Skateboarding’s Soft Side

Hardgoods define a skateboard shop. Before the proliferation of skate clothing and shoe companies in the early 90s, skate shops relied almost entirely on the sales of decks, trucks, and wheels. But the popularity of skateboard fashion and shrinking margins on hardgoods has changed all that-the makeup of a typical skate shop now sees nearly half of its floor space dedicated to softgoods and shoes.

Thomas Taylor opened Stratosphere Skateboards in downtown Atlanta, Georgia over thirteen years ago. At the time he sold some surfwear brands like Jimmy’z and Gotcha, but the core of his business was hardgoods. Not so these days, he says. In the last year Taylor has allocated more space in his shop to clothing, and a good part of his business is generated from clothing and shoe sales to non-skaters: “We’re as hardcore as we can be, short of selling Calvin Klein. Even though we’re selling only skateboard brands, people are coming in looking for that skateboard style. There’s no way we could survive without them clothing and shoes.”

To hedge against shrunken hardgoods profits, shops are increasingly relying on softgoods and shoe sales. In a recent survey of 40 shops across the U.S., SKATEboarding Business asked how the role of softgoods has changed over the last year. The results suggest that skate shops are realizing better profits from clothing and shoes than from decks, trucks, and wheels, and are reallocating floor space accordingly.

Over half of the shops we spoke to reported selling an average of 26 percent more softgoods than last year, while hardgoods sales fell fourteen percent. Seventy-five percent reported an increase in the amount of softgoods they carry, covering an average of 46 percent of their sales area. In comparison, 63 percent reported an increase in the amount of shoes they carry, covering an average of sixteen percent of their sales area. At Jer’s Boardshop in Upland, California, Owner Jeremy Lopez says he carries about ten different clothing lines, and that he doesn’t have room in his store to stock all of his inventory: “We have big inventory levels, so we have a huge storage unit for overstock.”

Softgoods are helping shops meet payroll and-God forbid-make a profit, and it would seem to follow that the companies producing popular clothing lines should be focused on increasing their share of this growing market. So when Circus Distribution announced last fall that it had sold its Droors clothing and Dub outerwear brands, it left the rest of the industry somewhat bewildered. Why would Circus sell such a respected snowboard-outerwear line and the most popular skateboard-clothing brand*?

With clothing generally producing better returns than the hardgoods category, only shoes have proven to be more profitable. And that, says Circus President Ken Block, is exactly the point. Without Dub and Droors, Circus is able to focus more on DC Shoe Co. and develop a larger clothing line under that brand name.

Relocating Dub And Droors

It was Circus’ Controller, Clayton Blehm, who first realized that the company was spending more time and money developing its softgoods lines than it was on its more-profitable shoe line. Block says that simple math convinced them to sell the brands. “It was a lot more time and a lot more effort to develop those two lines than it was just to do DC,” he says. “And DC really was where our bread and butter is. We decided that instead of doing three things okay, we’d take DC and make it the best that we could, to concentrate all of our efforts on that.”

But Block and Damon Way, who cofounded and designed the Dub and Droors brands, haven’t divested themselves entirely. They joined with buyer World Industries to form Merge, Inc., the new home of Dub and Droors. At Merge, Block and Way help direct the brands, although their duties at Circus still command the majority of their time. “We’re basically kept on to keep the historical direction and creative input in there,” says Block.

The ABCs Of DC

At Circus, Block and Way are busy with the DC lines of shoes, clothing, and snowboard boots. While it doesn’t approach the breadth of the Droors line, DC clothing is still designed by Damon Way and Sung Choi, and offers many staple and specialty products at various pricepoints. “We’ve already put more pieces into the DC clothing line, and definitely had a bit more time now that the other lines are out of here to really concentrate on pricepoints and filling the whole line,” says Block. “We want to make it a whole line-a better variety of prices and pieces in there. That’s definitely been a new emphasis.”

While staples like jeans and cargoes aren’t available, the DC clothing line currently features hats, caps, beanies, jackets, cut-and-sew tops, shorts, and warm-up suits, plus accessories like insoles, laces, socks, backpacks, and bags.

Another change for Circus is the hiring of field reps who will work with shops and increase the company’s presence on the retail front. “We’re trying to make our program as complete as possible,” says Block. “In the past we just made a catalog and sent it out to people, and hoped that they’d buy-and we were at the trade shows. Now we’re taking that one step further by getting the reps out there to help us do the in-store displays and make sure we’re in every shop how we should be.”

DC’s shoe program and the Circus staff, says Block, was almost immediately affected by the sale of the clothing brands: “It’s already having a really good effect on the people down in our creative department. Instead of concentrating on three different lines, we’re all concentrating on one, as a unit.”

Merging Worlds

Merge Inc., established as a partnership between World Industries, Ken Block, and Damon Way, is administered by its own management staff and represented by an in-house sales force as well as outside field reps. Merge General Manager Tim Haley says that the company’s mission statement is for Droors to be the number-one clothing brand in skate stores in the next year. “We now have assets and resources that Circus didn’t have,” he says. “We have a newfound focus in what we need to achieve and how to achieve those goals. And we have the outside staff and inside staff to be able to achieve that.”

Under Merge, Dub and Droors will evolve much as the brands have in the past, says Team Manager Doug Proodian: “We’re gonna pick up with what Ken and Damon were doing and take it to another level. We’re gonna be able to focus 100 percent of our attention, whereas they had DC also.”

Merge has retained the same design team that worked with Way on Droors, and will also release a new Dub technical streetwear line. To do that, Haley says he’ll have to change people’s impression of Dub as a strictly snowboard-apparel line: “We will probably change some of the moniker. Instead of `Dub Snowboard Apparel,’ it’ll be `Dub Technical Apparel.’ The options there are much greater down the road.”

Cut And Sew Tectonics

As more skateboard companies seek refuge under the softgoods and footwear umbrellas, new brands are having to jump into the game with more momentum than the average T-shirt-and-hat startup. Scott Tutak opened Just Skateboards in Northwood, Ohio two years ago, and only recently began carrying cut-and-sew lines like Matix and Fourstar. He says that he’s open to new brands, as long as they’re effectively marketing themselves and servicing shops well. “It just depends on what kind of stuff it is, and who’s riding it,” he says. “It can’t just be some big company trying to sell to Generation X-for me they have to be supporting skateboarding, too.”

Increased competition demands better designs, better quality, and stronger marketing from the brands vying for skate-shop-rack space. “I think it’s a lot different than when we started out in 1992 with Droors,” says Block. “There was a lot less competition back then. When we started off with clothes, there were just the skateboard companies making clothes, and then there was Droo
rs. Nowadays there’re a lot more people jumping into it. I think there’s a lot more competition. So the market itself has totally changed.”

Block sees much more sophistication within the skateboard-softgoods market-both in the manufacturers and the consumers: “Skateboard companies have gotten a lot smarter with how they sell their clothing. And I think a lot of the kids who walk into a skate shop and want to buy a piece of clothing really want to buy a piece of skate clothing that associates them with companies whose images they like. They’re skateboarders, and that’s the kind of product that they want to wear.”

New brands, Block says, have the challenge of building the image and the teams that the established companies have, and quickly traversing the learning curve without making any fatal mistakes: “It’s definitely a market that is only so big, and there are a lot of brands already in there. So for someone trying to come in and take business away from Droors, Fourstar, and World, it’s gotta be difficult to break in and really do a decent amount of sales to make it work.”

A Through #

Alyasha Owerka Moore learned design as a young skater in Brooklyn, New York in the late 80s. After working for some major clothing companies, Droors and New York-based Mecca among them, he packaged his ideas and presented them to Mecca’s parent company, International News, in Spring 1998. By September he had the seed money and began assembling the staff he needed to fulfill his vision. The office finally furnished, and having shipped its first line, downtown San Diego’s Alphanumeric is in constant contact with International News in Manhattan, its manufacturing facility in Hong Kong, and the distribution center in Washington state. Moore dreamed big, and straight out of the gate, Alphanumeric has assumed the upright posture of a contender.

One of the first members of the Alphanumeric management team Moore recruited was Director of Marketing and Promotions Sal Masakela, whose experience with other companies in the skate and snowboard industries brings a tempered sobriety to the hype that can overwhelm any new company. “I think that if this was a garage start-up, and we all had to scrape our pennies together to start this thing, the concerns would be there,” he says. “But the one thing we have from International News is a good long-term commitment as far as seeing the brand grow. This IN is a company that’s been in the clothing business for 23 years.”

Masakela feels that the size and resources of International News and the experience in this particular market that he and the management team bring to the company will help Alphanumeric quickly establish itself. “The experience is definitely gonna make a huge difference for us,” says Masakela. “We all come from skateboard clothing companies, we all came from headaches that these people have figured out with 23 years of being strictly about garments and clothes.”

At Alphanumeric’s San Diego office, Moore and his staff of designers have finished their secondline of men’s and women’s urban technical wear to show at the spring ASR Trade Expo. Designer OmarQuimbao describes it as “life-inspired” rather than specifically skate, snow, or anything tangible. “We definitely have influences in other markets,” he says. “It’s like Northface-that same market will go to Northface, but Northface doesn’t chase anybody. If they like us for who we are and what we do, that’s cool.”

“I think WARPmagazine is a prime example of what’s going on-it’s this melding of scenes,” says Moore. “There’s more gray area-it’s less defined all the way around now. The majority of snowboarders skate, and vice versa.”

Alphanumeric will offer its lines through boutiques as well as skate/snow/surf shops. Masakela says that the goal is to establish fewer accounts that will carry the line deeper, and to use this exclusivity to draw customers into those stores: “Even now we’re not gonna be limited strictly to skate shops, because I think that would be limiting our potential as a brand. From a marketing standpoint, we’re always gonna be about skateboarding, snowboarding-about that lifestyle. So I think that as long as that is authentic and true, you can sell beyond the spectrum of just the skate shop, and still be taken seriously by the hardcore consumer.”

Masakela says that for now Alphanumeric is keeping its products on-shore while he and Sales Manager Mirko Mangum focus on building the name domestically. “We’re not even selling to Canada yet,” he says. “If it’s successful here, and we grow it properly, then that’s just gonna give us a good authentic name, as opposed to flash-in-the-pan. I think that’s what’s happened to so many companies. We want to be authentic everywhere we are.”

Boy From The Hood

As the new skateboard fashion began to evolve in the early 90s, one by-product was the introduction of separate brands for softgoods. In 1997 Climax Distribution launched Stamina clothing, a company founded by Neighborhood skateboards’ Julio De La Cruz, who’s since been developing both brands with clean, technical graphics and styles.

Born and raised in East Los Angeles, De La Cruz is a prime example of what skateboarding can do for a young determined mind. An animated talker with a disarming sense of humor, he seems an unlikely success story. But while Climax deletes other hardgoods and clothing lines from its catalog, Neighborhood and Stamina have become its flagship brands.

Having designed clothing for other companies over the years, De La Cruz developed his idea of a technical athletic line with an urban flair. With his experience, De La Cruz knew before establishing Stamina what he was in for. “Clothing is the hardest thing you can get into,” he says. “In a hardgoods company, all you have to do is hook up a good team, a good manager, and a good filmer. The stuff is the same all the time, but clothing changes.”

De La Cruz wanted to make clothes that contrasted the austere and strictly utilitarian styles of many skateboard-clothing lines. “We wanted to have a clothing brand that reflected a cleaner style,” he says. “It’s something you can wear to a party, and it looks more professional than your standard thrashed jeans.”

Being unique, he realizes, isn’t enough. To make it-to be in fashion-you have to carefully orchestrate all the elements that make up the company. “You gotta know what you’re doing in everything,” says De La Cruz. “It’s like making a movie-you gotta have a good producer, good script, good actors, good marketing. All that.”

One critical element, he says, is an instinct for style and trends-knowing when and how to produce something: “You might make an item that doesn’t sell. Then two months later it catches on and the rest of the industry is all over it. A lot of it is timing.”

Timing and price. Skateboarding has never been an elitist sport, and the general demographic-young teens-don’t have the disposable income that working teens and adults do. “A lot of shops are owned by skateboarders, not millionaires,” says De La Cruz. “They want to buy stuff they can sell.”

The Matix Matrix

DVS shoe teammates Daewon Song and Tim Gavin joined forces with Podium Distribution in the summer of 1998 to launch Matix, an athletic line of clothing that launched last September at ASR.

While Matix isn’t the first company to focus on quality, the young label is small enough to change with the evolving market, and packs a strong enough team to break into the crowd and stand out.

“We’ve been seeing a trend in skate clothing companies-what they did wrong, we try to do right,” says Matix’s Michi Sakurai. “Skate clothing lines overlook quality, and we’re trying to prevent that with Matix. Young skaters can’t afford to buy a nice fleece jacket and have it fall apart on them.”

The Matix staff, she says, is busy devising ways to maintain quality while reigning in the high cost of skateboard clothing. To accomplish this, they resort to the oldest marketing ploy in
the book. “We always listen to our audience,” she says. “If a kid says, `That jacket is too expensive,’ then I try to find a way to make that jacket cheaper.”

While available through skateboard outlets, Matix draws a broader audience with its urban appeal-and Sakurai’s strategic product placement in music and lifestyle magazines. Realizing that skateboarding and its market are truly global, Matix also stocks warm- and cold-weather garments year-round. “We’re not just catering to California anymore,” she says. “We’re catering to the world.”

The Volcom Crossover

Maintaining a ‘core image seems vital to the success of Volcom, which since its inception in 1991 has straddled the action trio-surf, snow, and skate. Skateboard Team Manager Remy Stratton says that while Volcom’s crossover image is an asset in the current climate, identifying with other sports and opening the brand to broader distribution made it difficult at first to break into many skate shops: “In the beginning we were having a tough time getting into the ‘core shops, because they didn’t want to affiliate themselves with a company that had anything to do with anything else. But now I think we’ve kinda hurdled that, and we’re starting to get more attention and starting to saturate more deeply into the core shops.”

Skateboard shops recently ranked Volcom among their most popular brands*, a status that Stratton attributes to the company’s ability to maintain the energy and vitality in its ads and videos, and the promotion and input Volcom receives from its athletes.

While there is no specifically skate line in the Volcom collection, individual pieces are inspired by the team. “We’ve got riders coming in all the time, working with our designers and giving them their two cents on fit, materials, cuts, and all the different treats that go into making a piece,” says Stratton. “We don’t do anything separate, as far as the sports. But we have a V Line, which is more technical, and the Scout series, which is kinda rough-and-tough-like all the cargo stuff.” Volcom also offers a line with smaller sizes for boys, and a women’s line.

More recently, Volcom launched a punk-rock record label, and Volcom demos often feature live bands. “It just keeps all the kids extra excited,” says Stratton. And as large as the company has become, he claims its charter motto, “Youth Against Establishment,” still holds true: “If anyone was to come here and see our working environment, they’d realize that it’s just like day one-garage days.” The only difference being that it’s now a much bigger garage.

‘Core Across The Board

In the six years since it was launched, XYZ clothing has rolled, revved, and slashed a broad niche for itself by marketing to ‘core groups in skateboarding, surfing, and motocross. Armageddon Distribution President Tommy Caudill says that the hardgoods crunch that killed Plan B and has forced a reorganization of its other skateboard brand, Platinum, hasn’t affected XYZ. He attributes this, in part, to the clothing brand’s diverse market. “We don’t sell to skate shops only,” he says. “We also sell to surf shops and motocross shops. So it didn’t affect us at all.”

Some skateboard shops are adamant about not carrying brands available in non-skate shops, but Caudill says that the non-skate surf and motocross shops that carry XYZ attract entirely different clientele that would probably not venture into skateboard-only shops.

At their core, he maintains, these sports share a common thread-a danger or adventure that attracts thrillseekers. While the link between skateboarding and surfing is obvious, it wasn’t until he attended a Supercross race in 1995 that Caudill realized the potential of cross marketing all three. “It was sold out, and almost every kid there had a skate shirt on,” he says. “That’s when we decided that we needed to make a push there.”

XYZ currently enjoys an account base of a couple-thousand skate and surf shops, and about 3,000 motocross shops. Whatever happens in one market, the company has two other legs to stand on. But with skateboarding continuing to grow as a sport, Caudill sees no danger to premium clothing brands that continue to produce quality products and market a desirable image. “Kids really do look at the brand,” he says. “They want a jacket, cargoes, or jeans with a name brand on it.”

There is a market for pricepoint clothing, he admits, but Caudill insists that premium clothing brands like XYZ will always be in demand, while the same may not be true for hardgoods makers: “The majority of the kids do not care-they’ll buy a blank board. With softgoods it’s a whole other situation. Pricepoint jeans have always been there. With Platinum, we sold prefab pants with our label on it-we bought it for cheap, and we sold it cheaply. But we can’t do that with XYZ.”

The Ezekiel Experience

Like XYZ, Ezekiel has grown to embrace a broader market than strictly skateboarding. With a presence in surfing and snowboarding, Team Manager Jamey Stone says that this wider base further insulates Ezekiel from the popularity of pricepoint hardgoods: “If you buy a blank skateboard, your skills still stand out. But if you buy a pair of Pro Keds or a Kmart Surf World shirt, that kind of shows your personality. Your clothing is who you are, it creates an identity. People know when they go into a store that there’s something they want to buy from Droors, DC, Ezekiel, or Volcom.”

Stone says that Ezekiel’s line of “semi-tech, clean, real nice fleece type stuff” is usually prebooked at trade shows, and that this allows the company to efficiently plan production. “We don’t make something if we’re not sure that it’s already sold,” he says. “That’s something, obviously, that I don’t think skateboard companies can do.”

While marketing to a broader audience than skate-only brands, Ezekiel is careful to limit just howbroad they go. “We make sure we stay true to our retail accounts, and we don’t go over the top into the mainstream stores,” says Stone. “We try to kick it real hard to our little local neighborhood skate or surf shop.”

Still, the company understands the value of good publicity, so last year Stone added Bucky Lasek to the team. “We’ve never had a vert skater prior to him on Ezekiel’s label,” he says. “We felt that with the X-Games, the TV coverage, the mass media, and the things that vert skaters are exposed to more than the street guys are, it was definitely pertinent that we got a piece of that pie.”

On the amateur front, Ezekiel has also added Kerry Getz and Ryan Kenrich, and Stone insists that a solid and professional team is the most important tool in the company’s marketing arsenal. “There’s a million good skateboarders,” he says. “Who knows how to market themselves? Who knows how to do what Kareem Campbell does?”

Ezekiel celebrates its seventh anniversary this year, but Stone insists that the company is still on the upward slope of the developmental bell curve: “We’re still definitely rising. We’re still building accounts, building the team, and everything’s going smoothly as planned. The growth is definitely solid.”

The Several Stars Of Fourstar

When the Girl and Chocolate skateboard companies were established in 1993, the board and wheel lines were complemented by limited cut-and-sew clothing items. As the companies grew, teamriders/co-owners Rick Howard, Eric Koston, and Guy Mariano developed a strong interest and instinct for designing more stylized pieces.

In 1997, they launched Fourstar clothing, a full line of technical skateboarding garments developed by Koston, Mariano, and Designer Kevin Lyons. With twelve pieces in its initial Spring ’97 line, Fourstar arrives in Long Beach this February with no less than 40 items in its catalog.

“The growing pains have been pretty substantial,” says Rick Howard. “This fall was insane with the production and numbers we took on. But we’ve caught up, and we’re ready to get to the next level.”

The next level, says Howard, involves
maximizing Fourstar’s presence in skate shops, and better serving them through prebooking and P.O.P. items. “With our designs and our quality, we’ve exceeded the capabilities of domestic contractors,” he says. “So now we’re doing stuff overseas to make it more affordable for skate shops, because that seems to be a thing-the pricepoint issue.”

The hardgoods glut has forced many companies to lower their prices or to offer pricepoint lines of decks and wheels, but Girl and Chocolate managed to continue growing without entering the price war. Howard attributes their success to the companies’ products and the teams’ influence: “I’ve been hearing about other brands having a hard time, but we’ve actually gained more off of it. I think the blank-board issue has hurt the mediocre companies that don’t have much to back it with-the team and the whole big picture. It’s gonna be interesting to see where it’s gonna go in the next year because it’s gonna be a few companies and a few pros that are gonna be making a difference. In the 80s there was Lance Mountain, Gonz, and all those guys. I liked that-there were ten guys, and you knew that those guys were the superstars.”

Today’s superstar roster includes the Fourstar team, and the company has harnessed their influence to produce its vast new line. Howard says that the teams have a lot of say in the direction of Girl, Fourstar, and Chocolate, but especially when it comes to clothing: “Our clothing lines are basically our teams’ wardrobes-stuff that’s accumulated from their closets made into one, with functional fabrics and stuff.”

Despite having roots firmly set in skateboarding, and distribution limited to skateboard shops, Howard hopes that Fourstar will establish itself as a quality clothingbrand. “With our advertising and the direction that we’re taking Fourstar, it’s definitely focused on skateboarding,” he says. “In shops, our stuff definitely stands on its own-just the quality and our color range. We try to make it so that somebody who doesn’t know anything about skateboarding will pick it up and actually appreciate that it’s a Fourstar garment.”

To fully appreciate it, however, you’ll have to visit your local skateboard retailer.

Ace In The Hole

Skateboarding softgoods have their humble beginnings as printed T-shirts that promoted a brand. Today, softgoods are supporting many brands and shops. “People always need clothes,” says Alphanumeric’s Moore. “Unfortunately, people don’t always need skateboards.”

The shift evident at the shop level suggests that while hardgoods remain less profitable than softgoods and shoes, retailers are relying on clothing and footwear to increase their bottom line. With these products, they can also appeal to a whole new set of consumers too timid to try the sport, but eager to look it.

Some skateboard-clothing brands are equally eager to attract those new dollars, so they walk the fine line between hardcore and mall stores. Alphanumeric Designer Quimbao maintains that a well-managed brand can strike-and hold-that delicate balance. “Look at surf brands,” he says. “Surf brands can be in Macy’s and Bloomie’s. Quiksilver, Billabong, and all those guys-their ‘core market still loves them. It doesn’t matter. They don’t go, `I’m not gonna ever buy Billabong again ’cause I just saw it in there.’ They surfwear companies still have all their ‘core riders, they’re still in touch with their market.”

Whether this model can work for skateboarding isn’t yet clear, though the success of some of skateboarding’s crossover brands suggests that it can. But to enjoy that success, a company first has to lay some roots and develop a following. That, says DC’s Block, is easier said than done: “Our partner Clayton Blehm has a great saying. He says, `Ideas are cheap.’ Ideas are cheap, it’s making them work that’s hard.”

Keith Pesta contributed to this article.

* Based on the Summer 1998 TransWorld SKATEboarding BusinessRetailer Survey.