Skateboarding’s Sovereign Sect

There’s nothing out there.

Every U.S. president since Eisenhower has been denying any credence to the thousands of reported flying-saucer sightings, and the cultural elite have been saying the same about the Midwest–there’s nothing culturally redeeming to be found outside the coastal creative capitals. Period.

Well, we know that one or the other is wrong.

“It’s almost as much the attitude as it is the location–the farming and that kind of thing,” says Ohio resident Chris Carter. A native of West Virginia, Carter spent a good part of the 80s in California working for various skateboard companies. In 1990, he moved to Dayton to start one of his own: “Dayton itself is not a super mecca for culture, but between Cincinnati and Columbus there’s literally anything you’d ever want to see or do. Nothing’s that far, and there’s really not much traffic.”

Ohio native Mike Hill also spent a good part of the 80s in California working in the screen shop and art department at a popular skateboard company. In 1990 he packed up and moved back to Dayton to start one of his own. “People here just kinda are what they are,” he says of his fellow Daytonians. “It’s good and bad–kind of a backward mentality.” Hill appreciates the unpolished honesty of Ohio’s industrial suburbs. “It just seems real,” he says.

In California, Carter and Hill worked together at G&S, managing the company’s skateboard division. G&S was of one of the oldest brands on the market, having made skateboards since the 60s, yet the company entrusted Carter and Hill with creating a new direction for the brand. With a team that included Neil Blender, Chris Miller, Steve Claar, Willy Santos, Rob Boyce, and Doug Smith (among others), the two managed to modernize a brand anchored in skate history.

“We saw that we were doing this thing as if it were our own,” says Hill. “But we were making a product for G&S. We were just young and really devoted, and we felt that if we were gonna be devoted, we might as well do it for ourselves.”

“They were really willing to work with us, so it was a real opportunity,” says Carter, explaining that his time in California working for Tracker and G&S was as much an education as his years as a business-administration major at Marshall University in West Virginia: “The people at Tracker are my friends to this day–nicest people in the world. But you want to do more, you want to evolve.”

The success of upstart companies like World Industries and H-Street provided the inspiration, and Carter and Hill had all the experience and ideas they needed. What they lacked, however, was start-up capital.

In the fall of 1990 they joined Jimmy George of CS Skates Distribution to launch Alien Workshop–a company that literally broke from the California mold, planting itself far from skateboarding’s industrial beltway, and creating a new direction that many others would follow.

They also relied on some close friends for inspiration and input. Neil Blender made the move from California to work with Carter and Hill; the company’s first pro rider, he gave the brand immediate credibility, and also produced several illustrations for board graphics and ads. “We were all really close friends,” says Carter. “The three of us would talk about everything, and we always enjoyed the time we spent together. It wasn’t even really like work–we were so stoked to do it. We were just inspired beyond belief to do our own thing–that was our driving force.”

One of their greatest challenges was to decide what to call their own thing. In the late 80s, another good friend of Carter’s and Hill’s had introduced them to the strange ideas circulating on pre-Internet electronic bulletin boards (BBS) and short-wave radio–rumors of government conspiracy, top-secret projects, and, of course, extraterrestrials. “He told us that the stealth bomber had purportedly been built in the 40s in alien workshops using alien technology,” says Carter. “Mike, Neil, and I sat around for days trying to come up with names. We all seemed to think that was the most ridiculous but imaginative thing you could ever name a company. An alien workshop–what is it?”

Alien Workshop–the company–was established in a makeshift office space in the back of the CS Skates warehouse. Its initial line of products (primarily decks), lacked the technology invested in the stealth bomber, but managed to attract the same sort of curiosity. The brand had potential–even in the limited market of the time–but still wasn’t reaching many dealers. “Jimmy had an exclusive distribution deal when we were working with him,” says Carter. “He helped us get started with what little money we had.”

Eventually George was bought out and the two expanded their distribution through independent suppliers like Eastern Skateboard Supply. They also hired good friend and skateboard-sales veteran Joe Bowers to open a direct line to shops. “We finally had a guy on the phone all day making marketing contacts,” says Carter. “And he knew just about every retailer in the United States. He’d visited most of them, in fact.”

Alien Workshop was founded as an artistic hive that allowed Carter, Hill, and a cluster of close friends to imagine and realize their creative aspirations. Despite a talented team that initially consisted ofBlender, Steve Claar, Duane Pitre, Scott Conklin, Bo Turner, Thomas Morgan, and a young Dayton local named Rob Dyrdek, they wasted no time in abandoning the traditional promotional formulas–action-photo ads and rip-off graphics–and cloaked their operation in enigmatic intrigue.

The first Alien ads featured obscure and often blurry photographs that sometimes depicted aliens or references to paranormal phenomenon. Long before the idea of extra-terrestrial visitors became a pop-cultural gold mine, Alien Workshop had integrated its mystique into a line of structurally sound and graphically astonishing skateboard products. “There was a consistency with the Alien Workshop graphics,” says Hill. “We used some Neil Blender drawings and his cartoons in ads. I think it went maybe six ads before there was a skateboarder pictured. Most people would call and say, ‘What are you guys?’ They didn’t know it was a skateboard company. So we tried to take that approach instead of just putting a full-page-bleed skate photo and a logo in the ads.”

Meanwhile, out in California companies were busy testing the resolve of major corporations to protect their trademarks. “It seemed to be the peak of the knock-off graphics era where you take a 7—Eleven logo and put your name underneath it,” says Hill. “I could never understand that, because if you had your own company, why wouldn’t you want to make your own images? I understand the ‘I’m a bad guy’ attitude behind it, but it seemed ridiculous to me.”

“Well, for starters it’s wrong,” says Carter, who had his own reasons for avoiding anything unoriginal. “It’s not right to steal. Period.”

Alien Workshop began to evolve a graphic language of its own that would convey messages as well as images, and steer clear of the West Coast trends that would prove short-lived. “I didn’t think that most of the stuff that was getting knocked off was that cool in the first place, so it didn’t become any cooler when you had a skateboard company’s name on it,” says Hill. “So we tried to make our own direction, and tried to make really simple graphics that were almost pictograms. I liked things to be a little simpler and bolder. I tried to make almost childish drawings, as far as the simplicity of them, but if you looked at it, there was something going on besides it just being a pictogram.”

Alien Workshop was founded on ideas and ideals. Carter and Hill have managed to elevate their brand to a marketing standard that few other companies have matched. The company’s graphics and imagery have remained fresh and innovative, but always distinctly Alien Workshop. “We had a lot of energy to make something that we thought woul
d be perceived as interesting–not just skateboard products, but ideas,” says Carter. “Doing it here in Ohio, the odds are against you. But at the same time, we knew that eventually it wouldn’t matter if we were in Timbuktu, that people would recognize it for what it is.”

For Carter and Hill, establishing Alien Workshop so far from their competitors has been a mixed blessing, but quickly earned the company a cult following among Midwest skaters who couldn’t identify with West Coast companies. “Early on a lot of people who wrote to us were into the fact that we were outside of California,” says Hill. “They felt that they could relate, or something–that we dealt with the winter the same way they dealt with the winter.”

“They rallied behind us,” says Carter. “The fact that we weren’t a subsidiary also seemed to excite a lot of kids. The odds were against us: we were going up against the late 80s/early 90s giants, and right when we started our company, the economy went into the Gulf War recession, and the market just went south. I’m calling all these distributors, and they were saying, ‘Oh, I’m not buying any skateboards right now.’ Things had just gone flat internationally, and the economy was bad. It was a strange time, it was tough. With our limited start-up capital, it made it challenging in all ways.”

At the biannual Action Sports Retailer trade shows in California, the Alien Workshop booth has always drawn a similar reaction. “We would go there and other companies would see us as a total package,” says Hill. “When you’re out here all by yourself, you’re able to think about things in a different way, because being out here is different. The whole seed of trying to do something different than what everybody else is doing starts with the fact that you’re in Ohio.”

Carter points out that it made great business sense to start the company there, and continues to be an advantage over competitors in the somewhat erratic skateboard market: “The primary thing for us was being completely removed from the skateboard industry, and not having to feel the pressure from being in the mix of it. The other thing is that the cost of doing business here is so much cheaper. We couldn’t have afforded to be a stand-alone company in California. The costs are variable: when your business is good, shipping from California gets high; when business is slow, our overhead is always level. When business is good it costs you more here, but hopefully you’re making money. When it’s slow, your overhead is very reasonable.”

Carter knew that with his business acumen and Hill’s creative direction, Alien would eventually emerge from its humble beginnings. They shared a vision of a company that presented itself as an alternative to skaters andsuppliers. “So many skateboard companies at the time had the fuck-you attitude to the shops,” says Carter. “It was like, ‘You need our stuff, so buy it. If you want it, it’s here. If not … ‘ My goal was to be completely professional in customer service and working with distributors, and try to be honorable and not do anything offensive–just do good business. I was like, ‘Shops are not into this. They don’t want to be bullied, brow-beaten, and manipulated.'”

As Alien Workshop began to gain a reputation farther out toward the coasts, Carter and Hill wasted no time in creating a video–that magic product that seemed to open so many doors for so many companies. “When we started the company, the first thing we did was to buy a stat camera and a video camera, and we started making Memory Screen,” says Hill. From their filming and editing experience at G&S, he and Carter were eager to explore the vast potential of this medium that, at the time, was used for little more than documenting tricks. For Memory Screen, the Workshop crew combined skate footage with glimpses of Midwest life and life forms. Many of the clips are slow-mo’d, looped, or distorted, and much of the video’s soundtrack was created by Neil Blender and a few musician friends to accompany the edited footage; other parts of the video, meanwhile, were edited to fit music they wanted to incorporate.

While its surreal audio and visual treatment failed to elevate the status of Alien Workshop’s team, it did inspire many skateboard video makers to move beyond the strict skateumentary style of the time. “We didn’t have many products to go with it, but we thought we were gonna get this pump from a video,” says Hill. “Some of our friends liked it, but as far as it having an impact on our sales, it didn’t do anything.”

Soon after the release of Memory Screen, Alien Workshop moved into a new building, hired Bowers, and bought a Mac for Hill, who had been creating graphics and layouts exclusively by hand. Memory Screen, in fact, was edited entirely on a linear system, meaning that all the effects were created manually, filmed, and simply sequenced on a fancy video deck. “To us, the whole thing about The Workshop is that it could be skateboarding combined with art,” says Hill. “But we didn’t think about it as art, we just thought that is what The Workshop is: skateboarding combined with imagery.”

By mid 1992 Alien Workshop was an independent entity, facing life on its own with considerable overhead, and for the first time it had a full line of products. One of its most popular images, the Believe graphic, was introduced in the fall as a T-shirt, and evolved into a deck graphic and embroidered logo that embellished everything from backpacks to baseball hats. “Our whole theory was that we were gonna have to pay for this embroidery tape, so we’d have to maximize it,” says Hill. “Every time we’d do a new embroidery for a hat, the thing would start getting run across the board. People took it like we were merchandising our stuff, and we were just trying to pay for our embroidery.”

By fall of the following year, Believe and the triple-alien Spectrum logo were The Workshop’s most recognizable graphics. The company’s expanded clothing line featured them, and the sudden mass-market infatuation with aliens and alien imagery catapulted the Dayton, Ohio Workshop into the limelight. By 1995, Alien Workshop’s biggest problem was its inability to supply the demand. “Nineteen-ninety-six was the pinnacle of that,” says Carter. “We started incredibly undercapitalized, and all of a sudden we had to finance all this growth. We didn’t borrow a dime, and just turned the money over; we worked a hell of a lot of hours, and didn’t see the light of day for years, literally.”

Carter was looking for a larger building where he could consolidate the inventory that was stuffed into rented containers in the company’s parking lot. He also needed more room for additional staff, but he was careful and took his time to find the right facility and the right people. “We lost sales by not being able to plan and evolve the company,” he says. “We could have done so much more had we had a little more staff and a little more space. We weren’t going to the bank to borrow. It’s a slow road to the financial stability and credibility that you need to do a lot. We didn’t want to put ourselves at huge risk financially, so we were very careful and very efficient not to overextend. We’ve seen a lot of companies in this industry go straight up, go straight down, and go bankrupt. We were never ones to expose ourselves to that, and I was really tight with everything monetarily to ensure that did not happen.”

The Workshop’s heydays of the mid 90s were frustrating for another reason; while Carter and Hill’s infatuation with conspiracy theories and secret government projects had spawned several graphic directions, they suddenly found their diverse library of visual products being defined by one or two images. “For a period there I think people just looked at us as ‘aliens are popular, these guys do aliens,'” says Hill. “From our end it was never that way. That was all part of evolving our look back then and what we were doing graphically.”

Soon after introducing alien imagery into the line, Hill began m
oving the company in several visual directions: he and Blender created paper-maché puppets that were photographed for a line of slick-bottom boards; the Blender Notebook decks featured a bold series of team charicatures; Hill’s Sect series of graphics delved into topics surrounding national sovereignty and the militia movement; the fluorescent rails of the EXP series were designed to offer a real function–they revealed the board’s orientation on flip tricks; and the sublimated top graphics on the new six-ply Microlite series visually differentiates a structurally unique product.

Alien Workshop was also known for keeping graphics in their catalog longer than most companies. “This was an era in skateboarding when graphics had a 30-day lifespan,” says Carter. “We were like, ‘Fuck that, we’re gonna make really good graphics that will have retention.’ And we didn’t change our wood decks but maybe twice a year, and our slick decks ran for a one-year period. We had super success with that. Shops had buying confidence, like, ‘Yeah, we know it won’t be obsolete in 30 days.'”

One of the more subtle characteristics of Alien Workshop imagery is the sequencing of related subjects. What began with the now-typical alien beings evolved into series featuring owls, cloned humanoids, and eventually militia insignia. Alien Workshop was evolving, but the public still wanted little gray men. “We figured if we backed off on alien-type graphics, then people would have to notice the other stuff,” says Hill. “And it was hard for a lot of people to swallow. Retailers sold a lot of the other stuff, yet aliens were getting blown out in the mass market. When we were doing it in the early 90s, you couldn’t get a T-shirt with an alien icon on it.”

By the time The X-Files peaked in popularity and the mass media began hyping the fiftieth anniversary of the famous Roswell Incident–a purported flying saucer crash in the New Mexico desert in 1947–The Workshop had moved far beyond alien imagery. So had skateboarders–by 1997, pricepoint products had stolen as much as 26 percent of the hardgoods market, but Carter and Hill refused to compete on price. “It’s been proven time and time again in this industry that it’s not price that drives the most successful companies,” says Carter. “But there’s way too much board capacity. It happens in every industry–overcapacity means prices fall, because people want to keep their machines running. We’re not gonna compete on price. That’s no our game, that’s not our market.”

“We want to create the demand for our stuff,” says Hill. “We think that’s our job–creating the demand on the user end.”

Carter and Hill have adopted a holistic approach to rebuilding their brand in the face of cheap generic product. Rather than cut costs and slash prices, they’ve invested in developing new products and building their team. Working with their woodshop, Carter and Hill created Alien’s LOK Ultra-Lite construction and the six-ply Microlite series. “It seems like everybody’s working on their own board construction,” says Hill. “And it’s getting to where most major brands’ decks are different than another brands’; a few years ago it was just a shape-and-graphic thing. Luckily, we have a woodshop that is really willing to work with us to make our constructions, and not offer them to any other brand.”

The team also evolved, adding names like Gall, Way, Dill, Kalis, and Van Engelen, and dropping most of its original members. “We let go of some guys who have been around since the beginning of the company,” says Hill. “It’s hard to do with guys who have been really loyal, but they just weren’t producing what it takes now. The whole level of pros, it seems, has been raised in the past year and a half to two years, as far as what’s expected of a pro.”

The company has also diversified, now operating under the umbrella of DNA Distribution, and offering various accessories to complement the Alien Workshop line of products. DNA’s only other in-house brand, Reflex Bearings, gives Carter and Hill the opportunity to work with skaters outside the Workshop fold. Guy Mariano, Kareem Campbell, Colin McKay, Josh Kalis, and Rob Dyrdek have all lent their names to the Reflex team roster. “It’s a great team, and it really helps,” says Carter. “The right skaters can do a lot for you.”

Carter and Hill have realized that the right staff is another crucial factor in the success of their company. Alien Workshop is currently operated by sixteen employees, plus a clothing-production manager in California, and three field reps who focus primarily on the Workshop’s softgoods and snowboard outerwear (Carter says he prefers to handle hardgoods sales in-house).

Among the new staff members are artists Don Pendleton and Joe Castrucci, who assist Hill in producing ads, graphics, and video projects. “It feels more like the Memory Screen times because you have more people doing the graphic end of it,” he says. “It’s not such an overwhelming thing to try to get your line of products together–you could do so much more within it, be it the board construction or the graphic series. I’m more stoked coming into work now than even back in those days. For a while there it was pretty hectic trying to keep up with demand, but now it feels like we can be what we want to be again.”

Carter is similarly optimistic about The Workshop’s new direction. Having meticulously reorganized every aspect of the company over the last few years, he believes that Alien Workshop is beginning to see another surge in demand. But this time, he says, they’re ready: “When you get the demand you have to be able to react and supply, and we’ll be a lot better equipped to do it this time.”

“We just want to see it regain the top through people and skaters seeing the depth of the company,” says Hill. “I don’t think it’s that hard to come up with a marketable little icon and just shove it down people’s throats until they finally choke and say, ‘Okay, we’ll buy it.’ It’s just a matter of how many ad dollars you want to spend.”

Carter and Hill’s new strategy involves more careful product development, promotion, and pacing–too much too soon can ruin a good thing. “You just become a victim of your own success,” says Carter. “People don’t want the most popular thing anymore, they want the next thing.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge for the industry as a whole, says Carter, is to stop fighting over existing market share and attract more young people to the sport. “I certainly think the skatepark situation in California has been a huge success, and Colorado has come a long way,” he says. “But liability is one of the biggest things–while people are terrified to provide places for kids to use skateboards, we’re always gonna have a problem. How can we ever grow our market exponentially if you have trouble finding a place to use a specific piece of sporting goods?”

Hill credits the broad television exposure that skateboarding has had in the last couple of years for educating non-participants about the sport, and casting it in a favorable light. “If there was no exposure through all that X-Games stuff, it might not seem so legit when you go to talk to a city council,” he says. “But a city council sees that ESPN approves of skateboarding, and they approve of ESPN.”

Alien Workshop was an upstart brand that rose to prominence in a few short years, saw a steady decline in demand, and has reorganized and regenerated interest. Few brands have successfully reinvented themselves and reclaimed a significant piece of the market. But Carter and Hill have always preserved a degree of mystery around their company, and they continue to evolve Alien Workshop as a true alternative to generic and unimaginative product. They also continue to challenge the West Coast-centric industry, inspiring others to do what they’ve done in places where no one has thought to.

In that light, the Alien Workshop hasn’t changed a bit. It exists in a world of its own creation–sovereign and separate from the rest,
the exception to every rule governing skateboarding’s status quo.