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True Italian Style: Castelli

From issue 4 (2011) • Words/images: Jered Gruber

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Italian style is one of those ideals that many strive for, but few are able to manage. It seems an almost innate part of the Italian genetic code, yet you can’t really put a finger on exactly what it is. It looks good, it’s appealing, it’s just right.

The fashion instinct of the Italians is not limited to the avenues of its timeless cities but extends to the bike as well. The typical Italian is conscious of the tiniest details, from the kit, to the shoes, socks, gloves, glasses, and helmet.

It’s not just the getup either; it comes down to the fit. A good fit doesn’t necessarily mean that a piece of clothing fits tightly, but rather it follows the form of the body. Castelli brand manager, Steven Smith, likens it to Italian art: “It’s recognition, an appreciation of the human form, and that it can look really good.”

“Look at an Armani suit,” adds Smith. “That thing just looks so good, not because of the fabrics, I mean, the fabrics are probably not that much better than a Brooks Brothers suit, but the way it’s tailored to the body is beyond comparison.”

As an Italian company with a very long Italian heritage extending all the way back to 1876, at Castelli form is just as important as function.

Smith admits that the desire to create the fastest clothing possible keeps him occupied almost constantly, but that’s never at the cost of the look of the product. Take a new pair of shorts set for summer, 2012.

“We’re probably on the tenth run of samples at this point, so it works great now, but five of us spent over an hour and a half in there today working on little tiny details to make it look just right. We want to make it that when you put our clothing on it’s like a gladiator going to battle. When you pull on the right equipment, you have to feel ready to go out there and fight, not just speed-wise, but in the look as well. So much of cycling is looking the part. Why do we all shave our legs?”

Looking the part is crucial, and that ideal that started so many years ago in a small Milano tailoring shop lives on today with Smith and his co-workers as stewards of the company’s forward-thinking founder, Maurizio Castelli.

Maurizio Castelli, who matured in the cycling world from a small boy and “grew up on the knees of Fausto Coppi,” can lay claim to a crucial list of firsts in cycling in a fruitful eight-year period from 1977 to 1984. These included producing the first aerodynamic Lycra short, the first colored Lycra short, the first sublimation printing of jerseys, and the first functional thermal winter clothing.

These innovations by themselves would be notable, but in the case of Castelli it was also how they were unveiled to the world.

The colored Lycra short famously saw the world’s eyes for the first time in the 1981 Giro d’Italia. Castelli made Lycra shorts for the then Hoonved-Botecchia sprinter and current Castelli rep, Giovanni Mantovani, and the rest of his team, in turquoise (the team’s colors were turquoise and white).

Smith takes up the story: “Back then, Lycra was shinier and thinner than it is today, and the seatpads didn’t come as far up in the front as they do now. Keep in mind, these guys are only three years into wearing Lycra at all. Maurizio goes up to these two guys, pulls out these light turquoise shorts and asks: ‘You guys want to wear these?’ They kind of looked at each other like, ‘Uhhh, OK. We’ll give it a try.’”

“It was a pure sprint stage. The temperatures were up to almost 100 degrees—super hot. These guys are so embarrassed; they wear their black wool tights down to the start of the stage. It was a 180 or 190-km stage and they started at 11:30, so it’s already really hot.”

“They pulled off their tights right before the start, and later Giovanni tells me: ‘It’s an entirely flat, sprint stage, but the TV cameras were on me and my teammates the entire time because no one had ever seen anything like it.’ They had a lunchtime news segment about the Giro d’Italia, but not the race, just these guys wearing turquoise Lycra shorts.”

Of course, it was wholly against the rules for the Hoonved riders to have worn anything but black shorts, so they were fined—a fine Castelli happily paid.

The fuse was lit. Could a clothing manufacturer have dreamed of a better debut for his new item?

It was a daring move and an unprecedented one. In recent history, there have been many controversial clothing introductions, but it was Castelli who first dared to stand up and challenge the UCI.

The next year, the UCI began to loosen the color laws, allowing for colored leg bands—and it went on from there.

Just a couple years following the 1981 introduction of colored Lycra, Castelli was back at the drawing board. He saw the use of sublimation printing being used in the fashion world and thought it would be a great way to bring a lot more design, colors, and graphics into cycling jerseys. In 1983, it was Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault’s Renault-Elf team that had the sublimated kits first. In 1983, if you look back at the archived pictures, all but two teams sponsored by Castelli were still in wool and stitched together color-dyed fabrics.

As the innovations began to stack up, so did Castelli’s support of professional teams, says Smith.

“Back in the day, Castelli supplied a maximum of twelve pro teams. We struggle to do two. It would take them so long to outfit these teams that the teams would all be waiting. I’ve been told that on the Friday before Milan-San Remo there would be a procession of cars out in front of the factory in Milano that were still picking up stuff for the beginning of the season. That means they really started doing clothing for the rest of us after Milan-San Remo. For a third of the year, it was a factory that only worked for the pros.”

Maurizio was the first one to take out money to sponsor a team as well. In the mid-1970’s, he decided he wanted to be associated with the top teams, so he paid them. He was also the first to sponsor the rainbow jersey. If you look back to previous years, the rainbow jerseys were all neutral. He sponsored the UCI, so he could have the rainbow jersey, and changed that forever.

Maurizio Castelli’s flare wasn’t left only to cycling innovations. He was your perfect Italian stereotype.

“Castelli would show up to every Giro with a new car to follow the Giro. Each year, he would get a new car, just for the Giro. He was pretty into being the man to be seen. He always wanted to attract a lot of attention, so he’d get a new car and follow the entire race.”

Attention was no problem for Castelli to attract. He had an unquestioned gift for promoting his brand to hitherto unseen heights, but it wasn’t empty promotion. He had the product behind him that supported his perfect Italian grandstanding.

Don’t believe me? In the same year he debuted the colored Lycra short, 1981, he issued a press release presenting the first aerodynamic jersey.

“It’s this hand-drawn artwork with every single concept of how aerodynamics work and how you build a jersey,” says Smith. “They had all the theory down back in 1981. We are able to make a more aero jersey now because we have better fabrics and better technologies available. The understanding of how air flowed over the human body and how you should manage it—they had it down back then.”

Three themes remain just as viable in the 21st century as they did so many years ago: performance, style, and quality. The tone set by Castelli lives on today, as the company continues to push forward as one of the most innovative, style-oriented companies in cycling.

From issue 4. SOLD OUT.