LAKE FOREST, CALIF. — Sole Technology’s always been one of those quiet anomalies — an action sports conglomerate of sorts without being corporate.
It’s largely to do with founder Pierre-André Senizergues, the pro skater who built a multibrand portfolio of skate and snow brands based around technology and fostering a sense of community. Senizergues, for nearly three decades now, has steered the Sole Tech ship, which includes the etnies, éS, Emerica, Altamont and ThirtyTwo brands with e-commerce retailers ranging from Amazon and Zappos to big boxes such as PacSun and core shops in the vein of Active Ride Shop and Jack’s Surfboards. Etnies alone counts more than 2,000 retailers globally.
Senizergues’ latest milestone, though, isn’t so much around the product as it is the sport rooted in his business. The company earlier this month celebrated the 15-year anniversary of the etnies Skatepark of Lake Forest, an example of a successful public-private partnership between Sole Technology and the city. About 2,000 people came out for the one-day celebration.
“Our brand has been more an inclusive type of brand. That’s why we created this skatepark,” Senizergues said. “We started the skatepark 20 years ago, but it took five years to make it. The idea was for us to give back to the community, not only giving to people that ride, but it was also to convert the city to skateboarding…It’s unbelievable. It’s really a youth center where the kids can go and have a blast and express themselves.”
When brands talk about authenticity, the etnies park in Lake Forest would be the very definition of that. At the same time, Senizergues is also very aware of the business that must be maintained to keep the brand name attached to that skatepark.
Sole Technology caps the year about flat with last year, amid a market Senizergues characterized as being “up and down” with the continued pressure from direct-to-consumer brands, e-commerce and Amazon. It’s a lot of balancing or making product unique to one channel in a bid to keep retailers across the spectrum happy and also afloat, the ceo said.
“It’s a lot of challenges, I’d say, to figure out how to keep balancing everyone and try to help everyone along the way—from a small skate shop to a mid-size retailer chain store to an e-commerce retailer—and try to figure out how to provide for everyone,” Senizergues said.
The company’s looking out to 2019 conservatively, careful about ballooning in a market undergoing dramatic changes. Instead, Senizergues is focused on maintaining the structure and strength on the company’s back end.
Across the nearly 30 years running the business, Senizergues brought the etnies brand to the U.S., built it and then later bought it, while also adding another four lines to the Sole Technology portfolio. There’s also the Sole Technology Institute, a research lab focused on biomechanics for skaters.
The former pro skater, who grew up in the Parisian suburb of L’Haÿ-les-Roses skateboarding with friends and later going on to work as an engineer at IBM France, has remained the sole owner of the business throughout this time.
Like most founders, he laughs at the idea of selling, but isn’t completely opposed to it.
“I’ve been in it for the long haul,” he said. “I think it’s very difficult to consider something like that [outside investors] because knowing everything I was able to do, being [a] private [company] and the way I think it should be done for skateboarding. But I don’t know. Maybe if somebody came that is really in sync with exactly what we’re doing and that can really help us elevate. I have to say, so far, I’ve never met anybody like this.”
The ceo, who tries to skate at least once a week, is constantly working on the business. On the product front, he’s gone back to the past. More specifically, it’s the archives from the Nineties, pulling out popular styles for the etnies skate shoe brand in a bid to take advantage of the broader market’s general nostalgia around the decade with a collection called Icons.
The styles, which first came to market at a time when the brand was just finding itself, are a bit looser and wider—made to work with the trend then and now: looser-fitting denim and wide leg pants worn by team riders.
“It’s very exciting. We started noticing the Nineties trends coming back and a lot of people were asking us for our styles in the NIneties, including our apparel,” Senizergues said. “I remember very well the Nineties because I sold the shoes back then and the clothing. It was really my beginning, where everything started ramping up and it’s always been a very fun time because there was a lot of originality, a lot of innovation coming through.”
Icon has already debuted this year with quick drops on limited styles, but it will appear in the market with more gusto going into 2019 and 2020. The collection’s already helped nab new retailers for the brand and others asking to see the line again, ranging from Urban Outfitters to DSW and core skate shops.
“It’s this return of the heritage brand that is very strong and, of course, we are part of this heritage brand,” Senizergues said. “The good thing with us is that we never stopped. We’ve been here all along and we’re in a good position. Also, there’s a lot of momentum with skateboarding, too, that is different than before.”
Where skaters were once viewed as part of a subculture comprised of troublemakers, that same group is now being tapped from big brands for their creative prowess, Senizergues said.
There’s also streetwear’s dominance in luxury, which he also sees as something that could help lift skateboarding, which—of the three action sports—has always been linked to the streets and shared synergies with streetwear.
“There’s a lot of brands that are popping up all the way to you see some brands like Supreme, suddenly they’re doing collaborations working hand in hand with Louis Vuitton,” Senizergues said. “Also, you see a lot of the high-fashion brands taking cues from skateboarding. All this is actually connected.”
Still, while the creatives at a skate or high-end streetwear company may be similar in their ethos, aesthetics or innovation, their customer bases are different. Supreme, for example, is speaking to a different crowd than etnies, thereby drawing back on what Senizergues and the city of Lake Forest celebrated earlier this month: community in a skatepark or among a group of skaters for a concept that’s not only buoyed, but has helped scale Sole Technology.
“Supreme is more, I would say, a lot of the cool kids, but also the kids that are buying are reselling. For us, it’s a bit different,” he said. “We don’t necessarily want to be so exclusive, but more inclusive as a brand. The name etnies came from the concept of a tribe. It came from the word ethnicity. It comes from the idea we’re together as a tribe and we’re riding because we’re all passionate [about being] skateboarders. They will be different in this tribe—some kids are poor, some are middle-class to high, but it didn’t really matter in the end. What really mattered was that passion to ride. For us, it’s more inclusive the way we approach things. We’re more sensitive about pricing so people can get what we make.”