A Chronicle of Doing It

Nike and Destruction
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The term today is “action sports,” and you can rest soundly knowing that there are people who can utter these words while maintaining a straight face. But within each “action sport” there runs a private language that these same individuals handle with extreme caution—they poke at words as if wearing rubber gloves. The willing outcasts of action sports want to sound every bit as resistant as they appear, and woe to the parent or corporation who plays parrot in hopes of contact. Consider the following post pulled from the Nike SB Facebook page:

Nike SB flow killer Travis Erickson is steady holding it down on the real city streets, collecting more and more raw gems. Here's a concrete collection of random clips, with lots more on the way!

It’s possible that this is the work of a well-informed advertising team, or even a highly-evolved algorithm programmed to emulate skateboarding jargon. Another option is that this is the natural language of an actual skateboarder serving as liaison between a $15 billion company and a youthful market share as fickle as it is coveted.

Whether such an ethical distinction contains a difference depends almost entirely on your subscription to what's called the “core” mentality of modern skateboarding, a kind of secular faith premised on there being something special, unique, and genuine about the activity. It's a nostalgic appeal to a pre-corporate epoch. In his rambling, insightful Quartersnacks interview, non-Nike skater Jake Johnson about nails it:

The bottom line in skateboarding is that there was a message, whether we admitted it in the first few generations of skaters or not, that came from a bunch of rebellious young kids being creative and ambitious, trying to show an unfiltered perspective on a trife society that was holding us back from being creative and ambitious … The message had to do with breaking down societal standards, and destroying personal property.

Skateboarders have been Occupying for decades, playing through capitalist centers with open disregard for both law and financial order, crossing every possible line and trying all patience. Even ignoring punk and revolutionary rhetoric, every ollie is doubly destructive—an impact followed by friction. This activity, the bang of wooden tail and scrape of shoe against abrasive griptape, is repeated until it becomes instinctual, the basis for every grind and slide that erodes concrete ledges and dents metal rails.

Like all forms of destruction, these create opportunities. Secondary markets aside, the demand for replacement boards, wheels, and trucks runs directly proportionate to devotion. Such purchases in turn fund the production of skateboarding’s primary cultural object, the team video, and it's through such media that companies create brand identities to secure loyal followings. (This is a constant, silent shame for skaters—that our official cultural objects are always, and by necessity, promotional.) With only minor exception, skate hardgoods have been in a kind of technological cryo-sleep—unlike tennis rackets or skis, today's skateboards are essentially unchanged from those ten years prior.

Footwear, however, evolves. As even the rattiest of kids can't duct-tape or shoo-goo beyond matter of months, plus given the emergence of skate culture as the current go-to well for popular imagistic water bearers, the skate shoe market spins in a rare confluence of fashion and function that we might call a no-brainer. Or goldmine. Or what Mark G. Parker, Nike's chief executive and president, did in fact call a “unique consumer segment … underserved in terms of product innovation.” Seven months ago, action sports represented $390 million of Nike's business, up 120 percent since 2007, the fastest-growing category within the brand. The company aims to double this figure by 2015. Nike is currently moving toward this goal on several fronts, including the release of the first in its Chronicles video trilogy. The appropriate term for what Nike is doing is “strategy,” a word that’ll pass exactly never through the lips of those holding it down on the real city streets.

***

Push open the heavy red door of Uprise Skateboards in Chicago and move along hardwood floors past the glass display case, between the long, neat wall of shoes and shorter wall of decks opposite, and in the shop’s deepest corner, you'll find, beneath a giant backlit image of P-Rod’s famous switch tre down the Santa Monica triple set, a wall devoted to between 40 and 50 flavors of Swoosh. Nine years ago, Uprise was among the first shops to sign on for Nike’s new skate-specific shoe line. Today they are safely poised on the topmost tier of SB accounts. It’s not a stretch to say the shop wouldn’t be where or what it is today without Nike shoes.

The quick version of the story is this: in 1996, Nike experienced what I imagine as an “Araby”-like epiphany regarding the sales potential inherent to a market with continual footwear turnover. Their first attempts at inroads, however, were failures both resounding and, for those of us wary of incorporation, satisfying. While you may recall the charming “What if we treated all athletes like skateboarders?” campaign from 1996, you probably don’t remember the Choad, something like a custom orthopedic walking shoe stretched around an overfed badger. We guffawed, they retreated, and we kept skating DCs and Emericas.

In 2001, Nike returned with two moves. First, they purchased the upstart brand Savier. Second, they introduced their first "SB" model, the Dunk, a lowcut and slightly modified version of the original Air Jordan high-top, which had been a cult favorite of 1980s vert skaters for its high ankle support. This of course made non-skater sneakerheads go drooly. After a year, Nike shuttered Savier and shanghaied its riders to the SB line, which they sold only to legitimate skate shops—no malls, no outlets. SB kept the drool coming via “quickstrikes,” hyper-limited, themed colorways that would draw overnight campers, lines around blocks, and often end up, after exponential eBay markup, in Japan. Thus did the corporate sprinkle the core with new species of customers otherwise uninterested in skateboarding. The benefits were mutual.

Midway through the oughts, in an effort to grow (their transitive verb, not mine) their market share in skate shoes, Nike introduced the “6.0” line for wide distribution—that is, not just skate boutiques. Again, the strategy was dual—6.0 would serve consumers indifferent to the Nike taboo and the premium of the SB line, by then accruing its own mythology, was only enhanced. Meanwhile, they were stacking a squad of diverse skaters by paying them at once very well, for skateboarders, but laughably, compared to most any other pro athlete on a Nike shoe contract. Their team was a curatorial dream with a relatively limitless budget. Once sufficient hype had gathered, they released Nothing But the Truth in 2007, which remains one of the empirically shittiest videos ever produced (I see you, Shorty's Guilty). Bloated, lethargic, and uncomfortably lacking any clear team identity, the video was a shrill caw from that parrot—it reminded us that we were being courted.

For many of us, the video’s stumble was sickly pleasurable in the way, say, of the Yankees missing the playoffs. It was around the same time that the “Don’t Do It” campaign reached its most fevered pitch: stickers, media coverage, and collaborative shoe models mocking Nike. But by then Nike had settled into the next phase of their strategy: devote mere fragments of their vast resources to sponsoring core events like Tampa's annual contests, growing relationships with shops and their well-respected employees and team riders (to celebrate the release of the P-Rod V, Nike flew select store owners to Barcelona and sent them out to film with assorted pros, and then treated them to a Raekwon concert), and poaching industry minds from skater-owned apparel and shoe companies, magazines, and elsewhere. Throughout, they were developing footwear that even the staunchest opponent couldn’t claim was anything short of superior from a performance standpoint, due to they’re motherfucking Nike. In 2008, at age 30, after delivering many anti-Nike lectures from my moral high ground, a lingering heel bruise broke me. When I slipped on my first pair of Blazer Lows, I was unsurprised and heartbroken at how much of an improvement I immediately felt in my aching feet.

***

With a title that’s half historical, half promissory, Chronicles Vol. 1 appears oriented around the assumption that skateboarding today is as much Nike’s as anyone else’s. From the skippable opening sequence, the video feels familiar. As it should—it’s directed by the same Jason Hernandez whose heavy hands molded six Transworld videos, though thankfully here he’s abandoned the dramatic voice-over monologues.

In terms of tricks, Chronicles is packed. Youness Amrani’s 5-0 to tre-flip off a Youness-high ledge augurs frightfully for the tech-combo movement, but both the backside noseblunt and kickflip-manny that the young Belgian pops onto a handrail backsmith earn points for thoughtful homage to Mssrs Koston and Mariano, respectively. Stefan Janoski continues his gangling dominance of early pop-outs from too-high rails, flopping languidly between regular and switchstance and rendering the unexceptional beautiful—his basic noseslide across the French bench’s top approaches the sublime. Multiple wallride slashers mix well with Daniel Shimizu’s sidewalk blazing, and Lewis Marnell, one of the few who still skate Dunks, earns his place among the leaders of today’s heelflip renaissance (though nobody alive touches Neen’s). Given the speed of Marnell’s final nollie-tre over the picnic table into the schoolyard ramp, his normal-sized-tee and pants billowing, we forgive the Aussie for self-props.

Less forgivable is Hernandez’s camera-work, which zooms and pulls away with almost drunken force, reluctant to let the skating speak for itself. Ditto for the lifestyle segments he speckles throughout: we see Childress brewing coffee on the beach; Hassler acting a fool; Shimizu reading actual books; Marnell flicking his lighter to toughen his laces against wear; Janoski wearing cardigans while hungover and Weiger exhaling into weird, placeless darkness. These moments belie the title’s confidence—how else to read them but as attempts to humanize these men, ensure that they resonate with us as characters and not cogs? Convince us that despite beefy contracts and first-class airfare, these are still skateboarders like you and me?

Except that in 2012 there’s nobody left to convince. Ultimately, what’s most interesting about Chronicles is how it throws light on drastic changes to the landscape of skateboarding over the last five years. If Nothing But the Truth rang pathetically for its overt longing to join a party, Chronicles is the host that keeps refilling snack bowls, too-aware of who’s having a good time. The chorus of “Don’t Do It” has gone silent, and we’re all dancing, laughing, and grateful for the invitation to the party—so much so that we’ve forgotten that it was originally our own.

I want very much to learn from this. To use skateboarding as the petri dish for a fifteen-year study of triumphant corporate strategy. But the longer I stare, the more I realize that there’s nothing left to learn. Recall: Nike aims to double this figure by 2015. This is about as newsworthy as the brick that falls when dropped from a roof. It makes perfect sense that the next step of their strategy is to dissolve the 6.0 sub-brand, and have this fall’s pro model shoes—the Janoski, Salazaar, P-Rod, and Koston—sold for the first time outside of core shops. Beyond a spattering of unique colorways and occasional quickstrikes for the premier accounts (including Uprise), all Nike SB will be united into one line for sale in mall shops, Foot Lockers, and the outlets the corporation will open across Asia.

If this seems cutthroat, or somehow in bad faith, it’s because of our fondness for making two rather stupid mistakes. The first is holding a corporation to the same standards we would a person, viewing Nike’s “gift” of SB exclusivity as a mark of character. The regional sales reps are tatted up, after all, and they go skating with us after meetings. The second is wanting always to believe that we are special. Nike’s miscalculation in 1997 was thinking skaters desired equality. They struck back with the SB program, which pandered to both our exceptionalist self-images, and our nostalgia for a time before Nike. They cast themselves as the opposition. How core is that?

The vacuum of unifying image that seemed a failure of Nothing But the Truth, has over time morphed into something much greater: the transcendence of image. There is no "type" of skateboarder on whom Nikes look out of place. It’s not just their pro team, of course. The individual who wrote the Facebook post above (who I happen to know and admire, and who in fact carries with him the clout of twenty-plus years working within skateboarding), together with every skater who works Nike sales and promotions and product development (who are paid well and enjoys hugely their time at Nike because who wouldn’t?), together form a kind of post-image army. To return to our earlier language, they are the leakless, hazmat gloves the corporation has slipped over its hands to handle a creative, ambitious, and destructive consumer base.

Because one of the few things skateboarders believe in is skateboarders, and currently none more than Thrasher Magazine’s 2011 Skater of the Year, Grant Taylor. From the opening sequence where he trespasses into a dormant Six Flags water park to maniacally skate the giant Tornado funnel, Grant’s closing section of Chronicles Vol. 1 is testament to all that’s good in skateboarding today. No one more than he embodies the timeless claim of the video’s title. We recognize Wallows from The Search for Animal Chin, but never a kickflip like this. We gawk at a floating, alley-oop frontside three in a vertiginous deep end of but one of the many chunky, gnarly swimming pools he handles like waders. Slayer provides the only soundtrack, and Jason Hernandez keeps it simple and full-speed. The ollie over the enormous, gaping channel into the brick bank. The suicidal drop-in to the water treatment plant, or dam, or whatever it is, deadly and concrete. By the time of his backside fifty down the curved handrail, there is no conceivable argument.

I submit that Grant Taylor is one of perhaps three skaters recognizable more by his shoe sponsor than board company. It is the same sponsor who weathered the PR nightmare of sweatshop injustice, elbowed themselves into golf and soccer, supports SOPA, and might, though they have no reason to, someday manufacture their own skateboards. Because why not. The same sponsor whose strategy will clear away the clutter of poorly- and skater-run, middling footwear companies, the inept and frail and upstart alike, acting as our free market’s grand systematic broom. Whatever Nike’s next step is, it will be, like Grant Taylor, bigger and faster. We will ignore the rubber gloves and hear the parrot’s squawk as our own. Bigger, faster, bigger, bigger, bigger.


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