Q&A: tokyobike Owner and Director Juliana Rudell Di Simone
The Brazilian transplant talks Japanese design, collaborations, the impact of Citi Bike on cycling in NYC, and more
The history of tokyobike is quite simple—the name says it all. In 2002, founder Ichiro Kanai created a perfectly minimal bicycle for exploring his hometown of Tokyo. With clean lines, sporty geometry, a strong CrMo steel frame and superior components, the bike was both a pleasure to ride, and pleasant to look at. As a result, it caught on quick, both around Asia and eventually in Europe too. But it wasn’t until a decade later that tokyobike found a route to the Americas, by way of rather serendipitous circumstances and a couple from New York.
Long after first finding tokyobike in Japan, entrepreneur Dean Di Simone emailed tokyobike’s founder inquiring about how to buy a bike in New York, to which Kanai replied—months later—that he’d been looking for a partner to aid in expanding operations to the U.S., and proposed they meet. A few days later a deal had been struck. Dean and his wife Juliana Rudell Di Simone, a Brazilian-born model with a graduate degree in international marketing and strategy, were officially partners in tokyobike in the Americas. The two quickly got to work, and in 2014 opened tokyobike’s first physical presence Stateside in New York City.
Now running the show on her own as Dean focuses on design brand OTHR, Juliana has extended tokyobike’s presence to Los Angeles, with another showroom opening in Mexico City later this month. As it turns out, the aesthetic-driven design of tokyobike is a language appreciated, if not spoken, around the world.
We recently caught up with Juliana to learn more about what makes tokyobike so special, how she approaches collaborations, and why the tokyobike belongs in cities around the world. Read on for the full interview.
What does Tokyo Slow mean to you?
It’s mostly a mindset, and it doesn’t have to do with actual speed, but more with absorbing everything that’s around you at a different pace than your everyday. Instead of just walking or riding your bike past a place, Tokyo Slow is about taking a step back and really looking up, looking down, smelling the scents, and just really taking it in, instead of just passing by.
So with tokyobike, the foundation is Tokyo Slow, where it’s not about getting on a bike and going from point A to point B, but about everything that happens in between points A and B, and why it makes point A and point B so special and so important.
Once people understand what it means, our product, and story and heritage, it all starts making even more sense.
Has design been central to tokyobike from the beginning?
When Ichiro Kanai, the founder, started tokyobike in 2002, there was nothing like it out in the market. It was either high performance or those super heavy Japanese mamachari bicycles that you see three children seated on, with baskets, and it’s like, how is this woman managing all of that weight on a bike?
So for him, it all came down to creating a product that was easy. It was light, beautiful, it was clean. It was what he wanted to look at every day. He developed these beautiful lines that are just simple and minimal. It’s very Japanese if you think about it—it’s so simple, but also works, and works well.
And every bike shop can service it. We get so many people coming in and asking, “Have you considered internally geared hubs or internal cabling, or this kind of thing, that kind of thing?” And our answer is always the same, that yeah, we have, and the reason we’re not doing it is because if your bike breaks today, we want you to be riding it tomorrow. We don’t want to see it sitting in a bike shop for six weeks because they have to find out how to service your bike.
In the US, people often see bikes as toys or sport-specific tools. How does tokyobike see things differently?
Well, tokyobike was designed for Tokyo, a busy, metropolitan city with lots of people. The idea was really not about performance, it was just another means of transportation. And in Japan it just immediately made sense because bicycles have been ingrained in the culture for so long. There the bike is a part of the environment, just as much as the car or the pedestrian.
So after Tokyo, we started expanding into all of Asia. And Europe was a big too, because, I guess the population is a little bit more mature in terms of cycling. So you know, coming to the US, where—you said it perfectly—people look at bikes for two things here. One of them is exercise, so thinking performance; the other one is weekend rides...oh, we can get on the bike and do a picnic, or here in L.A., let’s go ride to the beach today.
"If your bike breaks today, we want you to be riding it tomorrow"
Do you think this American perspective of cycling is evolving?
I think slowly… we’ve been watching New York in particular change drastically in the past five years that we’ve been working on tokyobike. I remember the first time I got on a bike in NYC, I was terrified. And now, I sometimes feel like I can ride without my helmet, which I would never do, but it almost gives me that sense that we’re going somewhere, we’re getting better.
I think the development in how NYC has been investing more and more in bike lanes, and really pushing people to be on bikes has really been helpful for us. And I’m very thankful for my Citi Bike. I think it really changes the whole idea of people being scared of bikes, because all the sudden instead of walking from the West Village to the East Village, you just pay $12 [for a day pass] and get on a bike. It’s so much more fun.
We’ve noticed—we get a lot of first time cyclists that are ready for their first official bike, and every time we start talking to them we learn they started cycling with Citi Bike, which is amazing. The more bikes out there, the better for everyone.
Why choose cities like NYC and LA for tokyobike? Cities that may not be typically considered bike-friendly...
I think we’re always going to be the urban bicycle. We’re designed for city riding, commuting, for leisure—for all of that—so we’ve been finding a home for tokyobike in cities that are accepting of that lifestyle. So New York, of course, was the first one.
In LA, moving through downtown, there’s no better way than by bicycle. I will be at our showroom then I’ll get on a bike and go to the Arts District because if I drive my car there, it’s literally a half hour search for parking. If I'm doing that by bike I can go from the store to where I have to go and be back in half an hour. It just makes so much more sense to go by bike.
As a retailer, you work with so many great outside brands. Who does the curation?
I’ve been doing the curation of our store in NY, and now in LA too. It’s an interesting thing. It’s coming from travel and inspiration from our other stores in Europe and Japan.
But the selection of products now is really coming down two main things. The product is either Japanese and has a strong relationship to the things that are part of our everyday life in Japan—anything from tea wear to beautiful towels and chopsticks—or is just a product that we love or a brand that aligns with the mindset of what we’re doing.
What upcoming projects are you especially excited about?
The thing I’m mostly excited about is the Designer Series—there’s design week in NYC [currently] and we’re launching three beautiful bikes that we’ve worked on with three award-winning designers—Calico Wallpaper, Joe Doucet, and Everything Elevated. And I think it’s gonna be the highlight of my year for the collaborations that I’m working on. We gave them frames and said do to the frames whatever you want. And the designs—the three bikes are so different, and so beautiful, and they’re completely opposite to each other, but it’s just stunning.
You’ve collaborated with Brooks, New Balance and Levi’s, but also brands outside the active space like British bag designer Ally Capellino, Ace Hotel, and even Girard Studio. Why is it important to work with brands in the design world too?
In terms of partnerships and collaborations—who we work with—there has to be something there from the beginning. I remember when we met the grandchildren of Alexander Girard, who run his studio now, they came to us and were like, “Everyone loves a bicycle. There’s no person that doesn’t have a good memory with a bicycle.”
And when he said that, I was like, this is my guy! We’re working with them because they immediately understood what we’re here for, you know. They understand the idea of Tokyo Slow. And we don’t have to say it was the perfect partner also because of design and aesthetic—I think that is ingrained in the collaboration—but the biggest thing for me is that we’re totally on the same page from the beginning.
"The more bikes out there, the better for everyone"
Then we have brands that we love and love working with, and have such good history with, like New Balance. It was very humbling to have a corporation like New Balance come to us because you know, if you think about how saturated the cycling industry is, we were handpicked among a lot of other brands to be the one they associated themselves with. And for us it was just like, New Balance is so cool, why not, it’s the perfect alignment again.
And then we just have friends that we want to have fun with, like Away—we love traveling, and so much of tokyobike is about exploring the cities that we love, and so much about what Away does is about traveling.
I read something the other day that Jen [Rubio], the Founder said, they are more than a luggage company. And I think we are more than a bike company, and I think that’s why some of these alignments really work well for us.