News outlet The Guardian recently caught up with HUF-founder ">Keith Hufnagel to discuss skateboard culture and fashion from an insider's perspective. Check it out below, or click here to read the full article.
The fall and rise of skateboard chic
Once it was the scourge of sophisticated society. So how did skater fashion become a multimillion dollar force within the fashion industry?
When Supreme opened its London store this September, the young and well-heeled spilled on to the streets of Soho from a launch party many had queued for hours to get into. Inside, Ed Banger Records label owner and Parisian DJ Busy P rubbed shoulders with legendary skaters such as Jason Dill. This was more than good PR for the New York-based skater brand, recently worn in prolificacy by Odd Future's Tyler the Creator. This was an event that marked a remarkable change in fortunes for a fashion once largely dismissed as the style concerns of waster teenagers.
Supreme started life in the mid-90s, when New York skating was at an all-time low. Companies were going out of business, skaters couldn't afford to live off their sponsorship and the sport had developed a reputation for being popular among a nuisance generation of slacker kids. The idea that, a decade down the line, skater fashion would not only occupy a burgeoning corner of the market but also infiltrate high fashion must have seemed absurd. But that is what's happened.
This spring PPR, the parent company of Gucci and Alexander McQueen, bought the Californian skate company Volcom in a deal worth $607m. The leap in Volcom's stock to $24.39 from $19.73 when the deal was announced in May even prompted some law firms to take a closer look at it because they claimed shareholders weren't getting a fair price.
But skating's rebirth began with the sport itself, which became mainstream in the early 2000s when skaters such as Mark Gonzales gained a cult following by performing pioneering street skating and Tony Hawk's antics on vert ramps opened up the sport to new audiences around the world. Skateboarding fashion followed suit, crossing over into the mainstream with brands like Vans and DC becoming mainstays of "alternative" culture. Sportswear specialists Nike and Adidas caught on, and started sponsoring young skaters such as Theotis Beasley and Shane O'Neill. Alex Olson and Dylan Rieder have become teen pinups, while the latter was even invited to endorse a brand of wine.
Keith Hufnagel, founder of Huf, a skateboarding brand popular with rappers such as Drake (and our very own Dappy), has seen the transformation first hand. He moved to San Francisco from New York to pursue a pro skateboarding career in 1992, and set up the brand 10 years later. Hufnagel remembers the days when skating wasn't so cool: "I grew up in New York and it was unacceptable to have a skateboard. I'd have to take the train up to Canarsie in Brooklyn and I'd put my board under the C train because we'd go through these areas where kids would steal your board and punk you out. In 1992, there were some brands but it was nothing like it is today."
Mark Oblow, a photographer, skater and creative consultant for skate brands Analog and Gravis, believes the interest of major brands such as Nike and Adidas has forced original skate companies to up their game.
"Things have changed now that the big companies are coming in," he says. "Back in the day we just started companies to make things we wanted. The first things we made were skate shoes, because skaters needed specific footwear, and then shorts and denim. If we wanted to make something we just went ahead and did it. It was cool because you had a lot more creative freedom. People like Spike Jonze came out of the skating world because he had an eye for things and he was able to do what he wanted. Skaters were allowed to do their own stuff and no one gave a shit. Now there are all these humungous clothing companies coming in and buying up these smaller companies."
Hufnagel talks confidently about buying opportunities, selling seasons and how hard his team work on keeping the brand relevant. It's a world away from the time when he decided to start making caps and T-shirts in 2002, but skateboarding style is increasingly becoming more in demand outside of the sport. When I speak to Oblow, he's preparing to photograph David Beckham as part of a new Adidas campaign. "The reason Adidas hired me was because they knew I had a skate edge," he says. "I shoot things my own way. They came to me because they wanted 'that look'."
The early amateurish approach has been replaced by refined, slick brands like Huf that look beyond the world of skateboarding and understand the importance of celebrity and fashion endorsements. But the overlap of skating culture with taste-making media has been cooking for a while: skater Jerry Hsu regularly works as a photographer for Vice magazine, skateboarding photojournalist Patrick O'Dell was a picture editor at the same magazine, and skate photographers like Ed Templeton are often invited to put on shows for it.
But while skating's influence on culture is obvious, it's arguable that the professional approach to running skateboard companies has influenced the sport itself and changed the expectations of skaters. When Forbes looked into which action sports stars were paid the most in 2008 four of the top 10 were skateboarders, with the godfather of them all, Tony Hawk coming in top, earning $12m. Oblow estimates that professionals can make anywhere between $1,000 and $50,000 a month from sponsorships, with winners of competitions like Street League and X Games able to add more on top of that. Winning one of the three stops on the Street League tour will earn a skater $150,000 in a competition with an overall prize fund of $1.6m. It's a far cry from the world of skating that Oblow and Hufnagel knew when they started out.
With so much money in the sport, both Hufnagel and Oblow have seen a change in the kind of kids who are interested in skateboarding. "Skating in the beginning was so poor, it had nothing. It nearly died out. Then all of a sudden it came back and the guys were buying nice watches, then the next generation see that and think, 'I want to become a skateboarder so I can drive a Mercedes.' Now you're seeing parents involved and the whole soccer-mom thing. All of sudden these parents were saying, 'I want my kid to skateboard because he can make money.' It's horrible," Oblow says.
Hufnagel has worries about the future. "My concern is: are they [Nike and Adidas] always going to be there? What happens in a couple of years when skateboarding isn't cool any more and they just drop their programme? They've been in before, dropped it and then come back. Are they going to do it again? Those are the concerns."
With a new generation that sees the sport as a way to make money, the laid-back coolness that has taken the sport so far could be replaced by a rigid professionalism. At least veterans such as Hufnagel are prepared for that moment when it comes. "We always think about the big picture," he says. "We always take care of the skateboarders but you have to think of the bigger picture because now you are selling to the world."