Maybe you’re old enough to remember a time when Zoo York was the coolest thing in skateboarding east of the Mississippi, but it’s no secret that the Zoo York of today is far removed from the cherished brand of yore.
Surely you’ve noticed them backsliding into a heinous mall-brand over the last couple of years. You might have even bought one of their shirts on super sale at a Burlington Coat Factory, either out of nostalgia or some optimistic impulse to help them mount a comeback.
But, if you’ve stumbled upon their Instagram recently, you’ll know to abandon all hope that they’ll return to their roots–their shit is even weirder than ever.
Scroll through their offerings and you’ll see they started selling yoga leggings, and their account is plagued with poorly cropped skate photos with cringy lingo (like “tricked out,” or “take it back to the streets”). Hell, one of their latest posts is just of a girl watering a plant with a super soaker. So, how did one of skateboarding’s most iconic brands go from making mixtapes with Method Mad and Harold Hunter to full kook?
Like New York City itself, Zoo York has survived by hustling and evolving. Started in 1993 by Eli Gesner and Rodney Smith, who took the name from one of NYC’s oldest skate crews, Soul Artists of Zoo York, the brand fostered amazing skateboarders, created iconic ads and videos, and came to represent East Coast skateboarding most raw and purely.
Even after being sold to Marc Eckō in 2001, Zoo still maintained its gritty ethos and respected roster, and while the “brand management company” Iconix, Zoo’s owner since 2011, trimmed much of the skate program down, they still took newer guys on tours, sponsored some events and premieres, and as late as last year were collaborating with actual skate brands like Bronze.
Zoo deserves more than to be shoved in a shitty nursing home, so we reached out to the skateboarders still in contact with the brand to get some answers as to the weird Instagram posts and products.
RB Umali, who filmed Zoo York’s defining full-length, Mixtape, was still working on video and social media content for Zoo until JP Blair (Zoo must have a thing for initials, huh?) took over his role in 2016. Umali confirmed there is no Zoo York U.S. team any longer, and Zoo is not currently sponsoring any skateboarders in the U.S. He said there are smaller teams in Australia, Brazil, and possibly Japan, but those are arranged by local skate distributors.
For someone who saw the brand grow from its very beginning, Umali is sad to see where Zoo York is at today. “I’m grateful for the ride with Zoo York and everything they’ve done for me,” he said. “I spent more than half my life working for this brand I cared so deeply about. It’s a shame to see their posts on Instagram and a skater’s head is cut off.”
JP Blair traveled with the mix of Zoo York and Bronze 56k riders to Spain early last year to film a video that was supposed to spark a comeback for the brand, until Iconix cut the skate program almost entirely. “We were gonna revamp this shit, try to make it cool again,” Blair said. “Then the former Zoo York brand manager told us it wasn’t looking so good. Everyone’s paycheck got cut, then, two months later, they said by the end of the year (2017), everyone was gonna be laid off.”
After the former Brand Manager left in January 2018, Blair, Buggy Talls, and Kevin Tierney were kept on to produce skate content for Zoo’s Instagram account. But after Blair left in May of this year, he said the IG account was taken over by an Iconix employee not previously involved with the brand or skateboarding at all.
Iconix’s decision to let a non-skateboarder run Zoo’s Instagram might have gone over well with their marketing team, but all it takes is poorly cropped photo of a guy doing a kickflip for skaters to notice something is wrong, and they don’t hesitate to call them out. Comments like, “The afterlife looks pitiful 😢😥😓😨,” and “Y’all going outta business right?,” have been flooding their posts.
We reached out to the former brand manager to ask if he had any more detailed information about why Iconix essentially stripped Zoo York for parts, he didn’t have any additional insight. Talking to others who had been with the brand, most didn’t think Zoo’s skate program would ever return to what it had been for so many years.
So while the remaining stock of Zoo York boards slowly sells off, and all traces of skateboarding leave the brand, any fans looking to get nostalgic can at least listen to this 10-hour “It’s The Zoo York” mixtape and pretend like everything’s alright.