Function Before Fashion

Skateboarders making clothing for skateboarding.

In the 1980s, skate-branded clothing barely existed. Labels like Vision Street Wear and Skate Rags were around, and even some horrid fashion pieces from Life’s A Beach, Limpies, and Jimmy’Z were finding their way into skaters’ closets. With a few exceptions, the typical skater’s uniform was a pair of knee-length cotton shorts in an array of bold colors and weird patterns paired with their favorite skate-company T-shirt.

In the last decade, the apparel sector of the skateboard industry has grown by leaps and bounds, more than doubling since 1996*. Not only have most hardgoods companies launched softgoods programs to supplement their profits, but even the dominant surf brands like Billabong, Rusty, Quiksilver, and Hurley have stuck a foot in the skate market by sponsoring top-name pros.

Since the days of Limpies and Jimmy’Z, skateboard apparel has evolved into many subsects of style representative of skateboarders. There are many influential factors, like music and individuality, that caused this diversity. Feeding off this new breed of consumers, companies began designing apparel to satisfy specific functional and aesthetical needs.

In order to gain some insight, SKATE Biz tracked down designers from some top brands to get their perspective on the state of clothing design. They had plenty to say, and their sagacity on the subject is appreciated.

Element, under the leadership of Owner and brand-conceptualizer Johnny Schillereff, has become a leader not only in the hardgoods sector, but in the equally competitive apparel market as well. Schillereff has been creating designs for just about every brand under the Giant umbrella for about ten years now, and is inspired by his native East Coast, music, and people he sees walking down the street who have a natural sense of style. “Pretty much anything Element-related is somehow inspired by music,” he says. “The name Element and the concept behind the company is based on a way of being.”

Although the main objective of any skate-apparel designer is function, Element integrates a simplistic and philosophical approach to its clothing design. “The line for Element is so simple and basic,” says Schillereff. “I’m trying to make it appeal to just about anybody–it’s not geared toward one specific type of person.” After glancing through the line, it becomes more apparent that Element has not only designed clothing to fit the younger generation, down to waist-size 26, but has also incorporated a modest amount of women’s designs.

Besides the fundamental pieces like the classic five-pocket denim jeans and cargo pants, Element has integrated some technical features to its apparel line. In the fall of 1999, Element first unveiled a revolutionary idea with the Pull Pant, a unique system to convert pants into shorts. Now this technical feature is available on two additional pants designs, Aviator and Infantry, in addition to the original Recon.

Keeping the major focus of design on the end consumer, Schillereff observes what his team is wearing as well. “I speak to all the pros, and each guy on the team is allowed to figure out something they really like,” says Schillereff. “We’ll try to make it as long as it’s within reason.” A new piece to the collection includes the Donny Barley Pants, aptly named Burleys, which has a stretchy fabric in the crotch. “When we were developing the Barley Pants, it was about making something that doesn’t basically rip in half when you skate,” he says. Another feature to be introduced is the Pepper Pocket, a hidden pocket in several pull-over hooded sweatshirts.

As far as the direction of clothing design for skateboarding, Schillereff would like to see designs get more streamlined, more basic, and a lot less flashy. “I think the one thing about skateboarding that never needs to be forgotten is it’s all about going out and getting dirty,” he says. “The one thing you always know is where skateboarding is headed–function.”

Another brand atop its respective category to have made a significant impact in the apparel sector is Independent Truck Co. Indy has been the dominant truck brand for years, and its image of durability and just plain gnarliness has been developed over the past two decades through its roster of skaters known for destroying everything in their path. But since 1998 Independent has been reported as a strong apparel brand at skate shops across the country. So how has a truck company been able to translate its gnarly, thrash, skate-and-destroy attitude into clothing sales?

For one, Indy has used a symbol of strength, the iron cross, since its inception, along with powerful slogans like “Built To Grind,” “Fools Don’t Ride ‘Em,” “I’d Rather Fight Than Switch,” “Paint Walls, Not Trucks,” and “Ride The Best, Fuck The Rest,” to reinforce its brawny image. The only difference now is that Indy is incorporating this attitude into its clothing designs.

Independent has always offered T-shirts, but since 1990 it has slowly expanded its softgoods line to a full complement of pants, shorts, sweatshirts, jackets, and accessories, and for the past year and a half its apparel design has been under the direction of Head Designer Mark Widman, who has been creating pieces for NHS brands for close to four years.

Focusing on the act of skateboarding itself, Widman doesn’t follow fashion designers by any means. “Fashion is a whole other world that doesn’t even relate to skateboarding, but within the skateboarding world, I think Alien Workshop and Giant Distribution do a good job,” he says. “Skateboarding itself inspires me, and the biggest thing about designing for skating is the garment has to be functional and sturdy.”

Indy’s current line has expanded to include not only the classic five-pocket denim jeans and simply styled Straight shorts along with a full complement of T-shirts and sweatshirts, but some technical pieces have made their way into the collection as well. The Stash jacket, as the name suggests, features a pouch for compact storage, and is made from a polyurethane-coated nylon material. The Convertible cargo pants are constructed of a polyester/cotton blend and feature removable pant legs.

Widman wants to make functional pieces that are timeless, can actually be skated in, and can withstand the abuse of the sport. “Back-to-school items are going to be more classic styles with hidden features,” he says. “I really wanted this new line to be burly–they need to stand up to what skating demands.”

DC Shoe Co. has made a significant impact on the skateboard market by being a leader in footwear and apparel departments for much of the last decade. DC Clothing Designer Damon Way has been an influential force in apparel design throughout the industry. In the early 90s Way began developing the style of Droors and Dub, which at the time were fulfilling distinct niches within skateboarding and snowboarding. Eventually working alongside Alphanumeric’s current designer Alyasha Owerka-Moore on Dub, together they were pushing the technical envelope by making the most complicated and dynamic designs for the skateboard and snowboard markets. “The whole vibe we did with Dub created a trend in the way other companies approached their outerwear,” says Way. “But we always had problems with pricing and complexity with manufacturing.”

So when Way began to work on a full apparel line for DC, he tried a new approach and began communicating with the sales department about what the market was demanding and what fabrications it could handle. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by a lot of the urban brands on the market, Way is influenced by cleanly styled brands like Stüssy, and some progressive European brands like G Star and Diesel. Way is also influenced by the DC team. “I think my teamriders are the best reflection of the market or where the market is going,” he says. “If they’re wearing black denim, you know that over a twelve-month period it’s going to filter down to the kids.”

DC’s spring apparel line spans t
he wide spectrum of styles from basic designs to technical pieces. Way states that the line is very much influenced by the idea of utilitarian-type clothing–functional pieces that can carry all the needs of skaters these days like cell phones, palm pilots, and keys. And on the other hand, Way sees denim and T-shirts making a comeback. “Those comments contrast each other, but it’s kind of the way the market is segmented,” he says. “I just have to hope what I’m doing translates to the marketplace.”

These designers come from different backgrounds and cultures, but many themes were consistent in the ideas they expressed. They agree that “skate fashion” is a tired misnomer, and that clothing made for skateboarders will always be functional, regardless of style. “I’m not a fashion designer making clothes for the skateboard world,” says Widman. “I’m a skateboarder making clothes for the act of skateboarding.”

DC’s Way agrees: “It’s just fashion that pros choose to subscribe to. I think the only thing that is actually skate fashion is shoes. It’s a product that comes directly from skateboarding that is a functional product and has kind of set the tone in youth culture.”

Despite its varied styles, Element’s Schillereff believes skateboard apparel is identifiable and influential to all sects. “I think skateboarding has always been something that is groundbreaking,” he says. “It establishes what’s going on in a lot of fashion today and kind of always has.”

* TransWorld SKATEboarding Business Spring 2000 Retailer Survey.

Based on TransWorld SKATEboarding Business Retailer Surveys, 1997 – 2000.