How did a clothing obsessed skateboarder from Florence, with no formal fashion design training, become a lead designer for some of the most influential skate brands and fashion retailers today?
This is the story of Francesco Pini.
ONE37pm: Where are you from and how did you get into skateboarding?
Pini: I’m from Florence, Italy, but I’ve been residing in Malmö, Sweden for about 13 years now.
I got into skateboarding from just going to my neighborhood’s “Boards” store when I was about 17 or 18. I remember the local skate hero had a VHS copy of Fulfill the Dream and he dropped it off at the store to just loop it in there for a few days. Next thing you know, the owner pirated a bunch of copies and I ended up getting one. Since the first day I saw Smolik, Brandon Turner, Muska and the rest of the team, I got into it. That video is still to this day so perfect.
How did you start designing?
Depends on what typology of design we are talking about. For graphic design, it started randomly: a friend here in Malmö needed a graphic for his small skateboard brand and since I used to do some tattooing at home for some of his friends, he thought I could draw something for him. The result was kind of basic, literally just a drawing on a tee and a hoodie barely vectorized, but it was enough to make me want to do more and learn how to work Illustrator and Photoshop, so I could get a better final product.
After that, I started testing some stuff on the merch I was producing for the vintage store I had at the time. Then I started doing some stuff for Kosta at Quartersnacks and other friends. Always on a friendly tip, but the stuff would be produced on a bigger scale and sold in stores worldwide, so that slowly became more satisfying and turned into a job.
As for the clothing design, that started professionally with a job at Polar and grew from there.
I´ve never done or studied fashion design, but I have definitely been obsessed with clothing my whole entire life, so that helped develop an eye for it. I remember that since second/third grade, I used to get off of school around noon and I’d go directly to the sports store across the street to help them unpack the new arrivals. I was really into the NBA and they had all the Shaq Reebok gear and all the Jordan stuff coming in on a weekly basis.
I would stay there so long sometimes they had to warn my family that this was happening, so they wouldn’t stress when they didn’t see me come back home.
Later in my youth, I started asking my mom to help me refit clothes I had that I felt didn’t fit right. So with her help I got a bit more hands on with some sewing and fitting. From then on, I always messed around with clothing, but it never became a job until Polar.
I’ve never done or studied fashion design, but I have definitely been obsessed with clothing my whole entire life.
How did you get the job at Polar?
Easy, through Instagram (laughs). It was actually random as it could be. Polar was growing, but was still rather small and Pontus (the founder) posted on Instagram that he needed a clothing designer for the brand. So I wrote him an email and he was down. There were a lot of people from all over Europe applying for the job, but as he told me, he was looking for someone that lived in Malmö for “logistic” reasons. He also knew me briefly from skating and from the vintage store, since he came through a couple of times to get some reference pieces.
What did your job entail?
The job was from design to production 360 degrees, from pretty much starting the second day. I was the only designer there for 3 and a half out of my 5 years at Polar. Pontus was almost full time busy with editing “In search of the Miraculous” at very first and after he was done with that, he was always very busy with graphics, boards, more videos, editing/filming etc.
We’d obviously bounce ideas back and forth as I was drawing garments and he’d sometimes get involved, giving his point of view and his ideas of what was needed in the collection. He’d also help a bit with production issues and all, but it was a lot of work on my side since it was the very beginning of Polar making more elaborate gear—rather than the basic coach jackets and the jerseys. So it took a lot of research, ideas and overall development from all sides involved.
We had a production agent in Poland where Polar used to produce their clothing. He’d source factories and follow the production up close, but if there was an issue I’d have to fly there and go check it personally or go there to check the final samples before they were put on the production chain.
I remember the first time I went to Poland, it was like my second week working there. I had to go fix some damn snap buttons and some fit issues on a coach jacket they almost had ready for production. Pontus was like “this is it, you want to do this design job then go fix this thing”. It was sort of the most random move considering I had no real experience yet. I came back to the Polar office almost a week after with this luggage of coach jackets and as I walked by his room we kinda had a laugh about it. I’m pretty sure at some point when I was away he realized how random his decision of sending me there alone was. It did go well after all and we got the coach jackets done.
What are some of your favorite pieces you helped to create at Polar?
That’s a tough one, different ones for different reasons. I’d say first is the Hallberg fleece (named after a Polar skater, Hjalte) due to the fact that it was the very first garment I designed for Polar. It’s a spin-off of the North Face Denali. I drew that thing on an A4 the same day that I got the job. I still have that sketch.
Then it would be the first puffer I designed. The one with the two direction panels, half vertical and half horizontal. I like it because I based the design on a Polo Sport jacket. I love Ralph, so that was like a homage to him. Also, this was Polar’s first real outerwear piece with technical properties and qualities. I remember it was dumb expensive to produce and it ended up retailing around 500€, so really the only people that got it were the team and friends and family. It wasn’t in the skate shop price range let’s say (laughs).
Then I’d say being part of the process with the whole Surf Pants and Big Boys fit. The whole craze it generated afterwards in skateboarding clothing style, seeing it get so big that even non-Polar riders were buying and wearing them was definitely unexpected.
How did you end up leaving Polar?
After more than 4 years, me and Pontus just didn’t see things the same way, so I felt like I could try something different and see which doors that experience would open. I’ve got nothing but love for Pontus, Bella and the whole work team and I will forever. The time there helped me develop a lot work wise and as a person.
Looking back at it, I actually used the down time this whole situation created to focus and do more work that I’m hyped on.
Why did you move to Malmo?
I moved here because I wanted to open a vintage store somewhere in Europe that had a good economy, so I could work and enjoy the results. I visited Malmö a couple of times before moving here and as a 25 years old (at the time) it had everything I needed: insane skate spots and a nice community around it, the seaside, the close distance to Copenhagen and mainly an open window for the business I wanted to start.
What do you miss about Italy?
First and foremost my family: seeing your parents age through a cell phone camera is nothing nice. I also miss the energy Italy has, between the history and art that is spread in every city, you get so much inspiration just by taking a walk or a bike ride. The landscape helps, too. We have possibly the most beautiful coasts, mountains and big cities within a 3 hour train ride from where I come from, so that helps when you have some free time to see and enjoy new things and gorgeous places. Other than that, the Italian culture overall. The fact that you can have a quick conversation with a random person at any time, I think that helps you keep a mental sanity. Also, miss the street markets. Whenever I go back home, I try to hit as many as I can. They’re a real goldmine for vintage clothing!
Where do your design ideas come from?
At this point during the pandemic, a lot of research between physical stores and online since I can’t really travel. The only 2 museums in Malmö are closed. Pre, and hopefully after the pandemic, I definitely love to see a good museum, travel to cities with strong history, architecture and lifestyle, just to enjoy them and soak in their details as much as I can.
Whenever you get the opportunity to do what you love, do as much as you can to prove yourself and don’t take it for granted, since there are many other talented people that are hungry for that same opportunity.
What are you excited about working on next?
I think now is the time to plan a second pop up shop for Noon Archive following the one we had last October. Other than that, the Trés Bien line we worked on is releasing at the end of March. I’m psyched to do a lot more graphic design work for Grand, Quartersnacks and whoever needs some help. Hopefully soon enough we will be able to travel freely again. That is a thing I very much look forward to! Thanks a lot everyone, much love.