As a Citi Bike rider, it always shocks me to see fellow cyclists casually navigating the streets of New York without a helmet. See those outlines of riders in the designated biking lanes? Don’t think of them as icons: think of them as a caveat that you, too, can be flattened by New York City traffic, if you’re not careful.
“The safety warranty on your helmet expired,” said Danielle Baskin, illustrator and founder of Belle Helmets, purveyor(s) of hand-painted and one-of-a-kind bicycle helmets, when we sat down to chat. “Helmets do have an expiration date. Most manufacturers suggest that you replace your helmet after 5-7 years, once the safety is no longer valid.” Ultraviolet rays do take their toll, and nothing like planned obsolescence. “But you can keep mine forever – as artwork.”
Right now, the company consists solely of Baskin, who plies her trade and applies her acrylics in a private office at the coworking space, cowork.rs.
One of the benefits of working in a coworking space: there are entrepreneurs of every stripe – yes, there is such a thing as entrepreneurship outside of the tech realm – and you never know what you might learn. And yes, I did order a replacement from Belle Helmets.
“A lot of people don’t start wearing a helmet until a friend has an accident, or if they do. You shouldn’t wait until you have a traumatic experience to get a helmet,”
While they may be important, bike helmets in general have never been a particularly attractive accouterment, which is what got Baskin started. When she moved to New York City seven years ago from Illinois to attend NYU, her biking days weren’t behind her but, she thought, here she was in NYC: she should start wearing a helmet. She ordered one online (“it was metallic chrome and reflected everything around it”), but she didn’t like the way it looked, so she painted it to look like the sky.
“It made it look invisible,” she said. Then she thought it would be funny to have a collection to reflect different times of the day (“I did one with a night sky and one for sunset”). The next thing she knew, friends started requesting the custom-painted headgear, as did total strangers who would stop her on the street. Or rather, in the bike lane. She’d admit to having painted them herself – but couldn’t tell them how to order them. “I didn’t have business cards, or a website to direct them to.”
The next thing she knew, she was in business. “There were more people like me who didn’t want to wear a helmet because it didn’t look cool.”
Three years after she’d painted her first helmet, Belle Helmets was officially launched. The site gives you 75 designs to choose from, and Baskin can also customize them to a customer’s specification, or do a completely custom design. “All of the helmets are custom painted,” and she said. The price tag: $85-$300. She only uses water-based acrylics and polyurethane (which are also UV protected, so that the design won’t fade), and it takes her an hour and a half to four hours to complete a design (depending on the level of intricacy, which also accounts for the price differential).
She gets requests for anything from company logos to renderings of pets. In fact, the Standard Hotel (the one on Cooper Square) commissioned eight helmets from her, all with different designs.
“They have bikes available for their guests to use, and wanted to provide them with helmets, too. You might be able to spot them in the East Village. That’s where their guests ride their bikes.”
The designs are all Baskin’s, and each features The Standard logo.
“Advertising space on your head is a great idea. Cyclists look at each other. At an intersection, they look at each other more so than pedestrians do. They’ll check out the bike, the gear and the helmet. This way, you can advertise, be safe and have something unique. I don’t recommend getting a portrait of your pet on your helmet. It looks awkward,” she warned.
Her most-requested designs? The phrenology chart and blue sky and night sky – two of the designs that started it all.
If you’re really attached to your own helmet, she’ll paint it for you as well. She also gets requests for her designs on ski, motorcycle and snow boarding helmets, and she happily to complies. Anything in the name of safety – and art, of course.
And heads up, Citi Bikers: Belle Helmets is affiliated with the program and members get a 10% discount on her helmets.
“All the bikes look the same,” said Baskin, “having a custom helmet is a way to personalize your bicycle experience. Most people who are in the program don’t wear a helmet. You should always wear a helmet, no matter how long you’re going to be on the bike. A lot of people don’t want to walk around with a helmet all day. When you have one that’s also artwork , it becomes an accessory. It’s fun to walk around with a painting that you like.”
Cowork.rs members also get a 10% discount, and the two discounts are not mutually exclusive.
So, why did she gravitate to a coworking space that’s filled primarily with tech-centric companies?
“I like being in a space with tech companies.” It’s also not easy to find a small art studio in Manhattan – certainly not an affordable one.
There aren’t many helmet artists in the world, so chances are that that custom painted headgear you spotted in Boston, San Francisco, Norway, Moscow, Minneapolis, London, Chicago, Tokyo, Portland or Atlanta came from Belle Helmets. She ships internationally and besides the website, she can also be found on nice days on her cargo tricycle, trolling the bike lanes for potential customers. She tweets from @bellehelmets to let people know where she’ll be.
“A lot of people put off getting a helmet. I make it convenient by selling them in the bike lane. I’m in the right demographic and bringing helmets to the bike lane is the best way to find customers.”
Which only goes to show: no matter what the industry, an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur.