Since the end of 2018 there have been rumors that HUF was “done”.
However, we didn’t really know what that meant (or how true it was). Were recent corporate investments having an impact on the company? Would there be any changes to the team or apparel line?
So the fact that a skate shoe brand as seemingly successful as HUF might be reconsidering making shoes just shows how difficult the skate footwear business is today.
This interview is pretty business-y. But you can consider it an Intro to Skate Footwear 101, and expect an overpriced tuition bill in the mail shortly!
There are rumors that HUF’s gonna stop making shoes. Any truth to that?
That’s correct. We made a decision to focus on apparel to grow the brand bigger and no longer make footwear. We’re skateboard fashion and we want to build the best apparel company we can be, and to do so, we have to let go of any distractions and just focus on doing that. We’ve announced it internally and we announced it to the riders. We said we would finish at the end of 2019. We let all of our people selling the product know about it.
Footwear is such a small business for us and it just doesn’t work to make it to our standards. There’s so much that goes into making footwear, including cost. We’ve been doing it for 8 years and I feel like it stayed in the same place. It became a clutch where I couldn’t work with a Vans, Nike, or Adidas because we could no longer be a partner.
It was a hard decision to make. I see a lot of DMs and things on the internet about people not understanding, but they probably never even bought a pair of shoes, they probably never supported the brand.
We may make a piece here and there, but we’re not going to make a designed skate shoe.
Where does that leave the team and your riders?
It’s case by case with every rider, but we are trying to make sure we keep the team together, and strengthen our team and be more engaged as an apparel sponsor moving forward.
We also did something unheard of. We told our riders a year in advance that this is happening and we’re going to support them all the way through 2019. Like, hey, you should start looking for a shoe sponsor, and if they want to ride for another team, I’ll rip up the contract right now.
I think we’re being a good company by doing that and helping them out, instead of being like January 1st, 2019, “We’re done, nobody gets a check, no more trips, fuck you guys.” That’s not the attitude we want. We want to go out right.
Have there been skaters in the last couple of years that were on HUF that got scooped up by bigger brands?
We lost Terps to Nike. I always loved Kevin. We were sponsoring Sage [Elsesser], Sean Pablo, and it was more of a stepping stone for those dudes. They were ripping and getting some good coverage. Then FA was taking off and they were trying to build and they just found other sponsors. It’s emotional at times because you’re trying to build something new and amazing, but look at those dudes now – they’re on top of the world, and I’m super stoked on that and happy they’re in that spot.
When kids are trying to find their way they have to put feelers out and figure out which way they want to go and understand what a company could do for you. Some of the bigger companies could hurt you because they’re too big and have too many riders or they could embrace you by giving you a lot of attention. But we have built a very special team over time and each skater is unique in their own way. Super stoked on what the HUF team turned out to be.
Now that you guys are cutting shoes and focusing just on apparel, does that mean you’re buying Lambos?
Dude, I just got a new Lamborghini.
Just kidding. [laughs] I’m driving a fucking Highlander right now, man.
I thought you didn’t buy cars anyways. I thought you just rented.
I’m a lease man. My other car is an Audi and I lease it, but I think I’m moving on to other shit. Something I could lug more shit around in.
Are cars kind of like strip clubs: after you’ve tried a couple, they’re all kinda the same?
Yeah. For me, it’s a space thing because I’m either lugging my kids around or I’m lugging Metropolitan [Keith’s other brand] boxes to the warehouse. A Lamborghini only fits one box. Those cars are fun to drive but I don’t want to be seen in it.
Were you ever a gambling type?
It’s funny, I used to gamble so much. I basically used to hang out with Dimitry [Elyashkevich] and drive to Vegas to gamble randomly. Scott Johnson would jump in sometimes too and some of the DC crew. When we started gambling, they would comp us rooms and we weren’t even spending that much money. Maybe high bets were $100, but now Vegas doesn’t comp you shit. I never gambled too much, maybe lost or gained a few thousand dollars overall, but the older I’ve gotten I don’t even want to gamble. I guess it’s an adrenaline thing, like if you’re winning it feels so awesome, but if you’re losing you’re fighting to come back and you’ll put anything down to get it all back, which is not the right way. Gambling is fucked up [laughs].
So what does your day to day job entail at HUF? You still calling the big shots?
I just basically help put fires out everyday [laughs]. It’s more of just helping everybody get things done. I’ve almost done every position there except I’ve never been CEO or CFO. I am the founder of the company so my responsibility to the company is to always make sure it never loses it vision and stays on track.
I know HUF became part of a Japanese company, TSI Holdings, in 2017, and before that HUF had kind of acquired Lakai. How did that merge affect HUF and Lakai?
The merge is just that we have a different strategic partner. For Lakai, they’re underneath HUF so they basically operate on their own, but they sit inside our office and use all of our resources.
So TSI bought HUF and then they bought Lakai?
It was a package. Altamont Capital brought Lakai into HUF. Then we’ve been helping them operate and be a stable business for the last 2 years. Then when TSI ended up purchasing their part of HUF, Lakai was part of that package.
“we’ve been helping Lakai operate and be a stable business for the last 2 years.
Were there any different opinions between you and the people at TSI Holdings about closing the sneaker program and focusing on the apparel program?
No, they’ve basically been on board with whatever decision we’ve wanted to make. There is an approval process to making these types of decisions, so we have created plans that show the ups and downs of this decision. It’s all strategic goals. When you look at the economics of the footwear program, it’s just not healthy. And it really just becomes a very small part of our business, but it doesn’t help move apparel sales and accessories.
The shoes are going to be cult in a couple years. Trends go in cycles of 10 years, right?
I think now it’s like 2 years [laughs], but yeah, 10 is normal. I’m going to stock up on shoes so that I could rock some Cromers or Huppers or whatever down the line. Wrap them in plastic and put some anti-humidity things in there [laughs]. Keep your shit on ice, man.
So for people to understand the business difficulties more, if I wanted my own pro model to come out this year, how much would it cost?
First of all, you need a year of time to start developing it, so you gotta make a design and prepare for a year or at least 6 months of development, or longer. So just to get the whole process going you’re probably spending $30-50,000 just making the shoe mold.
If you want your shoe to retail for $100, the goal is that wholesale is selling it for $50, and it costs you [the brand] $25 or less to make the shoe. That’s a keystone markup all the way through. So whatever it costs you to make the shoe you try to make double. But in skating some shoes make less like a 30-40% margin, depending on the company. If you’re in the fashion world, it’s probably double triple or more margin on some shoes.
So you have to bring costs down really low to make good money on shoes?
If you look at sneaker news, lots of sneaker brands struggle on margins. Nike and Adidas are the top two shoe companies in the U.S. and probably worldwide, and they they also struggle. They also create top top technologies for sneakers. They build or buy technology like Flyknit and run it on as many different types of products as possible and then they’ll have the exclusive on it.
Technology is a battle you’ll never win. We don’t have the resources, don’t have the money, and there are factories all over the world, mostly Asia, that develop these concepts and go and sell to Nike or Adidas. Once they buy [a technology], they own it for a certain amount of time. There’s basically no access to it because there’s all these trademarks and patents on it. There’s no way we can put that type of money into footwear.
I don’t think tech in skate shoes has been the biggest sales driver though.
Who really cares if they have Flyknit in skate shoes?
Correct. Technology is minimal [in skate shoes], but technology is attractive to the non-skater. I think the only tech that goes into skateboarding shoes is abrasion. Like, how long could your shoe last? What is the rubber compound, is it going to rip really easily? What is the insole made out of…
Skateboarding has this thing where people want board-feel and cushion. Those two things just don’t work together. You can’t really have both. Also, everybody skateboards different. If you talk to Cromer, he skates a pair of shoes for two months and they still look good, and you’re like “How the fuck do you do that?” He has the lightest flip or something. But for me, I flip my board so hard that I’ll burn through shoes. Everybody has a different need.
Off the top of your head, you got any good stories of skating New York pre-9/11?
[Laughs] Skating New York has always been wild. You put yourself in a position where people are trying to mug you or there were wild stockbrokers just throwing money at you to land tricks.
We used to skate on Water St. and there would be drunk stockbrokers coming up to us, like, “Do a kickflip, here’s $100.” They would be laughing because who knows how much money they just made in the stock market. They were just partying and being those dudes. I’m sure some of them were kooks, but some were cool, and some were just throwing money around at us because they were trying to show off. Who knows, that might happen still today.
And Stuy Town and the area you grew up around could get pretty sketchy too, right?
I just remember if you went past Avenue D it was sketchy. But we were on skateboards, and before that, I was on a bike, and for sure people were trying to rob you for your bike. You were on bike chases just trying to get away from other kids trying to rob you. You knew where you were going and you kind of had to have eyes in the back of your head because people tried to jack your shit all the time.
Did you have the opportunity to smoke a lot of crack back then?
Crack? Uhhh, I don’t think so [laughs]. We saw so many fucked up people on drugs that I stayed away from drugs for a long time. I don’t know how they talk about drugs in schools today, but they used to always talk about how fucked up kids were on drugs and how bad it was.
For me, skateboarding was my addiction and passion once I found it. There was always cigarettes, but I would skate so fucking hard and I would start wheezing from the smoke that I just stopped. For me to get a trick it takes me fucking an hour, two hours of skating and jumping on my board. I’m going to have to cough and wheeze. But everyone smoked around me and we started drinking beer. There was a little bit of weed but weed wasn’t my thing. I never wanted to get high and go skateboard.
We used to do mushrooms and go skateboard which was like the trippiest thing ever. I’ve only done it like 3 or 4 times in my life. I don’t know if it’s all in your head, but I felt like I could have done any trick on mushrooms. I swear, it’s like you just want to jump up and lipslide something. Like you’re cruising through the streets and you lipslide a rail and you just keep going down the street. Like damn, I don’t know if it was in my head and I just ollied on top of it, but I probably lipslid it and just kept going…
How are weed socks selling in 2019? The trend still booming?
[laughs] When we originally made them in the mid-2000s, we made them and nobody wanted them. We were selling them in our store, and people would come in and think it would be a good gift. We kept on making the bare minimum in different colors. We were almost like, “Maybe we should stop making them?” Then suddenly every freaking kid found out about them and it boomed.
The guy that was working at the company at the time was a gambler and he just started doing these huge orders and being able to sell through them. The socks had a little bit of a roller coaster ride of it being hot, it came down, it was hot, and now there are so many knockoffs. They’re still strong, I think now people just want to buy the authentic one now because there are so many bootlegs and fakes out there.
What do you think sold more in their heyday, the weed socks or Thrasher hoodies?
[Laughs] I don’t know man, you have to hit up Tony Vitello and break out those inventory sheets. [Socks] are more of an impulse buy. It’s $10-15, it’s easy to buy, and you’re not breaking the bank. Then a sweatshirt is like $60-100 so it’s a little bit more of a bigger buy.
So you got the Juul sock coming out next, right?
Yeah, we’ll have to update our socks [laughs].