Skate it to make it

Luxury brands have found an unlikely ally in skateboarding. But for skate brands old and new, some things never change: authenticity and understanding the community remain key to success.
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That hardly anyone calls skate brands, well, skate brands anymore is one of the clearest signs yet that they have fully infiltrated fashion. These days, the logos of Palace, Supreme and Thames are as likely to be spotted in Ssense, Vogue and GQ editorials as they are in the pages of Thrasher.

Last year alone, Celine, Dior and Gucci all released skate-inspired collections. Burberry and Valentino both leaned on Blondey McCoy, a skater who came up through London’s Southbank – and created his own fashion brand, Thames – to front its campaigns. (In recent years, Blondey has also designed a shoe for Adidas and signed to Kate Moss’s modeling agency.) Under the late Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton made another Southbank skater, Lucien Clarke, its first signed pro skater, and Lucien walked in Virgil Abloh’s debut show. And, of course, there’s Supreme’s eye-watering 2020 sale for over $2 billion to the VF Corporation, who also own The North Face and Timberland.

Taken as a whole, the line between skate apparel and luxury fashion has never been so blurred. Skate culture has been taken to entirely new levels. Which, in short, means there’s never been a more lucrative time to be involved in skateboarding.

The wider skateboarding industry has felt the surge. Valued at $1.9 billion in 2018, the skateboarding market – a term pretty much all skateboarders seem to hate – is projected to reach $2.4 billion by 2025. People’s desire to be outside during the pandemic played a part, and the viral TikTok of Nathan Apodoca sipping cranberry juice while skating along to Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams didn’t hurt either. The 2020 Olympics, where skateboarding was unveiled as the event’s newest sport, also confirmed its acceptance into the mainstream.

Alex Olson, who cemented his reputation in Supreme’s legendary ‘Cherry’ skate video, remembers a time long before all of this. Coming up in California in the 2000s, Alex was part of the first wave of skaters to be approached by luxury fashion houses for modeling campaigns. He suffered mightily for saying yes.

‘The industry back then was especially toxic and insecure,’ Alex remembers. ‘I was made fun of and completely shunned and obliterated by people’s opinions, just for saying yes to things like that. I went through hell. Nowadays, if you're even a mildly good-looking skater, you’ll end up on a runway.’

Undeterred, Alex launched his own brand, Bianca Chandon, in 2014. ‘Skateboarders have always been on the forefront of creating trends to some degree or another,’ he says. ‘We're on the ground all day, seeing trends first, and we know what looks good and what looks bad.’

Essentially, if the fashion world was noticing that skaters had style, why shouldn’t he get in on the action? Today, few skate brands have benefited as much from this kind of ‘why not us?’ approach as Palace, ‘the world's most entertaining fashion brand,’ according to GQ.

Set up by Lev Tanju, a Slam City Skates employee bored with the state of London’s skate culture, Lev’s team worked their way up from living together in a scuzzy house in Waterloo (the eponymous ‘Palace’) to collaborations with Harrods, Umbro and Reebok – among countless others; Palace collabs with more brands than some people have had hot dinners – and earning meetings with Ralph Lauren attended by the man himself. There have also been book deals with Phaidon, while the brand’s designs have been worn by anyone and everyone from Jay-Z and Rihanna to Cristiano Ronaldo, who once scored a match-winning injury-time penalty in the Juventus/Palace football shirt (yet another unexpected collaboration).

Palace took in £27.7 million last year – an almost 100% increase on its 2017 turnover – and has stores in London, New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. James Rewolinski, owner of New York skate store Labor, says the success of Palace, Bianca Chandon and a few others has undeniably inspired young skaters to increasingly try launching their own brands. Many of his customers ask him to look at brand proposals, and he’s frequently been the first to stock their wares if he likes their approach. (One example is Homies Network, a crew who James has known ‘since they were all really young kids’ and who, partly with his guidance and support, now have over 17,000 Instagram followers, and continue to sell out collections.)

Alongside young people’s savvy when it comes to social promotion, James credits the surplus of skate brands with the fact that manufacturing has become much more accessible to small producers. ‘Historically, it was always a challenge to produce a small run, but minimums are currently much lower than they were. It allows first timers to take a chance and make, let's say, 50 or 100 shirts, and then have a much easier chance of selling through and making their money back than if they had to make 400 like before.’

Whether you’re a smaller skate brand or a giant one, insiders say there’s also a practical reason that so many skate teams and brands have expanded into apparel, beyond just getting their name out there. Specifically: because the profit margins are significantly larger.

‘We more or less had to get into apparel because we couldn’t make money on skateboards,’ says Grant Yansura, founder and owner of the WKND skate team in Los Angeles. ‘The margin there is very low. Up until the last couple of years, the cost of a skateboard was this weird thing that had not changed with inflation since the 1980s. A board had been $50 forever, even though the cost of doing business had gone up significantly like everything else. Who knows why. Maybe it was because skateboarders aren't the hungriest business people out there, and collectively everyone just always thought a board had to stay at that price or else people wouldn't buy it.’ Either way, Grant says it is apparel sales that allow many skate companies to support the athletes they sponsor.

Still, none of the skate brand owners Courier speak with say clothing sales are the key engine behind their sustained success. Instead, Grant and James explain, staying in business for over a decade, as they have both done, comes down to never forgetting why they were well-received in the first place. Because, they continue to explain, they provided a leg up to new faces in the skate world, and created a community atmosphere for their customers.

For example, Grant still answers every email to WKND’s general address himself, even though he now has a full-time staff. This includes responding to every skater who sends in a tape in for prospective sponsorship ‘because I remember being a kid and emailing other companies and how it felt to never get a response – ever.’

The brand made its name with irreverent video skits, writing skate twists on films like The Truman Show and Goodfellas, but starring its own crew. More than 116,000 followers later, the brand is still making such skits. (It also had some fun when Justin Bieber organically sported a WKND board in a GQ shoot.) And even as Grant has staffed up, he’s kept a tight-knit crew so that it never feels too much like work. Trevor Thompson, one of its signed pros, manages sales, while Alia Huffman, who designs its products, is engaged to Trevor and went to school with Grant.

James, who only felt it appropriate to open Labor once legendary East Village skate store Autumn shut down, also makes a point to conduct business the same way he always has: he still makes sure Labor has a presence at underground events, and ensures his staff know it is their job to be welcoming to everyone who walks through the door, not just skaters. It’s one of the ways that Labor has remained a refuge on a gentrifying stretch of Canal Street – perhaps even more so now, he jokes, given that the shop has accidentally found itself in the heart of Dimes Square, the small but infamous micro-neighborhood in New York City. Even the biggest hitters in the industry haven’t strayed too far from their original formulas: Palace founder Tanju still writes all of the brand’s idiosyncratic product captions, while Supreme drops still occur at the same time every Thursday.

Consistency has also been critical to Eugene Kang, the owner of Terminal Skate Shop. One of the world’s most unique skate stores, it’s been run from the living room of Kang’s fifth-floor walk-up in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood since 2006, when he funded it by reselling rare Lego sets. Then, as now, visitors can only gain entry by texting or calling Eugene’s cell phone, which he answers at every hour of the day. (Until a year ago, there wasn’t even a Google listing; Eugene was confused when he found out someone had made one for him.) He’s remained in business by keeping prices exceptionally reasonable, becoming a beloved member of the city’s skate community along the way. It’s this built-up credibility that enabled him to continue moving product throughout the pandemic, even when bigger skate businesses were completely sold out of gear. ‘Sales reps would hit me up and be like “Dude, we're finally getting product in, look out for a heads up email before it goes public”,’ says Eugene. ‘They wanted to support my unusual business model.’

It’s this confidence in their long-held relationships that enables all four business owners to keep their heads – and sense of humor – in this inflated moment. While all of them are happy that so many friends are able to make money through skating’s current popularity, they are also aware that fashion, by definition, is fickle.

‘Skating is never going to die,’ James says, ‘but its popularity has always, and will always, go up and down.’ Whether or not the wider fashion community still cares in a few years, it seems, won’t bother skating’s core community too much. ‘The skate world has kept itself pretty close,’ Grant explains. ‘There are so many intimate underground things still happening that the bigger side right now feels so separate,’ he adds.

‘The crowd that’s paying so much for skate brands right now is pretty different from the skate crowd.’ Eugene agrees. ‘At the end of the day, most skateboarders are kind of broke,’ he jokes. ‘We’re not the ones spending $50 on all those t-shirts.’

Photos courtesy of Bianca Chandôn, Louis Vuitton, Palace and WKND.

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