GREATEST: Keith Hufnagel
In conversation with the skateboard pioneer and HUF founder on pushing the skate community and exploring HUF relics.
A lot can happen when you put two experts in the same field together; even more so when you ask them to reminisce about their heyday. And then you have legendary skater and HUF founder Keith Hufnagel and fellow storied skater-slash-streetwear designer Jimmy Gorecki (a feature alum and Hufnagel’s interviewer). The result? A whirlwind of nostalgia-filled anecdotes and a rich exploration into the history of arguably one of the most influential skate brands around. In being candid, we set up this interview pairing with a mission of having Gorecki lead Hufnagel down memory lane to encapsulate HUF’s story and its impact on skate culture and beyond. What we ended up getting was an energetic back-and-forth that spans all the above and more. If you’re a fan of HUF, Keith, Jimmy, streetwear (before it went mainstream), sneakers and skate history, this is a must-read.
Editor’s Note: After sitting Hufnagel and Gorecki down in a studio space in Downtown LA, the two immediately pounced into repartee from a seemingly abrupt starting point only sensical to each other and older generation skate-heads. That being said, and much like the two aforementioned, the conversation gets better over time.
This is something I’ve been wanting to ask you for many years: What was the DC Skateboarding Euro Super Tour [a pivotal skate tour and video that has been stated as being a formative part of many skaters’ upbringing] that you were part of, like, back in 1997?
That set the bar high for [skate] tours. The demos [local skate events where pros and amateurs showcase their skills] had so much energy. I remember, I think for our first demo—I don't even know where it was—but the guy was announcing our names and you had to drop in when he called yours and you would just, like, ollie the pyramid and the whole stadium would start roaring and cheering. You're like, “Fuck yeah, that's tight. I actually want to do more for this crowd and get them hyped up.” That would push you to be like, “Oh, I'm going to ‘tre flip’ [a combination of a backside 360 pop shove-it and a kickflip, invented by Rodney Mullen] this—I'm going to do so much more.” It was super important to skate the parks before the demo because it's all-new terrain. So to be able to get used to it was really nice and fun. It was like we're all buddies traveling in Europe, so it was super fun. It was definitely one of my favorite tours to go on.
I think you could see in the footage just how good everyone was skating.
Everyone ripped. I think we all fed off each other, off of our own energy and off the energy of the crowd. We were all excited.
That whole team had all the best guys.
Everyone was really cool. Colin [McKay] was there, [Rob] Dyrdek, Rudy [Johnson], Moses [Itkonen], [Mike] Carroll, [Rick] Howard, Josh [Kalis], Kenny Gill to name a few.
There were strong personalities and, in retrospect, that was pretty amazing to see all of these prominent pros on their way up in their career coexisting with one another.
Yeah, I mean, there were a lot of people with probably a lot of egos too, but we were kind of all friends to some degree or you got to know people.
You know, we all come from different worlds. I'm a street skater, so you don't really get to hang out with some of these dudes.
Back then, I always felt like San Francisco was missing this niche version of streetwear, so that's what we wanted to bring out there. We filled a void in a city that really wanted it.
Moving on, when did you open the HUF store?
I opened the store in 2002.
Having a foundation in skate, what made you want to jump into retail?
I was living in LA from 1998 to 2001. Keenan Milton (fellow pro skater and close friend of Hufnagel since their DVS Shoes days) passed away and I was pretty bummed out. My wife and I at the time said, “Let's get the fuck outta LA. Let's just change it up.” We decided to move to San Francisco. I'd been traveling for a decade, seeing what was happening in Tokyo, New York, LA, London. I was hitting all these major cities and seeing this streetwear and sneaker culture happening. It was all over the place.
Around 2001, I was thinking about what's going to happen after skate. What am I going to do? I know I can skate for a long time, but you don't know how long you'll be a professional for. I mean, some people do it for a long time, but I think I went in and out of being bored at times and when you go out and you try to film and get photos all day then sit in the car for six hours, it just becomes exhausting.
At that time I was talking with Anne [Freeman, my ex-wife] and she really wanted to do a women's boutique brand. She did research on it and found that San Francisco was oversaturated by women's apparel. So I was like, “Well, I'd like to do a streetwear concept store of what I see around the world.” And that was kind of how [HUF] got started. We didn't have a business plan or anything. We just made it happen and had enough connections in the sneaker and streetwear worlds to carry the right products.
We were carrying brands from England and Australia like Perks and Mini, Stüssy and Supreme. Then we carried Nike, Vans and adidas. Back then, I always felt like San Francisco was missing this niche version of streetwear, so that's what we wanted to bring out there. We filled a void in a city that really wanted it.
I felt like you were laying the blueprint for that kind of niche retail experience.
We were trying to do something different. I was traveling the world and going into skate shops all over the place, and I felt like it wasn’t as cool as skateboarding is and the brands that come out of skate. The skate shops themselves were pretty stale; they're all buying the same shit. They're all repeating themselves. We wanted to be exclusive; we wanted it to be special.
We want it to be like you walk into a store and you see things from around the world that are special and wonder how'd they get there. “How'd you get Alife in the store? How did you get Supreme?” We were also putting art in there. I remember when we opened the store I bought 10 Gonz “Priest” sculptures from Aaron Rose who had them as deadstock and then I brought them to [Mark] “The Gonz” [Gonzales]—they were all white with whatever sayings on it and I had him repaint them all. So he painted them red and yellow and then we stuck them in the case in the shop. I remember Japanese people just coming in and buying them up.
Do you remember how much they bought them for?
I think they were like $150 or $175. I don't know how much they're worth now, probably at least a thousand or two. Supreme just built life-size ones in their SF store, which is cool.
But yours were always way different. Your shop was where the trends were. I always thought that was very interesting and commendable.
I mean DVS [Shoes] allowed me to do different things (Keith was sponsored by them at the time), so I would meet up with the designers or the shoe developers and I would bring in shoes that I thought were on-trend and where I wanted to go. Then they would design from that and then we'd pick which one was best. But then the runner thing [the DVS x HUF 5 Runner], like even when we started doing shoes, I had tried to think of how to do a runner for like five years. It never came about, no one believed in it, but we ended up doing the HUF HR One which was like a boot runner.
And as of right now, there's no more HUF footwear?
We're delivering holiday footwear and then that's it, we will have no footwear going into 2020. So we're done! We're just being an apparel company and we're not producing footwear anymore, and we're still supporting a team.
I just don't think people realize how fucking hard shoes are to make.
Well, you've got to understand, whenever you want to do a size run, what do you want to do? Six to 13 with half sizes and you'll need to build molds. It's not cheap. Footwear is difficult, especially when you're small and it costs a lot of money. You can't just go in and make 50 pairs.
I mean there aren’t that many [major] footwear brands left. There are only a few and there are some new guys that have jumped into skateboarding for the good or the bad. I was looking at it like, if they're supporting skateboarders then that's a good thing. Obviously we grew up on footwear brands that were started by skaters for the most part, like Airwalk and VISION STREET WEAR and stuff like that.
I mean Vans was just a casual shoe company that skateboarders and bikers were attracted to, and Vans embraced them! Now, that's their heritage. It wasn't built for skateboarding—skateboarders took it on.
I always thought the waffle sole was particularly for skating and BMX. It's a grippy sole.
[Founders Paul and James] Van Doren built Vans as a casual shoe when they were in SoCal and then all of a sudden—because of the culture around it—people just started wearing and skateboarding in it, or riding in them and they embraced it. It's always been a lower-priced shoe, which helps out a lot because skateboarders destroy their shoes. Shoes are not cheap and when you're getting it for $120 and you're going through it in a week, your parents are not stoked.
[Laughs] That's true.
Skateboarders are creative. I mean, when I watch our guys, they glue their laces and then glue the stitch marks and they make sure that the shoe looks good and it holds up.
This shoe was just the right design for the right time for HUF, and it spoke to San Francisco and the history of the brand and where we were at that point.
So they're still using Shoe Goo?
Heavily. Or they use Krazy Glue. They just basically do the seams and they just keep it clean and it doesn't fall apart. I mean, you can't stop the sole from getting destroyed. A lot of kids have tricks on how to keep their shoes looking fresh.
Do you lean more towards the chunkier athletic shoe or the skinny cup sole?
Skinny shoes don't work for me. I have a wider foot, [so] it really depends on the model. I have a shell toe now—they're kind of wider, so it fits comfortably. But then if I get like a skinny shoe, I have to go a half a size up, or I rock New Balances a lot. I actually wear everything right now.
If you go push around today, you just wear whatever?
I have a bunch of HUF shoes that I've kept, so I do that. I have a couple of skate shoes in my closet that I just haven't even rocked. I even got a pair of [Josh] Kalis'—I was stoked that he had his shoes. I like Josh and I thought one day I'll fucking skate in his shoe and do a tre flip. [Laughs]
Let’s talk about your personal archive. You must have a lot of HUF relics!
We don’t even have the full [HUF] collection. You just can’t, man. Think about it: if you wanted to collect that you'd need more warehousing, you’d need someone to manage it, and over time shoes actually just fall apart.
What about your ‘Tie-Dye’ Dunks that recently made a comeback? Tie-dye is such a cyclical trend—what’s the story behind that for you guys?
We designed [them] when we were based out of San Francisco. Tie-dye is kind of like camo—it’s always popular to a degree, but it wasn’t as popular then as it is now. I don’t remember the full story of how this all came about, [but] I do remember that [pro skater] Sal Barbier helped us out a little bit with this, and at that time Hanni [El Khatib] was the creative director of HUF and we already had a few shoes with Nike when the original ‘Tie-Dye’ Dunk came out using SF Giants colors in the tie-dye, so putting all that on the shoe just worked.
I also remember that whenever it came out, the guys at Nike had to execute the actual tie-dying, then they picked this cracked leather that came out really good. This shoe was just the right design for the right time for HUF, and it spoke to San Francisco and the history of the brand and where we were at that point. I’ve always wanted to do another one—you never want to make the exact same shoe—but something that’s a new take on this one. Maybe one day...
Any other relics with a cool backstory to them?
This HUF hat is from Fun Skateboards—my sponsors from ‘91 to ‘93—and it was just a graphic that we came up with, [inspired by] Wonder Bread. I was at a trade show in NY and this kid came up to me and was like, “Yo, I found this in my grandmother’s garage and I wanted to give it to you so I brought it with me.” He hooked me up with it, which was very awesome!
‘Fuck It’ was more of an attitude thing. Basically, It’s part of the company’s DNA. Skateboarders have more of a “fuck it” attitude, like we don’t give a shit.
To end this on a high note, give us the backstory to HUF’s infamous ‘Fuck It’ slogan.
‘Fuck It’ was more of an attitude thing. Basically it’s part of the company’s DNA. Skateboarders have more of a “fuck it” attitude, like we don’t give a shit—we don’t care. Then it became a part of the brand’s DNA and it’s on a lot of clothes or throughout a collection. We’ve done high-end leather collections that say ‘Fuck It.’ It’s a cool saying… There are definitely some people that don’t want to carry it because of the vulgarity of it, and then there are people who love it.
Interview: Jimmy Gorecki
Introduction: Alexander Lendrum
Photography: Kalil Justin
Contributing Photography: Whest Cornell