Spotlight on… Maria Olsson

Maria Olssen is head of design at cycle clothing and accessories company Rapha

Spotlight on… Maria Olsson

We interviewed Rapha’s head of design Maria Olsson and one of Cycling UK’s 100 Women 2020 for our first ever Spotlight on… feature. She talks about her passion for cycling, design and overcoming barriers to be a female leader in the cycling industry

Quickfire questions

What bike do you ride? Bianchi Intenso/Pinarello Dogma K

Favourite route or place to ride: The Lake District or the Dolomites

In three words summarise your cycling: Time to myself

What do you love about cycling?

Endless opportunity without the pressure of delivering at the end. It’s time to let the mind wander and to declutter your thoughts.

I have my best ideas on the bike, and I think it’s the time where I let myself be the most me, no barriers, no game face, just whoever I am that day

Maria Olsson, head of design at Rapha

I also love the community that cycling has created, for a sport that is considered a bit elitist and to have many barriers to entry, I have made the most friends within this sport, and within this community. I see it as being the opposite if you take the chance to join in.

You get to see paths untravelled by cars and find your own way, explore and decide what cycling is to you, and it’s always right there when you need it, that’s what I love.

Maria Olsson riding a Bianchi road bike
Maria riding her Bianchi road bike

It’s great to see a female leader in the commercial side of the cycling industry. How did you get started?

I grew up doing sports and it’s been a natural part of my whole life, the best way to escape and cleanse all the external pressures of the world away.

I studied fashion and textile, but never felt the desire to be within fashion, as the more technical innovation side has always been more my thing, so I had the very fortunate opportunity with my first job as a ski wear designer after my second year at uni and I never looked back. I have learnt through my career and always stayed open to new challenges and opportunities to keep learning.

The biggest thing is to keep going, keep learning and find those people around you that can bring knowledge and absorb as much as you can, but also to experiment and learn from your mistakes, never give up. It’s a tough industry and I think to make it you have to be strong, especially as a woman, but it’s worth it when you see the team growing with you, through the hard and the good times.

In a male-led industry can you think of a barrier from early in your career and how you overcame it?

I have had so many, and I’m not going to lie: its tough out there, for different reasons than within fashion I think.

The biggest thing I had to overcome was to find a balance between self-criticism and reality, and to be careful with where I spend my energy. I have failed a million times, but I pick myself up and get on with it, try to block some of the noise and the inner voices that all creatives have questioning if you are good enough.

The thing is, everyone has these, but for me it was about making smarter choices and realising that I could channel who I was at work versus who I was at home, it’s a blurry line but now there is a line.

I also had the opportunity to find a few people I could rely on for trust, support and feedback that would help me, people who would have my back at the front line, and help bring me with them on the ladder, everyone needs those people.

And the most important thing to remember and to remind yourself of is, why am I doing this? And for me it’s always remained because I love it, even when I don’t. 

Maria Olsson talks to her team at Rapha; she is sitting in front of a selection of Rapha cycling clothing
Maria wants her designs to improve customers’ cycling experience

Where do you get the inspiration and innovation for your designs?

For me it’s all about smarter design and solving problems for the user, creating a better experience through a product that lasts.

There is too much stuff in the world, and for me, the most important aspect of product creation is justifying the reasons for why they exist. A lot of people see design as something external, surface based, something that looks good, and that is important, but that is not the heart of the product.

There has to be a balance, and I think the best designers and creators in the world are the ones who understand that. Innovation is such a common expression these days for ‘something new’, but for me and also for Rapha true innovation comes when it truly changes the game, the customer experience, and helps you enjoy the activity rather than worry about the product.

I get my inspiration from doing what I love, knowing the activity I’m designing for and listening to the people I’m designing for and most importantly being around and working with people who share that vision and that passion.

What is your and Rapha’s vision for women’s cycling for the next few years?

We have a strong vision for the women’s category and we definitely take it seriously, and for us the key objective is to get it right from the start. I have not worked with such an amazing group of strong, intelligent women anywhere and I think that really trickles through within the business.

There is a strong female presence and they all are passionate about the sport and help drive that forward. I think everyone can do more, but we are having the right conversations, and everyone is on board, which is the most critical part of any business initiative if it is to be successful.

The female side of the cycling industry is growing. It is such a positive change, and we definitely want to be at the forefront of that, and I think anyone would say that I am very passionate about it.

What piece of advice would you give to female designers just starting out?

My best advice would be to firstly make sure that this is what you really want for the right reasons, there needs to be a lot of passion involved to overcome the challenges, which you will face

Maria Olsson

Things change all the time within this industry and one of the first pieces of advice I got was evolve or die, which sounds very dramatic but it’s true, being able to adapt to new situations and stay open is the only way to make it. Give everything, but not all the time! Make sure you save some for yourself, and take time to let your brain recover, re-boot and wander.

You can’t force a good idea, creativity doesn’t work that way, and you will go through phases where there is nothing, but that’s ok, the engine just needs some more gas. Be kind but fight for what you really believe in, this industry is small and there is a difference between passionate and being seen as difficult, and as much as it pains me to say, women need to be smarter as there is still a fine line.

Last piece of advice and it’s something I’m very passionate about. When you grow bring people up with you. This is not a one-person show. The team is everything and make sure you hire people better than you, and make sure they know you have their back, trust is everything but only if its genuine.

More information

Maria Olsson is head of design at Rapha and one of Cycling UK’s 100 Women in Cycling 2020.

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