Game Changer: Our Final Interview With Sandy Bodecker
Nike SB has always referred to ‘skateboarding’, but it was another ‘SB’ that drove the brand’s direction right from the start. Sandy Bodecker was a few decades into his career at the Swoosh when Mark Parker tasked him with establishing the brand’s skate division. The enduring success of SB is credited to Bodecker’s creative ingenuity – and his utmost respect for the skate community itself. Back in 2003 at the height of SB madness, Sneaker Freaker quizzed Bodecker in a revealing interview. On the eve of Nike SB’s 15th anniversary, we again sat down to reflect on its crazy rollercoaster ride to date.
Little did we know, just one year after that interview, Sandy would unexpectedly pass after a long and painful battle with the big C. In an effort to showcase the genius, passion and humility of the man, we share with you our final interview with Sandy Bodecker.
Whose idea was it to re-enter skate?
The real reason Nike decided to get back into skate was mostly due to the less-than-successful efforts from Savier. I wasn’t involved in that, so I can’t really comment on what happened, but I was approached by Mark Parker and asked if I would be interested in starting Nike Skateboarding. I was assured that we would be given the support, time and independence to do it properly, so I signed on – just me and a desk!
It’s amazing that the first SB sneakers are already 15 years old. Has the anniversary given you some perspective on the whole craze? Those early Dunks are practically vintage by now!
When you start something from scratch, you never really look forward 15 years and go, ‘Yup, that’s where we’ll be and this is the impact we’ll have!’ One of the things that time gives you is the luxury of perspective and hindsight. So, with all that’s been happening around the anniversary, I’ve been able to take a step back and revisit things in more depth and gain some clarity on the impact of the last decade and a half. I have tried to remain objective about the impact that SB has had on the skate and collector communities, as well as the role the early SB crew played, but I’m proud of what we created and deeply grateful to all our early supporters for giving us a chance. If I had to choose one word to describe the journey it would be ‘humbling’.
I think it’s fair to say the skate industry was super critical of Nike and there was a popular chorus of ‘This will wreck the industry!’ That’s clearly been proven incorrect.
There is no denying there was a pretty strong negative vibe about Nike when we started, and many of the reasons for that were valid. In hindsight, I think it helped us not get ahead of ourselves. We spent a lot of time listening to the core community of skaters, shops and the media – and doing our best to understand both the biggest negatives and what value Nike could bring to skateboarding. Bringing back the Dunk was a direct result of these conversations, and the collaborations and storytelling that emerged were fuelled by these discussions. The introduction of the ‘collector’ to the skate shops in the beginning definitely helped some core retailers survive challenging times, and we received many emails and calls thanking Nike for our efforts.
Anything you’d change if you had your time over?
I can say with 100 per cent certainty that Nike SB has been a positive for the skate industry. I’m sure some very core folks will still debate this, but for 15 years we have supported, helped energise and stayed committed to skateboarding at all levels. In the early days we would talk about the need to respect the past and embrace the future. If you want, you can compare it to Nike’s famous tagline, ‘There is no finish line.’ Skateboarding is always evolving with new tricks, new environments, new creative connections and new products – essentially there is no finish line because skaters are always creating a new future. I think Nike, along with many others, played a part in stoking the creative fire. If I could go back and change anything, I guess it would be the brief period of time when I think Nike SB lost a bit of connection and core commitment. With that said, I think the current crew is getting things back where they should be.
Just prior to SB’s launch, Dunk colabs with Stüssy, Alphanumeric and the Wu-Tang Clan hit the street. Did that inspire the SB business model?
Those early Dunk colabs were pre-SB. Our business model was just being fully committed to the core skate community – as humbly as we could – by admitting where Nike had made mistakes in the past. We spent a ton of time in the community listening and learning, basically asking for the chance to do it right this time around. I also made it clear to our internal team that, while we would remain humble, we would also be proud of the Swoosh and that we wouldn’t try to hide who we were. There was, and still is, value in what Nike can contribute to the skate industry if we do it the right way.
The template you set is clearly responsible for the current hype around sneaker collecting and the proliferation of collaborations. Do you take some credit for the fact that SB altered the course of the entire industry?
I think we can take some credit for being part of the generation where the lid came off the Pandora’s box of sneaker collecting.
There were a number of independent but loosely connected movements happening, and the time was ripe for things to come out from the deep underground to broader acceptance. The role that Nike SB played was really around elevating sneakers – in this case the Dunk – as a canvas for creative storytelling. We were able to make things more personal and more deeply connected, first to the skate community and then to the broader collector community. I think we helped introduce the idea of sneakers as ‘currency’ both culturally and financially. This had never happened before and is one of the foundation pieces of where we are today.
The ‘Pigeon’, ‘Paris’ and ‘FLOM’ Dunks remain some of the most expensive sneakers on the secondary market. Are you amused/disappointed/pissed that so many of the SBs from that era are still unworn collectibles?
Ahhh yes, the great debate – to skate or not to skate? Personally, I’m a skate ’em all day, every day. We always said that every shoe we put out should be skateable and that’s what they were made for. On the other hand, if someone chooses to collect them then that’s their choice. The only thing I used to have a problem with was when collectors bought multiple pairs and denied access to kids who wanted to skate the shoes. That never felt right.
Did you see the reseller market as a necessary evil or something that would ultimately be a negative force?
I never minded the queues as they indicated we had done something right, but I was never a fan of resellers. I do feel it was a negative element in the beginning and has only gotten worse as technology and demand has grown. You like to think there’s an easy or equitable answer out there, but lots of folk much smarter than me have all taken cracks at solving this issue. I guess it’s an aspect we’ll have to live with.
Is there an all-time crazy SB moment that still blows your mind?
There are lots of stories around colabs – good and not so good. The ‘Pigeon’ Dunk had a couple of things going for it. The design, which came out of NYC, was introduced at the height of early SB madness and picked up by the mainstream media. Plus it had dope colours and materials – the perfect storm! One of my favourite moments was when we did the Dunk Golf collection, which included pants, shorts, shirts and socks. It dropped in late spring and one day we saw in the news that Tiger Woods had gone into a skate shop, seen the product, bought some at full retail and then wore it the next day in a Pro-Am event. The crew was pretty stoked about that! There have been so many stories over the years so it’s hard to pick between them, but for me it has always been about making a connection, eliciting emotions and making someone laugh or remember a moment. It’s about great storytelling.
Most of the releases have stood the test of time, though some pretty crazy stuff was released like the ‘Three Bears’. Anything you’d like to publicly confess?
I don’t really believe in regrets. I think it just hinders creativity and innovation. I’m of the school that believes most of our greatest successes and innovations started with failure, and that it’s what you learn from failure that determines whether you succeed in the future or not. Not every colab we did was successful, but we tried our best to learn from what didn’t connect and not make the same mistake again.
You recently shared a few unreleased samples on social media. Must be a few killer ones that didn’t make the cut for whatever reason.
I can’t tell you an exact number that didn’t make the cut. Some were promo only, some we were legally advised not to pursue, and there were some where I or someone on the team just tried something or made a one-off specially for an event or an individual. I did a Dunk for Ichiro Suzuki breaking the single-season hit record because I was a big fan. Unfortunately, it just never panned out. The ‘Freddy Kruegers’ were shut down before we’d even finished talking about it. My favourite was the ‘eBay’ Dunk because we sawed the sample into pieces live at a trade show and ended up raising $26k for charity.
Here’s a super nerd SB question. A few of the old shoes have a colour code listed as ‘Paul Brown’ – was that an SB in-joke?
Well, I’m a nerd, no doubt about that, but it escapes my fading memory where the colour name Paul Brown came from. I do remember that I used to make up colours prior to SB like Purple Haze and Zane Grey, though we stopped the practice after the writer’s estate sent us a cease and desist letter.
In 2004, you spoke of the E-Cue as the ‘highest performance skate shoe out there,’ and said that we’d look back on it as a benchmark. Was the Dunk obsession ultimately responsible for SB’s inability to break a true skate performance model?
Performance in any sport is ultimately defined by the folks that use the products every day for their intended purpose. Some sports or activities are more comfortable with change and trying new things. Skate, in this respect, is a bit more conservative than football or basketball, for example. When pursuing innovation, you need to provide something demonstrably better than what is currently being used. Skaters have very specific needs when it comes to boardfeel, flip touch and to a lesser degree, protection from the ground and the board. They are also very conscious of how the shoe looks on the foot, especially toe-down when riding on the board. It’s a challenge, but one we are constantly working on as materials, technology and construction methods advance. As I mentioned, there is no finish line for innovation, so sometimes you make smaller incremental improvements, and less frequently you come up with something truly revolutionary. But that’s what makes it so much fun!
The crazy hype and excitement around SB was mental. The scene was tiny then, more of an underground society than a commercial beast. Do you think we’ll ever see anything that ridiculously exciting in the sneaker industry again?
What happened at that point in time with SB was unique and groundbreaking, and I don’t think it will be easily duplicated. But somewhere out there, small communities and crews are creating and innovating and thinking differently, asking questions that have no answers today but will in the future. I look forward to seeing what comes next, whatever it may be.
Rest in peace, Sandy.