My new “Cambridge Raincoat” and some thoughts on internet shopping

Let’s be honest, most retail employees only go to work for the promise of stealing stuff, and their bosses started just like them and moved through the ranks. This is why my undies, my socks, my jeans, my shirts, my just about everything, has come from Rapha. They have a no-risk shipping and returns policy and let me deal with a web page, not some creepy guy with a tape measure worn as a scarf.

When I see a grown man working in a clothing store I immediately assume he has done time for the lamest of crimes, like pretending he was collecting for the Red Cross, or pirating and selling thousands of movies. It was H. G. Wells who said that every time he sees an adult riding a bicycle he no longer despairs the human race. Every time I see an adult working in a clothing store, I do.

Local bike stores are equally irksome, unless you know the mechanics from A-grade club racing. Even then, they’re like Russian brides, whose love will fade the moment you leave a store without making a purchase. To keep your Russian fake-blonde expect to check out with a new handbag. Your “friends” at the bike store will expert you buy a new helmet each month—the length of time it takes a modern helmet to develop invisible but fatal flaws, supposedly.

Honestly, with youtube the way that it is, it’s easier just buying the tools from chainreaction, and a stockpile of parts, and doing your own repairs from instructional clips (as honest mechanics will admit they do too). If there are to be bike shops in the future, they will consist of bicycle workshops in the middle of large display rooms. Mechanics will charge online stores to have display items there for people to try on for size, but buy on the net. You won’t be able to use the mechanic’s computer. It’s playing youtube.

Orchard Road shops in Singapore

How many millions of products are there for sale on the internet? How many square meters of shop space would it take to put them all on display? More, I would suggest, than even a mega city has available in retail floor area. And even if Paris or New York could stock every last trinket and T-shirt that exists to be bought, it would take a shopper a lifetime to get around to all the stores. Even shopping for something you might think was available in a few standard models, like clerical robes for example, would send you all over town. New York has a papal garb store in the garment district and another in Greenwich, and possibly more.

What turns my mind from cycling to priestwear? Well, I have been in the market for some robes for myself, doctoral robes, so have been looking, as one does, at a few online regalia shops. Unlike priests though, who can be as camp as they like when they frock up, we academics are nowadays supposed to stick to the robes of the institutions from whence we obtained our higher degrees.

Or must we?

So many academics, working in glorified technical colleges in banana-republics, turn up to their students’ graduations wearing the Cambridge red gown, that I’m led to suspect a few must be faking. I mean, Cambridge cannot possibly have so many graduands, and if they did, surely the holders of such precious papers could find more uplifting places to work than the Pyongyang University of Architecture in North Korea! I’m told half the teachers there wear Cambridge colours. And if it’s okay for them to pretend they got their doctorates from such a fine institution (even if Cambridge does sell on-line diplomas these days), then why shouldn’t I pretend too? What is the worst that might happen if I were found out? Pyongyang would always give me a job.

Pyongyang University of Architecture: not so shabby at all!

I was all ready to confirm my order on a full Cambridge costume, with fox fur trimmings the lot, when I saw on Facebook that the The Cambridge Raincoat Company were having a sale. I follow them on Facebook because Sally, the owner, can be trusted to post the most delightful pictures of fashionable cycling.

Unlike Cambridge doctoral gowns, Sally’s raincoats really are made in the UK. They are also made from some super light, highly breathable action-man fabric, that I researched before buying. Her coats are tailored specifically for upright cycling, because Sally rides 8km there and back to work every day on her Dutch-bike and couldn’t find a raincoat she could wear on and off of her bike. Best of all, her coats are substantially cheaper than doctoral gowns. And that’s where the differences stop. Is the guy on the right dressed for rain, or three hours listening to speeches? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it!

I have taken the ultimate leap of faith in internet shopping (buying direct from a cottage-industry maker) because I need a rain-coat to commute in, and something to wear in academic processions. I am confident that substituting a raincoat for robes will draw no special attention other than: “Gee Dr. Behooving, I didn’t know you studied at Cambridge?”

Buying from small boutiques on the web requires faith on our part, because we get stuck with the postage, not only for delivery but for any returns. High volume online stores like Rapha can tolerate the occasional pillock buying then returning unnecessarily, while they lose money on postage. They can see from sales stats that the loyal customers they pick up on the way (like myself) justify their risk in the long run.

Dashing Tweeds

But low risk for shoppers means low gain as well. That’s how I see Rapha, who make clothes that everyone wears now. Functional. Stylish. But way too accessible. I want to live at a remote tip of the globe where I have the roads to myself, yet dress as though I have my own personal army of exclusive tailors. I want to wear dashing tweeds, shower proof cotton, reflective beanies and scarves, impervious trouserssiliconised cotton, and raincoats manufactured in Cambridge. I’m fussy. And makers of boutique clothing know fussy people often do return items. So I see acceptance of the responsibility for all postage costs as the price I must pay to look brilliant amidst all the newcomers to Rapha who I see on bikes around Tassie.

But how risky can buying a raincoat be anyway? Sally helped me via email to ascertain my correct size, and raincoats aren’t designed to fit like gloves anyhow. The only risk was that it might not be impeccably made, but it is.

I’m not sure which will come first, graduation day, or an end to Tasmania’s bush fires, but as soon as I do get a chance to wear my new raincoat, I will let you know how it performs. Already I can tell you it feels like cotton with a silk lining, and that if covers my thighs when I sit on a bike. There are colours other than red, but I want the attention of drivers and women, and to pretend I studied at Cambridge. Meanwhile I’ll work on the accent.

About Steven

I'm on a mission to put cycling on the agendas of architects, urban designers and fellow academics, who see the potential for bicycles to change cities and buildings. My PhD is in architectural history and my interdisciplinary research spans art theory, philosophy and cultural studies. I teach architectural history and theory and design studio at The University of Tasmania, Australia, and formerly worked as an architect designing large public housing projects in Singapore. My favourite bikes are a titanium racing bike I use for racing, a Velorbis retro commuter for riding to cafes and work, a single speed ultra light Brompton that I take with me when I travel on planes, a 29er hard tail mountain bike that I get lost on in remote places, an old track bike that scares me, a 1984 Colnago Super with all original campagnolo components that is plugged into a virtual realm that I train in, and a Dutch-made Bakfiets, that could easily replace half of the bikes I just mentioned.
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