The brands Etnies, Emerica and eS Shoes are household names in skateboarding, all under the roof of a company called Soletechnology. But did you know they were all owned and put together by a team of people under a man with such a massive vision for how skateboard shoes should be designed, worn and thrashed?
Let us introduce you to the man behind that vision and the story of how such a challenging idea formed originally in Europe ended up being one of the flagship companies of the current Skateboard industry worldwide. At some point your feet would have been in a pair of Etnies, CEO Pierre Andre Senizergues explains how they got there and much more after dropping into Crossfire HQ in February 2006.
Bonjour Pierre, I hear that you are the Big Cheese of Etnies skateboard shoes, is this correct?
Yes, that’s right….
When did you start Etnies?
I started Etnies 16 year’s ago, it was actually a company that was started in Brittany in France and I brought the company to the U.S and launched in California, the mecca of skateboarding back in the day, and that’s kind of how the story starts with Etnies.
So it was a company that was started in 1986, made by a footwear manufacturer in France, it was a generation of people who had been making shoes for over 200 years and they interacted with a skater whose name was Platoon. Well that was actually was his nickname.
His name was really Alan Laughty but the Platoon movie came out and he was wearing camouflage all the time so all the skaters were calling him Platoon. This guy was living in a village where there was this big shoe manufacturer who made fashion shoes and he talked to them to see if they could make good skateboard shoes. That is kind of how it started. The company didn’t work very well at the beginning because they still had the mentality of making shoes from fashion shoe designs but these were for skateboarders.
Yeah, French shoes as well?!
‘Laughs‘…So Etnies was trying to make it happen but they were really having a hard time trying to do this from the village and I came in during the late 80’s after I had decided to retire from skateboarding and I brought the company to California. I designed the shoes that were with the team that consisted of Natas Kaupas, Rudy Johnson, Eric Dressen, and Sal Barbier even Gonz was on the team for a while…but different guys like this.
Legends now of course.
Yes, big names now but back in the day some of the guys like Rudy Johnson and Sal were unknown in the beginning but they became big names as we went along.
What inspired you to set up a shoe company and not a skateboard company?
I was skating for so many years and I wanted to stay in the skateboarding industry because I was passionate about skateboarding. I grew up skateboarding in the suburbs of Paris and I wanted to stay skateboarding but I was having back problems and couldn’t skate any more. So I had to do something and I didn’t want to go back to France, I wanted to stay in California. I decided I would like do something that would contribute to skateboarding and there we so many people making boards I couldn’t really add anything.
I was looking at skateboarding shoes and I didn’t really see anybody making good skate shoes at the time so I figured I could try shoes and see what happened. I thought that one thing I could contribute to was stabilising the skateboard market because it was the seventies and skateboarding was dying. I’m not even necessarily talking about the shoes but skateboarding as a whole. In ’78 and ’79 I saw skateboarding dying immediately and by ’87 it went big and then ’88 and ’89 it died again and I was like “damn what a bummer“, and I thought I should try to do something to stabilise skateboarding as a whole so the kids can be supported.
I figured if I did shoes, I could make a difference because there weren’t many people doing shoes and secondly if the shoes could appeal to a wider audience, that could stabilise skateboarding because that would mean there could be a shoe company generating revenue who could invest and market skateboarding. Even if there were less boards sold we would have a base to support our passion. That’s why I went into the shoe market and umm… everything went wrong!
Well I thought it was going to work but it didn’t! ‘laughs!‘
But you stuck with it?
Yes, I stuck with it. I started borrowing money like, hundreds of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Was that not scary?
That was scary and when I could not pay it back, that was when it was really scary. I could not pay it for 4 years, and I went into millions of debt!
Millions? Dollars, Euros?
Dollars….and I was thinking I should shoot myself!
‘Laughs!‘ Either that or I had to make it work, but luckily enough in 1994, Etnies took off in the U.S. which was due to different reasons. Firstly because I finally understood what it took to run a company, like, how to make shoes. Secondly the economy was coming back up in the U.S. so that helped and we had started designing shoes that the new generation of skaters wanted, like the lo-cut like the lo-cut type of shoes. Back then we were doing the high top, and the low top people were getting away from the high tops but nobody could see that skaters wanted the lo-top shoes…
Only because they had no options….
Yeah because everybody was used to the high top for skateboarding, as if skateboarders only skate in high tops.
Because they protect your ankles….
Yeah, exactly, so when we developed the first pro shoe with Natas in 87, it was a high top and everybody was in the “hi-top, hi-top, hi-top” mood. ‘laughs!‘ Then suddenly I was seeing a lot of skaters wearing the Adidas Gazelle and Puma and nobody was moving on it so Etnies decided to develop a low cut type of shoes. We wanted to make a shoe that lasts, unlike a Gazelle where you skate it and end up with a hole in the shoe because they were not made for skateboarding. So we were going to do a low cut type of shoe but with a durable outer sole and a durable upper part and modify these shoes so they would be better for skating and at that point they took off. And so for 4 years it was a pain owing so much money that when it took off, it went the opposite way! ‘laughs!‘
I can appreciate that, it does hurt sometimes, but the good things in life really work when you want them to. Am I correct in saying the lo-cut is still the biggest selling Etnies shoe of all time?
It is still one of the biggest selling ones but the biggest one right now is the Callicut, which is a version of the lo-cut in a sense. It still has the E on the side and is a bit different but it is still a simple shoe.
Did you have any other names you were close to using instead of the word Etnies? Where did you get that word from?
Well the concept first came about because when we were skating we were always a little group of people back in the late 70’s. When I was skating with my friend there was about 50 skaters in France and we knew every single skater, we knew their name, we knew where they lived, we knew everything about them, so it was kind of a little clique of people – our little sub-culture ‘like a etnique‘. But the word etnique was too close to a shoe brand called Etonique and we couldn’t trademark the name. So we had to change, and it became Etnies which was the closest thing that came to it. The concept of Etnies was a little sub-culture, a group of skaters that came together doing their own thing. Their music, their skating, their own way of living….
So you were a freestyle skateboarder back in the day?
Well it’s funny actually because every body knows me as a freestyle skateboarder but in reality when I started I was doing everything. In the 70s people were doing everything. You would be skating ramps, you would be skating pools, freestyle, high jump, slalom, downhill. Everybody was doing everything and I think it was a pretty amazing time because there was so much variety and the ways you could be skating, and freestyle back then was like street skating. In a sense, street skating was non existent because people were skating in the streets doing freestyle tricks but nobody saw we would be riding walls at the time. We didn’t know how to do an ollie, they didn’t even exist. Alan Gelfand invented ollies but they were in pools and we did not think we could do that on the flat. We were doing more like pressure flips, nose wheelies, 360’s. One thing I remember is doing 360’s and seeing how many i could do!
Have you noticed that the skate industry is pretty much run by freestylers?! – Jeremy Fox, Don Brown, Paul Sunman, Rodney Mullen, Steve Rocco, Ian Deacon etc.
Well you also have Kevin Harris. He runs a distribution in Canada and has the biggest distribution in France for skateboards….
He was on Powell wasn’t he?
Yeah, that’s right. and Jon Marquette, a big distributor who was sponsored by Powell too. Ricky Bains has turned distribution in the U.S. there’s a lot of them.
A huge amount…
But what I think happened is ramp and freestyle merged into street skating because in the mid 80’s popularity was going towards street skating because it was the most practical thing to do. Vert skating was a bit too crazy like a bit too hard to start off, hard to drop from the ramps.
Well it’s a massive transition from freestyle to becoming a vert rider over night….
Exactly, and freestyle was a bit too technical for a lot of people and they wanted to have fun right away so they combined freestyle and ramp and skating got a whole era of new street skaters in the 80’s like Natas, Gonz, all those guys. So the pro freestyler was not selling many boards. It was a different reality to be a pro freestyler to a pro street skater and all the street sales would go to all the street skaters. The ramp skaters were also not popular but the boards were almost like a street board back then, you could street skate with a ramp board but not with a freestyle board because they were too small so the freestylers were left with basically nothing. They had to be working somewhere, they had to be doing something to survive, they were the first ones who had to find a job, you know.
That’s true, you go through the list and the whole industry is run by people that were running freestyle skateboarding throughout the world, everywhere.
Its very interesting too because its not like there was like millions of freestylers, there were not that many. Freestylers knew all the other freestylers. Even when skateboarding went really big, freestyle was always a little subculture, something for like weirdo’s or nerds. ‘laughs!‘
The nerd thing’s now official! ‘laughs’
“laughs!” – The reason I was doing freestyle was because I felt I could do it anywhere, in the kitchen, in the airport, anywhere I would travel and I just loved skateboarding. I wanted to be able to do it anywhere, so it was logical for me to be a freestyler instead of being a ramp rider where I need a ramp especially because back in those days, when there were not that many skateparks either.
So the transition from moving from a small suburb in Paris with your idea to California was a big one…how much of a tax on your brain was that?
Well the way it happened was kind of funny. I was skating in France and I went to Sweden for a skate camp, called Euro Camp. I went there and Mike McGill was there and Caballero was there and Per Welinder was doing the freestyle, and he was amazing. So I went there and learnt some new tricks from him and then I came back and one day I decided I kind of wanted to go to California. But I knew nobody in America except Per Welinder who I’d met in Sweden a few years before. I thought if I called him, I could stay at his house one night so I called him and he said “yeah you can come, stay at my house” so I flew to California and stayed at his house. The next day we go to Venice beach and I started skating and there was this crowd just watching me doing my tricks. I was really surprised and out of the crowd comes this guy who ask if I wanted to ride for Sims. I was like “who is this guy?” and it was Steve Rocco ,the was team manager of Sims and I said I would love to ride for Sims as they were the best company at the time.
At that time they had Lester Kasai and Steve Rocco was on the team. I remember just being like “no kidding I would love to ride for Sims!” so I went to the factory with him to get some boards and then he asked me if I wanted to go to a pro contest in Vancouver, and I told him I wasn’t sure if I was good enough. I was just a rider from France but I went there and won the contest and in that year I won pretty much every single contest in freestyle. I become number 1 and world champion and they started giving me boards with my name on and royalties and it was crazy, I couldn’t believe it.
But with all of this going on how did you find time to set up Etnies?
Well that was 1985 so it was all running and I felt like just living my dream and in the meantime I was taken to the French army for a year and that was a catastrophe! I went to fight and I couldn’t skate anymore so I was losing my mind!
That must have been hell! All of a sudden your having the time of your life and then the next minute your just running about with dickheads with guns!?
Yeah! And it was also the worst winter in Europe it was below 25 degrees in 86 and so I went from California where I was having a great time – you know, free boards I could skate about with, to the military for a year and I think I almost lost my head at some point but I managed to turn it around and I managed to skate in the army. I have a lot of stories about the army and skateboarding.
Do you have any photographs of this?
Yes I have photographs, I have a photograph were I lay a soldier on the floor.
What and ollie him?
Well I couldn’t ollie him because it was too early, so I was doing long jump jumping over soldiers from one board to another, it’s pretty scary because it’s like the army in full uniform and then I just lost my mind and got into a big fight with 15 soldiers and a captain and everything and they shot me and sent me to the hospital!
Why did you get shot?
Because I was getting out of control I couldn’t stand not to skate anymore. So they realised I was a pro skateboarder and they interviewed me, because at the start of the army, you go in front of a board of people, and they ask you what your job is, so they can assign you a place. So I said, “I’m a professional skateboarder!” and these guys went nuts and they decided to send me on the worst mission possible, like driving in the middle of the night, it was crazy, but I lost it after 6 months!
Did they kick you out?
Well they didn’t know what a skaterboarder does, so they thought “maybe we should let him skate for half an afternoon and help him get better before he starts to kill everybody” and it was much better. And then they asked me to do a skate demo in front of the officers to show them what skateboarding was about. So I did a demo, and there was a change of base, so there were 3 of the major generals of the French army with their wives and kids. So they kids came and loved it and I spent the whole morning and afternoon skateboarding. So after that, for the last 6 months, I spent half the time skateboarding and half the time in uniform. So it worked out really good. But it was like Midnight Express, I went there from California at 25 degrees to being where people were freezing in the night and going to the hospital thinking “what am I doing here?!”
It’s a good lesson I guess, we live fairly decent lifestyles as skateboarders. And I guess when you hear stories like you it makes you realise how lucky you are. You know you have to get through the worst times to get to the best times.
Exactly, for me it was a good lesson. The thing I learned through that was that I was really passionate about skateboarding. I didn’t know I was that passionate until I started losing my mind!
Would you say that single handedly gave you a purpose to set up Etnies? Or one of them?
Yeah, it gave me that feeling that it was too important in my life to not be involved in skateboarding and actually, I’m glad it happened, because it gave me a better direction of where I was supposed to go.
So let’s talk a little about the direction, what’s happening right now, and the Etnies worldwide team. In record companies, you have an A&R guy and that person will source a band, sign a contract with them, they’ll produce and amazing record and they’ll sell it. It’s very similar to skateboarding as far as I’m concerned. So who is you’re A&R person and what makes hthat person pick a certain rider?
Well, it’s a team effort, not a single persons decision. It’s a group of skaters, we decide together and we trust each other in the decisions we’re making and we’ll all back each other up. So the guys that make the call on the team are the team managers because they specialise in that area and they live it 24 hours a day, so they go around the world and they go to skate parks and talk to people to see who is coming up and should be supported and we take a look at him and how and when we decide to sponsor him, then eventually give him pro shoes depending on the person and what’s best for that person.
We don’t give shoes to a person right away, because we might feel like that person is not ready. Giving them a shoe might be financially beneficial for them but not mentally. It has to be the right timing. There are too many stories of people’s heads exploding because they’re making lots of money or have too much popularity and they can’t cope with it. We pay a lot of attention to this. For example with Ryan Sheckler, we just gave him shoes this year but we felt like he was ready to get them, he has a good head on his shoulders and he has a supportive team, he’s been with Etnies for a while and both of his parents were behind him too to make sure we’re not going overboard as far as taking him too far. He can be a pro skateboarder in the best possible way for him. Also, with giving a pro shoe, you have to be a very very good skateboarder and you have to want to have a shoe, because some don’t. So it’s a number of things, its not just one thing, and it’s a decision for the whole team who work for Etnies, so we can be behind him 100%.
Ryan Sheckler is a good example because obviously he’s a very young up and coming skateboarder with world recognition because of the competitions he’s winning and his parts on DVDs, like the Almost DVD that just came out. How much input would a new rider have on their pro shoe?
I think it’s one of the things that makes skateboarding very unique, the ones that get the shoes are more involved in designing their shoes than in any other industry like basketball or running for example. I’ve spoken with people who develop basketball shoes and they’re making so much money that they don’t really care about the shoe, it’s not really important. I’ve heard stories where a basketball player goes to the designer of a certain brand and finds out how many they’re going to sell of it. With skaters its not the same way at all, they are really involved in the shoes, they take more pride in taking a shoe than in basketball in general. For skaters, the image is very, very important so if they put their shoes on the market, they wanna make sure they function well, make sure it looks good, the way they like. They wanna make sure that everything works with the shoe, they don’t take it light, they take it very serious. That’s why, to me, skate shoes are much more interesting than any other professional shoes outside skateboarding, because I think skaters are thinkers, what’s cool what’s not cool, and they wanna do something really amazing. Otherwise they don’t wanna do it, why do it if you’re not pushing the envelope?
Are you still running that Soletech shoe testing complex we saw photographs of last year?
Yeah definitely, the sole-tech institute is the first bio-mechanic laboratory for skateboarding, and the only one that exists. Part of the reason I did that, was the reason I started in the beginning – I want to make shoes that functioned better for skating. When I had enough resources I was able to say that instead of just saying “this feels good, the material absorbs shock well“, we wanted to do it bio-mechanically, rather than just by feeling. That was groundbreaking in skateboarding, for me, from the standpoint of being a skateboarder and having back problems from skating so much, I was thinking that I had to make the shoes the best possible. I wanted the shoes to last as long as possible and not be limited in what they do, I wanted to push to the limits with how fan they could do. The bio-mechanic lab enabled to do this.
One of the things that made me happiest was when I saw Ryan Sheckler testing some of his shoes in the lab and his mum was there, and she was watching him jumping 10 stairs and a hand rail and landing on a plate where we measure impact and where we have sensors that go into the shoes to show exactly where the impact is, so we can see that if he’s getting more pressure on the front of his shoes, or side of his shoes, we can build his shoe a certain way. Ryan is very small and this was a few years ago when he was 14, but he is tiny so he looked like a 10 year old kid and you see him doing the tricks, and his mum could appreciate that there’s no way she can stop him skateboarding because he loves skateboarding and so she supports him. But it was good for her to see how we support him so he can do this for as long as he wants in the right shoe. That’s where the lab was being useful to do something good for him.
Obviously Sheckler is a priority on the team now and has just won the Global Assualt in Melbourne, but you’ve lost a few people like Ellington, Penny etc in the last couple of months, that must have hurt?
Yeah sure, when you lose somebody its always difficult because we put so much into our riders to be part of our family, it’s heartbreaking when this happens. But I’ve seen this happening where people have had 25 years skateboarding but they move on, and it might be the best move for them, but it’s always a hard decision to make. You try as hard as you can but sometimes you realise that you can’t force something.
Like in a football team, when you have someone who doesn’t want to be playing for you, its best to let them go?
Right, sometimes the best thing you can do for somebody is let them go because they can learn from that, so it’s important. We’re always looking at what the best thing is we can do for our riders and sometimes the best thing is to not hold them back and to keep them on the team when he goes for himself and it’s the best for him.
When senior members of the team leave, do you feel there is a need to replace them with other senior members from other shoe companies?
Yeah when someone leaves, it leaves a spot for somebody new. We don’t necessarily look to take people from other shoe companies, it’s more usually that people come to us or with other people in the pipeline too. Or it’s a chance for somebody to take the step up.
If you could take a pro rider from anywhere else in the world and have them on the Etnies team, who would you pick?
I dunno, I never look at it that way. I never think about taking somebody from another shoe company.
But if there was a flagship rider out there that could represent Etnies who would be your ideal man?
The one guy I really like is Mark Appleyard – I like his style, he’s a great rider and he’s a really cool guy too. He even comes to my Halloween parties!
Last time he went as Marlon Brando! We had a great time, 700 people in fact came to the last one. We got kicked out of Newport Beach because people were too scared!
It’s an interesting name to mention actually, because he’s with Flip Skateboards and obviously there’s an affiliation between Flip and the riders on your team at Etnies. I take it you’re quite close with Jeremy Fox and the whole Blitz set up?
Well yeah, Etnies came from Europe and Jeremy came from Europe too and for me, I always had some kind of emotion for England because my mum came to England to teach French so she always had marmite.
Was she a fan?
Yeah yeah, she loved it.
Because we’re split down the middle here, you either love it or you hate it!
Oh really? She also loved that store Liberty. She once sent me out Christmas Eve shopping and it was a nightmare. People were so crazy! But also Etnies was at the beginning sponsoring Pig City in Brighton so we always had a strong link with England. So the first freestyler I saw was Jeremy Anderson.
Before my time….
In the 70s, he was one of the best freestylers in Europe and was from England. And my friend Don Brown who was the first person I hired to help me with the team, because I was bombarded, was from Brighton. So the liason with Flip was very natural. Also you know even though Etnies has headquarters in California, I always felt bad growing up in Europe and not being able to live as a pro skater in Europe. You had to live in California because all of the major companies are there. So I wanted to contribute the other way round, to support skateboarding in Europe so we started doing the Etnies European Open in 95, with my friend Rudy, another freestyler and I trusted him to start a kind of union of skateboarding and creating a scene in Europe. So going from England to skateboarding in Spain or Finland or wherever, to create a scene between all these countries, but he knew that there was something they could count on and it was the tour going all over Europe, that we’d be back every year. And the idea was that we didn’t want to do anything with the outside, we wanted to be able to depend on us skaters, so even if skating was getting fashionable, or dropping, we’d still have this base supporting us.
European skateboarding is definitely on the up and in many ways self sufficient now, where you are in California, do you notice that rise? How are Americans reacting to the uprise?
The Americans generally aren’t too happy about this because they like to control everything but I think for me, my goal was always to promote skateboarding wherever it was, and I grew up skating the suburbs of Paris with no support from anywhere and I always felt the need to do something in Europe and I applaud the companies from Europe that are doing it directly from Europe because its very hard. When Etnies was launched in France first, it was very difficult to make it work. But now it’s a different market, what’s optimistic is that skateboarding is much bigger now, much more recognition everywhere, skateboarding has existed since the 70’s so you have now 4 generations of skaters. So if people like me have kids, they can understand why we were skating and will put their heart and soul into this and can be there to support it. They can go to the mayor of the city to try and figure out how to sort the skatepark and move things around and be there to support youth culture. There is much more support in Europe and have companies coming directly from Europe and being able to survive with what they do.
What are you feelings on what Nike are doing in skateboarding?
I’m not sure exactly what they do. I think its good because in a sense they are recognising skateboarding because other big companies are looking at skateboarding.
Some people tend to disagree….
I understand why some people disagree because they’re coming into the market and trying to steal the scene that has been made by a lot of decent people. But it’s very difficult to do it, I think you really have to be in skateboarding for a long time to be able to do it. I mean if you go to a skate comp you’ll see more skateboarding shoes than shoes from the big sports companies because people recognise their roots. It’s obvious to work out who are real skaters and who are not.
Would you be able to compete with Nike and stop people leaving Etnies for Nike?
Yeah, we were born in skateboarding, and if there is a danger for us to survive, then we’re going to do whatever it takes to survive. I think it’s a bit like a country trying to conquer a country. But this time it’s not a country and they are trying to conquer something they know nothing about and the country will defend it with their last bit of blood because that’s what they are. So with the example of Vietnam. Lots of countries tried to conquer them but it never happened, in fact the people of Vietnam took back their own country. It’s surviving or dying. And for the skateboard industry, it’s the same way. The people in the industry who come from skateboarding are going to do whatever it takes to stay there.
One last question: Can you take Etnies any further? Is the ultimate shoe on the market right now or is there something up your sleeve?
Yeah the goal is always to get better. When you go skating you do one trick, it’s good and cool but you wanna learn another one, so it’s a non stop thing. I think that’s the spirit of skateboarding, it’s always been creative. So Etnies are pushing forward all the time. We are also looking at the environment too, I want to make sure that Etnies leaves the right footprints behind. It’s very important than when you go skateboarding, you breathe good air, so you can skate better and have a better time. We manufacture products that reduce pollution, so we don’t use petroleum anymore, so we don’t pollute the planet as we did. We run our research and development building all on solar power, we have huge solar panels.
Where is this based?
This is California. It’d be hard to do in London!
We’d all be fucked!
But in California we have so much sun so we’re using that energy and we save 42 acres of forest a year which is important because it means turn carbon dioxide into oxygen with 42 acres of forest. So it helps you breathe better, you have a certain responsibility. My goal with the company is to always leave the right footprint in whatever we do. Supporting everybody else too, not just skateboards. And we have meetings every 2 weeks with the City to go over what’s happening at the Etnies Skatepark to make sure the City Council and the Mayor know what’s going on and they come to the meetings and the skate park is even more than a skate park, it’s becoming a youth centre, we have local bands playing, art shows, movie premiers, charity for foster kids and stuff, oh and of course skateboarding!
In December we had 500 kids turn up and we do demos and have people talk to the kids and sign autographs, we had Santa singing to them and we gave every kid a pair of shoes. It’s fabulous, you see the workes at Etnies, the carers, the Council, the Mayor and the people of the community coming together to support the youth. You see this and it makes you want to do more.
So you’re a happy man?
I’ve got one last question for you: Pogo or Primo?
I’ll say Primo!
For more info on Etnies, go to www.etnies.com