What can brands, distributors and retailers learn from 60 years of skateboard apparel? Key insights from the new book SKATEBOARDING IS NOT A FASHION by Boardsport SOURCE Skateboard Editor, Dirk Vogel. Check out the One Eyed Monster gallery from the book launch in California a couple of weeks ago.
Super models in Thrasher T-shirts, skate brand apparel at fashion boutiques, launch ramps on Paris Fashion Week catwalks: The love affair between high-end fashion and skateboard style is hotter than ever, and it’s been a long time coming. From day one, fashion has played a major part in skateboarding’s overall aesthetic – even before official “skateboard clothing” existed as a product category. That’s because skateboarding is more than just a sport, more than just athletic performance or an adrenaline-fuelled spectacle, but a physical medium of stylistic expression with deep hooks into art, music, and youth culture.
This becomes painstakingly clear in SKATEBOARDING IS NOT A FASHION (SINAF), a new coffee table book published in February 2018 by Gingko Press, chronicling the evolution of skateboard apparel from the 1950s onwards. Compiled by Jürgen Blümlein at the Museum of Skateboard History with photography by Cap 10 and words by Boardsport SOURCE Skateboard Editor Dirk Vogel, the book packs several decades of skate style, original apparel, and iconic pro skaters into 636 fully illustrated pages.
“Telling the story of skateboard fashion proved far more challenging than our first book, Made For Skate, which was about the history of skate footwear. Because how do you even define ‘fashion’? And how do you show apparel the best way in an illustrated book? It took seven years to finish and we are really stoked that people can now go on a historic tour of skate style,” said co-author Jürgen Blümlein, adding: “We could never have done it without the support of key supporters like Todd Huber at SkateLab and Lance Mountain, who gave us access to his clothing archive, and generous skate photographers like James Cassimus, Glen E. Friedman, Jim Goodrich, Grant Britain and so many more.”
SINAF chronicles era-defining skateboard brands and their owners, including Jeff Ho and Craig R. Stecyk III (Zephyr), Stacy Peralta and George Powell (Powell-Peralta), Rich Novak (NHS/Santa Cruz), Skip Engblom (Zephyr/SMA), Steve Rocco (World Industries), Jimmy Ganzer (Jimmy’Z), and countless others. It features testimonials from pro riders who influenced entire generations of skateboarders with their self-styled looks, for instance Tony Alva, Christian Hosoi, Steve Olson, Brad Bowman, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Mike Vallely, and more. And for the first time, the book lets skateboard photographers explain the role of skate magazines as gatekeepers of skateboard style.
Supplemented by images of original clothing from the vaults of skateboard history, these previously untold stories provide powerful lessons on what makes skateboard fashion special, and how to keep it unique in the future. And because 636 pages can be a big chunk to work through in search of answers, we offer a condensed version. Here are five lessons from over 60 years of skateboard fashion history:
- Skateboard fashion needs specialty retail. Skateboarding’s first major fashion trend hit in the early 1960s and revolved around T-shirts with broad, horizontal “surf stripes”. Back then, buying such a coveted shirt inevitably meant one thing: going to the specialty skate or surf shop (no online stores, sorry). Actually, skate shops single-handedly created the “skateboard apparel” segment by showing skateboard companies – still generating 90% of sales from hardware in those days – the dizzying profit margins behind branded softgoods. In the early 1970s, the world’s first skate shop, Val Surf in North Hollywood, began printing and selling T-shirts with skate brand logos to market its mail order business. Sales went through the roof, brands took notice, and suddenly the entire industry’s spread between softgoods and hardware shifted to 50/50. Over the years, core skate shops have also birthed their day’s most sought-after skate labels, including Zephyr, Sessions, SUPREME (now worth $1 billion), and HUF. So what is legitimate skate apparel? Answer: It’s what’s sold at real skate shops!
- There’s a formula for what makes a good skate company logo. Every skateboard company needs a logo, but only a select few brand insignia advance to become cultural symbols, worn on tees, jackets, and hoodies; even inked under the skin as permanent emblems of skate culture. Some of the most iconic brands are owned by NHS in Santa Cruz, California, home of the red-and-yellow Santa Cruz Skateboards “Capsule” logo, the Road Rider Wheels “Wings” logo and the Independent Trucks Cross (perhaps the most iconic skate logo of all time). In SINAF, NHS co-founder Rich Novak reveals the process behind creating these classics: The design team would spray logos in black paint on white cardboard and stage photo shoots at the local skate park to see which designs would “jump” the best in the background of a skate photo. And despite Photoshop magic and special FX, the winning formula of clean lines, geometric forms, and minimalist colourways still holds true today (here’s looking at you, Palace Skateboards).
- Modern-day skate style was born in the 1970s, not the 1980s. Consensus marks the late 1980s as the period when skateboard style “came into its own”. But as SINAF makes clear, that already happened in the mid-to-late 1970s. Bedrock technologies such as urethane wheels, 7-ply maple decks, aluminium trucks, shielded bearings, plastic-cap knee pads, and helmets emerged in this period (and have remained fundamentally unchanged since). Skateboard pros broke the mould of being portrayed as mere athletes and brand ambassadors when the likes of Alva, Olson, and Bowman emerged as super stars and rock gods. Most importantly, skateboarding emancipated from surfing, also on a product level: “The very first fashion element that came into skateboarding in the 1970s – the very first fashion element that skateboarding can claim as its own, free from the surfing world, was the custom-coloured Vans [Era model] deck shoe made popular by Tony Alva in SkateBoarder Magazine,” says skateboard icon Stacy Peralta in SINAF. Athletic style, work wear, street wear, prep boy, punk rock, and California hippie? All been done in the Seventies! Advice to designers: forget the current Nineties rage and go digging for rich treasures in the vaults of Seventies skate apparel.
- Stop making sense. Who cares if mainstream audiences understand it?! Skateboard style is best when it’s an inside secret, even better if it’s rejected by the public at large. Over the years, skateboarders have built buzzing fashion trends out of left-field, neglected wardrobe items such as tube socks, fedora hats (considered old men’s hats), argyle socks, sweatpants, trucker caps, hip bags, and ultra-baggy pants. Ultimately, mainstream culture adjusted and began liking these styles, but long after hardcore riders brought them to the streets (see 5.) with initial responses ranging from scrutiny to ridicule. Imagine the surprise when the Powell-Peralta company began selling skateboards and clothing adorned with skulls, swords, and snakes to children in the early 1980s. It made no sense, but ultimately sold millions of units and forever changed the skate fashion game. Other skate fashion secrets will always remain shrouded from the public eye, like Inouye’s Pool Service (IPS) true identity as a cover operation for pool hunting antics or the correct pronunciation of Jimmy’Z (is it Jimmy’s or Jimmy-Z?!). Current brands still love a good mystery, like GOLF WANG or that 917 phone number…
- The hardcore will always lead. Skateboarding is at an interesting crossroads these days. Skate style is hotter than ever and everyone from hypebeasts to high-fashion designers are chasing after the exclusive halo of skateboard fashion. In a way, it’s a bit of history repeating because skateboarding has been mainstream-hot before in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, only to hit rock bottom again once the hype subsided. Then again, today marks a new situation because skate style will always be available for purchase, not just at core shops like in the old days but via a plethora of omnichannel vendors, both core and non-endemic. The biggest lesson, however, is that skateboard style always loses once it caters to mainstream demand; made clear by the downfall of mega brands such as Alva Clothing, Airwalk, and Vision Street Wear, who soared high into the stratosphere only to lose touch with their base. Because whenever a trend crosses that crucial tipping point – will Thrasher tees be next? – the hardcore of our culture initiates an automatic immune response, rebelling against widely held definitions of “skate fashion” by whacking the public across the head with something they can’t understand. Like the mid-1990s regression to plain white T-shirts worn by the day’s hottest pros in protest of their brand-name sponsors, or today’s resurgence of clowny, cut-off baggy pants rocked by the SUPREME kids. Again, who cares if anyone else gets it? So fashion designers at Hermès, Cèline, Balenciaga, and Louis Vuitton can try to “keep an ear to the streets” all they want, the real skaters will always lead where others follow. Skateboarders decide the direction in which skateboard fashion will evolve – and the types of clothing skateboarders will want to buy – while everyone else is just trying to hop on the bandwagon. As legendary graphic artist Jim Phillips, creator of the Santa Cruz “Screaming Hand” logo and countless timeless graphics, says in SINAF: “Fashion is really all about fads. Fads come and go. But skateboarding is here to stay!”
SKATEBOARDING IS NOT A FASHION by Jürgen Blümlein, Cap 10, and Dirk Vogel is out now on Gingko Press, ISBN: 978-1-58423-630-6. The book will be accompanied by a touring exhibition on skate fashion history at global House of Vans locations. More info at www.gingkopress.com and www.vans.com