RIP Keith Hufnagel


Keith Hufnagel, skateboarder and founder of HUF has passed away, aged 46. 

Keith was a skater first and an entrepreneur second. His aesthetic and creative vision for skateboarding was unrivalled in the industry, as was his enthusiasm, generosity and adventurous spirit. He was a good friend and a huge supporter of the mag, and his absence will be felt eternally. Our love to Keith’s family, friends and everyone at HUF.

Dave Carnie’s interview with Keith from Monster Children #38, 2014. Photos by Ryan Allan.

‘How’d you come up with the name, HUF?’ I asked Keith Hufnagel.

Keith chuckled, acknowledging the inherent silliness of my first question.

We had adjourned to a small, dingy, fluorescent office off to the side of the HUF warehouse in downtown LA, not far from the Berrics and Dyrdek’s Fun Factory. Keith’s warehouse, however, doesn’t appear that fun. It’s a warehouse, filled with industrial shelving laden with cardboard boxes of shoes and apparel. It smells like cigarettes, weed, and cold cement. Obstacles in various stages of skateable decay are strewn about like toys. Oldies-but-goodies were blaring from tinny, unseen speakers. The HUF warehouse may not be enjoying the same exposure and celebrity traffic as his neighbours, but HUF is definitely having fun. The brand is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.

‘My last name is Hufnagel, so as a kid I used to write “HUF” all over the place,’ Keith replied, surprising me that he was actually entertaining my stupid question. ‘That was my tag. I was just tagging on the streets, doing all that shit. And then when we opened our retail store in San Francisco in 2002 and we were trying to figure out a name to call the store—I totally didn’t want to do it. I was so against calling it HUF. I was really embarrassed about it. It’s kind of cocky in a weird way. But I looked at it as it’s just a name, and not necessarily me, it sounds good and looks good, so I was just like, fuck it let’s do it.’

Vanity is one of the main ingredients in any douchebag. And while there’s a certain element of vanity in every skateboarder—we perform—I feel it’s kept to a fairly tolerable level. Skateboarders, for the most part, are not peacocks. Compare the behaviour of a professional basketball player like Kobe Bryant for example. The vanity and the hubris that emanates from that man as he simply walks across the court is practically radioactive. (Is there a Geiger counter for douchery?) So that’s why I was so suddenly proud of Keith, and in turn, skateboarding. I’d always admired him—his cool, calm way of carrying himself, he’s kind and humble, brilliantly brutal on a skateboard, but most importantly, he’s not a beamer1. And he was, as anyone with a sense of decorum would be, uncomfortable with the audacity of monogramming his new company. ‘You’ve always struck me as someone who would be uncomfortable using their name like that,’ I said. ‘It’s something relatively foreign to skateboarding. I’ve found companies named after their founders to be a little weird.’

‘To me it’s always weird,’ Keith said, ‘but I’ve moved away from that and accepted it and I love it, but the first five years were hard years to be like, yeah, that’s my fucking name.’ ‘So, do you feel weird wearing shirts that say HUF on them?’ I asked. ‘I have trouble wearing anything that I’m associated with because it just feels a little excessively proud. Like, look at me!’ ‘See, I don’t really wear shirts that say HUF on it,’ he said. ‘I’m the same way. I wear stuff with little tags on it.’ Keith then began an inspection of what he was wearing: a camouflage HUF jacket over a deep blue HUF collar shirt, both of which had small HUF tags on the breast pocket. ‘This is what I wear,’ he said. ‘It’s so minimal. It’s hard for me to wear anything with a big HUF. I’ll wear the H, because an H is just an H, but just straight up H-U-F on my chest? Yeah, I don’t pull it off so well.’

‘If you can’t pull it off, who can?’ I asked. ‘Sounds like you’re saying to kids that they shouldn’t wear your shirts.’

‘That’s the problem,’ he said laughing.

Then again, he actually did monogram his company so maybe Keither—actually we should address this problem right now. For some reason I cannot type Keith’s name without typing ‘Keither.’ My fingers refuse to stop at the H. Some sort of muscle memory thing: after the K my fingers think I’m typing ‘either.’ It’s very strange. I just wanted to point that out in case a ‘Keither’ somehow makes it into the final copy. I’ve known Keither—holy shit—I’ve known Keithe—I’m not even kidding—I’ve known Keith a long time, we’re friends, but we don’t meet up and go get breakfast together or anything, and we’re certainly not close enough for me to be referring to him with any kind of a nickname, let alone ‘Keither.’ ‘Oh bro, it was so sick, I was hanging out with the Keither last night at his house and, like, Simon Woodstock’s friend was drinking MD-20/20 and trying to bang this Asian chick in the bathroom and they broke Keither’s glass shower door! Dude, it was soooo gnarly!’ That’s a true story actually. As I recall, it was Banana Red MD-20/20.

Keith’s calm, quiet demeanour is the antithesis of that of a salesman. So, I found his decision to go into retail a little peculiar. Keith is so quiet that the first time I interviewed him, many years ago, we had to bring in a stunt double to answer the questions for him: his then-wife, Anne Freeman. ‘The Keith Hufnagel interview, with Anne Freeman as Keith Hufnagel.’ We asked her a lot of questions about her husband’s penis. So, I was curious what made such a soft-spoken man decide to get into a business that generally demands a gregarious, fast-talking asshole. ‘The thing was,’ Keith said, ‘I was getting bored with skateboarding—I wasn’t necessarily bored, it was just the same routine. For ten years: hey, I’m going skating, I’m going to film this, I’m going to do this, and I wasn’t being educated anymore, and I wasn’t really thriving for anything, so in my own mind I was like, shit, this thing is going to end soon and I need to have a backup plan. So, me and Anne were going to do this whole women’s boutique thing, but then we looked around San Francisco and everything was kind of already done. So I was like, I love what happens in New York, I love the Supremes, and the Unions, and the Stussys, and I was like, let’s take what’s happening in New York and LA and bring it to San Francisco, bring the sneakers, bring the clothes, we have the connections, we can figure it out. So, we did that. And then right away we were like, let’s make tees and hats—I forget the rest of the question?’ ‘Me too,’ I said. ‘Oh, I think I was asking how someone of your demeanour could operate a sales-based business?’

‘Yeah, it was funny,’ he said, ‘you know, I went to school, I went to college, but skateboarding made me a little more dumb. I remember I was writing emails and I was like, fuck, I haven’t really written in a while. I felt kind of slow. And I had to step up and sell this thing that I was doing, but I was a young, shy person. I was extremely shy at that point in time. I was a skateboarder who showed my skateboarding skills, but I wasn’t speaking on a pedestal letting you know about this thing I wanted to do. It took a while to grow out of that. It was hard for me in the beginning.’

As brash and creative as skaters are reputed to be, it’s a strangely reticent group of young men. No one wants to say anything unless they’re sure everyone on the playground will agree with them. On the one hand, when you’re immersed in this culture you get better at skateboarding and you enjoy a fine and lovely lifestyle, but on the other hand, some deficiencies tend to arise in other areas of one’s life.

‘You’re describing one of the few sad things about skateboarding,’ I said, ‘when some kid gets swooped up in the industry when he’s like 15, he gets adopted into this beautiful, yet dysfunctional family, but he misses that crucial transition from childhood to adulthood, he drops out of school, he learns no skills, forgets how to spell his name, and next thing you know he’s 29 and his knees are blown out and the game is over.’ ‘I always compare skateboarding to a dead-end job,’ Keith said, ‘because you’re making a shitload of money, but if you’re not the person with the retirement plan, then it’s like, what skills are you creating? You’re learning how to kickflip and tre flip and all these things, but as you get older, your skills are becoming worse.’

‘So, in a sense, you started HUF because you felt you were washed up? Or you could see yourself washed up in the near future?’ ‘Yeah, definitely picturing me in the future,’ Keith said. ‘I didn’t know how long I had, but I knew that I had to add on to what I was doing. And I think that’s something that skateboarders really need to do.

The best thing about skateboarding is that it holds the keys to everything. It allows you to do anything you want to—if you want it.

They need to skateboard, but also have hobbies, or another job that they do, because you can be a professional skateboarder and, I don’t know, sell something online, or be an illustrator, or be a photographer—it allows you to do whatever the hell you want. Which is the beauty of it. Because if you’re a skateboarder, you already know how to work hard: you trained yourself to be a good skateboarder. Skateboarding doesn’t come naturally. It’s not like you come out and you can do all these tricks. You work hard. And if you can translate that into a job, a real job, then you should be able to succeed.’

Keith succeeded. He didn’t volunteer any spreadsheets, and we didn’t talk any numbers, but given the fickle nature of this industry, ten years in business is impressive. And then when you figure in the economic meltdown a few years ago, it’s downright remarkable. His retail doors may have temporarily closed, but his apparel and footwear business is growing.

‘Are you a sneaker head?’ I asked. ‘Actually, this is a better question: have you ever camped out on the sidewalk for a sneaker release?’

‘No,’ he said laughing. ‘Definitely not. I think I became more of a sneaker head when the store opened because I realized the value of these things. And it also turned me off to it because the kids were so obsessed. It’s just a fucking sneaker. But I started collecting. I collected so many, that I was like, I’m over this, and I sold them all and I just put them all into a trust fund basically. Which ended up helping me build more of this stuff,’ he waved his hand indicating the warehouse. He sold a significant number of sneakers apparently. ‘It’s an underground culture and it’s totally cool, and it’s awesome, but for me I’d rather be sleeping in my bed.’

‘Have you ever had people camping out for a pair of HUF shoes?’

‘We’ve probably had a little, but we’re so young, we’re not big like those people. We’ve collaborated with Vans and Nike where it’s been a huge deal. We’ve had it for sure, but not crazy.’ I’ve always equated the fervour for footwear with the Dutch tulip mania that began in 1634. Tulips were fetching huge prices in the Amsterdam flower market and the Dutch went completely ape-shit over these beautiful, yet fragile flowers. ‘Entranced by the promise of instant wealth,’ Duncan Watts writes in Six Degrees, ‘…even ordinary citizens were drawn into the madness, to such an extent that the routine business of the economy was virtually abandoned. At the height of the boom, a single bulb of the rare species Viceroy was exchanged for “two lasts of wheat, four lasts of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four tons of beer, two tons of butter, one thousand pounds of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes, and a silver drinking cup.”’

I don’t think a pair of sneakers has gone for ‘four tons of beer,’ but the prices paid for a pair of limited-edition sneakers, much like a tulip, seems grossly out of proportion with their intrinsic value. Yet, as much as I cast puzzled glances at the queer, effeminate, shopping element that is part of sneaker culture, shoes are crucial equipment in skateboarding. And, with the exception of maybe Lee Ralph, nearly every skater has an opinion about shoes. Which was certainly part of Keith’s motivation for getting into it: a skateboarder making skateboard shoes for skateboarders.

‘My vision was to go into footwear,’ Keith said. ‘We started with clothing, which I totally love, and I feel like I’m better at clothing than at footwear, but I had an opportunity to partner with people and do footwear. I feel like it’s really good for us to have a core skateboard company that is making footwear and is making some noise and taking it away from the corporate people. Because it’s only been ten years that corporate companies have been in skateboarding, but they own it. Which is good and bad. It’s giving a lot of skaters who deserve it money and travel, but it’s taking away from the core people that built skateboarding. They’ve been around for ten years, but the kids that just start skateboarding now never knew what was there before.’

‘Remember the Consolidated “Just Don’t Do It’ campaign?”’ I said. ‘I love that shit,’ Keith said. ‘That’s what skateboarding is all about. Like saying fuck you to the corporation and living it. The corporation needs to be told off. But now they’re giving back. Sort of. They’re taking a lot and giving back a little.’ This is a point in the article where you can pause and reflect on your views about supporting giant multi-national corporations vs. skater-run skateboard companies. Mall stores vs. skate shops? Home Depot or the mom-and-pop hardware store? Amazon or a local bookstore? Did you know Amazon donates lots of money to conservative, right-to-life groups? And their Japanese subsidiary sold canned whale meat. Whales are so cute. So are pandas.

‘Do you prefer the creative process or the business side of HUF?’ I asked. ‘I love the business side,’ he said, ‘but I really love the creative side. That’s more me, making the creative happen. My partners are more the business side, which is awesome that they allow me to make this company what I want it to be. There’s a lot of creative people here, and it’s funny as hell to make some crazy shit and sometimes piss people off. It’s awesome.’

The HUF booth at this year’s Agenda trade show was funny as hell. It was a gaudy swap meet-themed booth replete with do-rags, dice, hairnets and Ninja weaponry. They also had a machine set up that made customized hats for their vendors. It was all very ridiculous, and it reminded me of some of the shit Rocco used to do in the early World Industries days. ‘I mean I definitely look up to what he did in the ‘80s and ‘90s,’ Keith said after I mentioned Rocco, ‘and I was a kid who bought that shit. I was definitely influenced by what he did. One of our slogans is, “Fuck it.” And that’s what it’s about. Who gives a shit? Fuck it, let’s do it. And people usually buy it. We have kids that get suspended from school for wearing some of the shit we make.’ ‘Really? That’s awesome,’ I said surprised. ‘That’s what I consider SUCCESS.’ ‘That’s like a Big Brother thing,’ he recalled, ‘being banned from countries for selling a magazine.’

We took a little trip down memory lane, remembering naughty things we used to do. And then I was reminded of all the good things Huf used to do and I thought of a strange question. ‘Do you still have sponsors?’ I asked. ‘Me?’ he said surprised. I don’t think he had heard that question in years. ‘Yeah. I’m still on Real, Thunder and Spitfire. And I’m on IVI eyewear. But, yeah, I still have a deck on Real. And I skate the least I’ve ever skated in my life.’ I was just kidding when I asked the question. But, wow, good on them. ‘Do you mind if I run that?’ I asked. I didn’t want to be responsible for getting him kicked off. Maybe they don’t know that he doesn’t skate anymore? Maybe they think he’s been working on an epic video part for the last ten years?

‘Sure.’ Oh, then they know already?’ I asked. ‘Does DLX have a washed-up-old-pro veteran’s program or something?’ ‘It’s going like that,’ he said. ‘I’ve been there for 20 years. I think the best decision I ever made was not leaving Real. I had offers to leave. I think when you’re somewhere for two decades it’s a respect thing, and it’s a good family.’ ‘You couldn’t leave anyway. Mic-E would head-butt you.’ ‘Basically.’

Meanwhile, Keith has begun constructing his own skateboard empire with a small, but powerful group of skaters that are loyal to the cause. They’ll be doing a Europe tour this summer. Keith assured me that it’s not a road trip and it will be the company’s first real tour. Stateside, there’s talk of resurrecting the HUF retail space. Keith says they have plans to open a store in LA this year. ‘So how do you feel about running a skateboard footwear and apparel brand for ten years?’ I asked as I was leaving. ‘I like it,’ Keith said. ‘I think it’s fun. It’s even more fun building it. It’s even better when it sells and everyone likes it.’

  1. Beamer: a person who follows an accomplishment with beaming pride, begging for recognition.

 

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