A History Lesson In Sportswear vs. Workwear Within Skateboarding


The current state of skateboarding is a curious place. Lead by a small group of big brands originally shunned by the inner few, much of the industry struggles to appeal to the pockets of vigilante tranny builders keeping core brands alive and well in the relative periphery. But really, has it ever been any other way, or do we just like to imagine it that way?

Throughout the '80s and early '90s Nike was a major player in the skate shoe scene—hell, the swoosh was worn by the illustrated figure on the first ever Thrasher mag cover, believe it or not—although some would argue this was simply due to lack of alternative options. A general lack of commitment by Nike higher ups and a drought of national interest caused the brand to cut ties with the industry by 1996. However, riding the rise of skateboarding popularity in the early aughts, they jumped back in in 2001, this time sneakily under the guise of Savier shoes. Although they signed heavyweights like P.Rod and Brian Anderson, Nike shuttered Savier in 2004. Around this time Adidas also called it quits on their skate shoe effort as well—although to be honest, not many were disappointed to see Simon Woodstock disappear. Sure, this is all well known and widely discussed now that the two brands have a firm hold on the skate shoe industry, but while we recognize the struggles of sportswear brands, did anyone actively pay attention to the industry's unannounced interest in workwear brands like Carhartt and Dickies during this time?

Well, like Nike and Adidas, workwear brands were heavy in the skate scene in the '90s and well into the early '00s, at which point their involvement died Stateside. However in Europe in the late '90s, a distribution network for Carhartt—Work in Progress—was established, which lead to a new European-exclusive product line that greatly appealed to and actually embraced the growing skate scene. Sold almost exclusively in Scandinavia and Western Europe, the WIP brand built a strong following within the skate community, with few batting a lash at the concept of allowing a large corporate entity into the inner circle. The brand even grew strong enough to jump the pond, opening their first American storefront in NYC in October of 2011—although admittedly, this shop has little to nothing to do with skateboarding.

Similarly, Dickies felt a rise in interest amongst European youths in the '90s as well, keeping the American workwear brand relevant through the decades. And now in mid 2012, building on this longstanding loyalty in this counterculture, Dickies launched a skate-specific program, officially sponsoring such skaters as Jim Greco—who actually left the program recently for untold reasons—and Vincent Alvarez, Kevin Terpening and Tom Remillard. Now while all this may seem like extraneous information, we again raise the question; why have Carhartt and Dickies been welcomed into the industry, when brands likes Nike and Adidas struggled through multiple rejections and brand iterations?

The answer may be as simple as taking one look at Jake Phelps, Editor in Chief of Thrasher Magazine. No doubt one of the most eccentric personalities in the industry, The Phelper holds what many believe to be the end all, be all in terms of skateboard opinions. And aside from his iconic Ray-Bans, little personifies the aging character quite like his Carhartt vest. Donned in sweltering heat and bitter cold alike, the vest is a symbol of the blue collar life, singularity and hard work—common themes in the skateboard world. Same can be said for Dickies. Workwear as a term alone even sounds more bad ass than sportswear. After all, few like to think of skateboarding as a sport. So, in short, one man's opinion on the subject seems to align with the concept of intent. Nike and Adidas want to capitalize on the industry, Carhartt and Dickies no doubt want to as well, but their approach seems to have flown under the radar.

In the end all these brands, and more to come in their space—ahem, New Balance, who is taking a transparent route by distributing through Jaime Thomas' Black Box—are involved whether anyone wants them to be or not. However, it is interesting to discuss their point of entry, which might in fact give some insight into their longevity in the game, and ultimately, what their exit strategy may be if skateboarding continues to follow its own history and takes another run at Natural Selection in the near future.