Their bikes are colorful, zippy city machines. Each one is different: green rims, gold drop bars, and yellow cable housing ride alongside red handlebar tape and purple frames. The effect should be jumbled, but it’s amazing what a sense of solidarity can do.
The Deadly Nightshades, Toronto’s premiere all-girl cycling gang, have a bit of a reputation. They’ve been featured by the BBC, in Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail, and in dozens of local blogs, newspapers, photoshoots and magazines. They’ve become famous for their fierce style, their commitment to sustainability, and the way they intersect their own creative passions with life on two wheels. And riding as a crew doesn’t hurt either. “People call out to us, when they see us riding,” says Irene Stickney, one of the group’s founding members. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, bike gang!’”
The members – Cat “Big Red” Essiembre, Irene “Fierce Bambi” Stickney, Kirsten “Snow White” White, and Niamh “Namtron” McManus – have been riding together under the Deadly Nightshades banner since 2007. The idea was born from their time as fashion students at Ryerson University, and from their shared love of cycling. “We all wanted to have a sense of creative community and friendship,” Irene says. “Cat and Niamh were traveling, and we wanted to do something really fun for them when they got home.” After spending a year abroad, Cat and Niamh returned and the Deadly Nightshades were officially launched. “We picked a name, and we printed the backs of denim jackets,” laughs Irene. “And when they got back, we told them they were in a bike gang.”
Their signature color, sea-foam green – which shows up on matching jackets, fingernails, and on the walls of Irene’s fashion incubator studio – playfully toys with the society’s idea of femininity. “It was, for us, a nod to 1950s kitchens,” says Irene. “It was a bit of a re-appropriation of a stereotypical housewife color. We wanted to take it and turn it into something that was a little bit tough.”
References for their two-wheeled crew are a carefully curated trip through time, referencing male post-WWI motorcycle clubs, 1950s London Mods, and all-women California biker gangs (“Tough girls with long hair,” says Irene). “It was an alternative way of being feminine, without being stereotypical,” she explains. “Our style is Hells Angels meets the Pink Ladies.” And, she adds, they’re obviously all into The Punk Singer – a 2013 documentary that explores the trials and tribulations of Riot Grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna.
“We’re all creatives, designers, photographers, and makers. We’re all really visual. We love to head out [as a gang], because it gives us such an amazing feeling of being part of team, supported and encouraged by the rest of the ladies,” says Niamh. “By helping each other, collaborating on projects, and supporting each other, we can succeed at anything we put our minds to. It’s a really empowering feeling. […] The ‘bike gang’ component started as a verb. ‘Do you guys want to bike gang tonight?’ It meant let’s get together, on bikes, and see where the night takes us.”
Being a Deadly Nightshade has been a two-wheeled adventure. In 2008, the gang was the subject of a documentary called A Night Out with the Deadly Nightshades, which screened as part of the Bicycle Film Festival. They’ve walked the runway during FAT, Toronto’s annual fashion and culture festival. And, despite the fact that they all have full-time jobs in design and fashion, they work on Deadly Nightshades projects whenever they have free time. “We structure ourselves like a collective, so everyone has an equal voice,” says Niamh. “Each member can suggest projects and whoever has time and interest will join in.”
Take, for example, their 2011 short film Fabric Bike. It’s a seven-minute film set to punky music – a fast-forward montage of the Nightshades creating a bike out of, yes, fabric. The spokes are made of yarn. The forks have actual cutlery in them. The cogs are flashy gold lamé. The whole thing is a love letter to the DIY culture that Irene says the group holds dear; it’s also a kiss blown to the bike as an object of their affections.
And they do love their bikes. “I would sleep with my bike if there was room in my bed for three of us,” Cat laughs. Although it’s not always a simple love. “It takes effort to be a cyclist,” she says. “But it’s not a crazy left-wing concept, even though that is sometimes the stereotype you are given.”
Kirsten is a little more reflective. “Being a poor working student left me with little option when I moved out of the house at nineteen,” she says. “To get around other than cycling was just not in my budget. It offered me options to go anywhere in the city for free.” Irene is more direct. “Riding a bike makes me really happy,” she says. “I’ve structured my life to give me opportunities to ride my bike, because it’s a choice that makes me feel good.”
These days, the Deadly Nightshades are a little more spread out, and their careers take up more time. But the gang is still a big part of their lives. “Toronto is definitely the epicentre of what we are up to, and because it’s our hometown, we will always be back here. We are lucky to live in a point in time where connecting over distance is easier than it’s ever been,” Niamh says. The group recently travelled together to Costa Rica, and whenever members are far-flung they keep in touch via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
“Our hope would be that we can encourage other ladies to get involved with bikes, on their own terms,” says Niamh. “There are a few other all-girl biker gangs out there, which is amazing, and there is room for so many more.”
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