The goal was, of course, to do an ollie. Then you knew you would have made it. As a wannabe skater in the 1990s, I could never manage this basic boarder move. Growing up in the not-at-all mean streets of Guildford, skating seemed like it could magic carpet me away from the weight of suburban apathy. Or at least make me feel cool. But I was impatient. Instead of honing my craft, I hung around the skateboarding shops, such as Route One, staring longingly at the skatewear. Those shops were so captivating for a teen looking for some trouble. I remember looking through the racks of sweatshirts and trainers looking for something, an identity I suppose. I must have picked up the same pair of purple Vans a hundred times, so many times, in fact, that I think the staff were convinced I was a shoplifter. In the corner there was a miniscule monitor on permanent loop, showing prolific skaters doing all manner of impossibly difficult manoeuvres. And the sound system blasted out Self Esteem by The Offspring.
I was in awe of a world dressed by Dickies and Stussy. A world I could see but couldn’t really touch. Niall Kenny, a director and lifelong skater, unpicks the allure for me: “Skatewear is cool because it comes from a skill someone has,” he explains.
These days this cool has seen skater brands like Palace and Supreme pierce the mainstream as the fashion world co-opts its aesthetic. Marc Jacobs and Topmanhave attempted to put their own mark on skating culture while high-profile models like Cara Delevingne, Natalie Westling and Daria Werbowy also skate.
“Fashion has adopted the cultural values of the skating subculture,” says Maude Churchill, senior editor of streetwear and fashion website Highsnobiety. “Now it’s suddenly transferred into a mainstream way of dressing.” It’s a bone of contention amongst the self-sufficient skating community, as Kenny explains.
“Kenzo did a show in Paris with a model walking down the catwalk holding a skateboard the wrong way. They have no connection to skateboarding and are not doing anything for the industry. They just think it’s cool; that annoys me.” This “trickle down” economy is an important philosophy in the skating community. As Eirik Traavik, editor-in-chief of Dank magazine, explains: “Not only do skaters make the clothes but the skating brands also make the videos and the adverts, so it ultimately feeds back into the skating world itself.”
Although it is questionable whether the fashionistas taking note has been a good or bad thing, skatewear brands have also experienced a peak in mainstream interest. Palace, the DIY-spirited label started by skater Lev Tanju has just opened its flagship store in London. It follows in the wake of Supreme, the hip New York skating label, which opened its first London store a few roads down in Soho in 2011. The previously hard-to-get brand whose cool credentials were impeccable (collaborations with Larry Clark and Jeff Koons, worn by Kendrick Lamar) was suddenly easily available. “When they opened the store, everyone was wearing their clothes, not just skaters,” says Jamie Hopper, store manager of Slam City Skates in East London. “It’s really opened up and people who weren’t skateboarders started wearing the stuff.” Skatewear has now become streetware, worn by everyone including the HD (Hipster Dad) brigade, who can afford it. Adam Horovitz’s character, Fletcher, in While We’re Young is a case in point.
Palace, for example, have seen a bump in interest after the likes of Drake andASAP Rocky sported their pieces. With their dreamy aesthetic (they work with VHS video and their designs have a hazy, nostalgic feel about them), Palace began as a grass- roots company, which is echoed in the vaguely affordable pieces – logoed T-shirts start at around £35. The story goes that founder Tanju was disillusioned with the way skate brands were going so he decided to start his own company. Named ironically after the dilapidated state of their living accommodation, Tanju and his crew began printing their own T-shirts.
“Lev just makes clothes he wants to wear,” explains Kenny, who directed a film about the brand in 2011. In it, Lev explains his own criteria: “I like people who wear whatever they want to wear and don’t give a fuck about anything.” He also echoes the food-chain ethos of the skating community. “All the money goes to the skateboarders to do what they do.”
Part of the reason their clothes became so popular was the fact that they were hard to find in the skating shops. “What’s so desirable is that they are elusive,” says Churchill. “You don’t know what’s going on, they don’t push themselves.”
Traavik doesn’t think the opening of their first shop will lose Palace any cool points. “They’ve got a good team and they’re not too serious about things,” he says. “I don’t think the store will have a negative impact on their credibility.”
On the day of the opening I pop down to see for myself. It’s located on Brewer Street, on the parallel road from the Supreme store and sort of opposite a sex shop. The location feels like its part of the old Soho and not the creep of gentrification that has plagued the area, which feels significant. The queue skirts round the block and the shop’s policy of letting no more than five customers in at any one time means that we’re left lined up for three hours after the 11am opening time. Everyone looks young: solvent teens from the home counties, as I was, dressed in a mixture of sportswear, bucket hats and Supreme gear who have travelled down especially for this.
“I was HYPED!,” says Jamie, 18, from Cambridge, who has somehow been in and out of the store three times already. He’s spent £300 on socks, keyrings, a couple of T-shirts and hats. I feel like he might do well on Supermarket Sweep. Like some of the others I talk to, Jamie’s not a skater. “There are two sides to Palace – the stuff that’s for the skaters and the stuff that’s for the other people,” says Alex,18, from Chelmsford. “That’s where their revenue is going to come from, the fashion side, so they’re going to have to keep going.” They both mention that the appeal of Palace is the simplicity and the “basic design” of the clothes.
When I finally get to enter the hallowed shop it is something that’s echoed on the shop floor: a minimal number of clothing racks, a monochrome marble floor and a feeling of scarcity. No wonder it felt as if everyone who entered the shop left with something. So do I. I’m surprised, though, after three hours of queueing, that I couldn’t feel less like buying into the Palace cult and yet my eye catches a couple of items: Palace socks and a long-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with psych-country crooner Will Oldham’s snaggle-toothed image on it (one of his band monikers was, you guessed it, Palace). Incidentally, Supreme used an image of Neil Young. As I go into the changing room, I spy HRH on the wall. I kind of love these funny, self-knowing reference points. So I buy the T-shirt, feeling slightly as though I’ve fallen under a mass delusion. But maybe that’s OK. “Everything loses its exclusivity after a while,” Alex tells me “but for right now, Palace represents this culture.”
It strikes me that Tanju, his crew and what they’ve done is an actualisation of what I desperately wanted all those years ago. The appeal of Palace is that outlaw gang thing: doing what the hell they want to outside the mainstream, but being paid for it. For the teenage wannabe skater in all of us: who doesn’t want that?