If you grew up skating in the late 90s and early 00s, you remember when Jamie Thomas was *the* guy. You could play him in THPS, Zero felt like one of the biggest board brands in the world, and anyone that knew anything about skateboarding would always mention the Leap Of Faith. As the years went by he took a step back from the limelight, but behind the scenes he was relentless, starting Black Box Distribution and growing Mystery, Threat, Insight, and, of course, Fallen.
As skaters, we’ve all heard that these skater-born shoe companies have been hurting for a while, but it’s not until they really go out of business or finally call it quits that it hits you. Regardless of if you were a fan or not, it’s always a bummer to see something that was once so loved die out, to watch employees and skaters get tossed out and back into the uncertainty of unemployment and the rough skate industry machine.
There’s no telling what’s next for the skate shoe industry, or what’s left for the riders and employees that Fallen used to support. As things get sorted out, we obviously hope to see everyone land on their feet, but in the meantime we reached out to the Chief for a post-mortem on Fallen and for his predictions on what the future holds.
Can you tell us a little bit about the last 1-2 years with Fallen? What were the major successes and hurdles in moving to Dwindle and ultimately why you had to make this decision to kill it?
We’ve spent the last 24 months revamping the brand; we solidified a relationship with a new factory in order to improve quality and we redesigned the whole line minus a few staples. We focused on those 2 things first because they were the biggest complaints people shared with Dwindle. I also personally took the time to call as many accounts as possible to explain our plans to resuscitate the brand.
I feel like the successes were that the new designs were good and received well; but the hurdles were that the market is in a really interesting place and it seemed like no matter what we did, it was too little too late.
Sales eventually shrank to the point where they were too small to meet the minimum order quantity requirements with the factory for Fall 2016 production. When you’re at that point, you only have two options if you wanna continue. Pay massive up-charges for the small quantities or make the minimum quantities the factory requires and flood the TJ-Maxx’s & Costco’s of the world with the excess shoes.
We weighed everything out and it didn’t make sense to go further into negative numbers by paying the up-charges and the TJ-Maxx route is obviously just lame on all fronts.
So, we collectively decided we had reached the end and it was time to cut our losses.
You said in another interview: “Fallen grew really fast and shrank at the same speed. When any brand has that type of trajectory, it’s hard to make it out alive.” What years were the best for Fallen and what led to it rapidly shrinking afterwards?
Our best years were 2006 & 2007. The factors why the brand started to decline were everything you can imagine, but the economic crisis was the catalyst: increase in pricing, our factory caught fire, so we were forced to switch factories mid-season and it’s always hard for a new factory to understand the quality expectations of a skate footwear brand, this created simultaneous quality and delivery issues.
We also found ourselves in a quickly changing climate with the corporate brands putting a lot of pressure on retailers to buy more, which meant they had to cut back on the smaller brands. Some of our best accounts were also having a hard time keeping their doors open, so paying slowed down dramatically across the board, which started to impact our cash flow and marketing budget. We also lost Cole, which obviously had an impact on the sales and the perception of the brand. Basically the perfect storm of everything that could happen.
You founded Fallen as raw 100% skateboarding, that kind of hesh / handrail style skater that was down to get super broke off and put it all on the line. Do you think that type of clothing style and skater is a dying breed? Do you think that was a contributing factor to Fallen declining in sales?
Yeah, to some degree. I think skateboarding is becoming more about creativity and style because everyone can do everything. There’s needs to be something to make brands or skateboarders stand out amongst all the stuff that is coming at us. I think that fact had the least to do with the decline of Fallen, because other brands are facing the same challenges we’ve faced, it all just happens at different times.
My mission now is to keep Zero raw and combine dudes from the new generation with Zero’s style in order to continue to reinvent the brand while staying true to it’s roots. It’s also easier to fight for your stake with a board brand, cause those massive corporations can’t or don’t want to get in skateboard trenches; there’s not enough margins.
Over the years, what’s the craziest Fallen fan you’ve ever encountered or the craziest thing you’ve seen someone do for Fallen?
I’ve seen a lot of tattoos, which is always flattering but feels bizarre. My hope in creating Fallen was that it would feel more like a board brand and people could have loyalty for the mission, which is not all that common for footwear brands. I think it worked in the early years really well because of where my career was at coupled with Cole’s and the rest of the team. But over time, the team dynamic changed and spirit of the brand seemed to not matter as much.
Where does this leave your team riders now? Hopefully they can end up in good homes, even though it seems there’s too many talented pro skaters and not enough footwear spots for skaters at the moment.
Yeah, it’s not a rad situation for any of us, myself included. When facing heavy shit like this, team riders and employees have always weighed the heaviest on me, but eventually you have to face the reality that you can’t continue to look out for everyone, it sucks.
How do you feel about Tommy Sandoval’s post on Instagram about the whole situation?
I love Tommy and I love his passion for what he holds true. I don’t want to play the victim or blame anyone for what happens in my life. I learned a long time ago that life is tough and it’s not always fair; I know there are a lot of factors for the decline of Fallen.
That said, I have to acknowledge that the athletic brands continue to go out of their way to make it impossible for anyone without their resources to stay alive, which is really lame. They are cutting off the oxygen at the bottom by poaching flow riders and ams from core brands by offering them more even though they already have 50 ams and a 100 flow riders on the team. Nike has a team manager at every level and now they’ve even hired Mike Sinclair who used to manage the Dekline team as a talent scout because he’s plugged into the AM contest network and has his ear to the street.
We’ve flowed this kid from Minneapolis shoes for almost 3 years waiting for him to blossom, but when I called him on Monday to break the news to him about Fallen, his response was Sinclair called me and asked me to ride for Nike not to long ago, so I’ve been wearing them. I’m hyped he’s gonna be taken care of, but does Nike need everyone that is good at skateboarding? This makes it impossible for authentic skate brands to nurture the next generation of talent, so our fates are eventually sealed by our bros that now work for Nike.
If an investor came along and wanted to revamp Fallen or buy the name, would you let it live on through someone else’s control like a World Industries?
In my eyes, that would be the worse case scenario.
Before Fallen you were riding Circa during it’s heyday. You must have had one of the biggest shoes in skateboarding. How much were you making back then from Circa footwear and what led you to walk away from that money and start Fallen?
[Laughs] I don’t like to talk about money, but it was more than I ever could’ve imagined; that’s how I started Black Box.
I left Circa because we were supposed to launch a new sister footwear brand based on the momentum of my line, but they had some massive issues with their snowboard brands, which put them in a serious cash crunch. They quickly canned the new brand and they weren’t able to pay me for about 3 or 4 months. As that balance started to stack up, they didn’t know if or when they be able to pull out of it and pay me, so the longer it lasted, the sketchier it got. Going to DC to start Fallen didn’t seem risky at all, you can feel it when the time’s right.
Is it true that you still have an ownership stake in Circa?
Yeah, as crazy as that is; when I left to start Fallen my stock was fully vested and they weren’t in the position to buy me out, so it’s just been there chillin. I always hoped they’d sell, but it’s been a rollercoaster for them since Muska and I left. Hopefully, they pull it off though and a few bucks will fall from the sky some day.
I thought Circa was sold at some point already and people cashed out? Has it always been the same owners since you started with them?
Nah, things got really rocky a few years ago and they pretty much closed shop, but I think the owner of the factory stepped in and took over in exchange of the debt and resurrected it.
Did you get some ownership when Adio footwear started too?
Nah, Adio was owned by K2, which bought Planet Earth. K2 made skis and rollerblades and even though Chris Miller was running the show, it was always felt a little weird cause at the end of the day your future was in the hands of a Ski/Rollerblade company.
Where does that leave you now for a shoe sponsor? Would you ride for Adidas, Nike, Cons or Vans?
I have nothing lined up, I’m just gonna keep wearing Fallen’s and try to not think about it for a bit. I have quite a few projects I’m working on that I’m excited about, so I’m just gonna focus on those. Also, I haven’t really been paid for the time I’ve invested in Fallen for about 3-4 years, so there’s not a lost salary I need to make up for.
The weird thing is, I think all of those brands you mentioned are undeniably solid besides the fact that at the top everything is about money; they make great stuff, have amazing teams, support industry events and they take care of their people. That said, I’m not sure I fit the mold for any of those brands though besides Vans; they’ve always been a skate brand. Vans has a massive team though with several dudes that share a similar history to mine. I have principals and beliefs about the brands I’d like to support, but that’s not my purpose for living. The trick is to balancing those beliefs while continuing to do what you love and take care of your family.
Nike has been in skateboarding for over a decade. Do you believe that they will stay here for a while or eventually leave?
I don’t think they’ll leave anytime soon. Even if things contract a lot, I feel that they’ll still find ways to make sense of being here; their roots are getting deeper by the day and skateboarding influences pop culture, so my theory is that they’d stick around to use skateboarding as a marketing tool to make their mass market business seem edgy and cool, which it undoubtedly does.
Looking back do you think you got too greedy or went over your head starting so many companies?
[Laughs] I don’t think it was greed, but I’ll admit I was definitely overly ambitious. I never really cared about how much money anything made, I was just obsessed with progression. I guess I had to figure out my limits the hard way.
If you had a new skate shoe brand would you ever consider having Forrest Edwards being the “lead” pro?
[Laughs] Forrest is an amazing skateboarder and a funny ass dude, but he’s not a leader.
”I wanna be looking like Willie Nelson and still grinding rails”
How much does Fallen folding personally have an impact on you? Do you plan on skating much longer into your 40s as a professional skateboarder? Do you still have video parts in you?
I’ve been fighting an uphill battle with Fallen for years. All the time with the pressure that if I don’t work around the clock and do everything possible Fallen may not make it, so as hard as it was to make the calls on Monday, it’s a relief that I can finally moving forward with my life.
I went skating yesterday for the first time since the news broke and everything felt better, I felt lighter. Physically, I feel good; I have my ailments and have to stretch a lot in order to warm up, but I’m at my best when I’m working on a video part or a project, so I’m gonna keep that going till I can’t. I wanna be looking like Willie Nelson and still grinding rails [laughs].
Any highlight era or memories from the years?
Man, the early days were amazing because it all felt so fresh and new and there was nowhere to go but up. Working on projects are always the best times for me; traveling with the team filming for Ride The Sky, those were great times. Everything seemed so simple back then, no Instagram or social media to worry about. Just bros out skating pushing each other. Filming for ‘Road less Traveled’ was amazing too, we got to go to a ton of amazing places, see stuff we never thought we’d see and make lifelong memories.
How do you want Fallen to be remembered in skateboarding? What are you most proud of?
I want Fallen to be remembered as a brand for the underdogs, the die hard skate rats. I don’t feel like now is the time to be proud. I’m extremely thankful for all of the experiences and good times I had with the team and the employees through the years.
You signed off “Skate or Die” at the end of your Fallen press release. If you couldn’t skate, or didn’t own any brands anymore, would you consider killing yourself?
Probably! [laughs] Nah, I would further devote myself to my family and even if I wasn’t skating I’d be replaying the times when I was skating in my head. I am a lifer and skateboarding is what I know and love. That was a message to those who are feasting on skateboarding, but don’t skate.