You may have noticed Bella Hadid facing the golden hour, hair flying behind her as she zips down a hill on a skateboard, sporting the Nike ‘Cortez’ style for the brand’s latest ad campaign. Or maybe you noticed Louis Vuitton x Supreme’s sold-out status worldwide, or that Karl Lagerfeld is teaming up with Vans for a collaboration, or that Hermès is coming out with a bespoke line of skateboards.
Fashion’s obsession with all things skate culture is hardly a new development, and has proven to be a lasting relationship – one that started in the 1980s and continues to this day. With the average skater’s disdain for traditional style and “anti-fashion” stance, it seems curious that the relationship developed at all, although, we will admit that sometimes it’s pretty one-sided. In this pairing, skateboarding is fashion’s unrequited love.
Skateboarding, as we know it today, started in the 1960s in California when diehard surfers devised a way to “surf” on land by attaching wheels to wooden boards. Over many decades, skateboarding transformed from a little-known subculture and casual hobby into a competitive mainstream profession. In fact, its high level of athletic skill is finally being recognized globally – skateboarding will be considered an Olympic sport starting with the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Think of how many young ones are being ousted from makeshift metropolitan skate parks, only to protest, “But dude, I’m training for the Olympics!”
At its center, skateboarding is incredibly difficult. The dexterity, agility, flexibility, foresight, and quick-thinking required of skaters takes years to develop. These, when combined to execute a tricky switch 360-degree flip, can result in truly astonishing feats of athleticism. Blood, sweat, tears, broken bones, broken boards, and broken egos go into the making of a true skater, making it easy to wonder if the physical sacrifice is worth the gain.
However, with professional skaters now entertaining million-dollar endorsement deals and starring in glamorous fashion campaigns, and multinational conglomerates looking to partner with skate labels, it certainly does have an enticing monetary sheen. The skating industry in the USA alone is worth nearly five billion dollars. All of this cash-in potential, coupled with a vibrant youth culture, has contributed to fashion’s obsession with skate culture.
But fashion has a tendency to throttle and consume what it loves the most – just look at how the industry ripped through punk and goth subcultures like a tornado destroying anything original in its path. It’s reminiscent of when the Met Gala hosted its Punk: Chaos to Couture gala, and one very famous attendee mused that “real punks” would never have been invited to such an occasion.
Essentially, fashion’s way of appropriating is to lay claim to something body and soul, commodify it, make it accessible for the mainstream, mark up the price, and watch the sales flood in as previous outsiders eagerly snag a slice of “cool” to mix into their existing wardrobes. Skateboarding attire – mostly comprised of bulky sneakers, baggy jeans, slogan tees, and hoodies – was once manufactured and branded entirely within a self-contained skate community. Volcom, DC, Stüssy, Element, and even Supreme (to some extent) were skating-apparel companies that actually kitted out skaters.
The style of clothing is hardly revolutionary, but the insouciant attitude that its wearers earned on the pavement was something designers longed to bottle, repackage, and sell for mass consumption. On the other side, consumers were more than willing to assimilate aspects of skate culture into their lives while never once touching an actual board. Despite the fashion industry tangling with a subculture that is vehemently opposed to posers and skaters snubbing its appropriation, there has still been quite a bit of crossover.
For example, there is professional skateboarder Dylan Rieder’s appearance next to Cara Delevingne in a DKNY ad campaign for Spring 2014 as proof that the fashion and skate worlds often collide. The ubiquity of Thrasher tees among popstars like Rihanna and Justin Bieber as well as off-duty models also speaks to the allure of the rough-and-tumble ways of the skate world. Some of the crossover is more insidious in nature.
Thrasher’s iconic flaming logo has been co-opted by Gosha Rubchinskiy, Jeremy Scott borrowed from Santa Cruz, and the list goes sadly on. H&M and Forever 21 also frequently rip off well-known designs by prominent skate labels. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when profit is made off the imitation, it’s another story entirely.
While appropriating subcultures for profit is what the industry does, skateboarding directly benefits – while maintaining the appearance that it rejects fashion’s attention. Before skateboarding became mainstream, it was seen as a casual hobby, and not a serious profession. Packaged with “slacker” attire, rebellion against local city ordinances, and a freewheelin’ lifestyle, its appeal is obvious for young people (and the fashion designers who want to capitalize on youth culture).
However, when it comes to older generations who refuse to understand that pitching your body down a flight of stairs in the name of landing the best trick is something one can earn money doing, the connection was lost. Decades ago, skateboard and apparel companies were primarily DIY enterprises. Now, the industry is seeing new infusions of cash every time a new pro emerges or any time a major corporation decides to back a smaller company in hopes of cashing in on its cool factor.
Fashion has been a huge aid in helping skateboarding become mainstream. The same consumer cycle that fashion feeds for profit also opens the subculture to participation by people who appreciate it, but do not partake directly in it. Those same celebrities who insiders might mock for wearing a Thrasher hoodie are helping to introduce skateboarding to a new generation that might decide to Google what that flaming logo is about. And, as skaters earn huge endorsement deals and head down the path towards placing in the Olympics, that older generation is finally seeing it as a viable profession for the first time.
As much as fashion’s obsession with skateboarding is akin to an overly clingy tween desperate to catch the eye of a lanky slacker boy, it’s also like the same girl helping said slacker boy with his homework after school – so long as he promises to talk to her at the dance that weekend. In the end, both parties benefit.