Paola Santini Interview: From humble beginnings to WorldTour sponsorships
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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Paola Santini Interview: From humble beginnings to WorldTour sponsorships

by Steve Jones at 10:58 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews
Infusing Italian passion and style into their clothing

Paola and Monica SantiniItaly is one of the places in the world where cycling is most popular, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the sport’s best products originate from the beautiful country known as lo stivale.  Regardless of whether you’ve had the pleasure of visiting Italy, there are two words that likely come to mind when looking at some of its famous exports - passion and style.  VeloNation had the opportunity to sit down with Paola Santini recently, the daughter of cycling clothing manufacturer Santini Maglificio Sportivo’s founder Pietro Santini, and discuss the company’s origins, philosophy and recent developments in cycling clothing.  For the 2012 season, Santini is sponsoring three ProTeams including the Russian Katusha squad, Australia’s new GreenEDGE outfit and the Dutch Vacansoleil-DCM team, but it came from humble beginnings.

“My father was a very untalented rider…[laughs],” Paola explained, when asked how the company was started. “He was very passionate about the sport, but he wasn’t talented enough [to make it as a professional cyclist].  When he was racing as a junior he found himself riding alongside some riders that went on to become top professionals and win races like the Tour de France in the 70s such as Felice Gimondi and Gianni Motta,” she explained.

Silver lining leads to life-change:

It was at that point fate stepped in and gave birth to what would be Santini’s company.  “He realized he didn’t have what it takes to ride as a professional, but he wanted to stay in the cycling business.  He was working as a mechanic,” she explained, “and by chance he broke his leg and had to stay home with his sisters for 6 months because of the injury.  His sisters were running a small knitting company at the time, and he got involved with that because he was stuck at home and getting bored and turns out that he loved it!”

Pietro SantiniThe circumstances paved the way for her father to get creative and discover a way to remain in the sport of cycling.  “After 6 months when it was time to go back to work, he didn’t want to go back and become a mechanic, so he got involved in his sister’s company,” Paola continued.  “He convinced them [his sisters] to change directions and try to get involved with cycling clothing since he was so passionate about it.  Having the knowledge he did about the sport and friends as top-level riders he would start giving the clothing to them to test…you know, ‘Try this, try that…’ and that is how everything got started.”

While the company managed to make its way to the top step of the podium in cycling’s biggest events, it took a little time for the Santini brand to get the exposure they needed to take things to the next level.  “In the 1970s the producers of cycling clothing weren’t on the jerseys, just the name of the team’s main sponsors and that was it,” she detailed.  “It wasn’t until the late 70s before that started to happen [clothing manufacturers showing up on the clothing].”

Iconic design with French teams:

When asked what it was that helped Santini turn the corner and become one of the sport’s most popular clothing manufacturers, she attributed it to being associated with one of cycling’s legendary teams.  “The big break for Santini was with the sponsorships for the La Vie Claire and Renault teams.  The 80s were probably the best years for our company up until now.  My father is a very conservative man, he has great ideas, but he wants to develop them step by step and make sure he does it properly,” Paola explained.

Her father’s enthusiasm for the sport has been a great asset for Santini throughout the years.  “Since my father was a rider himself it was important to him to have a relationship with all of the riders he sponsored,” she continued.  “Especially in the 80s, when he developed his own junior team together with his best friend called Rossi-Santini.  He was so passionate about it and my mother would always say ‘You’re never home, you’re always away for work and now you have this team…’.  But my father was breathing cycling really, and that’s all he has ever done.  He developed the team for 10 years, and many of the riders on the team went on to become professionals on big teams.  There were guys like Mario Traversoni who rode for Carrera, Saeco and Mercatone Uno with [Marco] Pantani, Edoardo Salvoldi who now manages the women’s Italian National Team and several others.”  Those relationships translated into a deeper understanding of the sport as it continued to evolve.

Jersey DesignNew technologies are extremely important to Santini, and the company approaches this from a couple of angles.  “We have a R&D department, but we also have a couple of freelancers that help us to do research on new fabrics and technologies, and they are especially helpful for our fashion collections”, she explained.  “But the main reason we sponsor professional cycling teams is to work with them and have them test our technology first, because if it will work for them, it will work for everyone else.  They spend so many hours on the bike, so we can confidently launch the same technology to the market with our fashion collections and our other products.”

Pro feedback leads to all-round benefits:

The benefits of working with professional teams can be seen in their 2012 product line.  “For example, we have a new kit that we will be launching for summer 2012 called IRO.   The fabric and construction replicate what we tested with Team Katusha last year.  It uses a very stretchy fabric on the back that is very aerodynamic that we called LycraKa to keep that Katusha theme because we started using it with them.  They picked it together with us after testing many different fabrics.  The idea was to have a front area that doesn’t fold up and collapse when you’re riding in a tuck position, and the only way to prevent that from happening in the front area was to have a lot more stretch in the back so the jersey would still allow you to move freely and be comfortable.”

“We do the same with our new chamois, whenever we come out with a new one, we give it to the pros to test first, and then we will launch on to the market,” she continued.  “We find that it’s just a great way to get feedback.  Sometimes we develop technologies that we would never launch because they come back and tell us ‘It’s not worth it, it’s working, it’s not great’.”

“We believe it’s not the thickness of the padding that matters, it is how it is constructed and what it is made of.  You can have a very thick padding, but if once you sit on it compresses down to nothing what good is it?  This year we have a chamois that all of the pro riders are wearing that has the latest evolution of our thin silicone gel at its core.  No matter how much you wash it or sit on it, it will always remain the same shape and size and it is a very cool material to help keep the riders fresh while on the bike.”

Santini FactoryThe company’s roots are firmly planted as evident by the makeup of their staff.  “Fourteen members of our family work in the 100-person factory, so with Santini you’re buying the family’s ideas, concepts and passion for the sport expressed through products.”  Its philosophy is simple: “We’re more about the quality than the quantity; for us it’s all about the passion for the sport.”

While Santini clothing can be purchased in the colors of many famous teams over the years, it’s also possible to have their clothing made for local teams and organizations.  “Any team can have custom Santini clothing made for them,” Paola said.  “Once the design and the order numbers are confirmed it takes around 60 days to produce the clothing.  Everything is made in house by the company in Bergamo.”  So you’d like to know which of their professional kits has been the most popular over the years?  It’s none other than the late Marco Pantani’s Mercatone Uno team.

Twinning tradition and technology:

According to Paola, there are some new developments coming out of Bergamo that are cutting edge.  “We have recently launched called bio-ceramic which sounds quite strange, but in reality what they’ve found that the bio-ceramic thread that you use to knit fabric has some properties that are very similar to carbon.  It keeps out the UV rays and it’s breathable, so it has the same properties for those kind of things.  The difference is that it also has a very good effect on the energy of your body because bio-ceramic fabric is able to attract the good rays of the sun, which are the FIR rays.  Those are the sun’s rays that penetrate into your body and boost your metabolism and the micro circulation.  Basically, the way it works is that it keeps you fresh because  you don’t have to use energy to cool down, so that way all of your effort goes towards the riding.”

Bio-ceramic isn’t the only new development from Santini, they have also developed a way to help keep cyclists dry in wet weather.  “Together with our fabric supplier Sitip, Santini has created a treatment for fabric called Aquazero, and we have a whole line of products that we are using it on.  It’s great because it’s resistant to water for the first 60 minutes of riding under heavy rain.  It works very well in places like the UK where it’s never terribly cold, but it rains a lot.”

Their Aquazero treatment was also something that came to market via their sponsorship of professional teams.  “We tested it with the pro teams we sponsor, so Katusha, Vacansoleil-DCM and GreenEDGE all had their winter gear treated with it and it went over well with them,” she admitted.  “I have to be honest - at first the riders didn’t believe it would work.  As you probably know, all water resistant garments are kind of stiff and heavy and aren’t very stretchy because of the membrane that’s inside the fabric to prevent the water from getting in.  In this case you have no membrane, so the treatment leaves the fabric as warm and soft as it was before the treatment.  My sister and I would throw water on the riders to show them how it works, and they were like ‘What…what’s going on?!’ and then they changed to ‘Wow, this is cool, yes I want that’.”

What does it take to outfit a professional cycling team?

“They [professional cyclists] get 20 to 25 jerseys and bib shorts. You have to bear in mind that they have at least three types of jerseys.  They have a summer very, very light jersey which is usually a mesh jersey for very hot weather that is usually used for the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France and the Tour Down Under because it’s a very hot time in the season.  They also have what we call the “aero jersey”, and that is fitted very close to the body and is very stretchy and riders will use that mainly for the time trials, but also for races where there is going to be a sprint at the end.  Riders will also have a standard short sleeve summer jersey, but it’s not mesh so it’s not as fresh as the other ones – they will use it during March and April depending on where they race.  There are also long sleeve jerseys, vests, rain jackets, wind jackets and so they will have up to 25 pieces of clothing in total, making around 6 for each kind depending on the amount of use they expect.”

What are the ins and outs of good jersey design?

“Dark colors do not necessarily attract more heat - there is a treatment that you can do to fabric called Coldblack that will make it so dark fabric will not take in the heat from the sun, but we usually try not to do colors that are too dark.  It’s not because of heat, it’s because the darker jerseys tend to stand out less in the peloton.  If you want to be visible in the bunch on the television coverage, you’re better off having a pallet of light, bright colors.  For example, last year the jersey for the Vacansoleil-DCM team’s kit was a very dark blue, so it was more difficult to see them in the peloton.  This year they asked us for our advice, and actually did a competition in Holland for the design of the jersey.  We worked with them to pick the winning design and you will see this time there is a lot of white and a lot of bright yellow, which is the color of their main sponsor Vacansoleil-DCM.  You’ll see that it stands out from the crowd much more than the previous year and that will be better for all of their sponsors.”

“Trends are also a factor when it comes to designing a jersey - Leopard Trek was very trendy with white, black and a blue line.  It’s also a problem when you have a jersey that has to have many, many sponsors on it you can’t really go for that look.  For Leopard Trek it was easy to have a beautiful jersey  since they only had one sponsor.  The tricky part is to have a beautiful jersey with 10 sponsors on it – in that case you have to go simple and you have to go bright, because the darker it is the more difficult it is to see the riders in the peloton so they can promote their sponsors.”

Santini and the Australian GreenEDGE Team


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