Boutique boom: From Bobbin to Voltage

Making and selling bikes used to be simple and unimaginative. Today businesses are changing to access a vibrant market for boutique brands.

What does your bike say about you? It’s not a question that you’re necessarily going to ask as you stand, wallet fidgeting in your pocket, and about to blow your hard-earned wages on a new machine. But it’s a thought that has seeped into the consciousness of the cycling industry and in recent years has given rise to a rapidly dividing branch of bicycle design and fashion.

The old approach to building bikes was simple. If an enthusiast wanted a new bike, it was because they wanted to go further, have improved specifications, a lighter frame. If you made and sold bikes, you made them to give the people what they wanted, and that most frequently meant practicality in one form or another. For the aspiring Greg LeMonds, that meant finding the perfect balance of weight, functionality and plain flashiness. And, to a large extent, it still does.

Bicycles for the general public, the John and Jane ordinaries riding to the shops or to work, jersey-free, all bicycle clips and baskets, those machines were built around the same notion that what the consumer wanted they got. Which, for many years, wasn’t a lot.

If you were to walk through any town in Britain twenty years ago, you’d find an uninspiring selection of bicycles chained to the bike racks and park railings. Raleighs and Peugeots, brands which today spell retro cool, were icons in a rather unadventurous field of machines that said little about their riders. Diversity came in the form of things like mountain bikes; sets of wheels that defined themselves as the more extreme cousin of the ordinary town bikes.

Today, homogeneity is reserved for public bike-hire schemes. Instead, many people want what they ride to say something about their approach to cycling and themselves. Roll through any fashionable neighbourhood of cities and towns and you’ll find snazzy single-speeders snuggled up next to shiny imported beasts next to basket-adorned uprights.

The years in between, as cycling grew in popularity, saw manufacturers and riders alike exploring the aesthetics of bicycles. The market today is a vibrant jungle that rewards entrepreneurs that can understand the identities and the styles of the riders themselves.

How then to view the launch a $14,000 urban and off-r0ad bike by fashion house Gucci? Regardless of the performance of the machine, by its very existence, Gucci’s bike is proving that while the market for performance bikes has been growing, a more diverse breed of designers and retailers are keen to get their own slice of the pie – even if it is the upper crust.

Equally, factoring fashion into the equation is no accident; the aesthetics of non-performance bikes may have been uninspiring 20 years ago, but today people are hitting shops searching for brands that reflect their styles.

Bobbin’s Tale

In 2007, Tom Morris, a cyclist with a background in marketing and advertising, took notice of the cycling trends that were sweeping London. Combined with the background of his wife, Sian Emmison, in art and the art world, the couple had a platform to launch Bobbin Bicycles and open a small shop in Islington.

Bobbin was an unusual animal at the time – it took a unique fashion sensibility to cycling, championing the upright and surrounding products with a very deliberate language. They were and are a fine example of where the business of making and selling bikes adapted to meet the needs of people who wanted something different.

The style centred on a vintage feel, but deliberately eschewed the idea of selling itself as a novelty. Its website makes it quite clear that it’s a different proposition: “At Bobbin we believe that bicycles are magical contraptions, charged with the power to transform a journey into an adventure. If you daydream about cutting gracefully and effortlessly through the cityscape then follow us…”

When &Bike speaks to Morris, he’s getting back from a run of trade shows, rounding off in the bright lights of Las Vegas. Bobbin is more wholesaler than retailer these days – supplying its trademark bikes to big retailers like Evans – but its cross-Atlantic ambitions are testament to the growing appeal of the brand in and beyond the UK market.

As Morris remembers it, even as recently as five years ago the concept was an unusual one. “At the time you could see the odd upright but no-one was framing it in context. So we made connections with Dutch factories and gradually started building the market,” he says.

Bobbin started with classy British brands like Pashley and sourcing a number of unusual, exclusive products. It really took off, says Morris, and the fledgling company got a wave of interest from the press and more besides.

“As we got more noticed we saw people from other stores coming in and taking notes – it was pretty obvious and actually quite funny to watch. Sometimes big-name fashion designers would come round, sometimes even turning up in stretch limos. They recognised the relevance to fashion and music,” explains Morris.

Behind Bobbin’s success was a marriage between an appealing, sharply focused identity and a practical machine.

“They’re stylistic, eye-catching and of course the thing that people don’t credit these bikes with is how functional they are. We get a lot of customers that are new to cycling so it’s useful that they don’t need much maintenance.

“There’s the price point as well – we’ve got the introductory scale, but it’s interesting to see customers that have bought a bike for £350 and then added to that and have 3 or 4 bikes. Sometimes you get people who have road bikes, but that’s not what you want to pop down the pub or the cinema, so a Dutch bike has a real appeal,” says Morris.

That appeal is more than a consumer preference, it’s a side of the cycling industry that’s been waking up for a few years. “We get approached by designers all the time,” explains Morris.

“There’s a lot of people out there wanting to turn their creative talent to cycling and there’s money there; they might struggle to compete with the big sports clothing brands, but there’s room for them.”

Retail therapy

The post-2012 Olympics world of cycling is charged with optimism, but the retail picture remains muddy in the UK. Halfords reported a Wiggins-inspired boost in recent months, taken by many as a signal that cycling might in some way be defying a difficult recessionary period.

However, the rush of international brands to produce newer and better ranges of bikes to gobble up the surge in demand has created a tough environment for all those keen designers and small retailers.

“It’s not completely rosy,” notes Morris. “There’s a recession and cycling isn’t immune. It’s difficult out there but businesses are learning to cope. What’s interesting is seeing the boutiques and the smaller names getting good at social media and learning how to package their brand with other ideas like selling coffee and creating an environment that makes them unique.”

Staying ahead of the pack means tying the brand more closely to the identity of the rider. Across the Atlantic, a small manufacturer from Grass Valley in California is taking that idea to heart.

Former BMX freestyle professional Marty Schlesinger found there was nothing on the current market he wanted to ride, so he and his brother Chris set about a unique design.

“We wanted to offer something unique that you could not find anywhere else,” Schlesinger told in October. “The bicycle industry helped to usher in the motorcycle over a hundred years ago. The electric bike category is going through a similar progression today. I wanted to pay respects to those vintage bikes of yesteryear.”

Voltage Cycles combines the retro motorcycle design traits of fenders and gas tanks with the sensibility of an electric bicycle. Prices may be steep, but as a two-man shop that ships all over the world, their 100 electric bikes sold shows the first realisations of the brothers’ ambitions.

That a small business like Voltage can make a name for itself at a time when many Americans are feeling the pinch says something about how far the boutique market has developed.

Morris has noticed the change, even in the lifespan of Bobbin. “The average spend on cycling has gone way up. The other sector that’s benefitted is the premium sector – which isn’t us – but it’s interesting to see where the market is going,” he says.

In some senses, the changes in the UK have followed comparable paths in the US. The big US brands, like Trek and Specialized, are dominant and visible on every street in cities where cycling has a reasonable presence. But consumers have also developed an eye for the boutique brands – so the likes of ‘Linus’ and ‘Public Bikes’ have been at the forefront of a wave of designers, manufacturers and retailers prepared to focus on delivering a boutique offering.

Competition is increasingly fierce on both sides of the pond, but what boutique brands are able to do in focusing so tightly on relatively untapped and potentially growing slices of the market is quietly yielding impressive results.

Steve Hall

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  1. Rob Houghton

    I read somewhere that retail cycling always does well in financially hard times having particularly good sales in the early ’70s and the ’30s. It is, after all, a very cheap means of personal transportation. Add that to the growing popularity of cycling in the UK with our recent sporting successes on the track and on the road, and this might be the perfect storm.

    1. Post
      Steve Hall

      Hi Rob. It’s an interesting idea that cycling retail performance is inversely proportional to how rich people are feeling and it makes sense, as you said. I wonder if that might be changing though – I’ve not got too much to base this on, but two things occur to me. One is that cycling is a different industry in the UK than it was in the 70s: I think perhaps people are taking up cycling for different reasons (sport/fashion/fitness) and those might be less directly dependent on how the economy is doing? The other thing is that having spoken to a few retailers recently, the one thing they all said was that the going was still tough, even if there’s been an injection of cycle fever over the summer. My reaction to that was: if they’re finding it tough now when cycling has been on the rise, is it to do with the recession, or are their business models not quite right, or is it simply because it’s super competitive out there?

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