Content’s the word of the age, and in general, the content most brands produce is about as captivating as (watching) golf.
Vans aren’t most brands, however, and the piece that they released recently in conjunction with International Women’s Day was equal parts authentic and heart-warming. It’s difficult for big brands to do anything with social connotations without being accused of shamelessly attempting to better their own standing, and voluntarily entering your company into something as contentious as to how Indian society treats its women, is fraught with PR danger. Vans had a vessel in which to brave the potential storm, however—Atita Verghese and her Girls Skate India foundation.
Vans VP of creative Jamie Reilly is the man behind the trip to India, and he says that it all stemmed from hearing Atita speak at a TEDx talk. “All of her notes were on her phone,” Jamie tells me on the phone from Vans HQ, “and she was very young and looking at her phone the whole time, and it gave this picture of the perfect millennial. But what she was saying was so overwhelmingly powerful.”
Atita is India’s first professional female skateboarder, and as you can imagine, her story is as interesting as it is inspiring. Jamie tells me that one of the most striking things that Atita keeps saying, and something that was reinforced for him on the trip, is, “Skateboarding’s so weird in India that people don’t even know that girls aren’t supposed to do it.” Stop and consider that for a moment. In a country that’s renowned for being derogatory and conservative towards its women, something as grimy and physically challenging as skating being so foreign that it may as well be ‘for girls’ is baffling, and kind of awesome. Jamie went on to explain that what really struck him about Atita, and led to him pursuing her story as something for Vans to get behind, was her ability to eloquently sum up what skateboarding had brought to her life.
“She speaks about it in this really amazing way,” he tells me. “She said that when you’re a little girl in India, school is all about being told what to do, how to act, which things you should do and which things you shouldn’t do, and she didn’t see it that way. She didn’t like being told what to do. And then she found skateboarding. In skateboarding, nobody tells you what to do. You make up your own rules, so she fell in love with it.”
Having found herself in a position to give skateboarding as a gift to young Indian girls like she herself once was, Atita set up Girl Skate India. “She goes around and she gets grimy and builds these little spots,” Jamie explains. “And all the while she’s showing the transformative power of this activity to all these little girls. We just thought that you couldn’t ask for a better ambassador for skateboarding. Somebody who does it because she loves it, and recognises that it is this amazing gift.”
I ask Jamie, as the man who both put together this project and who represents Vans’ interest in it all, what the pitfalls are for a large, profitable, company getting involved in such a contentious issue, and his response was profoundly simple. “It doesn’t seem contentious to believe that skateboarding is awesome for men, for women, and for girls and for boys. We just thought that what Atita was doing was neat, and we want more people to know about it.” As a guiding principle for brands trying to better their image, we may have inadvertently stumbled on a guiding rule. Find something that’s worth getting behind, let those already involved do their thing, and use your power to get behind it.
One of the most heartwarming components of the piece is the presence of professional skateboarder Lizzie Armanto. Jamie explains how excited all of the Girl Skate India family were to have Lizzie visit and skate with them, and that it even drew some unexpected guests. “I was chatting to one of the women who came down to the little event that we put on,” Jamie tells me, “and she says, ‘Yeah I’m a doctor. I’m on leave for the weekend and I was so excited that Lizzie was coming down that I came to Bangalore.'”
At the end of the day, the crux of the matter is that skateboarding was once a closed off, white, male space. Thankfully, those days are gone, and that’s something that Jamie and Vans are keen to evolve. “In the ’90s, skateboarding went from being this suburban and largely white activity, to a much broader ethnic demographic,” he explains. “That brought so much progress to the evolution. If you look at these periods of amazing growth and progress, that always comes with new folks.” One of the most profound things that Jamie took away from the project involved Girl Skate India’s cutest member, Kamali, and Jamie Thomas. Jamie Thomas visited Bangalore years back on a surf trip, and while he was there he visited the little concrete skatepark and gave a little girl (Kamali) a board. When the Vans team rolled into town to hang with Girl Skate India, Kamali was still rocking the set up that Jamie gave her. Weeks later, Jamie (Reilly) was watching a panel that featured Jamie Thomas.
“The thing that struck me about listening to this panel was that, as interesting as it was to see him up there and all he’s done for skateboarding, the next ‘Jamie’ might be a girl named Jamie,” he explains. “That progress, and the critical mass means that the next evolution is going to come from all sorts of places. And I think that’s exciting for anybody that skateboards.”
Check more of Girl Skate India’s noble work here.
(Photos care of Vans).