Every single time I arrive at the Santini offices and facility, I feel like I have come into a world apart. And I adore it. I like introducing myself at the entrance and idly gazing at the things displayed in the hall then as I wait the few minutes for the person I am there to meet. Along with framed cycling jerseys from the past hung on the walls like artworks, these include an original Bianchi bike belonging to Marco Pantani and one of Bernard Hinault’s first Looks with carbon tubes from the days he was racing under the Vie Claire colours.
I am here to talk to Rosita Zanchi, an employee and the company’s living memory bank. I go up to the showroom and I have a coffee with Paola Santini who keeps me company while I wait. In Italy, every business meeting begins with a coffee. They tell me Rosita is on her way up from the production department. They ask me to make myself comfortable in the showroom and I sit on one of the sofas there. I get out my notebook and my recorder. I am ready to listen.
I hear a door open behind me on the other side of the huge showroom followed by the jingle of a bunch of keys and the sound of footsteps rapidly approaches. Here she is. Rosita. “Nice to meet you!” We exchange hellos, our smiles hidden by our masks as we bump elbows.
Still clutching a huge bunch of keys, Rosita perches lightly on the sofa in front of me, with the air of a person ready to jump up in an instant. She is still slightly out of breath from running up the stairs. The first thing that strikes me is how youthful and energetic she is. Perhaps you’ll have been imagining some kind of grandmother all dressed in black with a curve to her spine from all those years spent bent over her sewing machine. But you’d be wrong. Rosita is a lovely sunny, young-looking woman, elegant and beautifully groomed. We start to chat.
“I started working here at 15 as an operative. My mother taught me the job as she was already working for the company, sewing from home. At that time, it was quite normal to have an industrial sewing machine at home and work from there. Lots of women did it”.
I imagine that those days were very different to the present.
“Back then cycling jerseys were made from wool and helping my mother was a game for me. She would get me to put the labels on the collars of the jerseys and occasionally if she had a bit more time, she’d allow me to sew on a button or a zip. Putting in the zip was the height of satisfaction for me when I was a little girl”.
I jokingly ask Rosita if she has any idea how many zips she has put in in her life and she starts to laugh.
“I have no idea but a lot. A lot. Before I became the head of the sewing/manufacturing department, I spent a bit of time in all the different production departments. I remember very clearly my first day at work: the building just looked so huge to me. There were all these massive machines and lots of women sitting there, working away”.
I ask her what her work entails these days.
“I act as a kind of link between the owners, the marketing and the production departments. I also work with people both inside and outside the company. Sometimes, for instance, we invite the cyclists here to headquarters to try on models or prototypes. Our job is to hone the pieces for each one of them. We are like a kind of bespoke tailoring workshop for them. Every athlete has a special form on a database with all the various information about them. We make a note of everything with the designer: sizes, preferences, special requirements or requests, suggestions. One of my jobs is to ensure that the feedback we get is turned into production information or tips that will help the various departments perfect and develop our products”.
As she tells me the story of her career path, Rosita also gives me a fascinating analysis of how cycling wear has evolved over that time.
“When I started working here, the era of sublimation print jerseys had just begun. That was in 1987. The woolen jerseys and other cycling wear of that time were still just a third of our work. We only made certain items in wool. Polyester fabrics and fleecy fabrics had just started to come in and so that marked a real transition to the next era.
Today, there are all kinds of fabrics and the performance of the materials is incredible but the move from wool to synthetics was one of the key moments. From the perspective of production and the items in the catalogue, the change reflected users’ new demands: at that time, we had five or six best-selling models that made up 80% of our output. Today, however, even though our output is much larger in terms of volume, it is broken up into lots of specific products designed for different uses, conditions and consumers”.
I ask Rosita what the most magical moment of her long career with Santini has been so far. She doesn’t have to think for a second. Instead her face brightens and she begins to talk.
“The Mercatone Uno and Marco Pantani years, when he dominated climbing, the Giro and the Tour, were unique. When you do this job and watch the races on TV or read about them and you know particular champions are wearing the jerseys you have made, it is always a very special feeling. It makes you feel that your company’s brand is yours too, that it belongs to you”.
From this season, Santini will also be official supplier of the Yellow Jersey to the Tour de France so I ask Rosita if this will influence her work over the coming months. Before replying, she smiles and sits back on the sofa.
“We had known this might be happening for a while. After supplying the jerseys to the Giro d’Italia for so long, seeing that sponsorship coming to an end was a source of a bit of silent regret for the people working here. We all felt that something had come to an end. We also all knew that Monica and Paola were working to get the Yellow Jersey but it was difficult to imagine that we would actually succeed”.
As Rosita talks away in a controlled but genuinely enthusiastic voice, I wonder if there is a particular reason why she loves her work.
“The great thing about this work is that it is so manual: you see a product you created with your own hands, taking shape. A piece of clothing is an artisan product – you can’t just push a button on a computer. To learn how to sew straight, make a perfect garment takes skill and motivation. Our work is teamwork and it is great to think that each product is the fruit of a collective effort, just like the victory of a racing cyclist”.
But Rosita must have a favourite jersey and racer.
“Over the years, I have learned that it is very difficult to judge when the designs of the new collections are being prepared. Fashions and changes are sometimes so radical that it is difficult to imagine that certain colour combinations or graphics will be popular. I have learned to trust Fergus, our stylist and designer. Every time I am not totally convinced by a graphic and I feel it is too much of jump away from the past, that jersey usually ends up sticking in my mind and the heart more than the others!
If I had to choose just one, I would say the MercatoneUno and Pantani jersey was very special”.
I ask Rosita if she ever met Marco Pantini in person.
“One evening he came here to the company to pick up some products. He was on the way to Milan and they asked him to drop in. He arrived on his own. I remember he was driving a Porsche that he parked in the yard. He was lovely to everyone and he visited some of the departments with Signor Pietro. I was really struck by his modesty and his openness”.
Describing that moment seems to be very special to Rosita, in part because Pietro Santini also appears. I ask her to tell me something about Monica and Paola’s father, the founder of the company. Before she begins, she sits up straight and slightly closer to the edge of the sofa.
“Signor Pietro, as he’s always called her in the company, is a gentleman in the real sense of the world. He built up this company by focusing first and foremost on people, on the men and women working here. That atmosphere continued when the handover between the generations happened and Paola and Monica took over. I have only a few years to go before I retire but the company’s future seems to be looking more exciting all the time. I think I will miss coming here every day in a way!”
“Fare una maglia da ciclismo è un po’ come andare in bicicletta: quando hai imparato a farne una, è per tutta la vita”.
After we stand up and bump elbows before taking our leave, I ask Rosita what her passion for her work and cycling have in common.
“Making a cycling jersey is a bit like cycling: when you’ve learned how to make one, you’ve learned for life”.