In 2010, British professional skateboarder Lucien Clarke left his well-established American sponsor, Element, for a fledging British company called Palace. It was a little like a promising programmer leaving Microsoft for a Silicon Valley startup; at the time, Palace, at least stateside, was largely shrouded in mystery. The company's name, the brainchild of a 27-year-old Londoner named Lev Tanju, was a sarcastic reference to the less-than-luxurious London "skate houses" Tanju and his cohorts resided in. (The full, fully ironic, name for the skate crew was "Palace Wayward Boys Choir".)
Though all of this sounded somewhat interesting, no one would have been surprised if the project had faltered -- the skateboard industry being, among other things, a graveyard littered with ill-conceived vanity projects and/or half-baked "bro deals" that have a way of opening with a bang and ending with a whimper.
Just three years later, however, Clarke's sponsor shift can be read as an object lesson in following one's heart and one's homies. Palace is not only alive and well; it may just be the chicest skateboarding company in the world.
Think of England
The darling of keenly discriminating inside-the-skateboarding-beltway blogs like New York City-centric Quartersnacks and hyper-intellectual Boil the Ocean, Palace has crafted its own instantly recognizable visual vocabulary of defiantly lo-tech VHS videos, hermetic board imagery and unabashed appropriation of distinctly American idioms like "trap music." (Tanju also cites as an influence the 2007 Mark Gonzales/Krooked video "Gnar Gnar," one of the first millennial skate videos to deliberately include the crudities of VHS tape.) In a way reminiscent of the British Invasion of the 1960s -- when bands such as The Rolling Stones foraged within the fertile Mississippi Delta for inspiration -- Palace has created something new, and uniquely British, out of sometimes neglected aspects of American culture. Though instead of Muddy Waters or Chuck Berry, Palace is apt to quote the seminal 1990s skate company Menace, or Jovontae Turner and Lavar McBride.
Budding Anglophiles also tend to like Palace for the same reason some prefer LP records: The crackle of the needle in the groove adds, instead of detracts, from the sound.
It doesn't hurt that Tanju's small but choice team roster -- Shawn Powers, Chewy Cannon, Olly Todd, Lucien Clark, Charlie Young, Danny Brady, Benny Fairfax and Rory Milanes -- happens to include exceptionally talented skaters, particularly Clarke, God's gift to style. But however chic its clothing becomes, skating is still Palace's essential ingredient and the brand will remain first and foremost, Tanju says, a skateboard company.
But Palace's "pastiche channel surfing at 3 a.m." aesthetic has not merely charmed the notoriously fickle skateboarding world; its garments have also gained currency among high-profile fashionistas like Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, pop singer Rihanna and brash Harlem-based rapper A$AP Rocky, all of whom can be seen wearing Palace merchandise or, as Welch did in August 2012, attending Palace-sponsored Notting Hill soirees.
Now, it seems, Palace is everywhere.
When asked to account for the company's success, Tanju sounds, at least over e-mail, sort of how you might expect him to -- a study in nonchalance. Like the whole thing was a bit of a lark. Could he recall, for instance, the first time he felt Palace was starting to catch on?
"Yeah, it was great riding the first boards and seeing kids skating them at a spot," writes Tanju, now 30. "I can't remember the earliest days, really. It was hazy, and I didn't really know what I was doing ... We all hung out and skated even before Palace was a skate company. Being best mates, basically. When we are not skateboarding together, we are sat in a pub getting steaming."
In an attempt to draw him out, we asked Tanju if his lifestyle was, as imagined by some, consumed by skating, rap music and Baudelairian excess or if he had a conventional side we didn't know about.
"Your picture of my lifestyle is pretty tight, but I'm pretty conventional, to be honest," he wrote.
"I only knock about in my velour tracksuit listening to Future, drinking coconut Ciroc, on the weekend, really."
Oh to be young and carefree and able to place "coconut Ciroc" in its proper cultural context.
London swings again!
But instead of expressing a hipster's cynically studied indifference to, or outright disdain for, the mainstream "non-endemic" audience, Tanju, for one, welcomes broader interest in the brand.
Case in point: Tanju recently received an out-of-the-blue call from soccer-wear brand Umbro, asking if he would like to come visit their headquarters. The meeting resulted in a first-of-its-kind Palace/Umbro collaboration. The clothing line was then photographed by leading fashion photographer Alasdair McLellan and the whole thing was featured in Britain's i-D Magazine. (McLellan also photographed a Supreme ad campaign featuring model Kate Moss -- a brand to which Palace is sometimes compared.)
Not only can you now buy jerseys and reversible jackets with both the Palace and Umbro logos stitched across the chest, but you can even purchase a Palace soccer ball. Oh, and instead of a traditional advertisement for the new line, Tanju convinced Umbro to spring for a 1990s-themed soccer party/rave at a London pub, all of which was made into a short, thoroughly charming video.
Not bad for someone who wears a string of botched low-paying skate-shop jobs as a badge of honor and describes the period between college and starting Palace as a "lost decade."
Toward the end of the interview, we asked Tanju if he spent time weighing the costs and benefits of increased popularity, lost any sleep over the price of fame or if he was happy to grow Palace as much as the market would bear.
His answer was both typically blithe and unashamedly entrepreneurial.
"Nah, I don't worry about anything," Tanju wrote. "It's nice of you to say that things are immediately recognizable. I like companies that do that without the graphics being exactly the same every season. I want to grow and I think it's good if we are popular, so we can pay the team properly and on time and get all the riders I want and do more fun stuff.
"It would be kind of dumb to have a business but not want people to dig it. I want to do something different that's honest and I want to show people how sick London and skateboarding is, and I don't see why I should follow certain rules to keep anyone happy."