like the cherry on top in a way. It does create a sense of entry into the community.
Alex: Yeah, but you don’t have to wear Rapha to be a part of the community. For me, product is what I’m passionate about, but it’s not creating a new colorway for the sake of a new colorway or, you know, a product that does the same thing as another product in the range.
It’s about how can we push technology, how can we push fabrication, how can we push innovation to create no distractions in your cycling life? At the same time, how can we as a brand maybe transition from making loads of products to offering more services so our business model isn’t about taking resources. What can we do to just create experiences?