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Words/interview: Renko Heuer
Skating the Brooklyn Banks in his hometown NYC, then bombing hills in San Francisco, sporting that “helmet hair”, representing the Real crew (and Metropolitan!), and popping bigger Ollies than anyone else – Keith Hufnagel was easily one of the most impressive skaters of the nineties, and yet, he hasn’t slowed down since the dawn of the new millennium: what began with a series of Huf retail stores in SF soon turned into a streetwear empire, then into a proper footwear brand with its own distribution network, and just recently he added one of the sickest teams in the game (Austyn, Dylan etc.). We caught up with the LA-based brand owner and Real pro when the Huf x Thrasher Stoops Euro tour came to Berlin and found out what we should’ve known all along (watching his Ollie skills): He loves it when everything’s under control.
I’ve always wondered how it must have felt to come to the West Coast in the nineties, especially since the whole approach and style seemed to be so different from what was happening back East?
Yeah, I mean for us it was just about being able to skate new terrain, so we were excited about it. Coming from a different place, I had a different style of skating and I had a different style of clothing. We were just more driven from the music and the art that we were looking at, so we were taking that and bringing that out to the West Coast. I mean, there was no internet; there were only the magazines and VHS tapes. There was also MTV, where we probably got a lot of our stuff from, but that was it.
So for the first years, did you still feel like an East Coast skater – now doing stuff on hills, for a change?
Yeah, we were extremely excited to skate hills, and to skate Embarcadero – it’s kind of like letting a kid go into a candy store: you’re just like “holy fuckin’ shit, this is amazing!” Pushed into this different kind of culture, we started picking up the styles that were happening over there, too, you know? Just seeing people like Mike Carroll and Rick Howard, all these people skating…
Wasn’t Sheffey one of your heroes before that?
Yeah, Sheffey, man. He was huge. I used to see him in New York as a kid. He was just out on the street, in front of a skateshop, doing Ollies and stuff, and I was always like that’s what I want to do. He was sick.
What happened to him?
He’s in San Diego. Actually he still skates, and he has a kid. I don’t know what he does, but he’s still, like, around.
But so you didn’t miss the Brooklyn Banks, for example?
Not at that point, no. There were so many things to explore, and then I also did go back for a while.
For two years.
I basically went to SF in 1992 to go to school.
To study what exactly?
I did art. And that’s about it. I just…
Did you graduate?
No, I didn’t. I turned pro six months into college, and they were like, “You have to start traveling,” so… well, actually I went back to New York for six months, to go to night school at The Fashion Institute, and then I just started not going to classes again, so I just was like: fuck it. Then I moved back, and that was also when I fully moved into SF. That was probably in 1993, and then I was there for the next three or four years.
So nowadays you never go back to SF? Only LA?
Yeah, we just go visit friends up there, but it’s not that I have to go up there all the time. There’s no business there for me, except visiting Deluxe and saying what’s up to everyone.
How involved are you with Real these days? You’ve been on that team for such a long time!
Yeah, this is my 20 year anniversary. 20 years of having a board on Real. I talk to them a lot because I sponsor riders from Deluxe, and I just really want to see Deluxe do well. It’s really about helping each other out, basically. They somehow want to keep my board on there for a while, so that’s fine with me.
Well, my skateboarding is not what it used to be, but I have no pressure. I say I’m retired so I’m just skating for myself, for fun…
Having a board is not exactly retired, though.
Yeah, but I don’t have to perform at that level. I can do what I do, and I’m not trying to kickflip into a grind and kickflip out or whatever. I just want to do Ollies and Lipslides and things that feel natural and easy – and push myself a little bit, but not try to kill myself.
So doing those huge Ollies is still the most fun for you?
Pretty much. Just going fast and doing some controlled tricks. And because I live in Downtown LA I still actually skate street, although I do have the privileges of going to places like The Berrics or going to peoples’ skateparks sometimes, which I also do.
Let’s talk about business: what made you decide to open the first store – and why in SF?
Well, I had been in LA before that, and things had turned pretty bad, like, Keenan had passed away, and so we were like, “Let’s get the fuck out of LA”. I think I was sort of getting bored with skating, the repetitiveness of it, I mean I was just looking for something different to do.
At that point you were in your late twenties, right?
Yeah, late twenties, so we were looking at everything, and I was married to this girl Anne at the time, and she wanted to open up a women’s clothing boutique. Eventually I was like, “There’s too many of those in SF,” and since I saw this culture in other places I was traveling to, LA, Tokyo, New York, and I said: “We should really look into this. It’s cool, and it exists in SF, but it doesn’t all exist under one roof.” So that was the point when we knew what we were going to do. Although I pretty much knew nothing, getting into it.
That was going to be my next question: who taught you the ropes?
It was all asking people, and not being cocky.
Asking skateboard retail people?
Lots of different people. The guy from Stüssy, Frank Sinatra, he helped me out, although he was the one who actually told me not to do retail. He said that because of how much work it is. And I totally agree with him on that, but the vision was set at that point, and someone telling you not to do it is not going to stop you.
Any major mishaps during the first years? Financial disasters?
We actually did pretty well for the first couple of years.
The first three shops opened in quick succession.
Yeah, a shop a year, and they were all fine; everything was doing well. It was really just the 2008-2011 time when no one had money, so no one was spending any. We were still in a groove, especially with the big boys, they want you to buy-buy-buy-buy-buy, and when things slow down on the other end… that’s when you start restructuring your business. At that point we were also opening our own wholesale business, and we were putting a lot of our own money into this brand, making this clothing and doing all these things.
What about the step from doing that to what’s happening now? Expanding your brand, with more products, for example, and with that awesome team?
It feels good, it feels more controlled. It’s more hectic for sure, but I think I personally like the back-end building better than running the store. In the end it’s a true business, and it’s getting to the size that it will have problems, but it will be around forever after this point. Of course you always have to be prepared for all the little disasters that happen…
And yet, this whole development was never your master plan, right?
No, it was not planned out like that. There was no business plan outlining it all. It was just something that kept on changing with what was going on.
Do you believe, like a lot of people seem to do, that in order to survive, things need to grow constantly? Because your brand’s story looks like that, but then again: don’t you think it might have been possible to just have those three stores going and to otherwise take it easy?
Yes, you could totally do that. If you control it, and if you’ve found a pattern that you’re really happy with, you could totally make it work and that’s it. Problem is, of course, that you’re in a “trendy business”, so things change quite a lot.
Don’t you ever get tired of this business, this world, this whole thing that is skateboarding and streetwear and everything around it?
I not tired of it; I love it. For me, I love skateboarding so much that I just want to be part of this culture. I don’t want to go and sell stocks on the stock market. I am in a culture that I love, and all my friends are part of this culture. That’s awesome. I don’t go to work and hate it. Or, for example, look at what I’m doing right now: I am traveling with 13 dudes that are awesome, and I’m getting so much enjoyment just watching them skate. I sit back and I’m like, “holy shit.”
Yeah, they are incredible… how are your feelings about the other big players that have recently entered the skate footwear world?
Well, the big guys have taken everything, but with the Huf company I really want to give back, and we really, really want to support skateboarding. We’re making shoes for skateboarding, from skateboarders, but we also want to be in fashion – so basically we don’t want to get stuck in being too core, but these are our roots. And we don’t want to stray from our roots either. For us, competing with Nike, I think it’s rad: it makes us step up our game, and the thing is: we can do it, and we are doing it. They are going to always have a bigger share of the market, but we just need a little bit – and we’re good. We’re also able to do things faster. And it’s just rad to make shoes for someone like Dylan. He came to me, wanting something totally different, and I’m like, “Yeah.” Of course we have to invest a lot of money to make that happen, but a lot of other companies wouldn’t give him what he wants.
It’s about what he wants. Not what I want.
These other players, they must have been talking to a guy like him as well.
They did, they did, but he’s just not into the whole corporate thing. He doesn’t want to wear a big logo on his chest, he doesn’t want to do these things. He wants to be him, and does not want to be branded. He can be branded on the foot, but that’s his design that’s branded, and that’s what I’m giving him. Why not give skaters the option to be who they are?
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Yeah, I see. How important is this kind of self-expression in your life these days? Are you making any kind of art on the side?
Not really, but I mess around a little bit sometimes. We have this creative zone in our warehouse where we drink beer and just do whatever, tag and stuff, but I think my main creative outlet right now is the direction of the brand. We have these brainstorming sessions where we all just go nuts, and this crazy shit comes out; and that’s me being creative.
So those art studies where just something you picked because you needed an excuse?
Yeah, my folks expected me to go to college.
But then they probably weren’t so happy to see you bail out so early?
Oh, not at all. I mean I was so addicted to skateboarding, that was all I wanted to do. I could’ve lived on the street, it didn’t matter, I just wanted to skate and live that life. They told me that going to school and working hard pays off. For them it’s like this: you go to school, you finish college, you go and do your Master’s, and then you go and get a good job, because the only way you’re going to have a good job in life is if you have all this paper work to back it up.
And then you proved them wrong.
Yeah, they loved it. They just didn’t know that these things existed.
Funny. How about your family situation?
All good, I just had a kid four and half months ago.
Congratulations. So less traveling for you then, except from some big ones like this tour?
Yeah, I also do some little things, tradeshows…
Cool, let’s wrap this up: what’s on the horizon for Huf?
We have this Wu Tang collaboration coming up later this fall, with the Wu Tang brand. It’s cool, it’s the 20-year anniversary of their album this year, and so we just did the Snoop collaboration and now this one. Just think back, 20 years, 1993, that was the shit that I was listening to, and now, 20 years later, I’m able to do two collaborations with this shit that I was listening to.
So you were totally into hip-hop back then?
Oh yeah. Heavily.
I see, maybe “Uptown Top Ranking” didn’t make it so obvious.
I mean I have always listened to everything. I used to listen to so much reggae at one point; I was just digging the craziest stuff, trying to find all these one-hit wonders from Jamaica. There’s just so much good music. I mean I love it all. I grew up in a household where my dad would be playing Metallica, but also The Beatles – he would just buy random shit. And soon I was going out, buying Tribe Called Quest and Ice Cube.
Interesting, and coming back to the coasts: So you were into rap from both the East and the West Coast?
I think in the beginning I was very much into De La and Tribe, but I was also playing Ice Cube on my tape player too. I remember going to school, listening to him and thinking, “this shit’s cool.” I don’t know how I even picked it up, but it was there. And then we were listening to LL Cool J and punk as well, listening to what was in the skate videos.
Sure. That’s how I came across “Uptown Top Ranking”, thanks to your part.
Yeah, and I always wanted to have a hip-hop part, but I never found a song that I thought would qualify for a part.
I think Gino had the best one, or maybe it was just Gino’s style with the music. It was fuckin’ proper.
Are you guys working on a proper video?
No. We are talking about it, but it’s different: in 2013, you can’t hold back your footage for such a long time, so the question is, can your skater do both? Do a rad commercial for your company, maybe even a 1-minute part, AND do an amazing 3-minute part. And do a tour, and do Street League. And do, fuckin’, some demo that they don’t want to do. And do something else.
So, no video then.
We’re doing a video for this tour, which is going to be rad, and I think I’m going to do solo parts with some of the guys. And I think Dylan and Austyn, even though they’re in Street League, they’re such street rats that they much rather go out and film an amazing part – and that’s where I come in.
Can’t wait to see that. Thanks, man!