Keith Hufnagel ist ein außergewöhnlicher Charakter im Skateboarding, der viel zu erzählen hat. Im Heft mussten wir das Interview des Mannes, der um die Jahrtausendwende in San Francisco einen eigenen Shop eröffnete, aus dem dann schließlich eine Schuh-Company wurde, ein wenig kürzen. Das was Keith gesagt hat fanden wir allerdings zu gut, um es euch vorzuenthalten. Deshalb hier in der ausführlichern Version und vor allem im O-Ton.
[Interview: Oliver Tielsch & Stefan Schwinghammer | Fotos: Jascha Mursin]
Let’s start with HUF. When did you first have the idea to start it and what did you want to achieve with your own brand?
It was around 2000. I was living in San Francisco, and I guess you could say it was a combination of multiple things going on at the time. HUF was really just an idea for starting up a project beyond everyday skateboarding itself – not necessarily outside of skateboarding – but something like an extension of skateboarding for me. It was never any sort of concocted master plan or anything like that, but more so just a concept for a shop that I thought the city was lacking at the time, somewhere that all the homies could just come and chill and meet up to go skate, and somewhere we could curate and carry brands that I thought were putting out the best gear at the time. It was a project I could focus on anytime I was feeling burnt out on skating, and something I could potentially fall back on after I retired. I honestly didn’t know anything about retail or business when I first started out, but just saw it as an opportunity and kind of took everything I had learned from growing up in the skate industry. I never had big visions set out to have this huge brand – it really all just happened organically over the years to where we’re at now. I’m stoked.
When and why did you decide to risk the step and start your own shoebrand?
This was back in 2009-2010. We’d had the HUF shops for some years at that point, and were seeing a positive response to the apparel we were putting out. I had actually wanted to make footwear for a long time, since back when I was on DC, but I obviously had no first-hand experience in actual production. Fortunately I had learned a lot from working with footwear brands that I had directly been a part of in developing pro models, as well as working on collaborative footwear pieces involving various brands and the HUF shop. I guess the turning point was seeing a lot of the major corporations move in and just completely start eating up the independent skate shoe brands, not to mention local skate shops. It was fucked. I thought it was a good time to start taking skateboarding back for skateboarders, and was in a relatively good position to do so. Believe me, it is no walk in the park trying to launch a new footwear brand, especially in today’s market, so it was definitely a huge risk – we left a lot of money on the table to be able to start HUF Footwear, but it was a risk worth taking. I just knew I wanted to establish something in which I could remain involved with skateboarding after I couldn’t physically skate any longer, and hopefully lend a hand in a positive direction for skateboarding.
I thought it was a good time to start taking skateboarding back for skateboarders, and was in a relatively good position to do so
It’s a big step from a shop in San Francisco to a worldwide shoebrand, but your output was always fresh. How do you come up with ideas and who is involved?
Yeah it is a whole new world now. The shops were super fun but in the end they were just the seed that started this company. I guess you could say that our approach, or the key that keeps us fresh, is really just to remain independent and skater-owned & operated—for us, maintaining that independence is really the driving force for creativity. Once you lose that creative freedom, have to censor yourself to please or appeal, that fire that drives fresh output begins to fade—then you just begin to become like everyone else. We do like to maintain a clean aesthetic, but we also want to keep people on their toes, try to shock a bit once in a while. [laughs] We have a whole design team that works here at HUF. There are 5 people designing apparel and 3 people designing footwear. I still sit in the design room everyday, but there is a whole team of us that is responsible for the designs. Ideas really just come from everyone’s different history and having crazy concept meetings just battling around with designs.
Every skater owned shoe brand seems to go through troubled times right now, besides HUF. What is your secret?
Ha, yeah right! We’ve had our fair share of bumps in the road and we continue to have bumps in the road every single day. Nothing comes easy. You really need to work hard at the business, just like everything you do. When it comes to making product here, we really just try to address every single detail before putting it out. The secret is to work hard and make sure everything involved with the brand is pointed in the same direction. You just have to stay positive and move forward, there’s really not much else you can do. Much easier said than done. I guess one of the major benefits of being an independent brand is that you don’t have to deal with all the bullshit and hoops to jump through that you encounter in big corporations. We don’t have to answer to anyone but ourselves, you know, we approve our own designs.
I guess one of the major benefits of being an independent brand is that you don’t have to deal with all the bullshit and hoops to jump through that you encounter in big corporations
Marc Johnson said some honest words in an interview lately. How do you see the future of skateshoe companies?
Basically, the way I see it, the future is here now. It’s sad to say, but the „big 4“ own the shoe industry for skateboarding right now. Some of those big corporations are just trying to stake a claim in skateboarding now that it has become popular and „acceptable“ with the mainstream, now that there is money to be made. And those corporations are moving a lot of money around within the industry. There are two sides to this though. On one hand, it is amazing seeing skateboarders finally being sufficiently paid for all the hard work they put in. But on the other hand, we’ve seen what happens throughout skateboarding history once skateboarding becomes unfavorable with the public – those corporations see no more profit, pull out without blinking an eye, and create a vacuum in our community that completely fucks us over. I think in the end we will be able to take a good share back from the corporations, but you have to remember that because of this shift, skateboarding has also changed. So for us independent, skateboarder-owned brands to compete, we need to also adapt and come up with a better approach. It’s here that I see an advantage to being independent, as we have much more creative control and leeway. I mean, you’re not going to see one of those corporate brands release product that says „Fuck It“ – they simply can’t. So fuck it, let’s take advantage of that creative freedom. It’s to our advantage that we can come up with better, more creative product, maintain more quality control, and create new trends.
What was the most valuable lesson you learnt over the years?
Oh man, there are millions of lessons I have learned over the years. I guess one of the most important ones is really just to not lose focus no matter what is happening. We all know what it is we want to do, at least somewhere deep down, even if we’re embarrassed to admit it. So you have this dream, or goal, or whatever it is you want to call it and you aim all of your focus towards achieving it. You don’t make any compromises and you don’t worry about making any money doing it or about what others think or about ever even being successful because of it. You just do what you love because you need to do it, because it is burning a hole inside of you, and you concern yourself solely with doing that thing well. And as long as you maintain that focus, drive all of your energy towards what you want to make or achieve, that effort becomes your art, your name, its own currency, becomes something valuable and at the same time priceless. Life is going to be hard regardless, it will go up and down and in and out, but as long as you believe in what you are doing it is all going to be worth it.
You just do what you love because you need to do it, because it is burning a hole inside of you
Some people think, there is to much fashion in skateboarding nowadays and it should be more dirty again. What’s your opinion on that?
Well essentially there is every style in skateboarding, so I don’t think you can necessarily say there is too much or too little of one thing or another. I think we are at an important era in skateboarding where variety of style is embraced more so than ever. Skateboarding has become so big, has so many niches, that everyone can find their own place within the community. It wasn’t always like this. Skateboarding has gone through some harsh periods where you were either in or you were out. Personally, I’m psyched to see all of the different trends in skateboarding right now. It is super accepting of all types of people and that makes it all the more powerful. I don’t see a difference if someone wants to be fashionable or wants to be dirty or wants to be whatever – this is skateboarding and we all started doing it to express ourselves. Some people express themselves through tricks and some do through fashion and some by being a fucking dirtbag. I like seeing it on all levels.
Is it true, that the socks are the best selling item in skateshops right now?
I think it is really a case-by-case issue. We get all kinds of feedback from shops – sometimes it is our hats that are selling best, sometimes it is the socks… Whatever it may be, we’re just stoked to be able to use that money and pump it back into making new product, what we want to make and think is cool. Hopefully one day that best-seller will be footwear!
Pornstars, ganja leafs, bongs – parents won’t like stuff like that, but skaters are hyped. Do you want to be controversial, or is this just the HUF lifestyle?
[Laughs] I am not trying to be controversial. We actually hold back a lot of things that we could have put out, but that we just didn’t think was our overall vision. In the end, we’re not going to sugarcoat anything just to be able to sit on shelves inside of a mall. Kids are smart, they know what is going on, and that is just life… we aren’t going to pretend they don’t know about this shit. When you grow up as a skateboarder, out on the streets everyday you are exposed to things that your parents would probably prefer you never knew about. But it is just reality. So in the end we just put out items that make up our surroundings everyday… They may be edgy at times, but that’s not really the only point. We design product to reflect our community, and focus on just making it the best quality we can. We have to bring the skateboarding attitude to this brand because that is what it is and who we are. We have to be forward, but in the end, we are not just about the items you suggested, because we have a huge collection beyond just that. Skateboarding involves being dirty and rebellious and drugs and music and girls, but it is also much more than that. That’s what we are trying to encapsulate, and that’s what HUF is about.
In the end, we’re not going to sugarcoat anything just to be able to sit on shelves inside of a mall
Do you think the skate industry right now is to p.c. and there should be more early 90’s flavour, with beef between brands and a „who gives a fuck“ attitude?
Yes. Skateboarding is soft right now. I’m not going to contradict myself, as I mentioned earlier that I am stoked to see all walks of life involved in skateboarding these days. That is not what I am referring to. I just think that with big corporations moving in, catering to the greatest common denominator for profit, they have to censor themselves – which is in direct contradiction to what skateboarding is all about. The moment you have to censor an image or a „bad word“, it is not skateboarding anymore. As I mentioned before, we all started skateboarding in order to express ourselves. Once you take away the freedom to express yourself, you kill that creative spirit, which is the essence of skateboarding. There are a few cool brands that maintain that spirit, but most nowadays are too soft. It is just like skateboarding – people used to get beat up if they said dumb shit or if they snaked you at a park. Now they are getting a pass. Times have changed.
You put together a team of stylish, real street skaters. What are you looking for, when you hook up a new skater?
Hands down, I am always looking at style. Without style, a skateboarder is just a robot, and that is most apparent in current times. Any kid can do any trick nowadays, it is ridiculous. But style is something natural, or something that shows you actually think/care about what you are doing. On top of that, you have to be cool. I don’t mean someone who is a favorite among the message boards or TV, but someone who is just down for skateboarding, humble, and can hang with the crew. I don’t want to put some cocky asshole on the team—there are too many of those out there that are getting the job done just fine. It’s about style, originality, and personality.
Everybody thought Austyn would be on Cons and Dylan on Vans. How did you manage to get them on HUF?
I gave them what they wanted. Money talks, but it can’t sing and dance…