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The National Skateboard Co. Interview

The National Skateboard Co. InterviewFrontside wallride, Josh Young. Photo: Reece Leung
Posted by Neil Chester8 min read
Friday, January 03, 2020

Let’s kick-off with when you guys started The National, what brought it into existence? 

Ryan Gray: For myself and Tom Harrison, the idea of establishing a board brand first came about in 2011; we were living together in Leeds, Tom was riding for Blueprint but not a lot was really happening there - it was a weird time for the company and Tom was holding some sort of perpetual flow spot. Josh ‘Manhead’ Young was a constant presence in our lives too and was riding for Enjoi flow after leaving Unabomber, so we started theorising about starting a new company with those two as the first riders. Saying that Danijel ‘Jugga’ Stankovic was also firmly in the team mix from those early conversations too. He and Harrison had been close friends since their time on The Harmony and it was a given that if Tom ever started something of his own, Jugga would be on board, no questions asked.

Tom Harrison got chatting to Tom Brown and Sam Barratt who it turned out was also looking into starting a board outfit of their own, so we all met up at a bar in Leeds one night, talked about our ideas and decided to focus our collective efforts on a project together. That must’ve been Christmas 2011 or January 2012.

Most of our early meetings took place in the same bar and the four of us sitting around a table thrashing things out helped create some ideas that were exciting to us all; it felt like we collectively had something to offer in starting a company, and that we could build a brand that skateboarders and stores could really get behind.

We had it in mind from the start that Chris Jones would be an amazing addition to our initial line up, but we approached him literally days after Paul Shier and Nick Jensen had asked him to ride for what was then thought to be Blueprint; it turned out later that those guys were on the verge of establishing Isle Skateboards, so that’s where Chris was heading. A little before our launch I went to Liverpool to loop Dave Mackey in our project; I didn’t even get halfway into telling him what we had planned and he made no bones about wanting to be involved. He quit Blueprint that night and came on board as our fourth and final original team rider.

And where did the inspiration for ‘The National’ name come from exactly? 

Ryan: At the time we were launching the company, it felt like there was a blatant gap in the industry for a brand to come through and help showcase U.K. skateboarders who had been overlooked or passed over by other established U.K. brands, a lot of which seemed to be focussed on one particular city or scene. It appeared that a lot of great skateboarders were finding themselves without proper board sponsorship or on flow deals from distribution companies and not really being a part of something that they could belong to or influence, because they didn’t instantly fit into the existing aesthetic of the established brands of the time.

With that in mind, the name The National Skateboard Co. was a nod to the pre-Thatcher years, before necessary services became privatised. We wanted to be a skateboard company that was created by skateboarders, existed for skateboarders and was identifiable for skateboarders first and foremost.

1. The National Skateboard Co. interview. Josh Gregory Backside Fifty Crooks, Leeds. Photo Reece Leung. (1)
2. The National Skateboard Co. interview. Michal Juras Ollie from Drain To Drain. Photo Reece Leung. Clockwise: Josh Gregory Back 50 Crook, Leeds. Michal Juras Drain to Drain ollie. Photos: Reece Leung.

Who is behind the company now, it’s changed a little since you first started right? 

Ryan: The original backbench line up was Sam Barratt and Tom Harrison handling the design, Tom Brown took care of everything business-related, and I was in charge of the team to some degree and filming, though owing largely due to the way we ran things, everyone had input into every area.

There have been a couple of major changes behind the scenes over the years, the first one being Sam Barrett’s departure in January 2017. Sam’s involvement really helped shape the company during the first five years; his contribution was immeasurable and we’re all still really proud of everything he did with us and grateful for the time and effort he put into the brand. Following Sam’s departure, Harrison spent 18 months working on the design side of the company on his own, before reaching out to Oliver Shaw and bringing him on board partway through 2018. Ollie is one of Harrison’s oldest friends, he skated with us all in Leeds and currently lives in New York where he runs his graphic design company Catalogue. He actually designed our brick weave logo back in 2012 and had worked on an increasing number of graphics with Tom, so it made perfect sense to properly bring him into the crew. Ollie getting on board has helped give the brand a new lease of life in terms of direction and has freed up some of Harrison’s time so he can focus on elevating the clothing side of the company, which is something that we kind of let dwindle following Sam’s departure. Ollie now acts as a creative director and works on every collection with Harrison.

The other major ‘behind the scenes’ change would be the taking of sales and distribution in house. From our launch in 2012, we worked closely with the guys at Keen Dist, but at the start of 2019 it seemed like it was the right time to take on the sales and distribution ourselves; this was something we’d wanted to handle ourselves from the start but as we all worked full-time jobs, it wasn’t possible. We had a great relationship with Keen, we trusted Mike and his decisions and we knew we were in safe hands. I guess following the disintegration of the publishing company that owned Sidewalk Magazine in 2018, my time was freed up and taking on sales and distribution started to seem like something was actually achievable. Mike and Andy knew where we were coming from and we parted ways with Keen on the best possible terms; they’ve been a huge help in us getting set up on our own too. That was a gamble, but one that we wanted to take. As such, all the sales and associated logistics are now handled by Tom Brown and myself, though the physical distribution work is taken care of in our newly established ‘distribution centre’ with expert warehouse management being supplied in an unofficial capacity by my very understanding and patient fiancé, Zeta Rush. 

How have you seen the company develop, from the products you’ve produced to the team line-up, which has steadily grown to a big crew?

Ryan: Personally speaking, watching the team grow and take on a life of its own has been amazing. We started out with four riders and now have something like fifteen when you take into account flow guys; with a crew that big, organising trips are obviously a bit of a nightmare, but when everyone does get together, it’s always memorable.

On the product side of things, we launched with a handful of graphics and a modest clothing range (and some wheels, against our better judgement) but now the collections we produce are vast and varied and include premium clothing items alongside the more traditional t-shirts and hoodies. Being able to offer people who follow the brand quality items that you wouldn’t expect a skateboard company to produce is a really good feeling.

We’ve also released a lot of special boards that we’re collectively proud of. We’ve done one-off boards for Playing Fields, Colin Kennedy, Conhuir Lynn, now the I’m Down series with Stefan Marx, as well as being able to turn Gregoire (Cuadrado) and Denis (Lynn) pro and continue the professional careers of Manhead, Neil Smith and Jugga... we’ve done a lot there that we’re immensely proud of. 

The team is rad for the sheer mix you have, both different nationalities, ages and styles. Any team that ranges from Mackey to Michal Juras via Tom Tanner and Cam Barr is a pretty eclectic mix?

Ryan: It’s an absolute melting pot across the board, but it’s one that really works. The vast majority of the team have got responsibilities outside of skateboarding, some people drift in and out of it, but that’s what keeps it exciting. One year someone might fall off the radar a bit, then the next year produce a full part and shoot an interview, come on every trip we run or be the focus of a 45-minute documentary.

Everybody has to pay their rent, everybody gets hurt, everyone is aware that there is a life after sponsored skateboarding no matter how far down the line that may seem right now, and we understand and appreciate that. No one person on the team is a full time ‘professional skateboarder’ in the sense that they wake up and the only thing on their horizon is going out skateboarding, but that’s what makes their contributions to what we do all the more valuable. The team is constantly growing and evolving but every person on there helps makes the company what it is; they shape everything we’ve done, they believe in what we’re doing and we’re grateful for that. 

3. The National Skateboard Co. interview. Cam Barr Backside Boardslide, Leeds. Photo Reece Leung.
4. The National Skateboard Co. interview. Team photos Reece Leung. National skateboard decks and clothing. Clockwise: Cam Barr Boardslide, Leeds. Tour life. Photos: Reece Leung.

Any plans for a video, or clip, in 2020?

Ryan: Oh 100% there’ll be something new in 2020. I’m out filming as much as I can be so we’re always working on something, even if the output front seems a little quiet from time to time. With a team like ours where free time isn’t limitless and people live all over the place, it takes a while to get projects together, but rest assured, there’s definitely something new on the boil. I’m also still of the mindset that you keep hard-fought for footage for dedicated video projects, not just throw everything on social media to be forgotten about overnight. Maybe that thinking works against us sometimes, but I’d hope the team and people who follow what we do can see the eventual value in contributing towards projects that have time, care and something of an applied aesthetic gone into them. 

From a graphic perspective you’ve also started to create a certain style, this is not criticism but I’ve always known The National for logo style decks and the latest 'Jardin des Tuileries’ series features work by some of the people behind the brand. I’m taking it this a conscious move to bring a stronger design aesthetic? 

Ryan: I guess the brick weave logo is recognisable and logo boards always do really well with stores so we try to do something fresh incorporating that with each collection, but for every logo series there are usually three or four other series’ in which Harrison, Ollie and earlier, Sam, could explore themes and ideas they were interested in. Some of our earlier boards featured watercolour paintings by Tom Brown’s talented granddad R.A Brown, we’ve done collaborations with Ben Horton, Mike O’Shea, Stefan Marx, Phil Evans, Jugga’s son Maxi drew the last couple of his dad’s pro boards…Sam even gave Nikola Tesla his own series once, haha. We always try to keep the graphics varied, whilst ensuring that they fit the aesthetic of the company. As we said earlier, Ollie coming on board properly back in 2018 has really helped focus the visual direction of the brand too.

Ollie Shaw: We wanted to begin to create a stronger brand aesthetic for The National Skateboard Co. Up until a couple of years go, there was no real direction with the graphics. Everything looked great but there was no specific style or route. Now we try and keep the style similar from collection to collection and take more of a stylistic approach, less of a conceptual approach. Skateboards and t-shirt graphics have one job – to look good. That’s what we go for now every time we begin a collection. 

The recent ‘I’m Down’ deck by Stefan Marx, which highlights mental illness was an amazing thing to do and so poignant given the sad passing of Ben Raemers, whom I know a lot of you were close to. 

Ryan: Mental health is something that Harrison has always tried to bring into whatever he’s working on; we obviously all believe in promoting better mental health, but Harrison has really strived to get people talking about it and opening up about it. Through Crowns and Owls – Tom’s film production outfit – he’d just worked on a mental health focussed project that proved to be a massive success, so he was looking at ways to work on something similar with us that could be of benefit to the skateboarding community, where we could also donate the proceeds to charity. In fact, it was Chris Barrett’s passing that sparked the original idea for a capsule that highlighted mental health, and once Harrison and Ollie started working on it together, it really turned into something special. Sadly, the day the finished boards arrived with us was the same day we learnt we’d lost Ben.

Ollie: Skateboarding is such a strong community and graphics are such an important tool that we thought it was time to try put mental health out there. Many of the crew and team suffer with, or have suffered with, mental health issues also. The tragic loss of Chris was a trigger to get the message out there, but losing Ben shortly after gave the project added poignancy. They were both such beautiful spirits and souls, and their deaths were both shocking and unexpected. Up until then mental health had been almost unspoken about by the skateboarding community, so we wanted to make something that could help people feel more open to speaking up about things, and communicating how they’re feeling.

Stefan (Marx) is a friend of mine and we’d always spoken about doing a board together. His style is so perfect for the message, he is also a skateboarder, and so to us it was a perfect fit. It is such a simple, powerful, beautiful illustration and message – we want it to remain iconic.

5. The National Skateboard Co. interview. Michal Juras Boardslide Along and Down, Nottingham. Photos Reece Leung.
6. The National Skateboard Co. interview. Josh Gregory Nose wheelie Chew Magna. Cam Barr Hippy Jump, Plymouth . Photos Reece Leung. Clockwise: Michal Juras, boardslide, Nottingham. Cam Barr, hippy Jump, Plymouth. JoshGregory, Nose manny. Photos: Reece Leung.

How do you guys see the board company landscape, obviously a board company is no longer a pro skaters number one sponsor, with footwear taking that place. But it does seem that clothing is now the key driver behind these companies, you can’t survive on just selling boards and wheels alone?

Ryan: From a cultural point of view, it’s more important that a board company is a solid home for the people who choose to ride for it, that they can get behind the brand, the direction and the people involved. Starting The National Skateboard Co. was never a traditional “let's get rich” business decision, it was one that was made so we could all create and contribute towards a brand that we believed in, and help give skateboarders that we knew deserved a home somewhere to belong. By and large, in 2019 footwear cheques do keep the wolf from the door of most professional skateboarders, but their skateboard sponsor should still be a company that they’re immensely proud to be a part of.

But to answer your actual question: the marketplace is so saturated these days that if we were simply only selling skateboards, it would be very hard to survive.

Ollie: We put as much effort into the clothing and apparel designs as we do with the boards. To us, we’re not just a ‘skateboard company’; we’re a ‘skateboarding company’. Every aspect of it is important, but unfortunately, the forefront can’t just be the boards themselves anymore.

Ryan: To start with, we have a large team to support and the profit generated from board sales alone wouldn’t keep them all in product. But from our point of a view as a brand, we want to offer a quality clothing line alongside the boards. Clothing is something that we all feel very strongly about; Tom Brown spends a lot of time sourcing quality items and concentrating on the finer details that elevate the clothing side of the brand, whilst Harrison puts a lot of time into getting bespoke pieces made and working on interesting designs with Ollie. Between those three, a whole lot of work goes into the clothing to ensure we’re offering something more than a few screen printed logo t-shirts, for instance.

With this new cut and sew line and the latest collection it seems you’re stepping up the game and wanting to produce unique and better quality items, is 2020 and beyond going to see a lot more of this?

Ryan: Definitely. Cut and sew was something that we originally offered after only a handful of collections, but once Harrison took on all the graphic responsibility of the brand in 2017, he didn’t really have the time to liaise with factories and get pieces sampled, so it kind of fell by the wayside. The first collection we sold ourselves after leaving Keen – 2019 Collection 1 – we wanted to make a serious statement of intent, and a massive part of this was offering premium cut and sew items again, and making different items that we wanted to see exist. The prices involved in creating these pieces means that things like jackets retail at a higher price than something that you’d expect a skateboard company in the traditional sense to be producing, but we hope the quality we’re offering speaks for itself. 

What else can we expect in 2020?

Ollie: After the success of the Stefan Marx graphics, we want to try and bring in a key collaborator each collection to make graphics for boards and apparel. We have people lined up already and hope these collaborations will be exciting additions to each drop.

Ryan: On the team side of things, we have a couple of announcements that need making that we’re fully excited by, though we’ll handle those when the time is right, we’re not in any rush. After the success of the ‘Under Revue’ tour with Vans last summer, it would be amazing to get out around the country again and take in some different cities and scenes, so I’m hopeful we can make something happen there. It’s rad to get out and see people in places where skateboard tours don’t ever really venture, and personally, I love seeing the team skate lesser-seen spots, so I was hyped on how the coverage from the tour came out. As I said earlier, we’re working away on a new video project, and I’m determined for that to see the light of day this year too.

All photos from The National Skate Co. Summer '19 tour : Reece Leung.

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