I remember when I started skating, and there was this old skater (and by old he was probably 15) who had a dubbed copy of REAL Skateboards’ ‘Non-Fiction’ that he would always watch over and over again. Keith Hufnagel’s part always stuck out because of his huge pop, and his first trick where he ollies over the hood of a car – something that some friends failed miserably to replicate, causing mysterious dings to show up on cars around the neighbourhood. Today, Keith’s much better known as the founder of the HUF powerhouse that’s become a staple amongst streetwear fans for over a decade.
Thanks to some controversial products and celebrity co-signs, the company has enjoyed huge popularity in the last few years, but despite all of the success, at the end of the day the man behind the brand is still the skater we grew up watching who’s just happy to wake up and do what he loves.
Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Keith Hufnagel. I started seriously skating in 1986 and I’ve been a professional skateboarder for twenty years. And then I started a label called HUF in 2002.
You’ve been with REAL for over 20 years now. What made you decide to stay with the company for so long despite running your own label as well?
I’ve had many offers to leave – to leave and be with my best friends and for some reason I just stayed. I’m so glad that I made the decisions to stay with REAL because they now support me in every single way in everything I want to do. They always backed me up. I’m just lucky that REAL became successful and I was skating good and at the right places during my career.
Well HUF started its life as a retail store. You were doing really well as a professional skateboarder, so why did you decide to branch out and open up a shop?
I think I was a little bit bored. I was doing the same thing every single day. All I did was skate, try to find new tricks and try to do all these things. It wasn’t that skating wasn’t fun or interesting anymore, but I just needed a new challenge in my life. I was living in LA and my best friend passed away so I was like, “Let’s just get the hell out of this place,” and I moved to San Francisco. From travelling I would see all these things: I saw Supreme start, I was riding for Stussy and I saw all the culture in New York and LA, Tokyo, Osaka and I thought I should try carry these brands and start something. And that’s where the roots came from: skateboarding and streetwear mixing together.
Yeah, because HUF was never exclusively a skate shop or a skate brand. Why was it important for you to not restrict yourself to just skateboarding?
You don’t want to just be one thing. I am more than that personally. Yeah, I skateboard, but I’m into streetwear, I love music, I love art… I love the culture. And that’s what HUF is all about – everything in that circle. Yes, skateboarding is our core, and we support it, but we also love everything that goes beyond it.
And what do you think about skateboard companies becoming front and centre within the streetwear realm in the last few years?
Well it just is what it is. The people in streetwear – almost all of them have some sort of skateboard background, not just skaters but skate photographers or editors. Somehow they’re all kinda mixing. Half of the people I know are owners of streetwear companies, and they’re all guys I knew from the skating industry. They’re guys I grew up skating with, hung out with at some point because of skateboarding. I don’t know what skateboarding brings that to the table… but it does.
So the shop opened in 2002. When did the label kick off?
Right after the shop opened we were printing t-shirts and making hats.
Did the guys from REAL Skateboards help you out during the start of HUF clothing?
They helped me out so much. Basically I used their graphic designers, I used their printers, I used their supplier for t-shirts; it was like everything was right there and they let me use it all.
So there was never any hesitation to help you start out a competing brand?
They were very supportive of it. I mean even in the past I was always very hands-on with my board graphics there, and very hands-on with Metropolitan Wheels (another Deluxe Distribution brand alongside REAL). These were things that they’ve been supportive of because I don’t own a piece of that company so they helped me grow to becoming something more than just a skateboarder.
HUF was up there in the first wave of companies in North America to start collaborating with large companies such as Nike on sneakers. How did that initially come about?
We were selling Nikes in the store at the time, and I connected with one of the dudes over there. He offered to make me a colourway and I took him up on it. We made 24 pairs of that shoe with our logo on it. They’re all out there floating somewhere in the world – I think I still have five of them stashed away.
Did you know that the whole sneaker collaboration market would blow up like it did?
We were just doing it for fun for supporting people who were supporting us. Since then we’ve done soooo many collaborations: the Gold Diggers, Hufquakes, the Tie Dyes, and I think they’re all pretty rad. Each one had their own story. At the time, they were all San Francisco-themed because we were pretty much just a San Francisco company at that point.
HUF has it’s own shoe line now. How difficult was creating shoes from scratch compared to collaborating with Nike on existing silhouettes?
It’s very, very difficult. It’s like comparing making a building to painting one. Shoes have blueprints behind them, and you need to be massaging and finessing all these different elements together. We’re in the worst position as a shoe manufacturer: we’re putting out a shoe that’s going to get skateboarded in and destroyed! It’s not like a shoe you just walk in – these shoes need to get tested and tested repeatedly out there and make sure it can withstand rigorous skateboarding.
So a few years back you shut up the brick and mortar stores and focused on distribution of the clothing label. Was that a difficult decision to make?
Everything you do that changes the structure of your company is difficult, man. Especially when you know it’s for the best, but everyone on the outside thinks it’s wack.
Why do you say that?
Fucking forums, comments on blogs. You know what? All of the people that talk crap, no one knows anything until they actually do this shit. You will never know the struggles I’ve had, the success we’ve had, until you do this yourself. And I suggest everyone to go out there and do it themselves because the only way to truly experience it is to go for it. But actually we’re planning to open up a new LA store next year in February.
Wait, so are you saying Keith Hufnagel goes and reads the comments on Hypebeast about Plantlife socks and lookbook drops?
I look at everything. I don’t comment or respond, but I’m surprised at some of the things that have been said. I’m happy when people are excited, but I’m really confused when people are ignorant. But that’s what happens – I get it. But it’s childish to say something negative about something you have no knowledge of.
Well one of the biggest critiques about your label is that it condones and promotes the use of illegal drugs.
Well, we don’t really give a fuck. We want to be against the grain; we want to be rebels. We want to be all these things but we also want to be classic in our apparel and have a bit of edge to it. So the things that you are referring to are just a small part of what we make. We have a whole line dedicated to classic styles and classic fit, and then there are the little edgy things that we push the limit on and we’ll always do that.
In recent years, off the back of the hype you’ve created with these controversial products and celebrity endorsements, there’s been a much younger demographic buying HUF that might not be aware of its skate and DIY roots. Do you feel that it’s important to educate the consumer about the roots behind the brand?
I would love it if they understood the company but I can’t force anyone to be educated about it. If they want to be educated about it, we put everything out there for them to find themselves. I can’t control each person that’s buying the product. I mean I hope they are buying it because they are a fan of the brand and what we stand for.
So let’s talk about this new IVI Eyewear collaboration and where your involvement came from.
Well basically they just hit me up to be an ambassador for IVI and I was pretty damn surprised because I’m at the tail-end of my skate career. Rob Dyrdek is one of the guys behind IVI and I was on DC Shoes with him for five years and I still hang out with Rob, and he really likes my brand and thought it was a natural fit. The product is really awesome – they’re really focused on making quality products by investing the time and development it deserves.
Has HUF made sunglasses previously?
I’ve done them with other companies. I’ve never made them by myself because I know the challenges that are there. I don’t want to just print on some shitty plastic sunglasses and put it on the market because I want to associate HUF with good quality products. And I believe IVI is just that. They have a heavy focus on unique acetate, attention to detail on the hinges and on the lenses they use.
So what’s next for you? I haven’t seen a part from you for like six years or something.
[Laughs.] I don’t think there’s any more parts coming out. I’ll have clips here and there. To do a proper part, man – that’s like a year or two years of solid, hardcore skating. I have my own skaters on my team that are next-level, and I just sit back now and enjoy watching these kids do what I used to do. I get chills just watching them – it’s so fucking rad.
So what do you think about the current state of skateboarding right now then?
I believe it’s fucked! Skateboarding has many levels to it now: it has many types of skateboarding. You have your corporate Street League skater, your Mountain Dew kids to your hardcore only-street guys – the guys that are underground that just do their thing. Each level has people that are amazing, and some of those kids that are just raw street are the best fucking kids out there. To watch them skate and not give a fuck and just be them, that’s the best shit ever.
HUF’s IVI “Standard” Collaboration is in stores now.