By Dave Carnie
“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 neighbors, but HUF is definitely having fun.
“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 behavior 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 beamer . And he was, as anyone with a sense of decorum would be, uncomfortable with the audacity of monogramming his 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.
Keith’s calm, quiet demeanor is the antithesis of that of a salesman. 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 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 demeanor 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 awhile. 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 shit load 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 kick flip and tre flip, 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,” 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.”
“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.”
1. Beamer: a person who follows an accomplishment with beaming pride, begging for recognition.