Marc Johnson interview from the Sidewalk Skateboard Buyers Guide 2013.

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So of late you’ve been characteristically open as far as your awareness of the machinery behind the scenes of the skateboard industry goes – do you think it would be going too far to say that footwear is likely to be the battleground where the future of the skate industry, and much more importantly, the future of skateboard culture is going to be defined?
I can’t answer that for sure. I feel like right now there’s some heavy vibes around the shoe thing because those are the biggest companies in skateboarding. Whenever heavy stuff is going on with the big companies, it’s more in your face. We’re seeing some deep pockets literally buying a hell of a lot of skateboarding and skateboarders. It’s positive in some ways, and it’s negative in some ways. I think it all depends on what these companies want to do FOR skateboarding. We already know that most companies are just out to cash in on the skateboarding youth culture market and really don’t give a shit about the whole thing either way unless they’re making some major money from it. Depends on what the ultimate goal is, and so far I haven’t heard what that ultimate goal is. Skateboarding is already popular. We don’t need anyone to come in and give us a hand with that. We did that ourselves collectively years ago. Maybe someone came in and put some people on TV, but we were the ones being put on TV and if we weren’t already doing our thing there would be nothing to put on TV.

A lot of companies are hurting right now because deep pockets has more money than they do and can do more than they can do. Deep pockets can just buy something and change it into what they want it to be. If there is a protest in the street, just buy the whole block. Buy all the actual streets. It’s crazy. What I can say is that skateboarders are notorious for turning on skateboard trends. Running the trend through and then just ditching it. I know that footwear is kind of a battlefield right now, but we never know when skateboarders will change their minds: And for as ‘individual’ as we love to call ourselves – we really can’t claim that anymore. When you’ve got huge portions of skateboarders mimicking and copying mainstream shit, then you can see that we’ve lost our foothold on innovating culture. Skateboarders used to invent the trends and the culture to an extent, but now a lot of us have taken to pretending we live in a rap video, or a punk rock documentary, or a classic rock music festival. We’re just borrowing our image from things that have already been done. That says a lot about our culture if you really stop and think about that. We’re just copying other people now instead of doing our own thing. A lot of companies in skateboarding seem to have no idea what is going on with skateboarders, and what ends up happening is that they put out some really weird marketing stuff which the really young skaters adopt, and by default that accidentally becomes part of ‘the culture’ to some extent.

I don’t see a whole lot of intentional marketing going on out there. People are so out of touch in these buildings, they’re just throwing rocks and hoping to hit something and cash in. It’s kind of a retarded circle. Some of the dumbest shit that’s caught on has totally been an accident: totally unintentional. And another thing that I personally think is gross is the amount of “We Should Do That Too” mentality in skating. Among the companies I mean. Someone does something different, and everyone has copied it within a year. And god forbid someone should stumble upon a hot-selling gimmick: You’ll see everyone making their version of it as fast as they can get the boat over here from China.

So I personally don’t know if shoes will determine where skateboarding culture will go. It seems to me like skateboard companies should be the ones that determine skateboard culture, and footwear companies should be there to support the skateboard community in whatever direction it organically goes. Anyone can buy a skate shoe. Only skateboarders are really buying skateboards.

The activity itself, the art form – whatever you want to call it – should be the thing defining its own culture. But there’s also a lot more money in skateboarding than there has ever been. We can all agree on that. It seems like money sometimes makes people do some really strange and unsettling things. Money can do great things, but look at who’s got the money. If the controlling players have no solid moral foundation, or a shitty system of values, then yes, they’ll use their money to do shitty things. Why is it that the raddest people with the best ideas for the benefit of the whole are the ones who rarely, if ever, have the funding to execute those glorious dreams? It’s the shitheads and morally bankrupt scumbags who always seem to come out on top business-wise. Maybe business itself needs a major overhaul. A lot of people have no faith in the future of skateboarding because of the culture in which the kids are growing up in is so disconnected from morals and community. They are the future, but if their perspective on reality comes from a rap video or reality television, then we probably are in trouble. Our culture teaches us to be afraid, step all over other people to get ahead, and make a shameless spectacle of ourselves in order to become famous. It’s ‘Every Man For Himself’. “Sorry bro, it’s just business.”
Where are the people standing up and saying, “NO”?
Where are the people meeting up and talking about projecting an example of something positive so that these kids who are the future have something positive in their formative structure, which will benefit everyone when they’re running the show? If your marketing teaches kids to be shitbags, and then they grow up into shitbags and turn your industry upside down, it’s partly YOUR FAULT. If you want the future of skateboarding to be something you’ll enjoy and be proud of, then f*cking STAND UP and project that out there. The problem with ‘Every Man For Himself’ is that there’s no community. Lots of people are hiding in a building hoarding money and counting dollars, scared shitless about next season instead of calling up people to sit down and f*cking talk about the problems they’re seeing. Stop for a second and really think about that: Every Man For Himself. If you follow that ideology, then you’ll end up all alone with a bunch of money and no one to enjoy it with. If you’ve burned every bridge you’ve crossed in order to get to the top, you better pray that your company never loses steam because once it does you’re outta there: Financially and socially.
I guess what this whole messy ramble is trying to convey is, “Look. If you’re concerned about what you see and you’ve got some solutions, reach out and communicate with other people who have some influence on the culture as well.”
If skateboarding is really divided, then it will be easy to come in and pick people off, company by company. Divided you fall.

You’ve skated for over 20 years, put out multiple video parts and travelled the globe pursuing your passion – how do you condense that knowledge into a shoe that bears your name? As in, what’s the process of materialising all that ‘data’ into a product?
Conceptualizing a shoe does come from experience on a skateboard. We all know that certain materials and designs just don’t work for riding a skateboard. Certain shoes look great but will fall apart quickly once you’ve scoured the thing with griptape. It’s a fine line between history and current fashion. I feel like it’s bottlenecking into variations on a handful of designs these days. There are plenty of options but certain design directions are technically a waste of money. It’s tough to design a shoe that stands apart from all others but that stays in line with the vibe of the time.
I’m not saying anything anyone doesn’t already know. It’s the marketing of your brand that’s a really important factor these days. Walking that tightrope. When there were 2 or 3 shoe companies in skateboarding, you could be completely clueless and still sell a ton of shoes. Now kids are very savvy and vocal and you better have your shit together if you want to connect with them. I feel like there’s a danger in sitting in a building all day every day losing touch with skateboarding in favour of staying in touch with numbers. Most companies just look at other companies catalogues, and the whole thing ends up being a dog chasing it’s own tail. It’s tough. Lots of people want different things. Depends on what kind of culture they’ve latched onto, and how you want your brand to be perceived. You can alienate one sub-culture by trying to associate with another. When my input is asked, I really try to communicate some basic principles into a shoe design. Because I wear the thing, and I’m someone who actually wants my name on a shoe that will be good for the person who traded their hard-earned money for it. I do that as best I can. I can’t really make a shoe that costs $200 bucks at a skateshop, for example, just because Italian leather is more comfortable and durable. My input has to be translated to work within a certain set of guidelines.

You’ve had numerous pro models over the years – some cupsole, some vulc sole, some mid/high top, some low – does your preference change depending on what/where you skate or is it partly dictated by wider ‘trends’ for want of a better phrase in shoe design?
My preference depends on both actually. There are certain instances when a cupsole shoe just will not work for a skateboard trick. There’s one trick in particular that I had to go back for eight different times over the course of two years. I noticed that vulc shoes worked a certain way, and whenever I went back with a cupsole shoe to try and get the trick, the effort was a ridiculous failure. I actually saved one pair of shoes for that trick and every time I’d drive down to Laguna Niguel after I’d figured it out, I would wear that pair of shoes. I tried four or five different pairs of shoes until I realized that the Manchester vulc was the shoe that was going to work. I’d skate in the Belmont XLK normally but put on the vulcs for this one thing.
My normal preferences are the same as they’ve almost always been, but now I can actually see the shoes I’ve always liked end up on my feet. My taste in footwear happens to be the going ‘trend’ right now. Imagine trying to make the Manchester or the Marc in 1997. No one would do a shoe like that. My very first Emerica sample was actually a Stan Smith on the same sole we eventually put the final shoe on, and that looked so damn good. But I was told that it would not sell because it was too plain and boring. It needed more panels. More bells and whistles, some airbags and stash pockets and lace loops. That first sample pretty much resembled a Stan Smith on a Fila sole. I loved the sample because it was so clean and simple. We can make that happen in the shoe market now, but back then, you had to design something so overboard and clownish because that was the wider trend at that time. Gradually, the shoes I really wanted came into fashion, so I can basically skate in almost anything Lakai makes, because those designs are closer to my preferences. I can jump down some stairs in a few shoes, and skate tranny and ledges in some others. They all look good, so it depends on what I’m skating.

Your most recent shoe – the Marc – has a few interesting features – could you talk us through some of the thinking behind it please? In particular: the deeper than usual tread on the vulc sole and the desert-boot influence?
Around spring of 2010, Scott Johnston asked me to start thinking about a new shoe and I looked at a bunch of non-skate designs for some ideas about how to reduce panel and lace blowout. On some shoes, if the laces are too far forward then they’re gone after a day of skating. And the same goes for the stitching of various panels and toecaps. Griptape plus string equals no more string. I looked at lots of classic styles and dress shoes and messed around with drawings for the MJ Echelon and the idea for the Marc. The thing that struck me was the longer toecap and shorter eye stay on a desert boot and an Oxford. The laces are very much out of the way on those shoes. Those are very clean designs too with no panels to blow out. I gave Scott my input and he made both of those shoes happen. I think Jeff Mikut is responsible for the deeper tread on the Marc. You’d have to ask Scott and Jeff about the idea for the tread. It definitely comes from shooting for more grip and durability, but that wasn’t my idea. I don’t really have any influence on what goes into a shoe last or the molds for various soles.

Do you have an overall favourite skate shoe from your many years of skating? Like a kind of pinnacle moment of functional design say?
I’ve had some favourites that looked amazing but got destroyed quickly through skateboarding. We all have those. Some of the raddest looking shoes just aren’t built to handle griptape for too long. A great example of durable and functional design was the black leather Staple with the rubber toe. That shoe looked so rad and lasted so long. Since the rubber was molded onto the toecap, there was no stitching to worry about. The original Manchester cupsole was pretty much exactly what I needed in a skate shoe, and looked amazing. You know how when you’re out skating and you look down at your shoes and if something doesn’t look right, it completely f*cks with your head? That first Manchester was such a breath of fresh air among skate shoes. Looking down at my feet and seeing that shoe just made me feel better. I loved the simplicity. The Marc and the Linden pretty much have it dialled as far as comfort and durability at the moment.

What’s been your favourite Lakai shoe from over the years and why?
I’m going to have to go with the Belmont XLK. I absolutely loved that shoe. I would have all-black samples made for me and I couldn’t get enough of those. I could list 15 shoes that I skated for years each and loved, but something about the Belmont XLK… it was so damn comfortable and looked so good to me. I would superglue some of the stitching to make sure I didn’t have any problems with the toe cap.

So from your exalted position – what should skaters be looking out for and be conscious of when they buy their next pair of skate shoes?
That’s so easy to put into words, but so naive to actually expect anyone to follow through with. I would simply say, “Hey kids, be aware of what the shoe company is doing FOR skateboarding. What are they giving back to skateboarding? What are they trying to say?”
There are lots of companies out there that simply make products because they want a piece of the pie. That want your money, but they aren’t doing a damn thing in skateboarding or FOR skateboarding. They’re just in limbo, trying to make some cheap shoes and sell them for more than what they paid to make them. Look around at what’s going on in footwear. Who’s really doing rad stuff with their program? Who is really in it for skateboarding because of skateboarding? And who is only making shoes because skateboarding is really popular now and there’s a bunch of money to be made? If you think real hard, you can figure it out. Vote with your dollars if you even care. But be careful, your money is power. And when you give your power away to certain people, you’re giving them power to do all kinds of things that are bad for skateboarding and bad for skate shops. I would love to see more footwear companies actually get involved with skateboarding and do rad stuff.  Fun stuff. But as we all know, the only thing most marketing people know how to do is make another video, and copy what other brands are doing. There are so many rad things that could be done, but the creative people usually aren’t the ones doing marketing for companies. Honestly, I don’t believe that skaters care too much about the future of skateboarding. Most kids buy what’s trendy, and that’s about it. Thinking about a few years down the road isn’t a part of the thought process for younger people. That concern rests with people who have a lot to lose of kids don’t start really thinking about what they’re buying.

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