09 March 2010

An Italian Legend- The History of Castelli

BicyclingHub.com’s writer Lucy Burningham visited Castelli’s offices in Northeast Portland to find out more about the company’s history and the spring 2010 line. Below is part one of our story about Castelli.

Castelli’s tradition of innovation in cycling apparel started over a century ago. In the 1940s, Italian tailor Armando Castelli, who’d been making apparel for a small clothing company in Milan, started sewing clothing for cycling legend Gino Bartali. Cyclist Fausto Coppi, Bartali’s rival, asked the tailor to make him something better, a piece of clothing that would make him faster in a race. Castelli delivered with the first-ever silk cycling jersey. In the iconic black and white photograph of Bartali and Coppi—the one where they’re sharing a water bottle during the 1952 Tour de France—they’re both wearing Castelli-crafted clothing.

Using silk led to a series of jersey innovations: pockets, zippers and collars. Eventually Armando Castelli’s son, Maurizio, took the company’s helm. By 1977 Castelli had released the first Lycra cycling short. The Italian company dominated the cycling apparel industry from the ’70s through the ’90s and became the leading brand for many consumers in Europe. But distribution in the United States became inconsistent and, sometimes, nonexistent. Castelli U.S. offices had already been operating in Minneapolis, when Greg Cowan decided to right the company and relocate it to Portland, Oregon, in November 2005. In recent years the company has experienced unexpected growth despite tough economic times for retailers.

On a recent visit to the Castelli warehouse and offices in Portland, USA Brand Manager Peter Kukula, who started with Castelli in 1998 as one of the first five reps in the U.S., explained why Castelli has become a standard for top-quality cycling clothing.

What drew you to Castelli in the first place?

Growing up, I saw the scorpion and knew it meant quality. The true cyclist who loves the sport knows this brand and they’re cheering for it every day. To be able to say I worked for them was pretty magical.

Why Portland?

To start with, Greg Cowan’s from here, but really it’s the center of the sports apparel universe. Because of the proximity of Adidas and Nike, Portland has representatives from every major textile manufacturer, including GoreTex. Here we do everything from pattern work to garment testing on fit models. Right now we’re building out a showroom with a runway here in the warehouse, so we can host runway parties that will be open to the public starting in February or March.

What else happens here?

Besides stocking our entire product in the warehouse, we do things like wash testing new products. We keep a history of all our lines here as well, so we can look back at where we came from and how we’ve evolved. And we hold some of our meetings on trainers. When we can’t get out and ride it’s a nice way to talk business.

What might surprise people about Castelli?

We live a little bit out there in design, so we get to do some funky pieces along the way. For example, we’re working on a motorcycle jacket right now. We’ll make a few of them and sell them to people who love the idea of a one-off Castelli piece. We own two factories in Europe, something other brands don’t have, so we have the flexibility to do wild designs and make jerseys in four colors instead of two. Our competition doesn’t have that flexibility.

Tell us about your new custom division, which creates products and kits for pro teams.

It’s fun. We do a lot of new design for teams, including the Cervelo TestTeam, which helps us come up with some pieces that will appear in our 2010 catalog.

What’s the significance of the scorpion?

When Maurizio took over the company from his father in 1974 he created the first Lycra short among other innovations and created the famous scorpion to logo. The company went on to create the very first synthetic seat pad, the first sublimations and the first fleece fabrics used in jerseys and kits. Many of the innovations you see in cycling apparel today came from this family. Armando set the bar high by making innovative clothing unmatched by anyone else.

How does Armando influence what you do today?

It would be a travesty if we didn’t pay homage to the guys who made this brand what is was, in all our products. Right from the start we knew if we didn’t innovate, we wouldn’t be true to the Castelli brand and how the company got its start.

Thanks, Peter. We look forward to learning more about innovations for 2010 next.

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