The Castelli name may not be as well-known as legendary bike racing heroes like Fausto Coppi or Gino Bartali, but their histories are forever intertwined. Back in the 1940s, Armando Castelli stitched clothing for both men.
When Coppi demanded something different — something that would give him the edge over Bartali in the Alps — Castelli suggested a change in jersey fabric from traditional heavy wool to lightweight silk.
With the new creation on his back, Coppi rode to victory in the 1949 Tour de France.
Castelli would go on to many other innovations (including the first lycra shorts) and be the clothier of choice for a who’s-who of bike racing legends that included Jaques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, and Eddy Merckx.
But Castelli’s recent history is much less heroic.
In 2004, Italian-based Castelli went bankrupt and was bought by Sportful, a clothing maker with a strong name in the cross-country ski business.
Castelli’s new owners took a close look at their existing U.S. operations and realized they needed a big change. The brand was floundering on the brink of disaster. Dealer orders were not being filled on time, and many shops were simply dropping the brand.
The legendary patina of the iconic scorpion logo was in danger of rubbing off. This is where Portland becomes part of the Castelli story.
Looking to right the ship, Sportful’s Steve Smith — a Portland native — called on an old friend, Greg Cowan. Cowan — Smith’s former boss at Nike — left the big swoosh in 2001 as their Global Director of Sales Operations. Smith hoped Cowan’s experience would help turn things around.
According to Cowan, “It all stated as a favor to Steve…I was just going to come in, review the financials and make some suggestions.”
What started as a favor and a few weeks of work turned more serious when Smith asked Cowan to help implement his suggestions. By the end of 2004 Cowan deepened his commitment to Castelli by investing some of his own money into the company’s U.S. operations.
In November of 2005, Cowan moved Castelli USA from Minnesota to Portland. Now, a year later, business has never looked better.
In a downtown office and warehouse overlooking PGE Park, Cowan is very optimistic for the future,
“Shipments are up 62% so far this year, we set a Spring pre-season order record and we’ve finally broken even…which is amazing considering we had lost $2 million over the last three years.”
Their shipping warehouse is stacked to the ceiling with boxes and they’re looking for a larger space.
Cowan chalks up the success to having a great team and a renewed focus on the product. He hired away talent from apparel industry juggernauts like Nike and Under Armour to assemble his current team of 10 employees and 17 nationwide sales reps. He’s also confident about their 2007 line and says, “No one in the business did as much improvement to their line as we did.”
“Castelli brings something new, exciting, and cool to the U.S. market.”
He gushed when talking about their top-of-line shorts (the $229 “Rosso Corsa” bibs), their featherweight “Superleggera” jersey (it weighs a mere 70 grams, floats on water, and feels like you’re wearing a cloud), and their full line for women. With products like these and their rich racing heritage, Castelli has always been about high-end and high-performance.
Eager to find out how Portland might influence Castelli’s product line, I asked Cowan what he thinks about products for the everyday cyclist with no dreams of Tour de France victory,
“Portland does figure into my thoughts more and more. I live near NE 21st and Knott…it’s a major street for bike commuters. I look out and see all these cyclists streaming by my house and realize that not everyone’s a racer, people just want good gear. It’s a tricky balance (being a high-performance and everyday man’s brand), but we’re working on it.”
I first heard of Castelli as an aspiring racer back in 1995. They sponsored my team and I remember how excited we all were to sport our Italian kit with the term “Squadra” (Italian for team) on the sleeve.
With Cowan at the helm and a renewed focus on the brand (helped by their Portland-based ad agency Leopold Ketel & Partners), Castelli is poised to regain the excitement that has been their hallmark ever since the 1940s, when old Armando stiched away at his shop in the foothills of the Alps in Northern Italy.
It’s good to know that Castelli headed in a positive direction, and even better to know that it’s all happening right here in downtown Portland.