Wednesday 16 October 2019

52 Cycling Voices - 25: Monica and Paola Santini

Meet the women behind one of the biggest brands in cycle wear - Monica and Paola Santini. They took over from the business their father, Pietro set up in 1965. Originally a wool factory set up by Pietro's sister in Bergamo, Signor Santini wanted to develop a business that combined the family clothing business with his passion for cycling. Since 2009 the day-to-day running of the company is managed by Monica and Paola, but Pietro still keeps his daily ritual of walking around the factory and catching up on cycling news in Gazzetta dello Sport.

I met Monica and Paola last year at the Rouleur Classic and they were quite enthusiastic about the launch of their latest kit for Trek-Segafredo, and celebrating 30 years of producing the rainbow World Champion's jersey - something we lesser mortals can even buy now. One thing that was quite apparent when speaking to the sisters is their passion for what they do, and particularly their wish to continue the family heritage of producing innovative designs for men and women. Look out for them at Rouleur Classic.

Monica (L) and Paola     (photo: Beardy MCBeard)

Monica Santini

From: Bergamo, Italy

Occupation: CEO, SMS Santini

Paola Santini

From: Bergamo, Italy

Occupation: Marketing Manager, SMS Santini


Growing up in a family like ours meant that we were immersed in cycling from a very early age as our dad used to explain all the race techniques and strategies to us. That really got me involved in cycling and I fell in love with it. 

My dad owned a team called Rossi-Santini when I was a teenager and always used to take me to see them racing.  
The first World Championships I went to were in Colorado Springs in 1986 -  Moreno Argentin won. I remember it well: I was just a teenager and my father took me along because he couldn’t speak English and needed me as his interpreter.

I was never a competitive cyclist, partly because when I was young, very few girls cycled. Nowadays I cycle at amateur level because I like it and it makes me feel good.

As a small girl I worked in the factory when I was in high school, doing little jobs like helping to lay out the fabrics. Then, when I was at university, I worked in the administration offices. I was there a lot from an early age: at everything from team presentations to official UCI dinners and meetings with sponsors. 

After I graduated, I went abroad for a while to get some experience in other fields, and after that I decided to join for good. That was in 2000 and I started out in administration. Then from 2002 to 2004, I essentially digitalised the company which didn’t had a computer system for the production side. After that I focused on developing our foreign markets and have now been CEO for 10 years. 
Monica with Pietro (L) and Alessandro Petacchi (photo: Santini)
We are an Italian company and, as such, we are very focused on design, fashion and beauty

In terms of the production process, I have always worked very actively with the production managers, trying to learn as much as I could from them. I love working with those very professional people.  

I remember Santini making wool jerseys very well because I have been involved in the company since I was a little girl. It was an unusual technique as the wool had to be woven and embroidered. 

Santini has been a partner of the UCI since when they approached us about making the World Champion's jersey over 30 years. We started in 1988, with the victory of Maurizio Fondriest. 

The fact that a body as important as the UCI had chosen us to make the World Champion's showed their faith in our skills. We were able to guarantee quality clothing and fast delivery times.  The first jerseys we made were wool and we had to have wool in all the - quite unusual - rainbow colours in stock.

When people talk about the World Championships, they are normally only thinking in terms of road cycling but there are many others championships: from mountain bike to lesser known ones such as cycle-ball or artistic cycling, etc. All those World Championships have their own jersey designs. For example, cycle-cross and mountain-bike champion jerseys are often cut very differently.

In terms of size, we don’t just make one jersey but the same jersey in a choice of sizes that have to reflect the size of the athletes that will win and wear them on the podium. They won’t be worn in competition so we don’t have to worry about fitting.

Although we had transitioned from wool to Lycra and polyester by the time I joined the company in 2000, the other changes in the interim have been significant too; from the fit, which has become more body-hugging, to the addition of different materials to boost stretch, for instance.  In the last few years in particular, we have been doing more and more research into treatments and fabrics: it is an ongoing process because we never want to stop innovating.  

We have been producing women-specific products for at least 20 years, and in that time have focused on driving forward with our projects with women's pro teams and athletes. Our goal since the outset has been to give women the same standard of products that we make for men, so we have never produced less technical clothing or used lower performance fabrics for women. 

Lizze by Santini and Trek-Segafredo kit
We applied the research and development processes  we use for our men’s products to our women’s clothing: we chose more body-hugging cuts designed for women’s body shapes, perhaps adding in a bit more colour and playing around a bit more with the graphics to make them more attractive to female tastes.  

What was definitely different, however, was the quantity of products: while there were a lot of men’s collections, the selection of women’s products was limited, at first. But that too has changed t in recent years. In fact, our women’s collections now mirror our men’s very accurately in both quality and quantity.

We work with the top women’s pro teams like Boels Dolmans, and pro athletes like Lizzie Deignan. Working with sports people of that level has helped us realise what we needed to do differently to suit women’s bodies and needs. In the past, we also worked with the Australian Cycling Federation in providing kit for women cyclists. 

We always organise fitting sessions with our athletes and we get them to test out all the materials they will be wearing to see if they are fine as they are or if we need to adapt them to the competitors’ bodies. 

We have been working with Lizzie Deignan in creating the Lizzie for Santini collection. I spoke to Lizzie early last year about clothes and she said she really likes Santini clothing, even before she was asked to design it. 

She was riding for Boels Dolmans at that time and we were already sponsoring the team. We liked Lizzie a lot and with everything that she does and what she represents for women’s cycling, so we approached to see if she had ever thought about doing something in the industry. She like the idea of the work that we had done previously for another big rider, Anna Meares, on her Anna collection. So we started creating the Lizzie for Santini collection.

It has been hugely important for us to work with an athlete of Lizzie’s calibre. She is very focused on detail and is very determined.  That striving for perfection is something we share and so we’re absolutely on the same wavelength.  Being able to craft our collection around the needs of an athlete of her level has been a very positive experience for us – as was the case with Anna Meares a few years ago. 

In the past, we were met with some confusion and reluctance: “What you are you doing that for?” and “Why are you making women’s products? They are no use to anyone, no one wants them. It’s a waste of time”, etc., etc. But time proved us right: now there are more and more women’s collections and products and that is because more and more women are becoming involved in this sport.   

Based on my own experience, I would say that women are able to embrace that marvellous crossover between sport and fashion in addition to being able to create groups in a less vertical way and more as a team. 

My transition to managing the company and being part of the cycling industry wasn’t so rapid that people ended up saying: “What just happened?” I worked with dad for a very long time and it was a very easy, natural transition between him and his daughters, in-house.  

After several years, he just said to us: “It is time to pass the baton”.  My father still comes to the factory every day.  The outside world didn’t immediately accept the fact that the company was being managed by two women. But despite a few difficulties, we have built up excellent business relationships. 

It is true that this is a male-dominated sector with a very low percentage of women. But I have never looked on myself as a women when I am at work. I see myself as a professional with goals and even when people reacted oddly, I never thought they were doing so because I was a woman but because they thought I was young or a bit green. The important thing is never to give in to the sceptics

Inside the Santini factory (photo: Beardy MCBeard)
Being a woman has never been a problem for me or limited me in anyway. In fact, it has been a plus, an advantage. 

The fact that we still have such a solid relationship with the UCI after 30 years is down to the fact that we do what we do well and with passion, and we are fast and flexible. Those are things our dad taught us and which we teach in the company.   

We have our own in-house version of the Ten Commandments written by our collaborators and listing our values and our guidelines. The first Commandment is: quality before everything. That means there is a philosophy shared by the whole company.  

I, together with my sister, Paola, manage the company and the worksforce is 97% female; it’s actually strange to say that in an industry which is male-dominated. We are rooting for women’s cycling to grow more and more and we are all bike riders ourselves. So of course it is natural to think that we want to create something that we like, and if we like it, hopefully other women will like it too. 


Dad used to take me to local races during summer. He started doing that when I was two. I liked going to watch the track racing with dad; the six-day races were my favourites as I could see the whole race and it was so much fun.

Natatlina, Pietro's sister at the original
Santini wool clothing workshop (photo: Santini)
Cycling has always been part of my life but I never raced when I was little as my dad was afraid I might get hurt. He thought swimming was a much safer sport for a girl. Now I am an amateur triathlete. I discovered triathlon six years ago and fell in love with it.

I quite literally grew up in the factory as at the time, we lived in an apartment on the top floor of the building! Dad always let us walk around the production floor and watch what all the different staff were doing. What happens here is magical for a small child. I see it now with my own kids. They think we create dreams out of colours and fabric!

As I grew up, I used to do small jobs in the office and help out whenever I could after school or during summer holidays.

I learned about the design and production process by watching and asking our designers and technicians thousands of questions. I used to ask thousands of questions when I was a child, and I still do today!

I started working in the family business in April 2009 after six years' working in London in the marketing and PR office of a fashion brand.

When we work with Lizzie Deignan she is involved in the earliest stage of the process, from when we brainstorm ideas for the design and the models in the collection. Then she receives all the photos of the developments of the prototypes and tests some of them too. Her feedback is invaluable and she loves being around fabrics and colours when we create the collection. I think she has a lot of fun.

It is very important to have women involved in the management of a clothing company. Women have a lot to give to this sport, especially in the clothing business. My father has always thought that women are very quick to understand fabrics and design. In my opinion, a woman’s life is like an endurance sport, like cycling. So we are kind of used to dealing with endurance and with the complexity that managing a company like ours involves every day.
Santini President, Pietro with Monica (L) and Paola
Dad is still our president and the symbol of our company. He comes to work every day and loves to walk around the factory to see what’s going on. He doesn’t make all the decisions anymore, but we like to get him involved and ask for his opinion.

The cycling industry has changed a lot through the years. We are no longer the only women in the business. There are still relatively few of us but our numbers are growing. I remember that at the first trade shows I did, people were looking at me and thinking “She is blonde, young and female.  What does she know about cycling?” But I have always proved them wrong and made them change their mind!

Twitter: Santini_SMS

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