Bicycles are going couture.
Ralph Lauren, Missoni and Kate Spade, better known for fashionable clothing, are now taking up a new product line, designer bicycles — and they are selling fast.
Three-speed bicycles with the trademark zig-zag and striped patterns of Italian fashion house Missoni nearly sold out the day of their introduction at Target this month, and only a few are still available in scattered stores.
Photos: Bicycle shop Adeline Adeline
The two-wheelers, which cost $399, got a jump-start from a covetous celebrity tweet by actress Jessica Alba. One version — with a distinct copper-color pattern — sold out the first day and has resold for as much as $1,279.95 on EBay.
They were snapped up by customers such as Connie Chen, a Portland, Ore., industrial engineer and occasional bike rider.
"I was really drawn to the patterns of the paint and the fact that it was a designer bicycle and was very classic with a leather seat and a basket," Chen said.
Fashion designers like bicycles because, unlike cars, they are comparatively easy and inexpensive to customize in ways that produce dramatic visual results and "become moving billboards" for their work, said Constance Winters, who runs the popular blog Lovely Bicycle (www.lovelybicycle.com). In addition to writing on the technical issues of cycling, she has been following the intersection of bicycles and high fashion.
Designers are putting their imprint on the two-wheelers through special color schemes, logos and component selection, often leaning to leather saddles, grips and handlebar tape.
"Bicycles also require accessories, such as handlebar bags and panniers, which is right up fashion designers' alley," Winters said.
This month, Ralph Lauren's Rugby division will unveil a $2,200 limited-edition men's two-speed leather-saddled "roadster" bicycle and accompanying line of tweed cycling clothes, the fashion house's interpretation of what sporting men and women might have worn before World War II.
The fashion house plans a Tweed Run on Saturday in New York to pitch the new line. It is patterned after an annual 10-mile recreational bike ride by the same name through London that is a favorite of enthusiasts of vintage bicycles and clothing.
Earlier this year, Kate Spade New York partnered with boutique Manhattan bicycle retailer Adeline Adeline to offer a European-style women's single-speed two-wheeler in a distinctive green and bicycle bags to sell at the shop and Kate Spade stores nationwide. Kate Spade advertises that the "enclosed chain case keeps hemlines safely out of harm's way."
"Many companies are looking for any association that they feel is cool and links with youth or a product which is very fashionable," said Paul Smith, the English fashion designer. "A bicycle is no exception."
Although demand for these bicycles is rising, they still make up only a tiny portion of what's sold annually in the U.S.
Kate Spade has produced 100 bicycles, including 30 that went to the Shutters on the Beach hotel in Santa Monica to rent to guests. Ralph Lauren will sell just 50 bikes. Target's was the most populist venture, with roughly 1,700 stores selling one women's Missoni bike model and the company's online business selling more Missoni models, including a men's bike.
The limited number of these fashion bikes is one of the attractions, said Elsa Termenon, a Philadelphia-based writer for Swedish magazines and author of the fashion blog Styleabaad (http://www.styleabaad.com), who purchased the $1,100 Kate Spade bicycle.
"I look for something unique and special and something that not everyone else has," Termenon said. "It goes with my personal style. The way I dress is very colorful and I wear a lot of vintage dresses."
Other trendy retailers are pitching bicycles as fashion statements.
Urban Outfitters has paired with Republic Bicycles to offer an online bike shop. Shoppers can select a frame style — a traditional men's or a Dutch looping step-through women's bike — and customize in thousands of ways by picking from multiple color options for the frame and individual components such as pedals, saddles and wheels. The bikes start at $399.
These retailers aren't going for the fitness-oriented weekend cycling crowd that's dominated by decidedly unfashionable "MAMILS," otherwise known as middle-aged men in Lycra shorts.
"We allow our customers to customize their bike with color and offer different models so they can make their bike a reflection of their personal style," said Crystal Carroll, an Urban Outfitters spokeswoman. "Anyone with an interest in fashion is aware that everything they buy is a reflection of their style."
The Kate Spade bicycles fit with the other inventory at Adeline Adeline, where owner Julie Hirschfeld focuses on durable steel-framed city bikes. You won't find a super-light carbon-fiber racer in her shop. Hirschfeld said customers consider bicycles a form of transportation and fun. Some might use them to commute; others take their bikes for a leisurely ride through Manhattan's Central Park and a picnic, or out to coffee.
"A bike is part of your lifestyle if you are riding it a lot and you want it to be part of your outfit," Hirschfeld said. "People want a nice-looking bike."
The companies aren't actually making bikes but rather putting their designer imprint on products made by established manufacturers.
The Ralph Lauren bicycle is essentially a rebadged offering from Pashley Cycles, England's oldest continuously operating builder. The Kate Spade is built by Abici, an Italian company.
Hirschfeld said she likes seeing the fashion houses get involved with bicycles.
"Seeing bikes in a lifestyle context is a good thing," she said. "I would like to get bikes away from sports into a place where people incorporate their bikes into their lives."