Is a parallel industry forming on the East Coast?
In the fifteenth century, Christopher Columbus sailed west with a fleet of ships and proved to the rest of Europe that the world was much larger than anyone there had previously imagined. He landed in the New World and forever changed the course of human history.
Centuries later, seafaring civilizations converged on the North American continent and established trans-Atlantic trading colonies. By the time the British annexed it in the 1660s, Manhattan was already a burgeoning New World trade center.
New York City in the twentieth century has become the crossroads of the world, where commerce and cultures collide to create the most diverse community on Earth. While neighboring Ellis Island no longer processes immigrants, it is said that two out of three New Yorkers today were born abroad.
Every day millions of shares of stock are traded on Wall Street, Madison Avenue designers dictate international fashion trends, the United Nations steers world politics, and all of the surrounding boroughs that feed Manhattan with cheap labor also harbor emerging artists and athletes who continue to influence pop culture.
New York City is the center of everything, it seems, except skateboarding.
NYC, and the East Coast in general, is often overlooked by skateboarding’s industrial and media giants in California. But in the past decade, skaters there have been doing something about it – they’ve been starting their own companies and, in effect, establishing their own industry.
Up and down the East Coast companies and manufacturing operations are sprouting, but New York City is proving to be the hub around which most of them revolve. The diversity of the city is reflected in the personalities and directions of the companies evolving there, and while they feed off of its creative energy, many of them must also endure the hardships of running a business in Metropolis. International success story Zoo York showcases some of NYC’s premier talent and style, while smaller brands like NSS, Rookie, Fiveboro, Transit Skateboarding Authority, and Infamous leave less of a footprint but follow their own unique paths.
What all of these companies have in common, however, is that none was the first.
In the late 80s New Yorkers Rodney Smith and Bruno Musso launched a basement operation called Shut Skates that provided some of the city’s unacknowledged talent with boards and a banner under which to unite. As tales of this amazing gang of skaters reached the West Coast, many Shut riders were wooed to California with promises of better salaries and year-round skating, and the company soon lost its reason for existence. Smith and Musso had accomplished their goal – East Coast skaters were being noticed and rewarded for their talents.
But Smith wasn’t content to run a farm team for West Coast companies. He wanted to establish something permanent, an organization that would take root and establish a legacy of New York skateboarding. To that end, in 1993 he and partners Eli Gesner and Adam Schatz founded Zoo York.
“In skateboarding we’re very unique in the sense that we have stuff to say,” says Gesner. “In the 80s I felt like every skateboard company had something to say, and now it’s like no one does.”
Gesner, Smith, and Schatz believe that New York City is, was, and will continue to be a creative center for skateboarding. And if the California establishment won’t take notice, then Zoo York will be an advocate for the creative and athletic talent developing there. “I grew up in New York, where you didn’t get any respect or acknowledgment from the skateboard establishment for all the love and time and effort you put into doing something,” says Gesner. “I remember the first time I went out to California, and all the people I imagined would be so incredible weren’t much better than me at skating. So when we first started this company, for me it was kind of like, ‘Hey, look over here, too.'”
For Gesner, Zoo York’s mandate isn’t only to bring attention to the caliber of New York skateboarders, but to the peculiarities of New York skateboarding culture. “This is a very personal situation,” he says. “Where I grew up in New York City was one of the breeding points for rap music and hip-hop culture, and I grew up with all these people who helped start stuff. When I started skateboarding I met people who were like, ‘You’re a skateboarder? What are you doing listening to hip-hop music? That’s wrong.’ So I realized that we were making something that was a little bit different. I realized that what we’ve created here, not intentionally, is a lifestyle.”
The East Coast urban lifestyle contrasts strongly with the traditional Southern California beach culture skateboarding grew out of. But that didn’t keep young people the world over from adopting it and adapting the sport to their own environments. Cities like New York are natural skateparks that mock the suburban plywood playgrounds popping up throughout the West. Neither is inherently better or worse, but the fact is that skateboarding on one or the other of America’s coasts yields a very different experience.
Still, skaters throughout the world continue to almost exclusively buy equipment that is made in California. “The California vibe and the surf vibe is always gonna have an element in skateboarding,” says NSS Team Manager John Connor. “And having the central hub over there makes sense. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, it’s just the way it is.”
NSS is the first and only skate-shoe company on the East Coast. Initially launched in 1996 by a group of skateboarders and designers as Nice Skate Shoes, NSS has since earned a strong following on the East Coast and abroad. “Having an understanding of the entire skate scene and what’s going on, and being located in New York, we thought it would really be an advantage for us,” says Connor. “By being in New York we thought with Nice we could achieve something different.”
For all of its creative advantages, running a skateboard company out of New York has its drawbacks, too. While East Coast companies like NSS do well in their region and foreign markets like Europe, those that want to expand their distribution westward find the road paved with potholes. “With California being so heavily judged as theplace in the world, it’s been a little bit hard for us to get product into Southern California,” says Bob Losito of Transit Skateboarding Authority. “The shops out there basically have everything that they need right in their own backyard. Why would they spend extra money on shipping costs and whatnot for Transit stuff, which is 3,000-miles away?”
Losito formed Transit last year with Mike Vallely and a partner in New Brunswick, New Jersey. A short drive from the city, Transit isn’t a New York company, per se, but close enough to be a force in the New York/New Jersey scene.
Losito ran a small brand, Screw, before launching Transit, and he understands all too well what every East Coast start-up company faces. For a while, he found himself inundated with calls from budding entrepreneurs wanting to start small skateboard companies of their own. For a few of them, Losito was the godfather who helped them make their dreams come true. “I remember being shut down by so many people when I wanted to start a company,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, a hundred decks? You’ve gotta buy at least a thousand or we don’t even want to talk to you.’ And everyone’s always being shut down. So I said, ‘Well, maybe I can change that. I have sources of wood, I can print – we can do all those things.’ All these kids who were calling me up to do 25 decks and have their own company had made all the same phone calls I did to all the big wood shops, and the shops didn’t really want to help them out.”
These days Losito and his staff have their hands full managing the Transit lines of boards and wheels. Having been launched on a much larger scale than most East Coast companies, Transit boasts a marquee pro team, and has achieved domestic and int
ernational distribution in a relatively short time. But despite his team’s notoriety, Losito has had to make extra effort to establish his brand in California, where he’s hired a rep to visit shops and introduce his products. “I like the idea of having a personal one-to-one relationship with the retailer,” he says. “You call the distributor, and he’s like, ‘Hey, we got this in today.’ ‘Well, what’s it look like?’ ‘Ah, it’s a cool graphic, just take it.’ As opposed to the rep going in the store and introducing himself, and the retailer gets to look and touch and see the product firsthand. I like that effect a little better.”
“No one really talks about it, but there is definitely an East Coast/West Coast thing,” says Elska Sandor-Bici, who two years ago started Rookie Skateboards in a Canal Street loft space with friends Catharine Lyons and Jung Kwak. The three of them initially financed their company on credit cards while working regular jobs, and have built up the company to where it now offers five boards, a line of softgoods – including women’s cut-and-sew pieces, and sponsors a team of male and female skaters across the country.
Initially branded as a “girl” skateboard company, Rookie has been working to establish a more unisex image. But the company’s feminine roots have gotten it a lot of press, mainly focusing on its female owners and team. That’s helped Rookie develop strong distribution around the country and abroad, but not – as you might guess – in California. “We found it really hard to get into the California market,” says Sandor-Bici, “whether it’s because there are a lot of local established companies already there, or just the East Coast/West Coast debate thing going on. We actually had shops telling us that they really liked our stuff, but that they’d buy it if we didn’t have ‘NYC’ written on it. They said that didn’t go down very well over there.”
The New York City imagery that many companies in the area have adopted hasn’t seemed to hurt Zoo York, whose largest market, according to Schatz, is California. “It’s really a West Coast industry,” he says. “It’s sort of hard to break through that glass ceiling, if you will, but we did. If somebody wouldn’t distribute us, we’d just do it ourselves. Everybody has sort of come around, because they realized that we weren’t against them. We weren’t doing this as an answer to California, we were doing this quite naturally because it’s where we’re from – it wasn’t East versus West.”
While Zoo began a few years after Alien Workshop proved that a company needn’t be located in California to succeed, it was still unique for a skateboard company to be so far from the industrial beltway. Schatz says that this maverick reputation continues to attract customers. “What makes our position even more unique is that you find people identifying with us not necessarily because of the street image and the city thing,” he says, “but because of what we stand for philosophically, which is independence and diversity. We find ourselves being very popular in places besides California, like the Pacific Northwest, not necessarily because they want to be urban gangsters, but because they see that what we stand for in a philosophical sense is being able to do what you do, be independent in where you’re from, and not having to try to conform to the California ethic. Just be yourself.”
Unlike Zoo, most skateboard companies that start up and survive outside of California tolerate the hardships of cross-country manufacturing, limited market access, and almost zero media exposure for one simple reason – that’s where they’re from. “It’s like you either have to start up woodshops out here that have to learn how to make skateboards, or you have to deal with established wood shops in California,” says Steve Rodriguez, a Madison Avenue advertising executive who owns and manages Fiveboro skateboards in true small-company form – in his spare time, and out of his Sixth Avenue apartment. “But this is where I live, and it’s where I associate the best skateboarding. If it’s going to be a little harder for me to get stuff done here, then I’m going to have to do it. Running a business in New York, rent is so much. But then again, that’s where you are, and you’re there for a reason – because you love it.”
Named for the five districts, or boroughs, that make up New York City, Fiveboro was started in 1996 by Rodriguez and an investor he paid back after the first year. He has since been running and growing the company by his own means. “I think the only people who should invest in skateboarding are people that skateboard or know about it,” he says. “I was talking to a guy who was going to invest in my company who’s into Harley Davidsons, and he’s like, ‘I know what you mean, because people don’t understand things about Harley Davidson. If you have to explain skateboarding to me, then I’m the wrong person.'”
With a garage-sized storeroom in his building’s basement, Rodriguez understands that without advertising and marquee pros, it will be difficult to compete with major brands. Instead, he promotes Fiveboro by sponsoring a large amateur team and traveling with them to contests and demos all over the East Coast. “I just wanted to do grassroots advertising – get people on our team who are our friends. Get to know somebody if they want to ride for us, then we hook them up, and then we go from there.”
Growing up on the East Coast, in the 80s Rodriguez enjoyed traveling and skating with the region’s finest at contests and demos. He believes that that’s still the best way to promote his brand. “A lot of little kids go to contests,” he says. “If they see some kid ripping, they’re going to know that guy that rides for Fiveboro because of his shirt.”
Fiveboro skaters promote the company in other ways, too. Primarily spread out around the East Coast – with a few riders in the South, Southwest, and England – Fiveboro ams actively promote the brand to their local shops. Rodriguez encourages this by giving the skaters a commission from any order they solicit, turning team riders into reps.
Rodriguez understands the value of a good brand reputation. While his grassroots efforts have been successful, he concedes that there is a limit to where word-of-mouth support can take you. “There’re different kinds of advertising,” he says. “Some guy who has a locksmith shop is going to put stickers on every phone booth, and some other guy is going to run an ad in the yellow pages. There’s different ways to do the same thing, but I think after a while in skateboarding, you have to run ads in the three major magazines. There’s a saturation point to all this – you can’t have 600 riders.”
Grassroots promotion has become an East Coast trademark, and that’s probably why so many skaters there believe they can start a company and make it, even though most fail. In the early 90s, NSS partner Vinny Raffa ran a now-defunct board company called Dead Endustries, and organized events like the infamous Brooklyn Bridge Banks contest in 1993, which may have been more of a riot than an actual contest. But events like that caught the attention of the California-based media, and cast a few minutes of fame on local New York talent. “There was no ESPN around in those days,” says Connor. “Vinny had to fight to run contests at the banks. Other skaters who would come from out of town have respect for Vinny. Everybody knows him because the guy would go out to California and represent the East Coast when nobody was representing the East Coast.”
The hard-work ethic set by East Coast pioneers like Raffa and Smith is to be credited for the survival and success of the newer companies now making their mark. East Coast skaters also have a pride of place that allows them to tolerate conditions unheard of out West. “I have pride in everything I do,” says Mike Failla, who manages Uptown Projects, makers of Infamous skateboards and Blue Light wheels. “And it drives me to come here every day and work to make the pros happy. I’m not going to buy 50 boards and say I have a skateboard company, and I’m not going to tell my g
irlfriend I’m working fifteen hours this week to better my skateboard company in my apartment. If you don’t have your own phone in a legitimate location, you’re not in the game. That’s something that I learned – fifteen hours a day, not fifteen hours a week.”
In a windowless shoebox-sized Madison Avenue office, Failla meets with team pros Mike Hernandez, Ben Liversedge, and Ryan Hickey to discuss the company’s direction. He trusts their instincts, and follows their direction. “The pros are the ones who are making decisions,” he says. “I’m the guy in the background who knows how to get the changes done and where the wood comes from. They want small skateboards and certain concaves – that’s their bit. It’s definitely oriented towards our team, because even the boards that we offer are eight inches wide and smaller, and that’s not a huge market right now.”
Failla learned his trade as a shop owner in Vermont. In 1996 he started Freedom skateboards in New York, which evolved into Uptown to include the new brands. As a pragmatist and facilitator, he concedes that this East Coast company, like many others, actually has its products manufactured in California: “Pretty much everything is done out West, as much as I hate to say it. We can’t find an East Coast source that is reliable for wood. I mean, we’ve gone through people who have had woodshops on the East Coast and promised me the world, and that was back when I was screen-printing boards myself.”
He says that with the volume he does now, even the screen-printing is outsourced. But that frees him to work with the team to develop new products, like the Infamous outerwear and cut-and-sew lines he’s developing.
As they grow with their hearts set in hardgoods, these smaller companies are learning what most of the heavies out West have known for years – softgoods are profitable and they offset the winter sales slump. And as the margins on hardgoods shrink from rising costs and increased competition, strictly boards-and-wheels companies are finding it harder to pay the phone bill. “If I was a businessman, strictly from business school,” says Gesner, “I would never get into skateboarding. It’s ridiculous.”
“You would think it’s so popular,” says Schatz. “Like, ‘Everybody is doing it, we’ve got to start a skateboard company to make money.’ Skateboards are just one part of the formula. The market is not huge, but it’s a way to be out there. The decks are our lowest-margin item.”
Even so, says Schatz, because of their board volume, hardgoods are still Zoo York’s bread and butter. Zoo York softgoods also do well, but that category is licensed to a clothing manufacturer that absorbs much of the profit, and most of the headaches associated with clothing production. “Right now, we do it that way to be able to operate the way we do, which is to try to keep it as real as we can, and try to keep the family as tight-knit as we can.”
Zoo’s Meatpacking District office is staffed by Schatz, Smith, Gesner, and two employees. Despite its commercial location, it’s not a production facility, and it’s not a warehouse. Zoo York is more of a design studio, where the staff creates and markets its products, the sewing machines and grimy saws relegated to surrounding boroughs. “We decided to take a modern, virtual-company approach to this,” says Gesner. “We have complete control and mastery of everything we use to create our products and our image, but we don’t want to put ourselves in any kind of risk position by having our collateral in machines that may end up rusting in the corner.”
Zoo York has managed to grow while realizing the space constraints that a Manhattan address imposes. The three partners have conceived a company like no other, based in a city like no other. From the outside it might appear that Zoo York has no real connection to the products that bear its name, and many of those products – like the Zoo York bicycle and a potential eyewear line – arguably have no connection to skateboarding. Anywhere else, that would be a sin.
“What is hardcore skating in the 90s?” asks Smith. “We’re going into 2000, and skateboarding’s got a whole different thing going on with the TV and all this stuff. We’ve got some of the best boards out there, we’ve got a good skateboarding team, we’ve got a great image, we do what we do, and we believe in what we do. We’re coming from real skateboarding, and we should be accepted like anyone else. Eyewear and this and that – we don’t want to do it too fast, but this is our plan, and this is what we set out to do – not what everyone else has set out to do.”
As Zoo’s art director, Gesner claims he looks to his own social circles for inspiration rather than follow market trends. The brand’s popularity in regions outside New York City, he claims, is incidental. “There are like 30 people the world whose respect I want,” he says. “I’ve been drawing my whole life, but when I was in puberty, I was writing graffiti. So I had this heavy-duty competitive graffiti-art ethic that’s still in me with whatever I do. I’m gonna do an ad, and I’m gonna show it to Adam Schatz, and I care what Adam says. And I’m gonna show it to Futura 2000, and I care what Futura 2000 says. But I know that little Kenny in Knickerbocker, Wisconsin is gonna look at the ad, too. Do I care if he likes it or not? I hope he does, but I’m not trying to hustle him. I’m trying to say, ‘This is what I am, and I’m doing it to the best of my ability.’ Basically our marketing is just art.”
Few growing companies have the luxury of ignoring market trends, but while start-ups are busy creating their niches, they are much more free to experiment. With the majority of East Coast companies still locked into – or out of – certain markets, the region is home to a diverse range of styles and attitudes. If those companies begin to gain more recognition and are successful in building an industrial base outside of California, they may have to adjust to appease a broader customer base.
Whether or not the East Coast ever develops the manufacturing and media infrastructure that California companies enjoy will not affect the fact that more and more start-ups are emerging up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. “I think skateboarding is still very much a DIY do-it-yourself operation,” says NSS’ Connor. “You’re always gonna have young brands starting up. That’s what the experience of skateboarding brings out in people. Like, ‘Hey, I can do something myself, I can create and be a part of something I love, and bring something back to the sport.’ As far as shoe companies go, it’s a tremendous undertaking to make shoes. Recently with all the new companies coming up, it gets harder and harder to compete.”
As more and more companies enter the market, and the survivors continue to grow, established brands like Zoo York have to take notice. But Schatz feels that new companies don’t necessarily mean new competition, particularly if those companies come out of the East Coast. “We’d love there to be more solidarity in the business and more representation from other places in the country and the world,” he says. “We’d love for skateboarding not to be stereotyped as a California thing, but as a sport and a lifestyle. We want the companies that are gonna do it to do it right, and not just do it to make money or bite someone else’s style – to do it because they’re sincere. We totally support that, and we feel a solidarity with them.”
While Zoo York is one of the more recent brands to attract the attention of the California establishment, Schatz cites Dayton, Ohio-based Alien Workshop as the original maverick company. “They really were the pioneers,” he says. “People say Zoo York pioneered this renaissance. We helped, that’s for sure, but Alien was the first real independent skateboard company away from California.”
And none of them are the last. At press time, word of a half-dozen new companies “back east” has filtered into the SKATEboarding Businessoffices in California, and another half dozen will probably be announced by the time the fall ASR Trade Expo opens its doors i
“Part of the industry base is the magazines,” says Schatz. “If there was a magazine out of the East Coast, there would be an industry on the East Coast. There could be ten companies out of the East Coast, but without a magazine we’re missing that ‘industry.’ Strength, I think, is helping to break that mold little bit. It’s a good start.”