Interview with Mathieu Danel, VP Product & Merchandising for the best technical clothing line on the market.
Kring : It has been a year since the Katusha clothing brand was launched, as a completion of the global cycling project initiated by Igor Makarov that resulted in Team Katusha. How do you evaluate this full year?
Mathieu Danel : I joined the company in September 2015 and since this date the time has flown. It feels like we started yesterday and, at the same time, we have accomplished so many things in less than 2 years.
First of all, we fully equipped Team KATUSHA, our World Tour pro team, from head to toe, in just a few months so that they were ready to start the 2016 race season with totally new kit. Then, we introduced our 1st road cycling Performance collection in April 2016 and establish strong partnerships with some of the best retailers in Europe. A few months later, in October 2016, we launched the COMMUTER collection, for men and women, in Vienna. And finally, in February 2017, we launched the new Summer collection, for men and women, including the innovative AERO kit: the fastest kit ever. I would say that 2016 was pretty intense, with a clear focus on product development.
Since the beginning of 2017, we have also concentrated our energy in building the brand; a large part of which involves organising more events with consumers like the ride done in partnership with KRING in Brussels. We collaborate with ambassadors who represent the brand locally. We share stories on our blog and through social media. Every weekend KATUSHA has an amatory race somewhere in Europe. Our objective is not only to provide the best products for cycling but also to offer a great experience on the bike. It’s all about having fun while pedalling in iconic places like the Muur, or sharing a coffee after the ride…
Kring : Where did you start from, and how did you and your teams manage to change the whole identity of Katusha, from a very Russian-centered team into an international project?
Mathieu Danel : I can summarise this project like this: from a Pro cycling team to a Global 360° project in cycling.
First of all, the professional team became more international with 14 different nationalities and a Swiss license, clearly aligned with our ambition to become a global brand.
Then, the brand’s visual identity was completely changed, working with very talented design agencies on brand marketing and product design. We have a clear focus on the performance of the garments but the style is also very important: We all know that road cycling has become trendy and people won’t ride in a kit purely for its performance. So, we do no compromise, we offer both – high quality and style on the same product.
From the beginning, the project envisioned several activities to be developed, to surround passionate consumers and provide the best experience. The apparel collection was the first step, but now we also have the KATUSHA Café to share a nice expresso before a ride. KATUSHA Travel was the latest addition to the project, to offer unforgettable moments on the bike with the Professional team.
Kring : How do you test the Katusha clothes? Do the professional riders help you in that regard?
Mathieu Danel : We work with a group of Pro riders from the very beginning of each project. The first step is to listen to their needs, identify what we can improve on existing products and find new solutions that we can bring to the market.
Then we do our own work with the design and development team before returning to the riders with prototypes to test. The AERO kit was born in a workshop with Pro riders in December 2015 during their training camp in Spain. Some riders, such as Alexander Kristoff, Marco Haller and Mickael Morkov, provided clear feedback on what they needed in order to be faster. Then we collaborated with a fabric suppliers’ wind tunnel, performing several tests to make the 1st prototype. Finally, the Pro riders tested the AERO kit on the track, so that the last adjustments could be made… because nothing is more efficient than real feedback. The riders are involved in the full process, from A to Z.
Kring : Kring is the sign of an era where urban cycling and pro race cycling can meet and exchange, from a sports point of view, but also from a product point of view: technology has reached every aspect of cycling clothing. How does Katusha see this evolution, and the synergy that could be initiated between these worlds?
Mathieu Danel : A Pro rider rides all year long, in all conditions. It can be a nice sunny day in Mallorca, wearing bib shorts and summer jersey, or, it can be a long rainy, windy, cold ride. In this sense, you can face exactly the same situation when commuting from home to the office every day.
We have developed very technical products to offer the best protection to our Pro riders, and we use the same technologies in our Performance collection and in our Commuter products too. For example, we have developed, in partnership with Schoeller, the 3L rain jacket for road cycling, using the C-change membrane which is extremely waterproof and breathable. Exactly the same membrane is used in our 3L parka, a great jacket for daily commuting, with all the features you need for urban cycling (wallet pocket, hand pockets, hood, reflective details…). These 2 products, designed for different usage but using the same technology, are the best example of the synergy between activities. It also shows how we can benefit from the experience of Pro riders, for all types of rider, from road cycling to commuting. At KATUSHA, we strongly believe that urban cycling represents a huge opportunity, because cycling is becoming increasingly popular, but cyclists are not properly equipped.
Kring : What differentiates Katusha from other clothing brands? The integrated approach behind the technological prowess (the 37.5 yarn and Schoeller fabrics from Switzerland in your jerseys, combined with an adapted jacket, for example)? And speaking of manufacturing, where are the Katusha products made?
Mathieu Danel : I would say that the main difference is not in our products or technology, but clearly in our concept. From a Pro cycling team, we are developing a global concept to offer all that you need to enjoy great moments on the bike. From the experience we have as a Pro cycling team, we enable people to ride like a Pro, wearing the same products, using the same technologies, on the same roads during training camps, sharing a coffee before a race, having the same emotions during the race…
More specifically regarding the production, we produce everything in Europe to guarantee high quality and short lead-times. It’s also easier for us because we spend a lot of time in the factories working on new prototypes and new technical solutions to deliver the best products.
Kring : What is the main focus for Katusha in the years to come? The development of a high-end design identity, the cooperation between the Katusha Team and the “public” apparel, or something else?
Mathieu Danel : Of course, the priority is to continue to develop the best products and we are currently working on new innovative solutions for the coming season. More importantly, the main focus is to offer great experiences to our consumers. It could be along a race for the Team KATUSHA ALPECIN fan club, during a ride managed by one of our ambassadors in Paris, Berlin, Vienna… or an event organised by KATUSHA Travel.
On the business side, we are working on our distribution expansion. We already have really good results in Asia, we’re starting a cooperation in Australia; but cycling is a global sport and we have opportunities everywhere.
Kring : Your ambassador, M. Viatcheslav Ekimov, was present at Kring for the launch of your pop-up shop in our concept store. What is it like to work with such a legend?
Mathieu Danel : On the business side, it’s really great to have feedback on products because when you have done the Tour de France 17 times and won 3 gold medals at the Olympic games, you know what it means to wear a good product or not. So, it’s really helpful in terms of product development.
It’s also really important as it helps us to connect KATUSHA with people. All cyclist enthusiasts want to speak with such a legend… People come and join an event to ride with a Pro or former rider, who are our best ambassadors.
On my side, I have been passionate about cycling for more than 20 years, and I like to have long discussions with Eki about Pro cycling, iconic races, the evolution of the body position on a TT bike.
Kring : How did the Katusha adventure start for you? How big of a challenge was it, coming from Salomon?
Mathieu Danel : I would say, it started “full gas” as we say in cycling. We equipped the Pro team in 4 months and delivered the 1st collection in 8 months, knowing that normally we need between 18 to 24 months to deliver a collection. We used our business network to immediately select the best suppliers for the fabrics, trims and finished garments, all based in Europe. The biggest challenge was to put a process in place with all the steps to create a collection, but do it much faster. We found new solutions to be more efficient, like working directly with our suppliers in the factory every month or doing tests with the Pros not only during a training camp but also when they are training at home.
We decided to reduce the time to market and not to ask retailers for a pre order. There are 2 big advantages in doing this: On one hand, retailers don’t have to confirm an order 6 months before the delivery, without any visibility on the business. On the other hand, our development planning is consumer centric, meaning that we are organised to deliver products at the time that consumers want to use them, not one year earlier for a trade show. This decision allows us to be much more flexible and reactive, to provide the very latest technology to consumer.
More personally, it’s a fantastic opportunity when you can combine your job and your passion. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that my job is to go cycling to test a new product with a Pro rider, or to be in one of the most beautiful bike shops to introduce the brand to consumers.
Photos : © Tim De Waele; olivier seignette