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As a category, the skate shoe is still relatively new. Throughout the 90s, there were only a handful of brands producing footwear specifically for skateboarding and very rarely were they worn by a wider fashion or lifestyle consumer. If you saw someone in Vans, odds on they were a skater. Whereas basketball or tennis shoes have been around far longer and already made this crossover to become as much leisurewear as they are for actual performance, or in some cases outstripped their original prime usage. No one expects to see an NBA player actually dunk in some Dunks or Chuck Taylors anymore.
As we’ve seen with Lucien Clarke’s recent Louis Vuitton sneaker as well as many luxury fashion brands producing ‘skate shoes’ that sell for upwards of $1000, the term ‘skate shoe’ has become part of our cultural lexicon and appropriated by mainstream culture. In the case of Clarke’s collaboration, it’s one of the first times a luxury brand has authentically worked with an actual skateboarder to produce a skate sneaker rather than stealing an old silhouette, adding some superfluous plastic bits and/or distressing the shoe to make it to look ‘worn’ and ‘skated in’.
Rone is neither a luxury or skate-centric brand, former professional skater Tony Ferguson’s design work is an interesting intersection of both markets. Started independently by Ferguson as a passion project to create high-end and lasting footwear inspired by the shoes he skated throughout his youth and skare career, Rone’s an example of skateboarding owning its cultural currency and imprint on culture. While producing a $400 shoe inspired by an Airwalk Enigma or Kareem Campbell KCK might not translate to the core skate market who often spend $60-$90 for a shoe that’s made to last a month, it’s neither a concern nor focus for Ferguson. Instead, each piece is intensely crafted with premium materials, using old-world techniques to create homages that can last a lifetime with proper upkeep.
Sure, like any shoe, you could skate in a limited run pair of Rone footwear but pieces in the line are part tribute, part art piece, all while being durable and utilitarian.
We spoke with Tony Ferguson about the evolution of the brand and his footwear inspiration that led him to produce elevated, skate-inspired footwear.
Parade: Unless you lived in California, if you started skateboarding in the 80s or early 90s the first shoes you skated in were most likely a random sportswear brand of high-top. What were the first shoes you remember skating in?
Tony Ferguson: When I started the kids in my neighborhood were all skating in basketball shoes. I remember having some Brooks, as well as some of those really chunky Converse CONS high tops. I had some Converse Weapons too.
In a way, going to discount stores looking for shoes you could skate in, whether it was old Air Jordans, Superstars or whatever was what got me into sneakers in general.
Totally, skateboarding got us all into sneakers. It is just such a part of it. You look around for stuff and wonder if it could work for skating out of necessity. Finding what not only works but fits your style was part of the fun.
And that also gets you into altering shoes - cutting them down, adding an ollie patch, altering the tongues because the shoes then weren’t really designed for street skating which was still emerging.
I remember doing all that. I don't know when we started cutting down Full Cabs but we were always taking Nike insoles out and putting them into an Airwalk, changing the laces, cutting them down - a lot of that comes from Mark Gonzales, drawing on your shoes, coloring the soles black or dying them. In a way, you weren’t aware of it but you were designing your own shoe.
Also, a lot of the shoes such as the Half Cab only came in a few colorways so you had to alter them if you wanted a different one. I remember bleaching out some black Half Cabs to see what would happen.
Yeah, we would get the Rit dye, especially with canvas shoes, to make them different colors. It was actually a lot of work. [laughs] Is that what got you interested in shoe design?
No, it was more about being around everyone on Girl and Chocolate back in the ‘90s… living with Mike (Carroll) and Chico (Brenes). I was always around them designing shoes and that exposed me to it. Koston was mocking up his first shoe and I was around, watching what he was doing - it was super interesting. We were all weighing in on colorways or how something should fit- looking at other non-skate shoes for inspiration and just riffing on ideas.
So what was your gateway into designing footwear?
I was always interested in design but didn’t have any Illustrator skills. The way I learned was very hands-on. I’d like the shape of a shoe and then bring it to a factory and say, ‘Let’s make the panel like this. Let’s lower this part. What if we alter the sole this way?’ I got to work with some great people and learned a lot by seeing how people that worked with hand-designed shoes rather than in larger factories that mass-produce shoes.
Rone references ‘old-world techniques’ a lot. Can you explain that more in layperson terms?
I met someone named Rock, who had been in footwear for a long long time and he makes beautiful shoes using that more hands-on approach - hand cutting and forming footwear lasts and everything. He really inspired me to think about making everything by hand because he was anti ‘big production’. So I would go to him and talk about making shoes inspired by old skate shoes that way and he said, ‘Sure, but what’s your brand?’ and I really just told him I wanted to try to make things using those premium materials and processes… just to try it.
Starting Rone was just about trying to do something rather than getting investors. It was more or less organic - looking at the shoes that inspired me from skating and recreating them, then it evolved into a brand. The first shoe was based on an old Airwalk Enigma and I wanted to make that shoe super high-end and manufactured in the United States. That was five years ago.
What’s the evolution been like since that first project?
It's been really small for the past few years because I'm just putting stuff out when I want and when I have time. I’ve been consulting for other brands and Rone was feeling like a side hustle but this year the plan was to focus and also launch products that were more accessible. This was the first time where Rone’s been my focus. I have a team now, so it’s exciting to being able to scale the business. Rather than doing pop-ups, I can release everything online in limited quantities. I feel like we’re in a good place.
Do you think part of the success this year is simply lowering the price points? A $100 loafer/house shoe vs. a $400 shoe seems to open up a new audience.
For sure, if you have an accessible price point and the quality is there, it’s good value. It changes everything. I get that not everyone can afford the shoes even if they like them.
Also, it’s hard for skaters to disconnect that a shoe that looks like a skate shoe isn’t necessarily for skating. I know that’s oversimplifying things but it’s true. But if you think about what people spend on a pair of sneakers that won’t last, $400 for a shoe that you can have forever is actually cheap.
I think a lot of people who are really into sneakers and shoes don’t know the difference between our construction and what it actually costs. Making a pair of sneakers could be around $200 before the mark-up but now we’re able to make quality shoes in larger quantities at a lower price point, so we can make things for everyone and every day. I still want them to be elevated but just more attainable.
The thing about skateboarders is that we look at everything as disposable from our boards to our shoes, that’s just in our DNA, but I think people are starting to become more conscious and have less shit sitting in a landfill. Someone is going to be selling skate-inspired shoes for big-ticket prices, so to me, why not have it be an actual former pro who cares about skateboarding?
The idea, in the beginning, was that I wanted to create shoes for someone like myself, who liked the aesthetic and sure, you can skate them but more importantly, they last forever and I realize that’s a small niche. As far as the fashion houses drawing from skateboarding, it’s just cynical and it’s always going to happen - fashion will always exploit things. I don’t trip on it too hard. I’m not a purist but I’m making these homages is it’s what’s important to me. If you do it in a way where you're telling a story about a shoe or skating, I think it's cool, but if you're just making products to make them, you're not giving back.
What’s your favorite shoe you’ve designed so far?
As far as the skate-inspired style, it’s that Enigma, because of all the memories attached to skating those shoes growing up but it’s hard because I love the one inspired by Kareem’s KCK. It's just such a classic, that Reebok Workout style is such a good shoe to work from.
It’s funny because the Enigma was basically a reworking of a Nike Dunk just like the KCK was inspired from that Reebok. In a sense, retooling existing sports shoes is just what skateboarding does. What’s funny about skating is that we don’t necessarily want super tech-savvy shoes. We’re happy skating a modernized adidas Gazelle or Campus. And as an old head, if I showed up to a park with some super tech shoe and compression socks, I’d almost feel like I was flexing or trying to show that I was super good.
Right, stay in your lane. [laughs] We all want to wear what’s comfortable and fits our style and skaters are particular. It’s funny that maybe those tech shoes are better for skating but it was never about that in a sense.
Let’s talk about the Mule shoe, which is a departure because it’s blatantly not skate-inspired. I was working on that for a long time as well as some slides we’re doing for Spring 2021. I wanted to do something completely different than a skate-inspired shoe and it just made sense timing-wise for the market, to keep that identity of the loafer. I also wanted to work with different processes and make something from recycled materials. The Mule is wrapped in a fabric that's made from water bottles, but it's very stiff and you can't really hand wrap it so it took a while to get it right but it’s actually a very technical shoe for something that looks so simple. They are stain-resistant and water-resistant - they’re pretty indestructible and mold to your feet, but aren’t as squishy as a Croc.
Without making light of the reason we’re all spending at home, the Mule really seems like a perfect storm for Rone. With the success of that shoe, how else would you like to expand the brand?
I’d like to get more into apparel but I always want it rooted in footwear. I want to grow the product offering into women and kids as well as creating a new lightweight running silhouette that is based on something that is familiar to us - with a little nod to skate in it. It all has to be organic though, I’m not going to suddenly try to get into bridge running and make some big marketing push that doesn’t connect with who we are.
The big thing is to look at each product as a problem you’re trying to solve or something you just want to figure out… keep each collection special. That’s what keeps it fun rather than working to seasons and projections. Seasons don’t really matter anymore, right? [laughs]
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