Once synonymous with Formula 1’s top drivers, the Suixtil brand all but vanished after the death of its founder in the 1960s. Vincent Metais has made it his mission to revive the Suixtil name.
Juan Manuel Fangio, Cuba 1957, ©Robert PauleyYou may have noticed some of the classic race cars featured in our Gentlemen Drivers series carrying the Suixtil logo. You may have even wondered what it was and how the name is pronounced. To look at the genesis of this brand, we have to wind the clock back nearly 70 years to the rule of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina and to the life of a gentleman by the name of Salomon Rudman.
Rudman was in the textile business producing traditional ready to-wear clothing for the gentlemen and ladies in Buenos Aires. His chain of stores in Argentina carried the quality Suixtil label. In the late 1940s, the motor sports craze that had burst forth in the United States (and the slowly-recovering somewhat war-devastated Europe) had spread to Argentina. Little did the Argentinians realise the impact one driver by the name of Juan Manuel Fangio would have on the country and the sport globally
In 1948, the Automóvil Club Argentino (ACA) put together a national team of race drivers, called the Armada, to contest the motor sports championships in Europe. Juan Manuel Fangio, a 35-year-old truck driver from Balcarce, was the star racer in Escuderia Suixtil’s (Team Suixtil) driver line-up. His Argentinean teammates would soon include Benedicto Campos, José Froilán Gonzáles and Onofre Marimón. The Escuderia had access to the most competitive machinery of the day – initially two Maserati 4CLTs and then two Ferraris Tipo 166s. As Fangio’s prowess on the circuits grew, he soon received invitations to race at the top circuits around Europe. Suixtil, now the Argentine national team sponsor, supplied all the team’s racing outfits. It was a stroke of genius on Rudman’s part because before long, every race driver wanted to be seen in Suixtil attire.
J.M. Fangio climbing into his Lancia Ferrari D50 at Silverstone May 1956, ©The John Ross Motorsport Racing Archive
Fangio, who would go on to win five Formula 1 World Championships (1951, 1954-1957), was often accompanied by an assortment of club officials, pressmen and disciples at the circuits. His attire at the circuits was simple – bright blue overalls with a bright blue American-style baseball cap. The traditionalists from Britain though it a little bizarre but their attitude would soon change. Suixtil was certainly not shy about putting their products forward.
As the success and fame of the Escuderia Suixtil grew rapidly, so did the popularity of the Suixtil racing attire. Fangio gladly gave away Suixtil race pants and shirts to competitors and friends. The Suixtil race gear, embroidered with its distinctive red script, became the “must-have” outfit for any race driver in Europe and the Americas. It was the very first generation of professional race gear and all top drivers would soon be associated with the name.
J.M. Fangio being celebrated at Nürburgring in 1957, ©Associated Press Collection
We sat down with brand owner Vincent Metais to find out how he has resurrected this iconic and well respected brand once again, and the uphill task he has had of bringing the brand back into the right circles and keeping it going. Metais, a pragmatic Frenchman now living in Shanghai, is a passionate individual that we identify with who is determined to recreate Suixtil’s glory days once again.
RW: It is fair to say that Argentina’s World Champion race driver Juan Manuel Fangio’s association with Suixtil and Salomon Rudman’s interest in motor sports were the driving reasons for the brand’s incredible popularity in the 1950s to 1960s. How did it come about?
VM: The Fangio connection has been incredible. That’s how everything started for the brand. Fangio came when he was just a truck driver. He asked Suixtil’s founder, Salomon Rudman, to help him buy his first Chevrolet, a Coupe (the car was at the Goodwood Revival in 2011). He became the Argentine National Champion in 1940 and 1941. And then another Argentinian racer, José Froilán Gonzáles (notable for scoring Ferrari’s first win in a Formula 1 World Championship race at the 1951 British Grand Prix), came along and said he could do great with a Maserati, and so Rudman chipped in for that as well. Rudman became involved with the Automóvil Club Argentino and then the Argentinian racing team. He was the unofficial figure for the organising and the logistics of all of this. He continued even after the race gear that he had designed specifically for drivers was well-established around the track.
Vincent Metais, the Frenchman behind the Revival of the Suixtil Brand
RW: Suixtil’s race attire was designed with specific input from the race drivers. What is the story behind this?
VM: The first thing that happened that was unique was that Rudman went out and asked the drivers what they wanted. And that’s how the designs came about, especially for the pants. The idea came about when they put together the first Argentinian racing team to go to Europe. Rudman didn’t want them to be in civvies like they used to be before. He thought they had to represent Argentina, so he designed something specific for them.
It was structured around the blue pants and yellow Polos. The drivers, who often did their own mechanical work on the cars, asked for deep pockets for the pants because they kept stuffing stuff down there, like spanners and wrenches. They also wanted narrow bottoms for the pants so they wouldn’t get caught on the pedals. They wanted light cotton because it was extremely hot in the cockpit. They wanted an elastic waistband for comfort because they were sitting down for hours. This soon became the reference around the tracks!
The Argentinians were winning everything and the clothes were made specifically for drivers. And they were also a real good bunch to hang out with between and after races. Everybody wanted some of the good luck to rub off!
The typical Argentinean Suixtil Attire: the yellow Nassau Polo and blue Modena Racepants
RW: How did you get involved with the Suixtil brand?
In 1986, an automobile museum was established in Balcarce, the birthplace of Juan Manuel Fangio, and named the Museo Juan Manuel Fangio (Juan Manuel Fangio Museum). The Balcarce museum consists of six floors over a 50,000 sq ft area and contains many of the cars he raced, and until recently had included his first Chevrolet Coupe. The museum houses over 50 cars, a collection of trophies, photographs and other memorabilia.
VM: We met with our then partners in Hong Kong. They had rediscovered the brand when they were living in Argentina. One of them was working for Levis at the time and he was always keen on cars as well. They had discovered going through the Balcarce museum (in 1997) all these pictures and the Chevrolet in the museum with the Suixtil logo on top. They did some research and discovered the Suixtil brand had all but disappeared. They then re-trademarked it in 2002. When they moved to Hong Kong, my wife was already doing some garment sourcing for some big brands. They asked her if she could help. I was slightly concerned that they had all the passion and attributes that was needed but they didn’t seem to display any business acumen. They had it for almost six years but hadn’t done anything with it. I thought it would be time wasted and potentially not seeing the fruits of our labours.
They had first noticed the brand in 1997. I got involved in 2007. We agreed to start a business with them on a 50:50 basis. The company is Hong Kong-registered and all our inventory positions are in Hong Kong.
J. M. Fangio Museum in Balcarce, Argentina
RW: You too have an interesting history with cars.
VM: I have a long story with cars. It goes back to my grandfather who used to race Bugattis with his brother. He had his Bugatti tweaked because he had lost a leg when he was 16 years old. He fell on a tramway and lost the leg under the knee and so couldn’t change gears, so he had his Bugatti tweaked so he could change gears on the steering wheel.
When I was growing up, he used to take me to the museum in Lyon in secret, because my dad was a surgeon and had a hatred for cars because he saw people coming on Saturday nights after discos and stoned-drunk, and they would get into accidents. He hated cars but he also drove really fast – in a Citroën DS. We’d all be lying in the back seat and he’d be going at 120-130 miles per hour. But he hated cars. My grandfather would take me to the museum and I couldn’t say anything to my parents because this was our big secret.
RW: How has your interest in business and passion for motoring influenced the way you have structured Suixtil?
VM: When we started the discussions with our partners, I looked into it more and always felt this need to go back to roots that don’t cheat. That was a time when things lasted, when men were men and they took chances. It’s that spirit that people had back then that we seem to have lost since, of pushing the envelope, the Chuck Yeager thing – “I’ll do this because nobody’s done it before and devil may care.” You don’t have to be crazy to do it, but I think it certainly helps.
Even though nobody needs clothing, there’s plenty of clothing brands around. It’s a crowded field, there’s no doubt. But again, I don’t think it was a clothing angle as much as the story. It’s not the merchandise you are pushing through; it’s the community you represent.
The antithesis of what we do is the Juicy Couture tattooed on everybody’s arse. I can’t understand that. It goes against taste, it goes against reason, it goes against everything. To me, that’s anathema, and I felt that this would be a great opportunity to bring together this passion for cars and the spirit that was embodied in the racers of the 50s and 60s. These guys were knights; there was a code of honour. At the same time, the crowds were there to demonstrate that it resonated with them. More than the product is the story, the DNA that carries that message; nobody needs clothes.
That’s how we started the Escuderia on the side. We’ll make some decals on the side and slowly people wanted them for their cars. And now, we have this beautiful stable of cars. The owners feel the connection with what we do is so strong. Lots of people are asking us for stickers. I’m just happy to give them away. It’s a much stronger message than if I was trying to be commercial to the extent that I would probably lose the very fabric of what we are trying to be.
J.M. Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss at Sebring in 1957, ©Gene Bussian
RW: It’s an interesting exercise to rebrand a brand that was quite popular in the 50s and 60s and make it viable. You left a comfortable job for this, what is different for you now?
VM: It’s a completely different take on time. The whole perspective changes dramatically. You’re gasping for the next big order and at the same time, you feel you’ve got all the time in the world to build this right – what you won’t have in the corporate world.
RW: The business started of with partners but now you and your wife run the show. Why the decision to take it on entirely?
VM: We started with our initial partners, and September last year, we got to a point where I was full time into it and the two were more positioning themselves as the brand guardians. It wasn’t going to work, and it was becoming a hindrance to build this. They decided to step away from it and they divested their shares to me and my wife. We made a considerable investment in it in time, money, blood, sweat and tears. We are fortunate that we have already started building a small network of distributors that are a considerable help in their own markets and are doing tremendous work building it up.
Suixtil Outfit: Cuba Race Tee, Modena Racepants and Grand Prix Race Gloves
RW: How do you distribute Suixtil around the world while living in China?
VM: It started with one store during the summer of 2008, and now we’ve got about 12 places that are reselling us. We’ve had some very strong endorsements like when the Stirling Moss Organisation decided to pick us up and carry us as part of their range – that was a tremendous boost for us because aside from the fact that it is another channel, it’s Stirling Moss. It’s another connection with our history because Stirling used to wear our gear. The name itself carries tremendous weight. That has brought us a lot of credibility and has opened doors that were not available before.
But it’s been tough and it’s still tough because the economic environment is still just wretched. At the same time, we have the luxury to be able to do this our own way, without compromise.
RW: The interesting thing is that while the economic environment may be weak, it seems that the people who own the sort of cars and who may be attracted to your sort of product are immune to such fluctuations.
VM: To them, it’s a question of degrees. I agree, but at the same time, there are two sides to this. It’s indeed been a great market for us, but it’s also a very narrow market.
You can’t just live on the collectors because first, the collectors are used to getting everything for free. All the brands are happy to throw stuff at them for free because they consider that it’s a great segment to go after. We don’t do free. It’s not in the realm of things we can afford. We’ve had to fight that tussle. We’ve been fortunate because what we represent and the authenticity and the effort we put into it, we’ve had a lot of good support.
C. Fangio in his F3 Brabham BT, Buenos Aires 1966
RW: You were telling me about BMW Classic’s interest in Suixtil for the 2012 Mille Miglia.
VM: This year, the entire BMW Classic team – 24 people – is going to be kitted by us. They called us up out of the blue and they never asked for things for free. From the get go, they got the prices and they didn’t blink. To them, it was part of the equation. If you are spending so much time and effort to go to the Mille Miglia, they thought it was only right to be dressed by a brand like ours. This is a great endorsement for us.
RW: You’ve got perhaps ten major events you would have to attend annually to show your product. As we too have discovered, that, in itself, is a huge investment.
VM: We started with two or three and we’re up to about ten a year. We are fortunate because a lot of our distributors are happy to undertake that as well because these proved to be really good commercial opportunities. I go to the Goodwood Revival, for example, and our UK distributor is there and he’s taking care of the business end of it, and I do the brand representation, the press contacts and all the other stuff. People kind of expect to find you there. I’m not complaining either because I like being there.
Suixtil Outfit: Targa Pima Sweater (and Endurance Race Gloves) as worn by M. Trintignant at Watkins Glen in 1961, ©BARC Boys
RW: What will be your next big event?
VM: The next one will be the Mille Miglia. The week after, we’ve been invited on the strength of our relationship with BMW to exhibit at Ville d’Este. That’s a first for us. I’ve never been there personally. It’s very high end, very well organised, really well put together.
After this will be the Le Mans Classic. I’ll miss the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Then Silverstone Classic, then middle of August, Pebble Beach. And then the Goodwood Revival in September.
RW: We shall see you at Pebble Beach and the Goodwood Revival where we’ll be attending with a number of our subscribers. It makes a difference to be physically present at such events. How have you reconciled being there with the power of the internet?
VM: We find that whilst we have an internet presence, it just does not replace the personal contact. People like to touch and feel and get a real idea of what it is we do.
You know, on the internet, everybody forms an idea, but you don’t really get a sense of the quality of the merchandise, a sense of the attention to detail, a sense of the passion that is being carried in what we do. It’s not something that you just throw money and suddenly you can have it. You can buy the product, but if you don’t understand it, it means nothing to you.