“Do another kickflip,” my friend said. A gaggle of bug-eyed teens watched me under the blue autumn sky. The first day of our freshman year of high school had just ended, and we gathered in the parking lot of the skatepark across the street.
“Dude…ride around, just ride around,” my friend instructed. I did a lap. My friend threw his hands up. “You don’t have any style! That’s what it is. You have no style.”
“You don’t have any style! That’s what it is. You have no style.”
I was stunned, and a little aggrieved—my friend didn’t even know how to kickflip. Who was he to criticize me? I had spent the summer in seclusion, studying the kickflip and had offered it to my peers for their respect. Instead, they dogged me.
At first, I didn’t understand, then I did.
My friend—who was technically a worse skater but more thoroughly steeped in the culture—was right. I could land a kickflip and I could ride around, but it didn’t look beautiful. When I did flip tricks, I didn’t always land on the bolts—the board would hiccup and my heels would graze the ground. When I rode around, instead of throwing my foot out and arcing it back in one motion, I hobbled along like a geriatric. There was a lot more to skateboarding than just landing tricks. There was something that elevated it into art: style.
There are a few reasons one becomes a sneakerhead: through fashion, following others or by necessity. The third is the way for ballers and skaters. As soon as I began learning kickflips, my shoelaces severed and a gash opened in my shoes. Tennis shoes would no longer suffice. My mom took me to a skate shop, and I bought a forgettable pair of black, white and gray DC clunkers. But they were the first, and you always remember your first.
My shoe game evolved with my skate game. Each new trick—heelflips, frontside flips, the notorious tre—begot new shoes to replace the ones the feats destroyed. I got a pair of black És Ones, a classic shoe, the very first Nike Eric Koston shoes, baby blue Emerica Reynolds 3s, my favorite shoe of all time. These shoes stood out for their details. My Reynolds 3s had a faux-diamond earring in the eyelet, my gray-purple És-Chocolate collaboration mid-tops concealed a stash pocket and my Bryan Herman Emericas had “WUSSUP” and “HATERS” written on the heel.
My friends and I chattered about shoes constantly. I remember my friend Ethan coming into math class with a new pair of black Vans Half Cabs, an iconic skate shoe. They still had the fresh leather and chopped timber aroma. He took one off, and we passed it around, burying our noses in it, deeply inhaling like it was a skull filled with smelling salts. We nodded and smiled at each other.
Our fashion tastes climbed upwards to our legs, torsos, arms and heads. All of my favorite skaters like Jerry Hsu, Heath Kirchart and Eric Koston had a personal style, not just for tricks, but fashion. I was inspired by them and started ordering less typical apparel: high socks, corduroy pants, knit sweaters and flannels. I never felt like I was copying anyone. I took bits and pieces and combined them to create something new.
By the end of my sophomore year of high school, everyone respected my skating and my style. Kids’ eyes popped out when they saw my new shoes. Friends offered me money to buy the clothes off my back. I wasn’t the best technical skater, but I had mastered the four elements: my flip tricks got air, I pushed wood with grace, my style flowed like water and everyone knew I was fire.
As high school went on, kids dropped out from skateboarding and mastered different elements—they could breathe smoke, change mental states or down bottles of strong liquid. I left skating behind too. But skating never really left me. The principles I learned (and earned) endow my style forever.
One could learn how to do every trick in the book—or one could buy every piece of designer clothing—and yet still lack style. One could just cruise around on a skateboard and have style. It’s not what you do—it’s how you do it.
Beauty takes effort but looks effortless. It’s worth it to try.