Denim Wars

Who put nylon in the cotton gin?

In the old days–the really old days–it was easy. You went down to Sears and picked up a pair of Levi’s, to the thrift store and found a cheap flannel shirt, and over at the skate shop you could find a T-shirt and a pair of Vans. Shave your head, don an optional cap or sweatshirt, and–voila–you’re a skater. Or at least you looked like one.

Over the years the “look” has evolved and diversified, but as recently as a couple years ago it was still possible to identify typical skate fashion. Today, however, skaters are wearing everything from bondage pants to nylon warm-up suits–each element borrowed from rather diverse cultures (the culture of rebellion on one hand, and physical culture on the other). Does this diversity in fashion suggest a more diverse skater? Or are the specialists of particular skate styles just trying to differentiate themselves visually from one another?

Skateboard-clothing companies have yet to include 1976-era bondage gear in their lines, but many do offer washed denim jeans and nylon athletic wear in the same catalog. Is the era of the specialized brand name over?

“I think we’re starting to see the emergence of a consumer who’s really broad and wants options,” says Merge, Inc. General Manager Tim Haley. “I’m seeing kids who are normally jeans-and-T-shirt kids buying an Ecko pant, buying an Alphanumeric shirt, or buying this cross-cultural kind of thing. I’m hoping that in his cadre of Abercrombie And Fitch, Gap, Old Navy, Polo, Blind jeans, and Droors jeans, he’s starting to find variety, and he’s starting to look for something different. He’s looking at every single person, who’s looking just like him, and saying, ‘I don’t stand out anymore. I’m looking for that unique, individual identity.'”

Haley has overseen the design, manufacture, sales, and distribution of the Droors and Dub Brand Weathergear lines for the past year, and he’s the first to tell you that his customer isn’t the price-conscious, fashionably oblivious follower. His customers are skateboarders, snowboarders, and other culturally elite individuals who sidestep the styles flowing through the mainstream retail channels; they will go out of their way to find the brands they trust and identify with. “You’re not gonna find Droors or Dub on every single street corner,” he says. “Skateboarding is a very exclusive club. A lot of very large retailers, mail order, and e-commerce people have tried to get their claws on it because they realize that there’s this hardcore, very loyal, very easy customer; the skate customer’s taste from fall to winter isn’t gonna change. If it does, it’s gonna be color or fabric, but he’s not gonna go from nylon shirts to cotton-plaid shirts like the fashion customer, like the masses. He’s gonna be wearing cargo pants or denim, and he’s gonna be wearing a brand-name T-shirt. And he’s not gonna change. He might buy a pair of nylon track pants, but he’s very brand-loyal and very predictable.”

Some brands, out of necessity or design, have limited their lines to basic items that they can count on to sell. This strategy has worked well for Innes, whose recent five-by-seven-inch fold-out catalog features two jeans, one pair of shorts, and a modest array of T-shirts, caps, and sweatshirts. Unlike many small companies who can’t afford to do more than that, Innes has actually reduced its line to streamline and focus its attention on each product. “We have a relatively small company,” says Innes Partner Matt Hensley. “We’ve got four people who work for us. One trade show we had four pairs of jeans and way too many cut-and-sew things. We had so many problems, it was just a nightmare. It was one of the reasons that, for a while, I didn’t know if we would even stay in business. Every little problem costs something. Either you’re gonna fix it yourself, or you have to spend some money to get the damn thing fixed.”

Hensley took on the task of reorganizing the company himself, and he began by identifying Innes’ most popular items. “Two years ago, I knew what was really gonna sell, and I was making other stuff because I wanted to feel and look like I was taking care of business,” he says. “Then I asked myself what I really think is gonna do good, what I personally like, and went to this smaller line. That made it a ton easier for me, and gives me room to grow.”

Hensley recently also brought in Jamie Thomas as a partner in the company. The two codirect the brand, and Thomas’ efforts on the publicity end have proven effective. Having an extra body around to help out, says Hensley, has also made a big difference for the small company: “He’s been coming in a ton. It’s the partnership helped us for obvious reasons. He’s helping us get in the skate-shop door, then it either sells or doesn’t. Most of the time it sells.”

Like Hensley, Haley is primarily focused on the bread-and-butter basics of the Dub and Droors lines that are somewhat immune to fashion trends. “If we can make the jeans and T-shirts to stay in business, we can afford ourselves the luxury of going after certain fashionable trends,” he says. “Or, as Droors is highly respected, maybe we can be the ones who set the trends.”

When Dub and Droors left their sister brand DC Shoe Co. in 1998, DC launched a modest line of softgoods that has evolved to complement its shoe line with various athletic styles. What the DC line doesn’t offer, though, are the jeans that helped establish Droors. While DC does offer some “basic” pieces like cargo pants, Co-Owner Ken Block says his company is more interested in offering a coherent line that reflects the brand’s uniqueness. “At this point we don’t feel that jeans go with the other items in our line,” he says. “Denim is something that people associate with companies like Levi’s. We do make cargo pants and stuff like that, but it doesn’t necessarily look like ‘denim.’ We’re not desperate to go out and make everything possible with the DC logo on it, we want to make what fits.”

Block says he develops products that reflect his team–their personalities and tastes. In 1993, DC introduced a line of shoes that suggested an athletic influence. “I think we were one of the first companies to go in that direction, because our riders at the time were wearing that kind of stuff,” he says. “We started off with athletic-looking skateboard shoes, and it grew from that.”

The current DC clothing line was also inspired by hip-hop culture, which has had an undeniable influence on the skaters that DC and other companies have built themselves around. “The hip-hop influence has become a lot stronger than I suspected it would, as the range of fashion goes–from the basics all the way through to the basketball shirts and warm-up pants,” says Block. “When you see the popularity of people in our industry like Stevie Williams, Chad Muska, Kareem Campbell, and Josh Kalis, I think the hip-hop influence is here to stay. As long as those people are in the limelight in our industry, those styles are gonna be popular.”

DC Co-Owner and Director of Design for Apparel Damon Way says that while skateboard fashion visually segregated skaters from others just a couple years ago, those styles now suggest little about the person wearing them. The only really identifiable skate fashion today, he says, is the tight-black-T-shirt punk look popularized by teams like Zero and Anti-Hero. “Due to the mainstream, the standard skateboard look has become so diluted that I just don’t think it’s too original anymore,” he says. “There’s just kind of a uniform, and you can get it in a skate shop, or you can get it at the chain store. A few years ago, nobody besides skateboarders really wore cargoes. baggy jeans, or track pants. I see that all over now. The only way I can tell if a guy skates or not is to look at his shoes, to see if they’re messed up. But then again, he might leave those at home and wear new shoes to the mall.”

Even with its basic items, Way designs subtle variations into each piece to differentiat
e DC’s apparel from other brands. “I think the biggest evolution in product is the whole idea of being high-tech,” he says. “It’s not just a cargo anymore, it’s a cargo with a really tricked-out creative pocket that can accommodate a Palm Pilot or a cell phone. That’s been my whole thing for the last couple years, utilitarian design.”

Other skate-clothing brands are finding different ways to diversify within their ‘core markets at the same time that skateboarding is being conscripted by mass-market clothiers to help them tap into the lucrative and elusive Generation Y. The big guns of the fashion world are doing all they can to attract this valuable customer; their double-page ads in skateboard magazines and television commercials featuring skateboarders are not the least bit subtle, and argue the hipness of companies like The Gap, who recognize that pop culture often looks to the skaterfor cues. “The thing is that he the skateboarder drivesso many other people’s desires,” says Haley. “They all want to be like that guy, they all want to be able to stand alone and be confident in what they’re wearing, and to be associated in this little clique–this club called skateboarding. A lot of people are starting to buy into that. The popularity of Volcom–as a surf brand it’s the anti-Quiksilver–has really sparked an interest. There’s the mainstream surf customers, and then there’s the anti-mainstream surf customer, captured by Volcom. He’s not gonna change with whatever billboard goes by. He’s gonna keep striving to be unique, and to be an individual.”

As a brand that also caters to surfers and snowboarders, Volcom has overcome the “crossover” stigma that has traditionally alienated skateboarders, and has become a top seller in skateboard shops*. Skateboard Team Manager Remy Stratton says that Volcom’s experience in surfing and snowboarding has given the brand a broader perspective that helps it maintain its individuality, while the thorough involvement of its team in company direction and product design, and its grassroots support of skateboard tours and festivals keeps it in touch with its market. “Our customers are active individuals within the sports,” he says, adding that the brand’s popularity among hardcore skaters should come as no surprise. “I think it’s because we care, and it shows. We put a lot of effort toward what counts–what you’d like to see from a strictly skateboard company. We’re very intimate with each sport, and I think it’s so real that we’re accepted.”

Volcom’s presence in the snow and surf markets, plus its extensive lines for men, boys, and girls, gives the company plenty of room to grow while limiting its distribution to respectable shops. Stratton says that Volcom prefers to channel customers to select retailers, which both supports those retailers and protects the brand’s credibility.

When a certain label or style in the individual’s wardrobe is assimilated into the common closet, the individual will gravitate to the next new thing, even if it’s just a passing fad. According to Haley, this discriminating consumer will stick to his trusted brands, and mix and match items to fit his personal style. Most of the rest of the world, meanwhile, isn’t interested in who made it–they just want to look the part. “When a certain style is in, mainstream retailers pump up their private labels,” says Haley. “Cargoes are in, so anything with ‘cargo pant’ will sell. Brand name means nothing when everybody’s buying the style–you put a cargo pocket on a pair of twill pants, and it’ll sell. So they can just do it cheaper and cut out the people who created the interest in cargoes and drove the demand to the masses. The masses really aren’t looking for esteem, credibility, or image, or care who did it first. They just want what everybody else is wearing, and they don’t want to spend a lot of money for it. That’s where Old Navy, The Gap, and department-store private labels really feed off the mass consumer.”

Skate-clothing companies traditionally haven’t gone after the mass consumer, and have been ingenious in finding ways to grow their brands without opening their distribution to anyone and everyone. Haley’s strategy at Merge has been to grow beyond the ‘core skate and snow consumer by attracting similar cultural niches that have something in common with skateboarding and snowboarding–individuals who could appreciate the technicality and durability that snowboarders and skaters require. “Dub and Droors are aspiring to create larger consumer bases that aren’t necessarily just skate and snow, but we maintain our integrity, and we maintain our validation as true brands through the fact that skateboarders and snowboarders need gear that’s specifically made for their aggressive sports.”

Skaters may be more fashion conscious these days, but the need for high-quality, durable garments hasn’t changed. For that reason, says Element’s Johnny Schillereff, clothing designed for skateboarders has to do more than look good. Sometimes function does take precedence over fashion. “Skateboarding does make clothing that The Gap would be afraid to make,” he says. “Skateboarding will take a risk and do some things that are a little more cutting-edge.”

Element hit big with its debut line last fall, which featured the problem-solving Recon Pull Pant. This clever ripstop military-style pant features an internal drawstring that can be adjusted to raise and hold each leg at knee-height. But who knows if the knicker look will endure? “Fashion can take off, and you can have hits here and there–like the first cargo pant,” says Haley. “But when cargoes die out, what have you got in the works? Are you gonna keep betting on the next big thing? That takes a lot of design, a lot of research and development, and a lot of risk.”

Fashion has always been a risky venture. How many of the “skate fashion” empires from the 80s have maintained their market positions? And where will the current kings of cloth be in a decade? As the market changes, and as styles evolve, so must they. Haley says this is what Block and Way had in mind when they issued separate catalogs for the Droors Denim basics program and the Droors Collection line. “I think they were emulating a lot of more designer brands, where you might see Donna Karan and Donna Karan Sport, or Ralph Lauren Polo and Ralph Lauren Sport. Different separations give the brand an opportunity to hit different markets, different prices, different styles, and a different customer.”

Haley says that even trend-setting skateboard-clothing labels can learn a lot from the mainstream haute couture: “Some of these designers have been very adept at recognizing the social change, and instead of everybody wanting to look the same, they’ve tried to take their prestigious hallmark brand and give people an individual style that they could call their own.”

For the moment, it’s probably safe to bet that skateboard clothing won’t be debuting in Paris this spring–unless, of course, they drain the banked pond under the Eiffel Tower again. Perhaps some Donna Karan derivative cargo pant might show up on a runway or two, but not a brand built to slide between a skater and the pavement.

As skateboarding continues to evolve, and skateboarders weave in and out of various trends, chances are we’ll always come right back to basics. And what’s more basic than a pair of jeans? “It’s really cool to see what everybody’s doing with nylon. Fashion is pushing fabric–it’s not taking the fabric that’s available and constructing it in new ways,” says Haley. “It’s pushing fabricationof material. Dub streetwear’s a perfect example: it’s snowboard-apparel fabrics made for everyday street use. So microfibers, ripstops, and different combinations of nylon blends all of a sudden take on new character.

“But if you look at the fundamentals of denim, it’s completely accepted in all walks of life, by all people, at all times, at any price. You can thank Levi’s for opening the door. Denim’s so well accepted, so versatile, and so dur
able. Another nice thing about it is that when nylon, twill, or the novelty of the cargo pant is played out, you can always go back to denim. It makes sense.”

* TransWorld SKATEboarding BusinessFall 1999 Retailer Survey