When Gwen Lutz, a clothing designer and avid bicyclist, was asked to produce a bike fashion event at the annual San Francisco Bike Expo three years ago, she struggled to find outfits that would not seem out of place at work or in a bar. For so long, bike-centered apparel could be summed up in two words: neon Spandex.
“The first year I did it, it was hard for me to pull together a whole show,” she said, “Now, every couple of months there’s a new brand. Even big companies this year include bicycles in their ads.”
Lutz will present her third and biggest show, “Pedal Savvy,” at the Expo this weekend. Now in its fourth year, the two-day Expo brings Bay Area cyclists together for a large swap meet, trade show, biking competitions, and educational panels. More than 5,000 people attended last year.
A mix of clothing made for bikers of both sexes will appear on Lutz’s catwalk — sleek Swrve pants with reflective cuffs to help riders remain visible at night, say, and the handmade, small-billed Flipside hats popular among racers — alongside colorful dresses, capes and other street clothing. There will even be children’s outfits shown along with the adult looks.
“All you need, as a woman, is enough clearance to pedal, to get on and off your bike, so I have full-skirted dresses,” she said. “You’ve also got to think about fabric. Certain fabrics make you sweat more.”
Bike fashion is quite diverse, but it breaks down into two broad camps, Lutz said: specially made clothing that looks like conventional fashion but has details relevant for riders (think of a pair of gloves engineered to allow use of a touch-screen phone or cotton denim mixed with Spandex for flexibility during the daily commute) or styles that identify the wearer as a biker (sweatshirts with bike company logos or thick bike messenger bags).
Philipp Segura, founder of the Expo and owner of the bike store rideSFO, said, “I think that six, eight years ago, biking didn’t have that kind of style, but now we have kind of our own identity.” This fall, Levi’s introduced with great fanfare a men’s clothing collection called Commuter; the marketing campaign included opening up pop-up bike shops across the country. And this week, Betabrand Clothing, a San Francisco company, released a new line of cycling jeans to complement their enormously successful Bike to Work pants line.
“There is now a market for urban bike wear that there never was before,” said Jason Van Horn, a community manager and designer at Betabrand. In addition to producing the new jeans, which feature a tighter fit and reflective cuffs, the company is readying other new bike-inspired items for sale, he said.
Many designers are casting an eye back a century. According to Lourdes M. Font, associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, bicycling outfits — consisting of “a pair of full, gathered bloomers or ‘knickerbockers,’ a shirtwaist blouse, a jacket if required by cold weather, hat, gloves, knee-high socks, and sturdy shoes or boots” for women — had become an established category of sportswear by the 1890s.
With the introduction of cars, bike fashion faded and did not make a serious comeback until the 1980s or ’90s, “when high-tech materials developed for professional athletes began to be available for amateurs” who wanted to look like pros, Font said.
Natural fibers are popular with current bike fashion designers. Both Lutz and Nan Eastep of B. Spoke Tailor, which makes bike clothing in an Oakland warehouse, sang the praises of wool, a textile that Eastep said was perfect for the urban biker.
“It’s insulating, antimicrobial, antibacterial,” she said, “Before petrochemicals, all cyclists wore wool.”
According to Colin Owen, an industrial design professor at California College of the Arts, the commuter market — bike style being today’s “badge of urban youth” — has not been saturated, and as the number of daily riders grows, consumers should see more options for clothing and accessories. Owen plans to roll out his own bike accessory line.
“Commuting, getting groceries, keeping yourself dry and your gear not muddy — the industry has not adequately addressed the daily routine of people,” he said.
The number of female commuters still lags behind that of their male counterparts, but Owen said studies showed that was changing as cities improve road safety conditions.
Already, Lutz said, women need more clothing choices for everyday urban use. In the absence of, say, a women’s Levi’s Commuter jean line, she is going to be stocking this weekend’s fashion show with select clothing items that were not designed especially for bikes.
How about bicycle couture? “I do have a woman who makes all of her bags out of bike inner tubes,” Lutz said. “She also made a skirt and a dress out of inner tubes.”
“There are so many kinds of riders,” she said. “I’m not here to be telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t be wearing.”
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.