Last time I tried to come here and failed was not even the first time I didn’t make it. Long, painful, embarrassing story short, I ended collapsing on the marble floor of the Colnago museum the day prior and crashing on Ernesto’s sofa for the afternoon instead. The Colnago family were of course completely hospitable of their ill mannered house guest, even joking about it since, but it was painful and embarrassing at the time. And I still hadn’t made it to fi’zi:k. So here again, third time lucky my latest white Fiat Cinquecento and I pull off the road and into The Selle Royal family car park for another try.
First impressions last. As I walk in a large black and white portrait of Selle Royal founder Riccardo Bigolin stares out with piercing but warm eyes. The red hue of the hardwood floor balances perfectly the grey blue of the walls and lifts out the black and white. The lobby smells of coffee and wood, an Italian conversation a room or two away, just audible, is calm and familiar. Warm greeting and strong coffee, I am welcomed in to the heart of Selle Royal and I am finally going to get to know fi’zi:k.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from a brand within a brand like this. I imagined it might be the Selle Royal factory with a few fi’zi:k banners and box stamps between the two, not so much cynical marketing perhaps as logical brand separation but I feared I would unearth badge engineering, all be it from a deep heritage and all my hopes of design and modernism might be mine alone.
Walking through the main Selle Royal production facilities it was clear I may have overlooked how the Italians see this sort of thing. It was busy, huge scale and crucially what I wasn’t seeing was one line of Selle Royal and another with fi’zi:k logos being stitched on. Huge piles of saddles waiting their next appendage illustrated that a large part of Selle Royal’s core business is putting big bike brand bums on seats straight from the dealership. Through the factory floor, out and round the building to a small side entrance on another part of the complex and we head into fi’zi:k territory. Suddenly this feels different somehow. Smaller perhaps and more intricate. Saddles are here in bulk, but they’re being hand carved, stitched, glued, baked, pressed, cut, finished and boxed.
When you’ve seen this first hand it’s hard to hear people bemoaning cost for something hand made. People that care have taken hours or days to create, perhaps not completely by hand, but hands on and in an expensive Europe rather than the easy option overseas. It’s hard to translate quite how much has gone into a jersey or saddle or pair of shoes without seeing it, the words ‘Made in Italy‘ going some way but until you see something being stitched together or printed or aligned by hand and eye you can’t fully grasp that it is worth every penny. The Italians still do a lot of this, they’ve never let go of something we Brits sadly did a long time ago, that the cache of where something’s made and the pride and care and meaning should not be seen merely as business suicide, but instead an asset, a benefit, a reason. The advantage of such heritage no amount of marketing can make up for or far eastern new money can buy.
Pretty early on in my tour my guide Nicolo asks me what saddle I ride. Like a kid in a saddle factory I listen as he suggests which fi’zi:k would best suit me. Somewhat bypassing his expertise I opt for the swankiest, most carbon, lightest one I know exists as an eagerly listening associate hurries off with my measurements.
As we walk through the teams of Italian mums I have grown so used to chatting to over the years in such places the intricacy of the process envelopes and I get drawn in, fascinated by the delicate, deft movements of carving perfect shapes of leather by hand or shaving composite and foam exactly with one swipe of what looks like a common butter knife. Scalpels slice off and then pick out the smallest pools of excess resin no one will probably ever see. I wonder if that’s about weight, but I get the impression it’s that if you’re going to do it by hand in your own country and it’s going to cost more just take a bit of extra time and care and scrape the small bubble of resin out that no one even knows is there, because you know it’s there, and that matters.
As ever, I start small talk pigeon Italian chats about football teams and sports cars and food with people that would probably really rather I didn’t, but as with Italians, are so charming and warm they indulge me my pretence that I am a native for an hour.
All around me is leather being washed, cut, dyed, stretched. The aroma is of glue and hyde, the sound, a metallic one of punching and machining. Sushi type conveyors circulate over and under bringing and taking. In all states of undress saddles bumble round the room getting plucked off and put back on a little down the line. Buckets revolve around above in a yellow painted industrial city in the clouds devoid it seems of people. But down here there is thrum and chatter and leather and hands. The machine is strong but the heart of fi’zi:k is human.
I’m shown the small test booth where David Millar was photographed sewing together his own creation in the Eloquence of Movement programme. Two industrial sewing machines sit at a smallish desk against a really nice grey wall with racks of material and studs, laces and leather off cuts all over the place. It’s a bit like a someone threw a grenade into a fuzzy felt box and every now and then someone shouts eureka as the latest funky R1 Uomo gets slotted together out of bits that really shouldn’t work next to each other, but just do.
The lunch bell chimes and we head into the brains of the operation for the first time. What strikes me is what I hoped I would come to understand of fi’zi:k in situ, design. The purpose designed head office is something that you don’t that often find in corporate circles, it’s usual to find a building adapted tick box like to a company’s needs belying their image or deeper, an ethos, but not so here. It’s a modernist warren of concrete and light and dare I say it, form and function. Brooks are here, not annexed like an after thought because they were a later acquisition but here in a unique space of their own that reflects how they do business.
Where things could be decorative, bought from a book or picked by an agency every two years to be ‘contemporary’, what I see as I walk through feels chosen, relevant, appropriate, felt. Not un-gallery like, corners of polished concrete floors or walls have interesting chairs or ceramics or sculpture sharing them with the humans pottering in and out of large wooden and glass partition doors. Open cupboards show off works in progress, things are not hidden away here, the processes are alive. Cluttered but not untidy, clean and kept but with activity spread across large wooden tables or laid out on beautiful rugs on oak floors.
This is like a favourite star-chitect designed your house and let you turn it into a play room but sent a cleaner round every few hours to make sure you didn’t ruin anything. It’s my kind of space, designed well, functions well. The kind of place you see in expensive architectural magazines, wish you could live there but wouldn’t be able to not mess up. They seem to have got the balance right somehow even with open cupboards. It’s all thinking spaces and roof gardens and it is exactly what I hoped it would be but feared it couldn’t. I worried that great fi’zi:k logo would have been just an avant-garde only child within a traditional family. That it would have representation out in the world, but not really be understood or encouraged back home. It is not so. That logo that stood out immediately back in 1996 and talked the same language as peers like Smart and Swatch hasn’t even dated.
Creative director Fabio Fedrigo walks toward me down a polished concrete corridor and I grab a snap. I could spend days in this place just shooting the interiors and as I start to talk to him about architecture he holds my old Mamiya film camera in his hands and the discussion turns to film. His eyes open, there is warmth in familiarity and a common language here. It is a functional tool, but it is also a beautiful object and we discuss cameras and buildings and interiors and it’s all back to that apparent core principle, design.
Into a studio space with shoes laid out all over a tall glossy white table we sit at on diner stools and I am introduced to both the Millar project in the flesh and it’s chief designer Ugo Villa. Simply put, David Millar was to wear a fresh pair of R1s for every race in his final career year, each one designed with his input and relevance to the particular event. Some that lay in front of me I so want to tweet but cannot share, simple designs, amazing prints, garish, confusing, poignant and personal ones. The whole thing first reminds me of the BMW art cars that started in the seventies. That idea that you could get Rauschenberg or Warhol or Koons to interpret and personalise a one off Beemer that would then not sit in a gallery as an object d’art, but race at Le Mans as it should and win probably. I have always liked the idea of having a blank canvas shape and being able to project a thousand ideas on to it one by one, overlapping them in series or keeping out there one offs. I think it’s what was special about the heyday of Swatch back in the late eighties to mid nineties. The idea you could have 30 designs in each season, some ‘artist specials’, others run of the mill but maybe just as interesting. A real sense of achievable and attainable interesting design. Design on the cheap this project is not nor sadly for the public, but there is a seed here that I wish others would plant. The idea that design can be so much more than a series of swoops or stamps or logos. The idea that your blank shoe or jersey or helmet shape is just the beginning and that you can really go to town from that point, or not.
Seeing an opportunity I ask if I can run back down to that little test booth with it’s neutral grey wall and shoot a few of these shoes for posterity. Tens of minutes left to closing time the three of us grab piles of these rare samples and set up for a 5min wonder of a shoot. As we pass back through the factory floor I see the model of saddle I probably should have opted for when asked before it was made today, fresh just for me. I don’t say anything but I feel quietly silly, the Antares I am looking at is to be Froome’s TDF saddle for when he makes it into yellow, all hush hush at this point but no doubt a talking point in a couple of months.
We head back out upstairs, arms crammed full of shoes like Just William raiding the tuck shop and Nicolo proudly hands me my box of saddle. Opening it I see just the Antares I wished it had magically become and I realise Nicolo knew it was a better fit for me and sanctioned it anyway. If it’s good enough for Froome and all that. Quietly silly morphs back into smiley excited as I pack the car once and for all.
I don’t need to come back now, I have finally made it and it was just as I had hoped it would be, maybe with even more polished concrete. But somehow I feel I will return. Next time i’m in the neighbourhood perhaps I might just have to call in for a coffee, if for nothing else that I can feel for a few hours like I live in a mid town Manhattan loft apartment or a swiss modernist cube on an alp, or even just an architectural journal on a coffee table somewhere posh and exclusive. Design defined.
Originally published in Peloton Magazine.
©Augustus Farmer 2014.