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Street style photo of man in Thrasher hoodie Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

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Why Skate Brands Can’t Go Mainstream

It’s complicated.

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In October, beloved skating brand Illegal Civilization officially announced it would be available in stores like Zumiez and Urban Outfitters. What the brand failed to recognize is that if skate culture is Fight Club, the number one rule is: Never support the corporate entity known as Zumiez.

“Authenticity is huge,” Massachusetts skater Kevin Centeio says. “Don’t support anything that tries to appeal to skateboarding and the skateboarding demographic but doesn't care about skateboarding.”

To Centeio, and lots of skaters around the world, skater mall brand Zumiez is the enemy. All the skaters that I spoke to were explicit about directing their hatred and distaste solely toward the corporate entity that is Zumiez. People in the skating world just don’t believe the store cares about them; it’s just a brand trying to make a profit. In fact, last year the store made $811.55 million in net sales. For individuals, caring about skate culture goes beyond wearing a pair of black Sk8-Hi Vans and watching every episode of MTV’s Life of Ryan. On the corporate level, critics say, it also has to mean more — otherwise companies risk appearing as if they’re ripping off the culture for profit. Corporations need to do things like help build skateparks, attempt to help skaters tackle the rampant sexism and racism in skateboarding, look out for all up-and-coming skate brands, support skate teams, and have more of a focus than just appealing to the aesthetic and demographic of skateboarders. Or how about actually care about skating. It sounds like an easy fix, but Zumiez, and stores like it, have been ignoring this responsibility for decades, leaving unsatisfied skateboarders to brand their stores uncool and inauthentic.

It’s why skaters get mad when people who don’t skate, like Rihanna, wear Thrasher, or when Saint Laurent completely rips off Vans with its own shoe, or even when Vogue decides to do a reviled “skate week” on its online digital platforms.

Illegal Civ lookbook image Photo: Illegal Civiization

It’s that idea of ownership and being in the culture that complicates things and forces skaters to leave the brands they feel have become uncool or outdated. This can happen when a smaller, local brand gets picked up by a big-name retailer: Most only shop at local skate stores or online from their favorite independent retailers. When the up-and-coming brands they buy online make a business move to allow Zumiez to sell their clothes in their store? Chaos.

Illegal Civ’s decision is one that the brand’s 21-year-old founder Mikey Alfred defended in a lengthy Tumblr post. “We don’t do this civ shit for all the reseller hypebeast kids,” he wrote. “If you really skate, if you really work hard, if you really have goals, if you really have talent, or really want to FIND your talent civ is for you. If you’re too cool to dance at parties, civ is not for you. If you would stop fucking with Civ because of a store, you didn’t fuck with us in the first place and we don’t want you here.”

Illegal Civ’s public relations manager Jason Hurtazo added to that in an email. “We will never forfeit the brand’s quality and integrity,” he wrote to Racked. “Any of the kids who can't see how awesome it is that street kids are making it into the big stores, should take a step back and look at it from another perspective.”

Alex Gee, a rapper from Louisville, Kentucky who has been skating for 13 years, is the rare skater able to do just this. “I fuck with Illegal Civ,” he says. Even though he doesn’t love Zumiez (“I don’t really fuck with how Zumiez whores out the skate culture”), Gee is happy to see the founders “eating and getting that corporate check.”

Others, like 18-year-old Los Angeles skater Tailor Clark, aren’t as happy about Illegal Civ’s come-up. Clark, who has been skating since she was 8, has seen plenty of brands she loves flip and make decisions she considers good from a business angle but bad for the brand’s reputation. “I only want to wear brands that are true to skateboarding, and run by people who are genuinely into what they're doing,” she says. “Illegal Civilization was tight because big corporations weren't selling their clothing. You got lucky if you were able to cop something from them. Now that their stuff is in Zumiez, they lost that aspect of the brand. I'm sure the quality of the brand will be the same, but as for the integrity, Mikey lost it there. If you want to keep your integrity in a company, doing business with large corporations who are focused solely on profiting from skateboarding isn't the right move. They’re a sell-out.” This has happened before with brands like Obey, Diamond Supply Co., and The Hundreds.

It becomes a question of whether you can have the best of both worlds: Can you remain loyal to skaters but also make money on a mainstream level? For the past 22 years, Supreme has been successfully and confidently answering that question with a resounding “hell yes.” Supreme has maintained its integrity and authenticity by pushing the brand forward with collaborations that distance it from competitors and copycats. Supreme also cuts out other retailers (besides its own stores, it’s only stocked at Dover Street Market) and sells directly to its customers. Plus, not many clothing brands have collaborated with Comme des Garçons, Timberland, Playboy, Hanes, and then on skateboard decks with iconic artists like KAWS and Jeff Koons.

Supreme sticker Photo: Greg Gentert

The downside of these collaborations and brand expansion is that Supreme has attracted a lot of “hypebeasts” and resellers. Supreme could sell a clay brick with just its box logo on it and hypebeasts would buy it just to flex on Instagram. (Oh, wait, the brand just did that by selling a $32 brick that sold out immediately when it released in September.) The brand’s willingness to troll its customer base combined with the fact that it remains so opaque helps Supreme maintain authenticity among skaters: It’s aloof and hard-to-get, and simultaneously engages with its fans in a weird way.

Selling out isn’t something that is exclusively a problem for skaters, either, but those in the skate community do seem to take it extremely seriously. Crossing over into the mainstream while retaining core fans is a struggle most retailers or brands go through, but skate brands seem to be in a particularly precarious position. Others across industries have an easier time winning back fans. Take The Weeknd, for instance. He decided to switch up and go pop and his fans accused him of selling out, but they came back into the fold once his album Beauty Behind The Madness came out. He was able to keep his core fans as well as attract new ones. The difference with skaters is that there is no forgiveness. The moment a skater feels a brand has sold out or that their loyalty is being taken for granted, they take their money elsewhere.

Skaters are surrounded by up-and-coming brands who want their loyalty and attention, so a certain brand “selling out” is essentially another brand’s blessing. The problem is that this constant cycle has been going on for decades, causing unspoken conflict between skaters and corporate entities. It comes as no surprise that skaters like Alex, Tailor, and Kevin are dedicated to holding their firm stance against corporations like Zumiez and there appears to be zero chance of a compromise anytime soon. There’s always going to be chaos and accusations of “selling out” within the skate community when brands like Illegal Civilization make lucrative business decisions with corporations.

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