VANCOUVER, Canada — Take a walk through the streets of Vancouver and it's likely that the local style won't be what catches your attention at first. This is, of course, one of the world's most beautiful cities, nestled in the North Shore mountains and perched on the edge of the great Pacific ocean. The city's vast vistas are more the stuff of postcards than fashion spreads. But look more carefully and you'll see that a mini fashion revolution is taking place in Vancouver — on bicycles.
"Vancouver is a city of cyclists, criss-crossed by tens of thousands of cyclists of different types who are united by their passion for the simple joy of pedaling and bicycling," declares the website for Velo-City, an exhibit curated by three life-long bicycle lovers who noticed a recent surge in the popularity of cycling and the first bicycle traffic jams on Vancouver's extensive network of bike lanes.
And while perhaps not quite like their counterparts in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, it's true that Vancouverites have taken to their bikes in great numbers. Everywhere you look, there are cyclists. This has been made easier in part by recent civic programs to make it safer and more efficient for cyclists to take to the streets.
The street in front of my sister's house in Kitsilano has been designated a bike path and a constant stream of cyclists make their way down the leafy streets at all day long. The Burrard Bridge, one of the major arteries into downtown Vancouver's district of sparkling condo and office towers, now has designated bike lanes too. All of this is much to the chagrin of Vancouver's car lovers, who are still in the large majority, lest you imagine that the city has forgone with the automobile altogether.
But more interesting than the sheer number of cyclists in Vancouver is the redefinition of the bicycle here "as a vehicle for artistic self-expression, a provocative symbol of counter-culture and as a tool for social change," as the museum exhibit put it. And if past experience has anything to teach us, around such a lifestyle, is usually a business opportunity. In a way, this city is a petrie dish for new lifestyle businesses.
Vancouver is home to Lululemon, a recent blockbuster in the sports lifestyle category. The purveyor of yoga pants made of comfortable, hi-tech materials now has annual revenues of more than $350m. The business continues to grow, even with the economic crisis putting the brakes on growth just about everywhere else in the fashion business.
So, could the same thing happen with cycling?
Late one evening on Granville Street, which is being cleaned up for the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympic Games, I spotted a trio of cool cats posing on their bikes, in the same way one imagines young men posed with their motorbikes in the 1950s. These were no ordinary bicycles, mind you. Long and low with big handlebars, they brought to mind the style of a Harley Davidson.
After chatting with them a bit, I decided to investigate further. In the following days, I started asking locals about fashion and cycling, and everyone had something to say. In Vancouver, everyone has an opinion on bicycles.
"You wanted a fashion story about Vancouver? Why didn't you ask me earlier? Write about bikes," said my cousin Almeera Jiwa, a budding actress in the local theatre scene. "The fashion bike scene started with the artists and it spread from there," she explained. "Now it's cool to have a bike, and if you don't have one, you're seen as kind of behind-the-times."
So while the popularity of cycling in Vancouver may have originated as a functional form of travel and a statement of environmental principles, cycling here has now taken on a stylish angle too. Forty-two different tribes and sub-cultures of Vancouver cyclists were identified by the curators of the museum exhibit.
Ulrike Rodrigues, a local writer who passionately documents her own cycling and pens a column called The Adventures of Mitey Miss in Momentum magazine told me: "If you think about it, rather than being a new phenomenon, bicycles have been used as a symbol of lifestyle for a long time! It's always represented freedom, and here in Vancouver (and elsewhere in North America, I've noticed) the bicycle has been used in media and advertising to symbolize health, the good life, and yes — style."
Indeed, Rodrigues believes there is a more pragmatic reason for the style shift in bicycle culture. "The bicycle industry had flattened out and needed a new way to package and sell more bikes... they could only sell so many mountain bikes to the general public, and mountainbiking enthusiasts already have about as many bikes as they need."
"The subjects in the study connected cycling with simple pleasure and enjoyment, but got a wake-up when they walked into the gear-and-performance environment of a bike shop. Writes Fredman, “these people were just turned off by cycling. They weren’t seeing a way to enjoy a bike the way they used to.” In response, Shimano has captained a fleet of simple but modern Coasting bikes, ordered training videos for bike shop staff, and partnered with the bike industry and communities to promote cycling..."
In the end, while perhaps it is too early to declare a new fashion cycling revolution, the early signs of opportunity are already there and Vancouver is at its epicentre.
Imran Amed is Editor of The Business of Fashion