A quick look at Nona Varnado’s adventures in life to date feels a little bit like channel surfing: A degree in Art from Cooper Union. A job on Wall Street. Her own cycling fashion label. And a cross-country move to Los Angeles to launch a new gallery space at the city’s top bike shop. Oh, and she’s almost singlehandedly responsible for bringing ARTCRANK to L.A. for our inaugural show, which kicks off on Saturday, December 8. She took a break from manic pre-show preparations to talk to us about where she’s been so far, and what’s next.
Which did you fall in love with first — bikes or fashion?
Definitely bikes. More than 10 years later I realize I had a very typical experience: I was an adult that had fallen out of love with the city I lived in. A loaner bike on Transportation Alternative’s 5 Boro Bike Tour got me excited enough to find club rides, then a cyclocross race, then street racing, then touring. Commuting by bike naturally replaced the misery of a crowded subway, a good messenger bag made shopping a non-issue.
At the time I was working professional jobs in midtown Manhattan and would faithfully ride in to work from Brooklyn – about 6 miles away with a bridge and heavy traffic. So I’d need to hide from all of my co-workers in a bathroom on another floor to change into appropriate work clothes: slacks, a dress shirt and usually small heels. Dressing then was more of a chore than anything else. I had a closet of carefully curated athletic clothes, bike racing or music shirts I loved and another set of work clothes that probably looked pretty awful. I just didn’t really like the “fashion” that I saw available, couldn’t afford what I did like or never imagined that I’d go to an event that would make a floor length gown a reasonable purchase.
What led you to bring the two together in your work?
At that point I was doing what I think a lot of women now are: looking at functional apparel brands to see if there isn’t one piece – a pair of pants, a shirt or jacket – that’s pretty. Something that will do the job: staying warm, wicking sweat, fitting appropriately, comfortable athletic seams, maybe adding some reflective materials for safety; but also look like something you would want to wear or even be excited to wear!
Both of us were at Interbike this year. What did you see that got you excited about where the bike industry is going?
Industry is a big thing. I’ve been more excited in years past seeing products that I think were more innovative, only to be disappointed that they haven’t been widely adopted, but Interbike was twice as big with an astounding number of new vendors — even as certain big names stay home because they simply don’t need to advertise. And the sheer number of products is astounding. Niche industries are starting to pop-up. People are making accessories for bikes, accessories for people who like bikes, things that are only somewhat bike related. That’s a pretty powerful way of visualizing the growth of cycling in mainstream America.
So where do you think there are unmet needs, or things that need to change?
After 10+ years of being involved in the bike industry in some way, it’s a complicated question. This is well known in the industry: The lack of women and the lack of professional respect shown to us. It’s still a boy’s club with enough history behind it that change is a slow and arduous battle that women have to deal with until there’s a sea change. This last year I saw SpokesWomen, a small ladies cocktail networking party, become an recognized official event with the full encouragement of the show management and coordinated alongside the more established Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition (OIWC).
Beyond that, cities can’t build bicycling infrastructure until greater numbers of cyclists are already on the road and most people don’t want to ride on roads without those safety measures. In the same way there is a much bigger need to find ways to connect with people about cycling, and the best way to do that is still the local bike shop: From becoming welcoming neighborhood resources with the ability to learn how to fix your own bike, to having dressing rooms so women can try on cycling apparel and acting as a helping hand in getting people on bikes and aware of cycling culture and advocacy. It all comes down to the local bike shop. No matter how many fancy products are created – if people don’t see them, try them out and get to talk to someone friendly about why these things are great – it’s all a moot point.
What spurred you to move from New York to Los Angeles?
With my apparel brand, I’ve come to understand how critical local retail is. It’s an experience that even the greatest website can’t get close to. Creating a retail environment you can really get to know people, understand their needs and desires while being able to educate at a level that’s going to make a difference. From a business perspective: selling clothes at bike shops to women isn’t going to happen. And in traditional fashion retail the functionality and message is totally lost. As I went on tour to various cities doing trunk shows; I realized that my brand needed a physical location, but ask that there’s a huge missing piece in the industry to display innovative products, launch new projects, act as an inspiration though a gallery like environment – something that could be the holy grail of cycling: reaching new people who are not yet in love with bicycles. Orange 20’s new bike gallery, called Red#5 Yellow#7, is exactly that.
A year ago I came to LA out of curiosity and had an experience that seems more like a novel than real life: I immediately met a great DJ and cycling advocate named Patrick Miller, (through friends on Facebook!) who took me on an epic tour of the entire city from a cyclists perspective. I got the historical background, cultural highlights and became very inspired by the rapid progress cycling the city is making thanks to a local government that’s pretty cooperative. As we set out he told me the absolute first place we had to go was Orange 20 Bikes, in LA’s Bicycle District. I was familiar with that name because I had met the owner, TJ Flexer, at interbike several years ago when he was first starting the shop. It’s a really small world, sometimes. TJ and I immediately began talking about how to save the world through bicycle retail. A little while later a new space next door to Orange 20 opened up and we saw an opportunity to unite our ideas and resources into something new. We’ve been renovating the space for a while, working on identity and a schedule of show concepts.
Tell us more about Red#5 Yellow#7…
Red#5 Yellow#7 is Orange 20’s project space. It’s part bike gallery, part pop-up shop. Red#5 Yellow#7 is huge, because the cycling community is passionate, creative and composed of people who are about action! I see it as a solution to some of the biggest problems in cycling: new lifestyle products are almost impossible to sell in a traditional bike shop, while at the same time people who don’t bike or aren’t part of the ‘cult’ can be introduced to the beauty, history and design inspired by the bicycle. Red#5 Yellow#7 can be anything: it can be an educational museum, a launchpad for the most interesting new products, a fine art gallery with a singular obsession and a resource for connecting people to new ideas. We’re super excited about ARTCRANK Los Angeles, not only because it’s a fantastic time and way to discover local artists, but in helping us reach out to the art and design community.
I’m thrilled to be able to put together shows at Red#5 Yellow#7 that show the most innovative women’s cycling products, cargo bikes and art. We’re not really selling anything so we’re free to display things for aesthetic or educational reasons. It’s so hard to pay rent and stay afloat as a business that you never get the opportunity to just showcase something because it’s wonderful. We believe that by creating a space that’s as entertaining as a new show at a modern art museum, that we’ll be able to advance cycling in ways the shop can’t.
For those who haven’t been there, describe Orange 20 Bikes.
Orange 20 is a special place. It was in a tiny one room building next door to the current shop for the first three years. The newer location is not only several times larger, it’s like candy land. There are toe clips that even industry veterans have never seen, lust-worthy specialty components, a library of the best in category bags and bike shoes. They specialize in steel bikes and American made whenever possible. Yet the focus is on “the everyday rider” and that often means the person who is getting their first bike, or a durable city commuter, which is often seen as less sexy.
The mechanics in the back are heavy hitters from USA Olympic Cycling , specialists in mountain, road, track, kids bikes. Most people who work at Orange 20 have been volunteers with the Bike Kitchen or group ride leaders who are extremely passionate about making cycling a positive and ultimately world changing experience. It’s also a homegrown business that’s almost seven years old, so there’s been changes, new people, but the result is a fire tested group of people who really care about people and bikes. It’s also an extremely creative environment: our lead mechanic is the famous Cache responsible for the amazing cicLAvia ‘chicken’ murals all over LA, which can also be seen outside the shop on Heliotrope. Almost everyone on staff is an artist of some kind —cartoonist, painter, graphic designer, fashion designer, painter. You can see it in the space: the way the walls are painted, how the products are arranged.
New York and Los Angeles are the two biggest cities in the U.S. Until recently, neither had a reputation for being especially bike-friendly. But both cities are making substantial investments in cycling infrastructure to address both traffic congestion and quality of life.
How would you compare and contrast the changes you saw in New York with what you’ve seen thus far in Los Angeles?
In many ways, LA is like NYC was 10+ years ago. There’s a lot of change happening, but the streets in NYC are relatively tiny, particularly with the density of people and buildings. Los Angeles some times feels like a giant freeway with some buildings here and there. Drivers rule the streets in a way that’s assumed from an early age: that you absolutely have to have a car to get anywhere, that only losers walk or take public transportation, all the ways that people learn to identify with their cars and fear traffic.
But the amount of pavement here is huge! So it’s a really good thing that Californians are famous for being progressive and sporty, because it’s a more complicated social and tactical problem to solve. The good thing is that there’s also a long history of taking lessons learned in NYC and applying the “best case scenario” that rapidly speeds up the trial and error stage and allows locals to develop and refine how they approach things. I’m really here to help facilitate that through Orange 20’s project space Red#5 Yellow#7, but also through local advocacy and community work.
What’s the biggest misperception or flawed stereotype about cycling in Los Angeles?
That it’s impossible. For the last cicLAvia I personally transported 650+ pounds of free oranges that we gave away at our booth in Mariachi Plaza, which is halfway across the city from the shop, on a bike with a cargo trailer that in total retails for less than $1,000. It took two trips and I worked up a good appetite. But it was a great way to physically show that bicycling for transportation in LA is not only possible, it’s affordable and way more fun than sitting in traffic. I’ve also learned that people generally aren’t yet aware that a bike should cost more than $100 and that a bicycle is an investment that requires other stuff like locks, lights and a helmet, in the same way that a car is. People spend obscene amounts on cars here but balk at the idea of what a bike costs.
Like many businesses, bike shops have been losing customers to online retailers. Why do you think neighborhood bike shops are still important?
I feel incredibly lucky to be friends with some of the most brilliant individuals in bicycling retail and across the board you see some key lessons. The local bike shop has to be all the things you can’t get online: Trusted advice on something that isn’t found without experience and dedication, access to unique and superior products, the ability to physically interact with the items you’ll be trusting your life to. Sadly, many people don’t value that enough and are happier to buy something super cheap and potentially dangerous online. It’s a modern addiction to want more at impossibly low internet only prices and it’s not just bicycle shops that have that problem.
How do you think the neighborhood bike shop model needs to change to stay relevant and start to thrive again?
I think the absolute key to survival is the local cycling culture. Culture is incredibly powerful and it can be created by having super hot custom branded products or providing workshops, group rides and mentorship. You can probably survive being really cool or being really well intentioned, but it’s about creating a unique balance that is a reflection of what your local community needs. I’d point to 718 Cyclery and Red Lantern Bicycles in Brooklyn as shops who are defining what that means in NYC.
Nurturing the growth of cycling by being the greatest champions of developing new riders, making women feel comfortable and pretty riding bikes, showing people how to be knowledgeable and have fun. There’s often a big gap in bike shops between the dudes who just want to have fun and the guys who try really hard but don’t step back enough to innovate.
If bike shops ran more like dot-coms, there’d be a lot more to talk about. I’d like to see that level of entrepreneurial seriousness – but a big part of that is money. No one bank rolls a bike shop expecting to get fabulously wealthy, but consequentially shops can’t afford to pay professional wages or have the resources to dream big. When I say big I mean projects that could rapidly change the face of cycling in years, rather than decades. Right now bike share is the closest anyone has come to that. It’s depressing to me to see national reports that are deemed hugely optimistic to say that 5% of urban transportation trips will be by bike by… 2030. That doesn’t mean people are working hard or lack for brilliance, but I’d love it if the cycling industry could reclaim Los Angeles the way the auto industry once did.
ARTCRANK was born out of a love for bikes and art, and creative people in general seem to have a deep-seated affinity for bicycles. What do you think is behind that?
After spending a ridiculous number of hours putting together my paper bike piece for the show, I might be a little biased. But I think that bicycles have such intensely beautiful shapes — perfect wheels, straight lines and dynamic curves. They are in a way an absolute triumph of human engineering balancing the complexity of industry by creating these specialized mechanical parts, yet so perfectly simple. Because they connect with our bodies, we can form emotional attachments to our experience with them. So really, they assault all of our senses with their wonderfulness. Then, there’s the fact that they’re shape shifters. The elegant and lust worthy objects of beauty that I adore don’t get a second glance from the mountain bikers at the shop who have fits of joy looking at the latest 29er with alien spaceship-looking suspension.
Other than ARTCRANK LAX, what upcoming events and happenings are you excited about?
The following Friday, December 15, we’re participating in a holiday party with a few other galleries and businesses on Melrose. Which is to say that there is suddenly something of a gallery district happening here! I’m also excited about bringing Bike Trains to LA and other cities in cooperation with my friends who just launched Bikeapolis.us as an intermediary to advocates and organizations in California. On a personal level I’m finally getting to the point of being able to design and relaunch a collection of lifestyle cycling apparel that integrates all the lessons I’ve learned from bike retail, advocacy and experience into something that will hopefully resonate with people.
ARTCRANK Los Angeles Details
Opening Night Party: Saturday, December 8 – 5:00pm – 11:00pm
Orange 20 Bikes
4351 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA
Show continues through Monday, December 17 at Orange 20
Original, limited edition prints by 30 local artists – all sold for $40
Neenah Paper will donate proceeds from the ARTCRANK LAX show poster to L.A. Streetsblog
Extra bike parking and tasty snacks, courtesy of Clif Bar
Debut of a new Neenah Paper Paper Bike Sculpture by Nona Varnado