Celtic pride 34 has a dilemma, “would i wear, DS them or sell? I don’t sell but I need the money.”
Conflicting, emoticon-flecked advice flies thick and fast from other chat room users: “Decide for yourself . . .” — “Just make sure you won’t regret . . .” — “Cause it will get creases, it will get dirty and you have to think about what you want . . . to show off your cool Lebrons, or stare at a clean pair after I don’t know, a year or two?” — “. . . I really regret balling the hell out of my og xivs. Can’t wait to see them retro-ed. . . . have you thought about wadding them out with paper so they don’t crease?” Celtic’s predicament? Whether he should “un-dead-stock” – actually wear – a $500 pair of trainers.
Welcome to Niketalk. Beneath the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial and ads for $1000 footwear, similar subplots have clocked up over 500 million hits from 175 countries. And this isn’t even an official site. Niketalk is skate counterculture’s cyber-corpse. Because after trying and failing to co-opt this fiercely defiant clique for over a decade, Nike finally played it smart and Just Redid It.
It wasn’t so long ago that the corporate behemoth’s name was a four-letter word – synonymous with team sports, conformity and selling out – that was anathema to everything skateboarders stood for. As Moish Brennan, art director for Consolidated Skateboards, put it, “Nike is a huge multimillion dollar corporation that never gave a shit about skateboarding. The jocks who used to beat me up for skating wore Nikes and now Nike wants to be in with skaters? Uh-uh. It’s not going to happen. We’ve had to fight and scrimp and save, and it wasn’t so giant corporations could come along and buy their way in.”
Skaters were a troubling yet alluring demographic for big business – these kids were not out spending money in malls, but were instead damaging the same plazas that corporations like Nike built. Yet most were the white urban males that had once been its key market. As one insider noted, “Nike saw that if they weren’t communicating to this segment of the population there was going to be a huge chunk of kids growing up not knowing about Nike. And those were consumers they didn’t want to lose out on.”
While some lamented the end of the wholehearted “I think therefore I IBM” brand loyalty of the 1980s, the smart firms like Nike realized the best way to overcome it was not to argue, but simply assimilate.
Nike tried four times to get its swoosh on skaters. But the glitzy award-winning ad campaigns were pulled, its new California offices closed within months, and its lackluster offerings bombed. It tried to purchase authenticity by buying front companies like Hurley and Savier but still failed – killing the fledgling Savier in the process. Skateboarders were ambivalent about their newfound popularity. Having been portrayed as impertinent little thugs for so long, they had a healthy skepticism about their new corporate friends. Nike’s nadir was the 1997 grassroots backlash, organized by a Santa Cruz micro company, pointing out that this wasn’t just another sport they could subsume and control. Calling for a boycott against big firms “trying to break into our industry by slinging a lot of money around,” Consolidated print ads asked, “Where were these companies for the last 20 years when skaters were fighting just to legalize our sport? . . . now that skating is more widely accepted, they want to jump on the bandwagon, portray themselves as alterna-heroes and take over. If you’re a skater, and some suit-and-tie tries to buy your support, Don’t Do It.” Nike left the market within a year.
But “Nike isn’t going to keep failing at this,” lamented Jay Wilson, marketing chief of skateboarding’s oldest company, Vans, in 2002. “Skaters are much more open to the idea of Nike coming in. There’s no such thing as selling out anymore.” And Wilson was right. His own firm had quadrupled sales between 1995 and 2002 to $353 million and acquired its own music label and TV production company; suddenly the difference between old skate and Nike wasn’t night and day anymore. This retreat to the center was not lost on Nike, and in this changed climate the $12 billion corporation felt comfortable edging itself back in again, in 2000, this time as itself. Sandy Bodecker, a fifty-something executive with a bleached blond buzz cut and a penchant for punk was brought out of retirement to connect with the kids and noticed the change immediately.
“The stigma that was attached to being a big company in this world, I don’t think it’s there anymore,” the former Nike soccer executive told sneaker magazine Sole Collector in a recent interview. Bodecker was hip enough to realize he wasn’t, but he quickly amassed a group of people who were. His first target was Robbie Jeffers, the well-connected manager of Stussy, then Kevin Imamura, former editor of Warp and Stance magazines, and the wise hires went all the way down the corporate hierarchy to streetwise reps and advertising companies who, according to Thomas Frank, editor of the Chicago culture magazine, The Baffler, began recruiting anthropology PhD students to conduct ethnographies on skateboarders. Such tactics made many, including San Francisco writer and former pro skater Ocean Howell nervous. “I really objected to the Orwellian market research,” he said. “Focus groups are one thing but much more invasive tactics are becoming standard practice. A friend of mine worked at one of the major US clothing companies desperate to target skaters. Its design rooms were filled with long lens ‘sniper photos’ of skateboarders walking down the street, riding their boards, sitting around drinking soda. . . . Ordinary skaters were subject to menacing levels of surveillance.”
And the surveillance paid off. Within two years, Nike reissued the Dunk, a 1985 basketball shoe that executives discovered had been co-opted by skaters. And it kept on reissuing it – the same basic design – but with different color schemes and motifs designed in collaboration with celebrities, graffiti artists, skaters and storeowners. Playing on skate’s secret language of images and icons, the different editions soon became cult fetish objects with ‘personalities’ and nicknames like Shanghais, which contain a Chinese character, and Heinekens whose color scheme resembled that of the Dutch beer. But they kept the numbers strictly limited – stores were only able to order 24 pairs and most lines were produced in hundreds rather than thousands. According to Niketalk, just 777 of the Dunk Lucky 7 were ever made and a collaboration with artist Futura resulted in just two dozen pairs of shoes.
As Business 2.0 correspondent Jordan Robertson noted, “For now Nike focused not on volume but on cachet. Limited edition versions of the Dunk have become sought after collectables and the fastest selling shoes in the US. As a result, even the most independent-minded skate shops want to carry Nikes for huge margins.”
Nevett Steele of KCDC Skate Shop in Brooklyn, New York, said, “I was a little nervous and a little skeptical having a big company like Nike come here but Nikes were 70 to 80 percent of my sales this winter. Frankly they paid the bills this winter. This winter was very hard.”
Hollywood retailer Ted Monney noted that while he had endured criticism from some skaters, Nike was now his fastest selling line: “Call me a sell out or whatever, I don’t really care.” And as James Jebbia, owner of Supreme and Nike collaborator, put it, “Nowadays it doesn’t necessarily need to be special. As long as it’s limited, people will wait in line.”
And that’s Nike’s secret: they did it smart this time. By keeping numbers down they were able to manipulate demand, and the potential profit margins of being able to sell Dunks for as much as five times the suggested $65 retail price eroded the resistance of many independent storeowners, by as Bodecker put it, allowing them to “keep the lights on.” So you won’t find Nike skate shoes in chain stores, or the huge barn-like retail outlets where Grandma buys her trainers for her daily power walk around the mall. Nike only sells to small independent skate stores, but where once there was only two or three in a city, now there are two or three per mall.
Still, while Dunks were only available through skateboard stores, skaters were not necessarily buying them. Bodecker himself admits that 80 percent were initially bought by a different breed entirely – the stamp collectors of the sports world – known as sneakerheads.
Like 22-year-old Patrick Cheung, who has spent $10,000 to $15,000 amassing more than 160 pairs of shoes, most still in their boxes, including a $420 pair of Hemp Bonsais and a pair of Dunk vandals that you can rip open to reveal a hidden pattern underneath. Only Cheung’s are still intact. “I didn’t want to cut the shoe,” he said with a slight laugh to acknowledge the irony. “I wanted to save it for a while.”
Ask sneakerheads why they collect and most don’t really know although many use the word addiction. Academics have a variety of theories: a sense of control in chaos; a battle for immortality by preserving items for posterity; Freud regarded it as a compensation for loss; others as a minor obsessive-compulsive disorder combined with a natural drive for ownership. But one thing is clear: sneakerheads live and breathe for their “Holy Grails” – the shoes they would do anything for – from queuing up at midnight, waiting in line for 15 hours, preening their collection with baby-care products, exchanging online gossip and speculation about the next store “drop,” or buying the wrong size. Last year in Cincinnati a 17-year-old was shot in the shoulder as his friend was robbed of his Jordan’s. Fights break out, and recently in Citrus Park, Florida, a crowd charged a glass mall door.Jon Roy’s first introduction to sneakerheads was when he turned up for work to find 40 of them lined up outside his store waiting for the latest limited edition Nike Air Force One sneaker. “The kids knew we were getting the shoes. They knew more than we did,” he said. Nort co-owner Josh Franklin said police were called to his New York boutique after tensions rose among those waiting to buy a limited edition clear plastic Nike. “One of the sergeants was like ‘I don’t get this. Over sneakers?’
And sometimes even sneakerheads have doubts, like 31-year-old Jonathan Zucker, who in a 15 minutes of fame interview with the San Francisco newspaper The East Bay Express admitted that sometimes in the thrill of the chase for the latest shoe, he could go a whole year without looking at the rest of his collection, “It’s like, now here’s the next thing I’m lusting after – you kind of forget about the shoes you already have. I love my shoes, but if I had to start all over I wonder if I’d do it. There’s aspects I don’t like. I don’t want all my happiness to hinge on material things. There’s the side of me that says it would be nice to have this kind of passion for something people-related.”
But to Bodecker, the sneakerheads’ situation makes perfect sense: “While the kids may not get a chance to surf everyday or snowboard everyday, they want to be part of that world. So maybe they buy product about it. They buy the magazine, they follow the website, they watch the television.”
What he fails to comprehend is that sneakerheads are not “buying product” to complement their lifestyle, buying product is their lifestyle. Nike’s assimilation of skateboarding was so successful that the culture their shoes were designed for has been replaced in favor of the shoe. Where older skaters co-opted an old basketball shoe because there was nothing else to skate with, the new generation has consumed the shoes but ditched the skating.
Even Bodecker, however, is aware that this craze cannot last forever. “I think the reality is skating, snowboarding, BMX, whatever sports you wanna name in the ‘action sports world’ are no longer outside the mainstream. They are the mainstream. You don’t have the soccer mom anymore you have the skateboard mom.” But by co-opting rebelliousness into an obsessive-compulsive feedback loop of consumption, companies like Nike only accelerate the death of the counterculture that so attracted them. It’s hard to know if Bodecker doesn’t realize this, or simply doesn’t care, because there will always be another counterculture to exploit.
As The Vacuum’s Chris Magee points out, “[Corporations] operate on a different plane from us. They try to identify trends at their inception in the hope that they can exploit it, mass-produce it, market it. From the moment they step in to institutionalize a subculture, then the originators have already hit the ground running, moved on to something else having fled the scene. The whole sorry thing operates with the subtlety of a snake eating its own tail – the new wave of the new wave of the new wave.”
But in the information age, as trends spread virally by email and instant messaging, with professional trendspotters snapping at their heels, hurrying them and the pace of consumption ever faster, isn’t everyone, by definition, in the know? Can cool stay cool when everyone knows about it? When you can buy it at The Gap? Irma Zandl, the original “cool hunter” who invented the term alpha consumer doesn’t think so. “I’m working on a theory right now. I’m calling it ‘the center is the new edge.’ One of the things we’ve been seeing is that the edge has gotten incredibly predictable – it’s not very fresh anymore, because it’s so focused on itself.” The snake really is eating itself.
Skateboarding has entered an era where top riders sign corporate sponsorship contracts with “anti-offensiveness” and “no disparagement” clauses, mainstream television stations like espn – Disney’s sports division – show the X-Games and skateboarders shred at the Olympics. Thanks to corporations like Nike we can eat extreme pizza, drive Nissan’s X-Terra SUV, wear extreme deodorant, hire extreme consulting firms and invest in extreme equity funds. But if we are all extreme now, then where have the real rebels gone? Disappeared in a haze of Ritalin?
July 14, 2006
Birdo explains his side of the Don't Do It campaign
“The Don't Do It campaign isn't anti big-business and its not anti making-money. The premise behind it is that the large sporting goods companies are trying to cash-in on something that they didn't build.
Lets go back in time a bit. If you think about the existence of skate shops or specialty stores, they exist because whatever existing channel of distribution there was, didn't want these products.
So what I am saying is that when skaters made good "performance" skateboards, they took them to the sporting goods stores and tried to sell them. The sporting goods stores didn't want them. So the long, hard, skateboard struggle/journey begins.
Skateboard shops slowly started popping up to supply the demand and to help spread the enjoyment of skateboarding.
The skateboard manufacturers would have sold to anyone who would have bought their products, but only the core shops would.
Same thing in surfing and snowboarding.
The industry, after a lot of hard work, now had its own distribution channel.
Now the large sporting goods companies, had they gotten in from the beginning, there wouldn't be so many skater owned companies.
For the same reason there are no soccer, baseball, football, basketball player-owned sporting goods companies.
Now, these large sporting goods companies want to cash-in on what this industry had built.
Sure, its a free country, and they have every right to try...
But what's at stake?
All these "core" shops that they are being so nice to. Flying them to their campus, making them custom shoes. What do they need them for? Distribution? They already have a distribution that can serve almost everyone in the entire world!
So then what?
They need them for the stamp of approval.
They know they can't enter the industry, unless they go through these shops. But then what? They are handing these shops a knife to slit their own throats. All this ass kissing. Flying the magazines around, team manager series, exploiting core elements like the band Minor Threat, Pabst Blue Ribbon and artist shoes. So they can take our industry and plug it into their distribution.
I understand the "who cares" attitude.
Part of me wants to go that way because its hard work to fight. To spread the word. To try to show people, one by one, that the soul of this industry, the thing that attracted them to it in the first place, is in danger of getting swept away. But I know I have to.
Because the ones who are passive, become victims. I am a part of this industry, and I feel that if no one in this industry is willing to take the wheel and steer it where it needs to go, someone from outside is going to do it.
And I am not gonna let that happen. At least not without a fight."
CONSOLIDATED Skateboards, Santa Cruz, CA