West Coast city living inspires Bicycle by Downtown Betty

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“That’s the $2.5 million-dollar view,” says Downtown Betty designer Katie Quinn of the panorama on display from her Kitsilano studio—a whitewashed one-bedroom in a heritage walkup that she shares with jewellery label Sweet Harriet. Her hand sweeps from West Vancouver to the city’s West End in one fluid movement across the window pane: “That right there is my inspiration.”

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Most designers are influenced by where and how they live, but the synergy between Quinn’s label and her lifestyle is virtually seamless.

The West Coast vibe of Quinn’s clothing line, Bicycle by Downtown Betty, might, at first glance, get it confused with countless outdoors-y, natural-fibre, yoga-posing, beach-ready brands native to the city. But Quinn is quick to point out that while her pieces are similarly technical, Bicycle by Downtown Betty doesn’t do yoga apparel so much as clothing you can wear to the office or out for the evening that could also make it through an impromptu yoga drop-in class should you decide to hit up your favourite studio for a quickie. So it’s not yoga wear that is worn on the street, but street wear that can be worn to yoga.

“It’s an extension of who and what I am,” Quinn says, pulling a poncho/hoodie hybrid from the sample racks. “See? You can run your hands through here to ride your bike,” the avid cyclist says of the side vents. “It’s a little longer in the back too,” she explains while fingering the heavy cotton cape. “That’s for sitting on logs when it’s cold or wet.”
“Or this Convertible dress can be worn in about 17 different styles,” she says of a bifurcated tube dress, modeling it as both a hood and a cowl-neck ($110). “I have a friend who emails me every once in a while with a new way she’s discovered to wear it. I told her we should do a YouTube video starring her and the dress.”

Bicycle by Downtown Betty was born when the Blanche Macdonald fashion-design graduate and film-and-TV costumer needed clothing for a 2009 yoga instructors’ retreat in India. “I couldn’t find what I needed and wanted here or once I got there, so I had to make it myself,” she remembers. “I went to the local market and asked the tailors to push the pedals on their sewing machines while I ran the fabric through. I think they thought I was crazy.”

Within a month of her return, and newly focused from the ashram, she launched the line with three garments in four colours at the Portobello West Market in June 2009. Every piece of the early run was hand-sewn in her living room. “I remember when I finally got to the bottom of my first bag of labels and had to order more,” she says. “That’s when I realized I’d finished 800 pieces.”

Today, Downtown Betty has expanded to seven employees, including cutters and sewers, so that Quinn can spend more time on the design side of the business. On the day we meet, she’s running to public craft facility BLIM to experiment with silk-screening throw pillows for the Downtown Betty Originals housewares line.

Downtown Betty line sells online (www.downtownbetty.com/ ) and out of her Balsam Beach Studio (1534 Balsam Street), as well as at local yoga studios like Gastown’s One Yoga (150 West Hastings Street) and Semperviva Yoga in Kits (2201 West 4th Avenue). Prices range from about $45 for the racer-backed Sweet Tank to $95 for drop-crotch cropped Dhoti lounge pants to $145 for the fringe-necked, off-the-shoulder Pow Wow mini-dress. Downtown Betty is also available in Alberta, Illinois, California, and Australia, the last one a market that Quinn wants to focus on in the coming year.

“If I could, I’d escape to Bali for half a year to learn more and design,” Quinn says. “I don’t do well in the cold. But I’d always come back to Vancouver. Downtown Betty couldn’t really exist anywhere else.” 

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