Like everyone else, I’ve been a big fan of Alexis Sablone since having my mind blown by PJ Ladd’s Wonderful, Horrible Life in 2002.
Since then, Sablone surprisingly became one of the most winningest X-Games competitors (it’s only surprising because gangster skateboarding like hers doesn’t usually translate to that medium) as well as earning a degree in architecture at Barnard College and a Masters at MIT. She is an accomplished artist and animator, a key member of the first-ever USA Olympic skateboarding team (whenever that happens) and in 2018, she designed an amazing skateable sculpture that looks like a face rising out of the ground for the city of Malmö, Sweden.
In the past month or so, Sablone released a new colourway in her signature line of Converse sneakers and has been introduced as the latest addition to the Alltimers pro roster. She also had one of the best parts of the year in Ben Chadourne’s recent full-length video for Cons, Seize the Seconds, which was the product of two years’ filming. No wonder it took us a few tries to make this interview happen.
Alexis Sablone: Sorry it’s been so hard to get a hold of me.
Max Olijnyk: That’s okay, I can imagine you’ve been busy.
I have been busy, but also I feel like time is passing at a crazy rate. It’s like the pandemic has created a time warp or something. I can’t believe it’s winter all over again, and when we started, it was winter.
I know, it nearly makes me cry hearing you say that. I can’t believe what’s happened in the past twelve months. What’s your experience been like?
There are two sides. There is how undeniably terrible everything has been and how scary that felt at times, especially in the beginning because New York got hit really hard early on. It felt like you heard a siren outside every three minutes. On the other hand, this is the longest I’ve been in New York, in the city I live in, for so long, because I was travelling so much. I was doing a lot of competitions and those are always really stressful for me, but I still do them.
That’s the job, I guess.
You’d think that for how long I’ve been doing them they wouldn’t make me nervous anymore, but I don’t think that goes away. It’s skateboarding in a whole different context. I can’t sleep the night before a contest, you know? Because of all that travel and contests and everything else leading up to when the Olympics were supposed to be, I was filming my Converse part and dealing with injuries and having to compete on those injuries, and I was like, I can’t handle this all at once. It was so overwhelming. When you go out skating on a normal day but you know in the back of your mind that you have all these contests coming up… it’s hard to not think about that, and not be like, I should probably skate the rail a bit, you know?
Yeah, of course.
They’re things that I honestly might not feel like doing, but I tell myself that I should probably do that. So when all of that stopped, as terrible as this is to say because of how horrible everything has been, it was actually really refreshing for me as far as skating goes, because I didn’t have to worry about any of that. I put it all away and it felt more like skating when I was growing up. I was skating alone in the street because everything was closed, and trying whatever I felt like that day. I started having more fun with it and also it allowed me to have a more structured schedule. I was really lucky to have my apartment and a studio space, because I had somewhere else to go. I’d wake up, bike to the studio then go skate at some point before it got dark, and start over the next day. It was grounding and nice, despite the terrible reasons behind it. At the very beginning, I got sick. It was actually before lockdown started, so it was really early. I didn’t go to the hospital, I didn’t have trouble breathing; I just had the worst fever I’ve ever had. I was so weak and achy, I was in bed for a week. It was really frightening, and I’m sure it would be frightening at any time, but I was just, you know, refreshing the numbers.
That must’ve been terrifying. It was all so unknown at that point. It was like, are we all going to die?
Yeah, my mom kept on calling to check in, really worried, and even after when I was like, ‘Mom, I feel way better, seriously. I haven’t had a fever now in a week, I’m good.’ She was like, ‘Yeah but that’s when some people take a turn for the worse.’ For weeks after, she was like, ‘It could still take a turn!’ That’s been the hardest part. My mom doesn’t live that far away, like a couple hours drive. I went on Mothers’ Day and waved from six feet apart and then we went on a walk where we were six feet apart and she was kind of power walking ahead and yelling back to me. So there was that, and not doing Thanksgiving together—what a lot of people are going through.
It is interesting to think about the positive side of all this, and that it has been a grounding experience for you. Personally, I found skateboarding was such a beautiful release from all that oppressive stress and worry. New York was an even better skate city, even though it was quite apocalyptic. It was like a video game level, with nobody there.
Usually, anywhere you go in New York, you’ll run into people you know, or you’ll end up meeting new people and skating with them. That’s good in its own way and amazing and something I love about living in a city with a good skate scene, but I also love skating alone. So I loved that; I’d go out and not see another single person. At one point there were barely any cars on the street; it was so empty. It was just me skating in a hoodie, in the winter… you know, I love that. It’s exactly what I grew up doing.
I really like that little part you put together all yourself. Did you produce your own videos like that when you were younger?
I have no tapes of myself skating when I was younger, though I think I set up a camcorder on a tripod to film myself doing kickflips to figure out what I was doing wrong. But I never edited myself skating; we never made home videos or anything like that, so that part of it was actually pretty new for me. It was stressful because I was in control of every part of that project, but that was also the fun part. Looking for spots and figuring out where I’d put the camera, not having to be stressed about wasting the filmer’s time when you’re trying something forever. It was just me and a little tripod. I also made the music for it, and I’ve never made music in my life. But I figured, while I’m at it, I may as well, right? I was looking up the YouTube guide for, like: ‘what is music?’.
It turned out great!. I can see why these companies are all so into you, because you really encapsulate what it is to be a modern skateboarder. Aside from all the contests, you’re so accomplished. Do you have an awareness of that, and how sponsors might want to sort of use that?
I have a lot of interests and things that I do. I don’t think that’s singular to me and don’t think that it’s necessarily just a modern skateboarder. Maybe in the past there were fewer platforms for other people to see all the different things that skaters do, but when you look at skateboarders, they’re often very multi-disciplinary and there’s usually some sort of creative thread that goes through a bunch of different things that they do. But I guess I do that as well, and I guess also because I’m a female, and my grad school and all that stands out, kind of. But whatever, Converse definitely loves that I have other interests and is down to promote me in that way, and allow me a lot of freedom in terms of design. They’re really open to that and it’s nice to be respected in that way and trusted with that responsibility.
I suppose it’s more that Converse and companies like them are utilising their riders in a more holistic way. It’s not like: ‘We have this female skater!’ but more like ‘this is an interesting person’. Maybe the skate industry is reflecting what’s going on a bit more than it used to.
The brands involved in skateboarding have obviously changed a lot since when I started skating. Now there are corporate sponsors and a lot of outside eyes on skateboarding. When I started it was assumed that everyone was just a punk in a parking lot. We kind of were that, but now people are looking a little closer and seeing that skateboarders have a lot to offer. There are so many overlaps between the mentality a skateboarder has to have that makes it a really easy jump to want to be creative and think differently across disciplines.
I actually showed pictures of your skateable sculpture in Malmö to the council here in Wellington as an example of how skateboarding can be incorporated into the design of a city, rather than relegating it to skateparks. How do you feel about the approach they take in Scandinavia, and what was your experience like doing that sculpture?
That was really a dream project for me. These things, there’s usually talk of them, but in order for it to materialise and actually be embraced… it’s a complicated process to get a city to think outside of the box and see the way that those unique spaces could enrich a community and offer something to skateboarders and non-skateboarders. To us, that seems obvious, but to someone that doesn’t really think about skateboarding, or they are worried about the noise or the liability, that’s where it gets complicated. In Malmö they have so much of that worked out. They already have this great relationship with the city and they’re more willing to do things like that. When I was growing up you had to drive many towns over to get to a skatepark, and that could be a box and a rail in the ground. Now skateparks are everywhere, and I think, maybe selfishly as a designer, but also beyond that, it’s interesting to have something that’s kind of an in-between. A skateable sculpture is never going to be the same as something that naturally occurred and was never meant to be skated because there’s something so cool about that and that’s so much of what skateboarding is about – misusing space. You see large scale sculptures in cities but it’s always like, oh, don’t touch that. Between that and regular urban furniture, like benches and chairs, there’s not that much in-between, you know? With a bench or a table, you know how to use it; there’s one kind of way. You sit on it or you eat at the table or you do a very prescribed activity, so I think having a strange object in the city that would appeal to skaters but is also just something you could touch or play with or hang out around, is just really important for urban spaces. I love playgrounds and playground design, but once you’re over the age of seven you have to behave a certain way around objects, and there’s nothing like that for adults or the wider population. I think having strange objects in the city that you can interact with however you want is a really cool idea for skateboarders and beyond.
Congrats on joining Alltimers. How did that all go down?
Alltimers has always been a company I liked and it just feels like a really good fit. I’ve known Zered for years; we met when we were 13 or 14 years old, and I know Dana (Ericson) from when we were teenagers in Boston. Also, Alltimers is based in New York, so to have a crew of people in my city, I’ve never had that. I’ve always been on the East Coast while my sponsors were somewhere else. I was hoping it could happen but I didn’t want to put Zered on the spot, then he kind of brought it up to me and it went from there. That day we filmed the ad was the first time I saw the board in person, but the board itself was not a surprise. We were trying to think out what my first graphic might be and I sent that picture of the scene from Good Will Hunting and thought something riffing of that would be cool, just because of MIT, and you know, great movie, and I thought it could be funny. Within a couple of days, Pryce came back to me with that, with my name blended into the logo. It was perfect. It’s crazy that this has all happened during the pandemic, and it’s the most people from the team that I’ve been around at the same time. So they were all setting up my boards and that was really cool. At the time, my foot was broken, so I was just kinda like, there. I was standing around playing basketball, not jumping, trying to participate any way I could, but I couldn’t skate. Anyways, I’m really happy about being on the team and the board came out great.
And you’re still on good terms with your friends from WKND?
Oh yeah, I mean, Trevor Thompson is my best friend. He’s basically my brother; he’s the first skateboard friend I ever had. So it’s sad to not be on that team together anymore, but he’s still my best friend and I still consider a lot of those guys my friends. So I’m feeling good about that.
This isn’t really a question, but you have a very enviable flip technique.
People always compliment my flick, which I really appreciate, but I also have no idea what they’re talking about, really. You can’t see your own flick. I watch footage of myself but I think it’s hard to have any perspective on how you skate or see yourself the way other people do. I just see all the little bad things and wish they were different.
Of course. And so much of it is muscle memory. You learn how to skate and then that’s how you skate.
But it must be nice to see yourself doing that heelflip over the road gap in Paris. That’s a pretty fully evolved version of that trick.
That trick took me forever. I spent the first couple hours not committing, then at some point landed on a couple, then hung up and didn’t clear the street. It’s satisfying to see it now, but thinking back to the process and how brutal it was, and how surreal it felt when I actually rolled away. It’s like when you film a line but the flatground trick in the middle was not your best, but what are you going to do, film it again? The tricks that I think really stand out is when it’s like that one someone gets in the middle of a line that surprises you because it’s perfect. It’s funny how that becomes how you think of how that person hardflips or heelflips, when really it’s just one in a million. I feel like every trick I ever try is a battle and I know that’s not singular to me, but when you see the one that finally worked, it’s funny to have that one be like…
…a summation of your work.
Yeah! But I was happy with that heelflip. I wanted to collapse after that one. I was skating it with some other people trying way crazier tricks. I don’t know how many tricks Harry Lintell landed over it in the span of time I was trying that one heelflip. And then Ibu was trying to fakie tre it, which is insane. Everyone has their own ideas and tricks for a spot. You can’t get discouraged by people trying to fakie tre the same thing you’re trying to heelflip. You’ve just gotta do what you can do, and keep doing it until it works. That’s the best I can offer.
Good advice. Well, a vaccine is on its way and Biden and Harris are taking over. Next year is looking a bit better than this year. Are you feeling hopeful?
Yeah, I’m feeling hopeful. I like to think it can only get better. I’m cautiously optimistic, let’s say that. Things are moving in a better direction and we’ve all been through a lot. It’s been crazy to live through a historic time; you know that someday your kids and your kids’ kids will want to know stories about this year. This crazy, awful year.