There are some individuals who constantly seek and tend to find their mission in life. Dean DiSimone is one of those people. A co-owner of tokyobike's New York City store (Bowery @ Prince Street - the first tokyobike store in the Americas), Dean is an inspirational figure who's personal journey is as interesting and diverse as the brand he represents. Dean has: two Bachelor’s degrees in Engineering, a Master’s degree in Architecture, dabbled in business consulting, founded a digital studio and taught at Ivy League colleges, just to mention a few of his many achievements. All this aside, Dean projects a down-to-earth persona that was shocking (because this is New York) and inviting. Dean's politeness and humility endeared us even more to him and made us want to know more about tokyobike and its underlying philosophy.
Dean (along with his dog, Henry) was gracious enough to grant Style.No.Chaser a Q&A which is both inspirational and stimulating. See it in full below.
Could you please provide a brief history of tokyobike?
Tokyobike is a small, independent bicycle brand founded in 2002 in the quiet Tokyo suburb of Yanaka. Based on the concept of ‘Tokyo Slow’ the bikes are designed to be light to ride with an emphasis on comfort over speed. The initial goal of Tokyobike was to sell bikes ‘for the city’. At the time of inception by Ichiro Kanai, there were really only two types of bicycles in Japan - the mamachari (or ‘mother’s chariot’) which was a heavy shopping bicycle ridden by housewives during the day and ‘borrowed’ by drunken salarymen who missed their last trains at night, or very expensive bikes for use by more serious cyclists. Tokyobike embraced the thought riders would appreciate a simple, functional, classic object that allowed them to enjoy their surroundings as much as their commute, and also acknowledge that people in Tokyo used to have a slow life - one that is in contrast to the systems and efficiencies we find in our modern cities. Tokyobike set out to recapture that spirit.
How did you get involved with tokyobike?
In 2005 I traveled to Tokyo with a group of my students from the University of Pennsylvania and came across a matte brown Tokyobike on the street. I took a photo of that bicycle and thought of it often in the coming years as an object of design purity, and the reference point that continued to deter my ability to commit to a bike stateside. Five years later I stumbled across the Tokyobike shop in Shoreditch London and was again inspired by the simplicity of the limited models, stunning and tasteful color ways, and the overall curation of this lifestyle brand. While committed to taking a few home with me, the staff strongly recommended not doing so as they were against selling bikes that they could not assemble and fit for me in person. I liked that resistance. After a friendly argument I was recommended to reach out to the owner in Tokyo to see if he would send me a bicycle. An email was sent.
7 months later I received an email from Fuyuki Sugahara, the man behind the Tokyobike growth in Australia who was kind enough to explain the challenges of getting a bicycle to the States. Coincidentally, I was off to Japan just weeks later and we decided to meet up to find a way to get my own Tokyobike. After making my way to the humble Tokyobike design headquarters in suburban Yanaka, I was greeted by Ichiro, Fuyuki, and a handful of youthful staff working hard on iMacs in a quiet, peaceful setting. It was here that Ichiro and I spent hours talking about design, culture, food, and pretty much everything but bicycles. His spirit captivated me and I welcomed his offer to join him for lunch and sake at his favorite soba shop. The slow, delicious afternoon was then extended with a beautiful bike ride throughout the city of Tokyo and a handful of his team, stopping frequently to meet his friends, colleagues, local artisans, and of course, his favorite restaurants. Before I knew it, it was the witching hour of 11:30pm and time to catch my train back across town before the lines retired for the night, and not once had we talked about the bicycle I sought, but it was a topic I was not prepared to breach after the wonderful experience I had with the team. Upon departure, the team quickly recalled that we never discussed the bicycle I came for and asked for my return the following day to address it, which I kindly obliged. Fast forward three days of a similar experience of inspiring discussion, incredible food, and delightful rides, Ichiro asked for me to be his partner in the Americas over our final drink of sake. The rest of the story is still being written...
You mentioned that tokyobike has a unique philosophy that revolves around “quality over quantity”, could you please elaborate on that? How does this philosophy resonate with you as an individual?
The philosophy is one that is very contrary to much we grow up with in the states. Success as we know it is defined by metrics that often are built of numbers that are not reflective of quality nor experience. In Tokyobike I found just the opposite. While there is no resistance to growth nor success, there is an inherent opposition to anything that compromises finding the right bicycle for the right person. We view Tokyobike not as our brand but that of the customers, and if we do not find a way to ensure we are recommended and fitting the proper ride to each individual, we are not accepting our responsibility. In a world of mass consumer packaged goods, it is easy to dismiss the wonderful variance in each of our needs, desires, and ways of living. Tokyobike really embraces this gradient and works hard to allow for the product to be an extension of who you are.
What does being a part of tokyobike give you that you did not have at your previous career?
It is really hard to compare running a creative agency to getting involved in retail as they are such different animals, but one thing that has been incredibly interesting is being in direct contact with the end consumer, especially around something that brings such freedom and enjoyment. Everyone seems to have an interesting history and relationship with their bicycles and knowing that you are becoming part of their personal lore brings something that can be a challenge in other fields. With that said, my experience in the design and marketing worlds is being put to test as launching a new brand in the Americas presents a wonderful challenge of education. From the business side of things, it has been incredible to learn about the world of import/export, distribution, and the mechanics of a retail environment. I often find myself negotiating between in the mindset of a mom-and-pop shop and a global brand.
We noticed some exceptional items in the store that were not necessarily related to the bicycles, what is the story/idea behind that?
Tokyobike seeks like-minded designers and their products to round out our brand story. It is one of craft, quality, and simplicity. While not all of our products are directly related to the lifestyle of cycling, they do all stack up against the lifestyle of living in a complex, dynamic urban setting. Many of our products are sourced locally in Yanaka and capture the spirit of what it means to have multiple generations focusing on one craft, while others are simply brands we love that are doing something we feel is exceptional and should be championed.
Who is the quintessential tokyobike customer?
Such a good question, and one that we would spend months defining for brands in my past life. Simply, our quintessential customer is one that appreciates beautiful, clean, smart design, but is also someone comfortable with defining their own style and path. This customer is one that is inquisitive, and an incredible listener, but who has a distinct perspective on who they are and what they like. We don't train our sales staff to 'sell' but rather to house these same characteristics, especially the listening component.
What are the most popular bikes and colors among the bikes you carry? Why do you think these are popular with customers?
Our Single Speeds have received plenty of accolades around the world, and are typically what people ask for when they visit us. But with that said, our policy is to get our customers on as many test rides as they desire, and after that, we have seen a huge swing toward our Classic Sport that provides more flexibility with 8 gears and an upright ride. Color is a tough one as we pride ourselves on a distinctly curated set that can't be found in other brands. In New York, the Sand Brown and Matte Black colors have found great success.
There is definitely a lot of innovation around tokyobike’s designs, could you elaborate on this and also talk about other ways in which you perceive/foresee tokyobike being different?
Innovation with Tokyobike is less about invention than it is about making some key decisions with how our bikes are designed and built. As an example, our bicycles are fitted with 650c wheels which are smaller than the typical 700c wheels you find on Western cycles. This slight difference in size makes an incredible difference in handling which is fantastic in city contexts, but also reduces the weight of the bicycle not to mention the overall size which is important to city dwellers storing their cycles indoors.
Tokyobike has stores in London, Berlin, Sydney, etc. - we know this NYC shop is the first in the Americas, are there plans for expansion on this continent and elsewhere?
Definitely. We have our eyes set on a few key locations in the states and Canada, and will ultimately be looking to South America in the near future. This summer we are collaborating with Levi's Commuter on a series of month-long events in Williamsburg, downtown Los Angeles, and London and will continue to introduce the brand to key markets moving forward. That said, I would love to find a permanent home for us in LA, Portland, San Francisco and possibly a year-round cycling climate on the east coast.
Bikes (especially tokyobikes) are a very stylish accessory, what other style accessories do you feel are important for every man to have?
Every man needs to define his style and be smart with how his look and accessories work together. A casual jacket from Comme des Garçons over a t-shirt, vintage Levi's denim, a Max Bill Meister wristwatch, and a pair of classic Stan Smiths can do any man right in the summer.
If there is one thing that everyone should know about tokyobike, what is that thing?
Tokyo Slow. We can all use a little of that.
What does your dog, Henry think about tokyobike?
When not guarding the door or wrestling with customers, Henry's go to is the Sand Brown Classic Sport with a Brooks Cambium saddle and Ring Grips...most likely because that is what his mother is riding. We also think he is quite happy to have his run of the loft now that all of the bicycles have migrated to the shop.
Visit tokyobike's website here.
See more pictures from the shoot above - See more James Law Photography here.
See similar features here.