BBC Culture

The Measure

Fashion designers get inspired by sport

About the author

Maya Singer is a writer and creative director and the Special Projects Editor at Style.com

  • Fly by knit?
    Nike’s lightweight and colourful Flyknit is the latest sport shoe to become a fashion must-have, spotted on the feet of many an editor at recent fashion weeks. (Photo: Nike)
  • Hoop dreams
    The Converse All Star shoe was introduced in 1917, but basketball player Charles ‘Chuck’ H Taylor’s signature popularised the high-topped trainer in 1932. (Photo: Getty Images)
  • Just do it
    It had been going since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the early ‘70s that the Nike brand and ‘swoosh’ logo and began to appear on its shoes. (Photo: Rex Features)
  • Walking on air
    In 1985, the Nike Air Jordan, a sneaker created for basketball star Michael Jordan, helped to boost the company’s fortunes. The Air Max followed in 1987. (Photo: Getty Images)
  • Walk this way
    Run-DMC’s song, My Adidas (1986) paid tribute to the brand’s Superstar shoe. They would sign the first deal between a hip hop group and an athletic company. (Photo: Rex Features)
  • Buffalo stance
    In the late 1990s, stack-heeled trainers, specifically the 1310 platform Buffalo boots worn by The Spice Girls were popular with teenage girls in the UK. (Photo: Rex Features)
  • Wild West
    Celebrity collaborations are big business for sports footwear. A pair of Kanye West’s Nike Air Yeezy 2 trainers sold on eBay for around $90,000. (Photo: Rex Features)
  • Doggy style
    In 2010, Snoop Dogg teamed up with Star Wars and Adidas Originals for a range of Storm Trooper trainers. (Photo: Getty Images)
  • Well heeled?
    Celebrities such as Willow Smith have been pictured wearing Y-3 high-heeled trainers which are a collaboration between Yohji Yamamoto and Adidas. (Photo: Getty Images)
  • Great Scott!
    High-end fashion designers like Alexander McQueen, Jeremy Scott and Hussein Chalayan have all added their name to trainers. (Photo: Getty Images)

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The trend for cycling is influencing designers and stylists. Maya Singer explains the fashion world’s love of all things sporty.

I think I might be a jock. I’m having a hard time reconciling myself to that fact, because I was at best a medium-quality athlete in high school, and my identity was shaped not by sport, but by books, Winona Ryder and indie rock. I was on a soccer team with a girl who went on to play in the women’s World Cup – she was the jock. Not me. I was the girl who wrote poetry and made mixtapes.

Yet here I find myself, antsy at my desk at midday and looking for any excuse to move. I’ve been cycling around like a maniac all summer, and now I can’t seem to stop. What is going on?  I guess that antsy feeling is the mark of my sort of being a jock. Another sign might be the change in my preferred summer footwear. Cycling in sandals is annoying, so mostly I’ve been wearing canvas slip-on Vans, the same style preferred by the guys who work in my local bike shop. (“Thick flat sole, good for riding,” one of the guys explained to me, tersely, when I asked why they all wore them.)

If the shoe fits

It was the Vans that got me wondering whether the current fashion for cycling was having an impact on fashion itself. Last spring, Celine came out with a pair of distinctly Vans-like slip-ons, done in snakeskin or coloured ponyskin, that emerged as the ‘it’ shoe of the season. A collaboration between Vans and Kenzo was launched at the same time, and proved nearly as popular. Come September 2012, those shoes were all over the front row at fashion week; by February, and the next round of shows, it was trainer pandemonium, with vintage-looking New Balances, Gazelles and Air Maxes everywhere you looked. The girls tottering around in stilettos seemed a bit  out of place.

And the trainer trend hasn’t slacked. These days, the must-have fashion shoe is Nike’s absolutely beautiful Flyknit trainer. I bought two pairs of the original black and white colourway when they first debuted; and wear one pair for running and one for going out. Colleagues of mine are anticipating the release of the next generation Nike Free Flyknit with an excitement typically reserved for the arrival of a royal baby, or a Birkin bag.

So fashion is getting sporty, in other words. And maybe I’m just really obsessed with riding my bike, but I do think that has something to do with the increasing popularity of cycling, both as a pastime, and a way to get around.

Wheels on fire

As I see it, the cycling influence is operating a few different ways, starting with the most elemental consumer choice. I cycle pretty much everywhere, and if biking in sandals is not ideal, doing it in a full skirt and heels is a genuine pain-in-the-ass. A pencil skirt? Forget it. I’ve gravitated back to shorter hemlines and relaxed little gamine dresses from French brands like Vanessa Bruno, Isabel Marant and APC. I also find I’m incorporating ‘fitness apparel’ into my everyday ensembles–the leggings and tanks for German brand Falke, for instance, are so aesthetically appealing, and so well made, I count them as luxury items.

There’s no way I’m the only woman making these kinds of choices, with ramifications for the shop floor. And as programs like New York’s recently launched Citi Bike gain  popularity, I imagine there will be many more.

That’s one fashion feedback loop. Another has to do with the way designers take inspiration from what they see on the street. If I were a designer, I’d be looking with interest at the way the guys who work at my bike shop wrap  hi-vis bands around their right trouser legs, to keep their jeans from catching in their bike gears. It makes for an interesting silhouette proposition.

I’d also be paying attention to the tailoring of the Rapha jackets you see on the well-heeled cyclists in London, the men snug in their windbreakers like daggers in sheaths. I’d be giving careful consideration, as well, to the fabrication of Rapha’s jackets and gilets, the best of which are crispy, watertight and paper-thin. In fact, there’s inspiration everywhere in fitness apparel: My favourite Falke tank, for instance, features knit-in ribbing and perforation that creates an understated graphic effect. There’s something to be learned, there.

“They’re just immaculate, the way those pieces are made,” agreess Tamara Rothstein, a freelance stylist and the former fashion director of POP magazine. “I got into Falke because I was using bits here and there in shoots – I’d want those bright sport colours. But I was completely taken in by the craft of those pieces. Look at the way they knit the fabric, so it structures the garment. Any fashion person ought to appreciate that.”

As Rothstein points out, it’s not like workout kit can’t be viable as fashion. Designers such as Raf Simons and Victoria Bartlett of VPL are among those who make a habit of incorporating ideas from fitness apparel. And there’s a history of sporty looks, like tracksuits, being assimilated into style on the street.

“Think about it,” Rothstein notes, “who was wearing leggings ten or twelve years ago?”

If designers and stylists are taking inspiration from cycling¾and from the technical innovation found in fitness apparel in general – it’s also true that cycling is getting a bit more fashion-y. Bikes have a certain style, these days, a certain affiliated demographic, whether it’s the custom-made fixies favored by putative hipsters, or the vintage-esque mixte bikes shopped by boutique makers like Linus and Shinola. For the record, I ride a vintage racing Peugeot that’s very handsome but a little on the beat-up side. But I’ve got a roving eye: At Assembly New York, one of the stores in the city where I go to buy clothes, there’s an all-white TokyoBike on display, and god it’s nice. The shop’s owner, Greg Armas, rides the same model.

“It’s really an object,” Armas tells me. “People appreciate it on an aesthetic level, you know? That bike is beautiful. It’s aspirational.”

Further evidence of the aspirational status of cycling can be found at Rapha. Founded in London in 2004, Rapha has enjoyed spectacular success, emerging as the status symbol among the cyclists circling the city’s Richmond Park at speed each weekend. Its expansion has been rapid, and the brand’s latest forays are of a distinctly style-minded kind. There’s bike-friendly streetwear, for example, like the men’s denim and blazers specially designed for cycling. And Rapha has recently got into the collaboration game, working with noted cycling aficionado Paul Smith, as well as the talented up-and-comer Christopher Raeburn, whose brother Graeme happens to be a product designer for the brand.

“My interest in the Rapha collaboration was geared around the inherent functionality of cycling products,” Raeburn says. “And also the fact that fashion and functional clothing in general is becoming more intertwined. I’ve got a ton of respect for Rapha, and it seemed like there was a lot we could learn from each other by working together.”

“Plus,” adds Raeburn, “I’m an avid cyclist. So…”

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