Interview: Geoff Rowley on the history & importance of UK skateboarding culture

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Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

It doesn’t feel like that long ago that I was gripping up my first skateboard with an admittedly horrible lime green grip tape (sorry Geoff) in SS20 in Oxford. A fresh-off-the-wall Flip Geoff Rowley pro model with a large skull and crossbones on it in that classic punk style. That was almost exactly 20 years ago.

Fast forward to last week and I’m sat in the green room at House of Vans in London being regaled by Geoff with a story of how he recently ruptured his kidney while attempting to 360 over a very ominous roof gap. As the story unfolded, detail after detail took it seemingly further away from reality and into the realms of Hollywood, but there’s always been a bit of Hollywood to how Geoff approaches skateboarding. Not a polished Hollywood I should add, more of a DIY make it at home version. There’s always been an admirable part of Geoff’s style that can only be described with the phrase “Fuck it!”. The guy is a professional maniac.

Anyway, you already know that, right? If for some reason you don’t, then go and watch Flip Sorry, on loop.

Geoff holds a very unique place in skateboarding history, not just for his achievements on a skateboard, but also for his personal history. Growing up in Liverpool, Geoff went pro at a time when UK pros didn’t really exist on a level like Geoff achieved. The only other giant name was Tom Penny, who shrank from the limelight to France, but was kept alive through his name by Geoff and his company Flip Skateboards, who stoked the myth of Tom Penny. He has also had a notably large impact on Vans, helping to redirect them back to glory in the skateboarding world and continuing to co-steer the ship in various forms. I wanted to make the most of Geoff’s viewpoint on UK and USA skate culture, how they differ, how skating in Liverpool in the ’80s is different to now and why physical skate stores are still important. His openness and honesty didn’t disappoint.

I’m at risk of writing more than the interview itself here, which is saying something because Geoff and I almost got carried away with this conversation. I’ll leave you to read on and delve into the mind and wisdom of one of the UK’s most legendary skateboarders and athletes as a whole; Geoff Rowley.

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You grew up in Liverpool at a time when skateboarding was still relatively fresh to the UK, definitely nowhere near as accepted as it is today, which is something that I think a lot of people today would struggle to imagine. Could you paint a picture of what being a skater in the UK was like back then?

It was raw! It was extremely raw. I can’t speak for all the cities in England or everybody, but I can speak from what I experienced in Liverpool. Liverpool football club is obviously huge and the whole city is just geared around the football game on Saturday, well if you’re a skater growing up with that and you have that whole terrace kind of Casuals style with tracksuits and white Reebok Classics and that kind of thing, and then we’re there wearing Vans and a pair of jeans that a re ripped and baggy clothes, shaved heads or dreads or whatever the guys were wearing, we got made fun of. We got picked on, we got beaten up, we got rocks thrown at us, we got knives pulled out on us, we weren’t treated very well and that’s one of the reasons why the Liverpool scene was so good, because all of the skaters, whether they were Hippies or Scallies or Rastas or Hip-Hop Heads or whatever they were, everyone accepted each other and hung out with each other because if we didn’t, we were gonna get killed [laughs]. That’s what it was like.

A lot of times you’d be scared to skate down the high street, on certain sections of it, because you knew there was gonna be people there that were gonna mess with you. Even if you grew up on a rough side of the city and you didn’t care, you still didn’t go and do it because you didn’t know what you were gonna find going down that certain backstreet in the middle of the night. You’d go different ways.

And how do you think that growing up in the UK affected your skating?

You’re a product of your environment, so I skated the way that I could skate in Liverpool. I was hugely influenced by everything, all the American skate videos, everything they all wore on the American skate videos, all the clothes and everything like that, all those brands. I was hugely influenced by all that, but growing up in Liverpool we didn’t necessarily always have access to all of that. We didn’t really have a skate shop for quite a few years, so we’d have to go to West Kirby or we’d have to go to Manchester to a skate shop. That made me who I am. That made me skate the way that I skate, and I took that, moved to the United States and then learnt there, skated there the way that I wanted, but I always maintained what I learnt from the Liverpool scene, from the guys there that I looked up to.

I’d skated in different ways. I was exposed to guys that were skating like they were from the ’60s and ’70s, but they weren’t, it was 1990. I was exposed to that and I don’t think every city in the country at that time can say it quite like that. We all had our all experiences and we certainly did. Some of the cities were a lot more influenced or exposed to big vert ramps and skateparks – we didn’t really have that stuff in Liverpool. We didn’t really have that much, but we had the streets.

When you moved to America, did you notice any difference in the culture of skateboarding between there and the UK? Or is skateboarding simply skateboarding wherever you are?

There’s a little difference. The social side of it is different. When you change the social side of it, then you’re gonna have a different scene. It depends where you’re talking about. Where I moved to in Southern California, I moved to Huntington Beach in Orange County, and when I first moved there was at the tail end of some problems there and there was Skinheads and Hardcore guys that would get into a lot of fights and that sort of stuff. That was that scene. It was a little different and you had all the Punkers and stuff like that, but not like the English Punkers, because they were into different music. And then you couldn’t drink until you’re 21 there, so you don’t have the same… In England, when you grow up and we’re what, 12? 13? 14 years old? 9 years old [laughs]? On the streets and some kids having a beer and he’s 12 and no one’s gonna think twice. An adult’s not gonna walk past and call the police on him. It’s probably not gonna happen. So it’s different. It’s different generally, but skaters are generally pretty inviting to each other the world over, I’ve found. That side of it’s very similar, very open.

And do you think that’s down to that ‘outsider culture’ you were talking about earlier?

It’s a cultural thing, as cheesy as that sounds. It’s very much a cultural thing. People pick up skating and keep skating because there’s more there than what they’re getting somewhere else. That makes total sense if you think about it. A kid starts and does it, they’re inspired by it, they’re exposed to all this art and music and culture that’s constantly changing. The industry is constantly changing, the brands are constantly changing, the videos inspire and change the direction of skateboarding from a clothing standpoint or a footwear standpoint or even just the act of skateboarding, whether all of a sudden everyone wants to hit the streets and ride really aggressively vs. in the ’80s when everyone wanted to ride a vert ramp because that just sounded like “Wow! Let’s do big airs and put kneepads on!”. It’s just different times, but all of those times are all important to the overall progression of skateboarding and culturally the relevance of it too.

You mentioned earlier how when you started out Liverpool didn’t have a skate shop, and to be fair most cities didn’t have a skate shop. You’re very close with the guys at Lost Art – do you think that physical skate stores and the relationship between the stores and the skaters are still an important part of the culture in todays digital age?

They have to be! They have to be, but they’ve got to continue to grow as a business too, but they have to be. A kid needs to go to a place where he feels welcomed and he needs to feel like he’s going into a store that understands who he is and what he is and what he wants. If he wants to go into a store and he sees skate shoes and skate clothes and skateboards and videos and all this other stuff, how’s he gonna learn about that unless he walks in there and the skate shop owner makes him feel comfortable and makes him feel welcome, makes him feel a part of skateboarding, a part of something?

It’s not a sports store, it’s different, way different. You go into a sports store and you’re looking for a specific thing. You go into a skate shop, you don’t know what you’re gonna see on the wall that given day. Other sports you know exactly when all the new football kits are coming out, you go int the shop and you buy them. They come and go. If you go in a month later, it’s the same football kits. You go in a skate shop, the whole wall’s changing all the time – the graphics are changing. If you’re interested in all that suff, the art, the music, the culture of it, we need those skate shops to keep those scenes alive, but we also need those skate shops to nurture those scenes and to help kids feel good about themselves enough to make them want to get sponsored or want to progress at skateboarding. We all needed that. I need that and I got that too to a large degree, just from the scene of Liverpool, and Mackie who owns Lost Art skate shop was a part of that scene.

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It sounds like you feel a responsibility to pass skateboarding and its culture down to the next generation.

Yeah, I feel like I’m fortunate to have become a skateboarder and be able to pursue what I love doing and get away with that. I don’t take that for granted. If I meet a young kid, and I met a young kid yesterday who said I was his favourite skater when he was growing up and he gave me a ‘sponsor me’ video, now if I was a dick to that kid or made him feel that when he finally met the guy he’d looked up to that he wasn’t how he thought he was gonna be because he didn’t feel like spending any time that moment, what’s that gonna do to our industry? What’s that gonna say to our industry?

I grew up looking up to American pros and some English pros, I looked up to Alex Mole who is a very influential English skater, and he was the nicest guy when I met him and I wanted to skate with him, as soon as I met him and I went skating with him I was so stoked. And I met some American pros that I’m now very good friends with when I was a little kid in England. One of them I designed a load of skateparks with, his name is Colby Carter from Phoenix, Arizona, and he rode for H-Street Skateboards in the ’80s and early ’90s and he was amazing! I met him at a demo in Shrewsbury and he was really cool to me, along with a bunch of other guys, Geoff Kendall, who now works at NHS Distribution which distributes Flip Skateboards, I met him back then and he was super nice to me.

It effects you, especially if you’re a young kid, it’s a big impact on you. I’ve heard so many horror stories about footballers and musicians – I’m not gonna be like that, I’m not gonna be burnt out and bitter, I’m gonna be as helpful and respectful as I possibly can be and if I can help nurture the scene and say positive things, or just be a positive force in that, then I’m gonna do that. Nothing can stop that side of that because that’s essentially who I am and what I believe in.

That’s really inspirational to hear. When I first started skating, your Flip pro model with the skull and crossbones was actually my first deck. I remember your style standing out on VHS skate videos as really individual and raw. Skating has changed so much across those 20 odd years. Have you ever found yourself thinking “This isn’t going in the direction that I’m going”. Have you ever felt disconnected with skate culture at all?

Yeah, there’s been quite a few times when I felt like that! A couple of years ago it kind of felt like that; a lot of change. Skateboard sales started dropping and slowing down and that’s worrying if people aren’t skating. And I’m not just talking as a business owner, I’m talking as a skateboarder and a fan of skateboarding. It was a big drastic change. But once you get used to those changes, those big changes that happen, you realise they’re really important too, but they’re hard to navigate because you’re right in the middle of it. And if your own business is within the skate industry, those volatile moments are scary! You could lose everything that you’ve put your whole life’s work into, just like that [clicks his fingers].

And a lot of people have!

And a lot of people have. There you go! So yeah, I’ve definitely had those moments. When I first moved to the United States there was no “This is gonna work!”. No. It was swimming upstream the whole way. A lot of hard work. Vans as a footwear company has gone through a lot of changes over the years and fortunately the product has always been really really good, but they’ve been affected by shifts in the industry and shifts in fashion and trends and style and you just want to make sure that skateboarding stays at the forefront of what’s important. You look at that you go “OK we’ve got to keep progressing skateboarding. We’ve got to keep putting a very inspirational message out no matter what, even if things are tough”. There’s been some tough times for sure.

On that note, let’s talk about some of your earliest Vans pro models. I remember at the time that they came out that they were pretty against the grain, going for a classic, old school vibe at a time when the industry was all padded tongues and giant shoes. Do you feel a responsibility to use opportunities like that to push skateboarding in a direction?

I think that experience gave me the confidence to recognise that sometimes the right thing needs to be done, regardless of what is in front of you. With that scenario I was confident. I wasn’t confident that “Oh I’m gonna do this and it’s gonna change the industry!”, it was more of like “This is exactly what needs to happen for this product and the design of this product in order for it to work” and it was exactly what I wanted to skate in. And it’s the original DNA of the brand that wasn’t being utilised for a number of reasons.

That’s a good example of listening to skateboarders. A good example of listening to one guy, in a company that was hundreds of millions of dollars, you listened to him and it changed things. It took everything in a different direction. That’s the point I suppose, in that, for people to take away from it; that can happen again and it can happen in wheels, in trucks, in skateboards. It’s progression of the product. What made that really stick, that shift, was the fact that it was comfortable too. Vans shoes with the vulcanised construction wasn’t as comfortable prior to that because they hadn’t put in sock liners and really thought about that because they didn’t even utilise that design, that construction of shoe, much at that time.

That’s a good point you make. I’d put Vans down as one of the best brands for listening in that way. There’s various examples of that happening throughout the brand’s history, for example how the Half Cab came about through paying attention to feedback from skateboarders, both pro and consumer.

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Let’s talk about your latest Vans pro model, the SOLOS. They’re even more classic!

Yeah, that’s gone right back to the ’60s! That’s where we started. For this one I was in a stage of my life, in a stage of skateboarding, where I just didn’t feel like compromising [smiles]. Honestly! I was like “I’m gonna design a shoe and it’s gonna be based on the original Made in USA Vans, it’s gonna fit like the original Made in USA Vans and it’s gonna skate like the original Made in USA Era”. And they weren’t making that. Vans doesn’t make that right now. There’s a distinct difference between this shoe and the other classic shoes. That’s where we started with the original concept for the idea.

Prior to my own skate shoes, I only really ever skated in original Made in USA Eras. Not Authentics, Authentics don’t have any padding around the collar, I only ever skated in the Eras because they had the padding around the collar and that was a feature added by Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta. So I went back in and we looked at what lasts were available to make the shoe the shape we wanted to make it, so we figured out what mold we’re gonna use and we went back into the original DNA of the shoes.

I actually bought some shoes from Henry at Pillow Heat in Bethnal Green because there’s so many different versions of essentially exactly the same designed product throughout the years of Vans because they’ve changed factories and a lot of changes in general just over time, with the sheer volume the product design has shifted and isn’t quite as it was originally intended, and so I thought “We’ll go back and we’ll make the silhouette of the original Era and then we’ll fill it in with whatever patent we can get away with that helps the construction and durability of it”. We knew we were gonna put Duracap in it, which is basically fused in-between the fabrics of the suede and underneath the canvas liner so that when you wear through the side of your shoe you still have a little bit more rubber on the side, but it also helps hold the shape of the shoe, which the old original Made in USA Eras bagged out. They would get a lot of creases all over the front of the shoe and eventually they started flopping because it was so low on the actual height of the collar of the shoe, it’s extremely low, so the shoe moves around a lot and so the Duracap really helps hold that old toe shape too. And that’s it! Low-grade performance pretty much, but very much a practical function.

Have you found yourself becoming a bit of a Vans historian with projects like these over the years?

I know a little bit about Vans shoes, yeah. Not as much as Henry and not as much as Steve Van Doren. Steve Van Doren… I’ve been through a lot of Steve’s stuff and I talk to Steve a lot [smiles]. But there’s so many changes and little tweaks here and there. There’s tones of stuff that people don’t even know now in the whole design department of Vans. There are shoes that Vans have made that they’re not aware of.

That’s another point with this shoe [points to his SOLOS], this essentially looks like an Old Skool, like the ones you’re wearing, but it isn’t. The only thing the same about it is the toe cap, that’s it. They made those Old Skools with the big white Side Stripe with no Side Stripe on sometimes in the factories and they’d end up in some of the stores, Southern California stores. Maybe they had overstock of fabric and they’d just run through 50 pairs and throw them in a store. You could find those with no Side Stripes. I had a pair with no Side Strips, white ones, and so I remembered what they looked like and I thought “Ah! If we can kind of take those ideas of no Side Stripe, only a toe cap, but basically an Era silhouette influenced by Made in USA with the added feature of the Duracap, that’s gonna look pretty cool and it’s gonna skate really good too, and it’s not gonna be overly expensive technology that doesn’t truly work, which is a lot of it out there right now”.

We also wanted to make sure that they were built in the factories that had higher grade content so that the rubber on them is grippier than all the other footwear companies’ vulcanised shoes, which is another formula that Vans has that is proprietary to that company and it’s not in all the Vans shoes because not all the Vans shoes are made for skating. They don’t need that level of grip, not all of them, but these ones do and they have it.

You’ve also branched into clothing with Vans this year for the first time.

Yeah, I started riding for Vans clothing last year because I worked so well in there and I respected and appreciated the people in the apparel department and I like working with them, even though I didn’t ride for Vans apparel. I knew them very very well – the manager of that department went to University with a very close friend of mine, so I knew him very well and he’s a very intelligent guy. So I knew I could work with them and that’s why I did it.

Quite literally, we approached that whole project like “How can we basically combine the footwear and apparel design aesthetic in product and crossover in-between those two departments, seamlessly?” It had to be completely seamless. It had to not look like two separate factions, it had to look like the same thing. So this shoe [points to the SOLOS] was designed in conjunction with that whole apparel line and so the features on all of the label packaging and all that stuff all merges with this stuff too. All the colour palettes for all the first seasons of product and the textures and everything like that, we did it all as one piece, so I had to jump from department to department, backwards and forwards, and that was my role in it and I knew I could do that because I’d worked so well within the building and I’d worked for so long in the building.

As you just mentioned, you’ve been with Vans for a long time now, so how come it’s only now that you’ve gone into clothing?

Because now is the right time. Before, that department wasn’t ready to take on and start to really produce the right quality product. Vans isn’t built as an apparel brand, it’s a footwear brand and to build an apparel side of it and to have that grow and continue to grow, it has to be special and it has to have its own space within that market place. That’s why. That and then just the timing of it really too.

It was one of them things where we got the Vans footwear back on track after those tough years here and there, like every company has, we got the footwear design back on track to where “hang on a second, the apparel is starting to pick up”, and then the apparel’s been doing good for quite a long time and in a couple of different categories too. The flannels have been doing for a long time and the jackets have been doing good and they’ve always done good with printables. Those are good signs, if you can already have traction without really focusing on your apparel brand. So I’d watched the traction grow until I thought it was the right time to be able to service maybe a whole line of product and grow from there.

Right back at the beginning of this discussion we touched on how skating has gone from hugely popular in the ’80s to dropping off and then blowing up again. It’s history is an up and down ride. Recently I’ve spoken to quite a few younger pros who seem to think that this more recent surge in popularity is here to stay. I wondered what your opinions are on it.

I think it’s always been here to stay. It’s always been around since skateboarding has been invented, but the waves go up and down, up and down, because it’s very much affected by the retail space and disposable income pretty much, and that’s a much bigger problem than just the skate industry. That’s just the economy and economics basically.

Those waves within skate come from age brackets, demographics of people, you can’t dispute that fact, that’s just the way it is. If a load of young kids that are between 9 and 12, if there’s a huge explosion of that, what do those kids do? they kick footballs around, they buy skateboards, they go and play basketball, they buy disposable things. They go snowboarding, they get a BMX bike because their Dad has a couple extra hundred pounds that month or something. Those kind of things happen and when that happens, that’s when you see big explosions of certain things.

With skateboarding, with how messy it’s been over the last few years, it’s really cleaning itself up a lot and skateboard sales are up a considerable amount in the last 12 months. They’re up 20% across the board. That’s not just one brand, all wooden board sales are up 20% in 12 months. That’s a fantastic thing if you love skateboarding because with that comes skateparks. It comes with other stuff that we all get to benefit from, even if we happen to be 50 years old. Those booms and explosions, they open up opportunities for young new brands like what we’ve seen a lot of in the last few years. Without that downturn you wouldn’t see the opportunity for those brands to give it a shot. Another question is when it really kicks back up, do those younger brands know enough about the business to be able to grow from that? And also, do they know enough about the business to give back to it, knowing that at some point that downturn is gonna come back, and if they don’t, they’re gonna get their ass kicked. I’ll be first in line! Or they can kick my ass. One or the other [laughs].

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