The Mestiere Artigiano of Kitesurfing
The Roberto Ricci Interview
By Paul Lang
Many kiteboarders in North America are aware of RRD, but few know much about Roberto Ricci, the man behind the brand. An energetic and passionate Italian from Tuscany, Roberto started hand-shaping windsurf boards in the mid 1980s.
The company literally rose from the ashes after he almost burned down his parents’ house when his shaping room caught fire. Since then he’s grown RRD, which stands for Roberto Ricci Designs, into an international company offering extensive lines of kiteboarding, windsurfing, surfing, and SUP equipment alongside a clothing label.
A former professional windsurfer, Roberto was exposed to kiteboarding at its earliest stages in Europe through his good friend and kiteboarding pioneer Manu Bertin. He ended up shaping some of the very first kite-specific boards ever created.
We were able to talk to Roberto about his early involvement in kiteboarding and his passion for combining Italian artistry and craftsmanship with Hawaiian-inspired performance in each of his products.
How did RRD get started?
I started windsurfing in 1981. Like most guys at that age I saw windsurfing as the new classic Californian summer sport and I just fell in love with it. I started to race two or three years later and by 1985-86 I was racing all over Europe. In ’86, I met someone who ended up becoming my first employer. He wanted me to start shaping boards for a windsurfing company in Italy. I didn’t know anything about shaping. I was just a windsurfer spending as much time as possible in the water.
I had zero shaping experience and was starting from scratch. This opportunity opened up a whole new world for me. I just started shaping boards. At the time everything was done by hand shaping Clark Foam blanks with a planer. Lake Garda was the center of windsurfing in Europe and I was able to learn a lot from the shapers there.
It was endless research and development. I was hand shaping 400-500 boards a year. In 1988 I went to Maui and came in contact with the master shapers like Jimmy Lewis, Ed Angulo, and Craig Maisonville. These were the guru shapers and I learned a lot of tricks in their shaping and sanding rooms.
I decided to open up my own shaping room in the old Pauwela Cannery in Haiku in 1989. I’ve always believed that if you ride what you shape then you’ll know the real story by yourself, better than any team rider can tell you. I started racing on the Windsurfing World Cup, which was a really big circuit at the time.
Total prize money was something like $3.5 million – this was the golden age of windsurfing. I got together a few sponsors for sails, fins, and little things here and there and I was actually able to make a living. These were really my university years. I gave up university in Italy and went windsurfing all over the world.
The whole principal of RRD has always been to unify the homemade Italian artisanal thinking about craftsmanship with the Hawaiian roots of shaping to create not only beautiful objects but objects that also perform. In Italy everything you create you do with the heritage of your family, friends, and everything you learn.
In Italy we call it Mestiere Artigiano, basically meaning crafts or trades that people do in the little shops here. I found this philosophy to be very complimentary to the Hawaiian philosophy of shaping.
Around here in Tuscany people work to create masterpieces that you can look at and contemplate. Performance is something that is pretty distant in the Italian heritage unless you build cars. What I tried to do was combine Italian ideas with the functionality and performance I learned from people on Maui, where my boards were put to the real test.
I wanted to show that this little Italian guy who came to Hawaii could make beautiful products that also worked. It was a great challenge and very rewarding. Still today, the main philosophy of RRD is what we call Perf-Romance, which perfectly sums up what the company is – a combination of performance and romance.
At what point did you decide to take the next step and grow RRD beyond being a one-man company producing hand-crafted boards?
In 1993 I was back in Italy shaping boards for some riders who were going to Barbados for a race. One night, I left five or six of these boards in the oven. At that time I was shaping sandwich boards with composite fibers and epoxy resin and these boards had to be post cured in an oven. They had to be completely cured before you could paint them.
This was a homemade oven with a stove inside and the whole thing just burned down overnight. My factory was gone and it almost burned down my parents’ home that it was attached to.
At that moment I had a revelation. I said to myself, “Look, what are you doing? You’re a beach bum traveling all over the world. You’re having a fun life, but it’s time to wake up and make the move.” The next morning I was another man. I decided I needed to run my brand seriously and properly.
I went to a lot of the top windsurfing racers and offered sponsorships to ride my boards. I wrote a contract with Swedish windsurfer Anders Bringdal worth $150,000 and at that moment I didn’t even have a penny in my bank account. I just knew that I had to do it that way. With the encouragement of my father and my friends I took a risk and took out a mortgage on my family’s home.
When were you first exposed to kitesurfing?
I worked with Anders Bringdal for a few years and was lucky enough to meet his windsurfing coach, a Frenchman named Manu Bertin. We became really good friends and together with Paolo Rista, who was a team rider for me at the time, we were always brainstorming new board shapes and things like that.
One night in 1995 Manu called me and said, “Roberto, man, we have a new sport. I bumped into my friend Bruno Legaignoux who is making these kites.” I had no idea what a kite was other than the ones you fly as a kid. He said, “I just have to show you. I think we have to make some special boards and I’m pretty sure we can move forward with your knowledge.”
I went to pick him up at the train station and he came out with just a snowboard bag. I said, “Well, where’s all your gear?” He said, “Everything is in this bag. That’s what is so new about it.” We went to the beach and he showed me the kite. I was just blown away. He was using a board that looked kind of like a water ski and he couldn’t go upwind.
We spent a few weeks making boards and the first two were really awkward and looked more like little catamarans than a board. This was so early on that I’m sure I was one of the first people in Europe to witness the birth of this amazing sport. Manu was always getting into funny and weird situations with his kite.
One time he went out and realized he couldn’t get back because the wind was completely offshore. This was during the winter and he almost fainted while walking back because he was so cold.
What was your attitude towards kiteboarding when you first saw Manu? Did this look like a new sport or just a strange new trick or stunt for him to do?
I really believed it was a new sport right from the beginning. There was challenge, speed, flying, so many things you couldn’t do with other sports. The little amount of space it took up was revolutionary. I had been traveling all over the world with 11 bags of windsurfing gear.
That aspect alone was enough for me to say, “We have to go for it.” My first exposure to the sport was a real eye opener, but I couldn’t really fully commit because realistically I had to develop RRD as a windsurfing brand first. I was just at the beginning of building the brand and I couldn’t just suddenly jump to something completely unknown.
I still had to pay off a loan and I had to pay my employees, so kiteboarding wasn’t a priority, but I knew this would become something big. Knowing Manu and seeing this huge potential in front of my eyes I said, “I want to give you a hand. Why don’t you go to Hawaii and develop it?”
He went out there and met Flash Austin and all the other guys who were there at the very beginning. This was really the pioneering time and Manu began mailing me slides and sending me stories by fax. I was convinced this was the start of a new age for watersports.
Things happened slowly at first. My first exposure to kiteboarding was in ’95, but the first Wipika kites weren’t available until ’97. That’s when we started to make kiteboards. Flash Austin, who was like a kiteboarding wizard then, didn’t have a board sponsor.
He was sponsored by Naish, but they didn’t have boards yet, so I made boards for him for a few years. Thanks to the experience we gained through Flash, we were able to go to the next level and began making kites at the end of ’99. We were the third company to license the inflatable kite patent from Bruno.
What’s the design process like at the beginning of a sport when you have no prior experience? Where do you start?
It was a nightmare. We didn’t have any software we could use to design a three-dimensional kite that would tell us how the panels should be cut. Our first kite designer was Thomas Persson from Simmer Sails and with him we went through the real learning curve of trying to make a kite by hand.
Believe me, it was a real challenge. To make something that becomes 3D shape when you inflate it is not an easy task. It took us a year before we felt like we got anywhere. Our first prototype wouldn’t even fly up to the top of the window. It only went halfway. It was more of a trial and error process instead of a real design process.
Now we can send a file to China and the kite shows up here three days later for us to test, but it took us a good decade to become as efficient as we are today. The first two or three years were really tough, but there were so few kites on the market that we would sell whatever we could produce. We couldn’t make enough.
What was happening to the growth of windsurfing at the time?
Windsurfing was at a different mature age. It was going strong, but windsurfing had been dropping since the early 90s in terms of the number of total pieces of gear sold. Because we made performance windsurfing products for the core group of windsurfers, we’ve always been able to grow.
To be honest with you, the windsurfing side of the company is still growing today. We’ve grown every year, but both in windsurfing and kiteboarding we’ve never grown as fast as some of the other companies. That’s something I really like. Sudden growth is never really healthy and I feel we’ve made a lot of good decisions to get to where we are now.
Windsurfing diminished because no matter what, it’s a complicated sport. It’s very physical, it’s hard to travel with, and you need a lot of wind to have fun. Those are limits on windsurfing, but it’s also what people like. Some people love windsurfing exactly because it’s tough and physical. That’s why the core windsurfers are so attached to it. There’s nothing like it.
You have to realize that companies are made of people, not marketing and websites. Behind every product there are brains and hands, blood and tears, hopes and frustrations; it’s so human. Creating a team that can face the challenges of the market takes years.
We’re really happy to be where we are with a strong, unified team. The market itself is so hard and the economic picture that we have in front of us is so complicated, but we feel fortunate and able to face new challenges.
RRD manufactures equipment for kiteboarding, windsurfing, surfing, and SUP. How do you balance your time between the sports? How do you stay involved with the development of so many products?
First of all I have people in charge of each part of the company who overlook the development of products for each sport. I tend to oversee and participate in the whole R&D process. That’s the most fun for me – testing, developing products with the designers, comparing with previous products, finding ways to improve products, that’s what I’m passionate about.
My life is about testing. I don’t have fun just going out to ride unless the conditions are epic. I’ll go out in any conditions. I don’t care what the conditions are or what I ride. I just go test. I love to be in the water and will use whatever gear lets me get out there. I probably spend about a third of my time in the water and the rest is spent doing business and spending time with my family.
My approach is to no longer make new products every year. I don’t want to start all over again every year just to make something newer, better, faster, and lighter. I don’t believe in it. That’s what killed windsurfing and it’s something that hurts a lot of companies. You cannot send untested products into the market.
We did it in the past and learned from our mistakes. My philosophy, in every area, is to develop products at the proper time. We only update products in a line once we feel we have a better one.
We have a big line, but now we don’t change 40 kiteboards every year. We change eight, nine, ten, whatever it takes to make them better. Our Vision kite is a perfect example of this. It’s been on the market already for 18 months. It does what it’s supposed to do and it still sells very well. It will stay on the market until we have a better product to replace it.
Few people outside Italy know that RRD also has an apparel line. How did that come about?
I started selling apparel when I first started RRD. My mom had a little shirt factory in the downstairs part of our house. I learned how to use a sewing machine and cut and assemble fabric when I was a kid.
For me it was automatic to offer a clothing line along with my boards. I made t-shirts, shorts, and hats because I thought everybody who bought a RRD board might want to buy a shirt too. That’s how it got started.
With two partners, I created a separate company in 1995 for the apparel line. We thought we had such a strong image with RRD that we decided to make clothing with that image, but designed and built with the characteristics of Italian fashion. Not just another surf brand let’s say.
We wanted to use special fabrics, build the clothes in Italy, and design them to fit the way Italians like. We got to the point where our clothing was considered luxury beach wear and we started to be sold in high-fashion boutiques all around Italy.
We’ve always been concerned with making the apparel successful in Italy because we think if we can be successful here we can be successful anywhere. Italy is one of the largest but also one of the toughest markets for fashion. Today we have about 800 retailers in Italy and now we feel ready to take on the challenge of exporting the clothing line to other countries.
RRD has to be the only action sports company with a yachting department. What’s the story behind that part of the company?
The yachting part of the company is something we started up in 2006 basically because I wanted to build a boat for myself and my family so we could go out to the islands here. I designed a 50′ boat that could hold all the kiteboarding, windsurfing, and SUP gear I wanted to take. We worked in cooperation with a shipyard here in Italy where I ended up designing the interiors of two or three other yachts for water sports enthusiasts.
The yachting market is so tough right now. It’s really gone down a lot with the economy. Now we are working on designing a special hull that creates the perfect wake. It will be a 25′ boat that can create a perfect wave behind it. We’re in the stage of building models and testing them in the pool and river.
We’ll actually start building the boat this summer, so I’ll be able to let you know if the wake works as perfectly as we think it will by the end of summer. It’s very exciting and we’re looking at equipping it with an electric motor, batteries, and solar panels. The plan is that you’ll be able to run the boat and surf behind it for 55 minutes between charges.
With your windsurfing racing background what do you think about kite racing? What do you think about kiteboarding in the Olympics?
It’s just phenomenal. Every time I jump on that board it’s incredible. So efficient, so much speed, so much angle upwind, so much power. I really hope that the governing body (IKA) has common sense and does good things for the sport. They need to feel they have a responsibility for the development of kiteboarding.
I think racing is a big part of the development of light wind riding. No condition can be as boring as four knots of wind, but racing gear can make that fun and challenging.
Honestly, I don’t even care about kiteboarding in the Olympics. My experience with windsurfing was that the Olympics didn’t change the sport of windsurfing at all. It can be good or bad, but I’m pretty neutral on it.
RRD is a very international company. Do you notice a large difference between the markets in different countries?
Yes and no. There are similarities between many countries. It depends on the type of conditions and the economical grown in each country. People tend to be more sporty when they have more money. That’s a very simple equation.
People also seem to be realizing that real luxury is not in owning a better car or a bigger house, but in having time for yourself. Wherever you start to have that kind of awareness, you have a solid market.
I feel very confident in the market because I see more and more people are buying a new kite, or a surfboard, or a stand up paddleboard, or a wetsuit instead of a new iPad. That’s just great. I really think that’s an accomplishment because people are really considering luxury in a different manner.
It’s not buying a pair of new shoes that makes people happy, it’s spending more time outdoors. It’s happening all over the world. We just got a request to sell products in India. Wherever you have a water surface and some economic growth, people become more aware of their environment and they want to be on the water. That’s the future.