Updated: November 27, 2009, 5:22 PM ET

The Huf Behind HUF

Pop-heavy pro skater makes his mark on limited shoes, street culture and skateboarding.

Brooks By Josh Brooks
Archive

If you know of Keith Hufnagel, you probably skateboard and know a lot about skating in the '90s...or you're Japanese. Just kidding. You might only know him because your life hinges on the next limited edition sneakers coming out. Whatever your association, whether it's collabo shoes, his long-standing pro career, his HUF store or his migration through some of America's most influential cities, Keith has made his mark wherever he's been, either with lightening-quick monster ollies or his role, perhaps reluctantly, as a trend forecaster. If you've seen him skate in video or real life, you know that he skates fast, popping and clearing massive fire hydrants and other obstacles with ease, always doing just enough to make it look awesome. Plus, no matter where he's going, he always seems to be heading in the right direction. I got a chance to follow him for a little bit to learn more about the huff behind HUF, his upcoming Real part and where he is now. Read on. —Josh Brooks

Ken GotoHumble Huf.

You're originally from NY and you bounced around to SF and LA. Could you tell me what drew you to those three cities?
I moved to San Francisco in 1992. At that time, San Francisco was pretty much the capital of skateboarding. It was kind of where everyone was skating all day long, whether it was top pros or normal kids just skating around. So, I was kind of drawn to it, because it was more like where I grew up skating. It was more like New York City. You could skate around and hit spots everywhere. I went and lived in LA for a while, but you had to have a car and everything was so far away. So, I chose San Francisco just because of the terrain.

They're cities known for their style, but where along the way did you get interested in the shoe culture or street wear and all that?
I was always interested in it. As a skater, you're buying shoes or interested in them. You skate all day and destroy your shoes, so you're kind of searching for the best kicks. It sucks you into this little culture that's...weird. But, HUF stemmed from the fact that those types of shoe and clothing stores weren't in SF like they were in New York or Los Angeles. They had more availability in those cities.

When you first came out to SF in '92, you said you came to go to college. What were you studying?
[Laughs] That was just an excuse to get to San Francisco. I was just doing basic classes. My parents said I had to go to college to go to SF, but all I had in my mind was skateboarding. If I could keep decent grades, I could stay out there. So, I just went to school and took basic classes. Then, I turned pro six months into college and I dropped out to travel.

What's your parents' background? College graduates?
Oh yeah, master's degrees—everything. My mom was a nurse and my dad worked at an insurance company. They had the idea that you had to go to school to have a good job, you know?

Did that influence you to get into a business like HUF?
No, not really. I never thought about getting into HUF until later in my career. I just wanted to skate. I was pretty addicted. I was making a living. It was a dream come true.

HUFThis Cons X HUF shoe is kind of like a buy one, get one free, but in this the "get one free" are antiretroviral drugs for people in Africa. It strikes me as a win-win, really.

When did the idea for HUF pop up then?
Probably about 2000. I started talking about things to do for the future—things I could do after skateboarding. The life after professional skateboarding can be a little rough. Your talent is that you can do tricks, but then suddenly, you're done. You're older and you're not doing tricks as well [Laughs]. So, once you're done, it's not like a normal sport where you can move into something else, like be a coach or whatever. I mean, you can be a team manager, but I had different plans.

So then you thought of HUF?
I was just talking about it. A lot of people talk the talk, you know? Then, I started doing a lot of talking and researching. We were actually going to open a female shop in the beginning. Then, it ended up that there were just too many around San Francisco. I realized I had so many connections from skateboarding. Also, I wanted to bring in brands from NY, like Supreme and all the cool little brands out there, as well as skate brands like Nike, Vans and Adidas all under one roof.

When you finally did start HUF, who was your partner?
It's just me and Anne, my ex-wife. We ran it together, when it started, and we still run it together today.

Did you expect the kind of clientele you have now?
Oh, no—I don't think we even knew what to expect. The first day, we had all these crazy limited shoes and we really didn't expect anything. When we got there in the morning, there was a line of 50 kids and we were like, "Holy s**t!" I didn't have enough inventory to last. We were bare for the next couple weeks, because we sold almost all of it in the first day.

That's unreal.
Yeah, that doesn't happen that often. I think a lot of people were talking in the chat rooms. They knew that we had certain shoes and where our shop was. If it weren't for the Internet and those forums, no one would have known. It was cool, but it was definitely a false start, 'cause you think it's going to be like that all the time.

When was that opening?
It was August 2002.

Since then, the limited edition culture has gotten more popular. There must be people lining up all the time.
Yeah, but limited shoes are saturated now. In order for kids to line up like that now, it's got to be something that's really special. But, that's not really what we're looking for. I mean, consistent business is better.

Ken GotoA picturesque kickflip to fakie in downtown SF.

With some of these fanatics, you seem to have gotten a really unorthodox following from kids that are into shoes and street culture. Did you expect those kinds of fans when you started?
No, I knew about the clothing, but I didn't really know that side of things. I think that street wear just got bigger around when Ten Deep, Crooks and Castles and all those brands started. It kind of created a whole new realm in street wear. I mean, the Stussys and the Quiksilvers—those brands were already around—but all those new brands created even more followers and made it really popular.

It makes for really unique fans. Aren't you really famous in Japan?
[Laughs] Everyone's really famous in Japan. Everyone I've gone with to Japan is big in Japan. It's a weird culture.

It sounds silly now, but people really look up to you for trend forecasting now, don't they?
[Laughs] I don't know. We just do what we think is cool. We're just ourselves, I guess. But, it's good to be some sort of a trend forecaster, I guess.

Now you have the HUF line of clothing. Do you design, manufacture and produce that line independently or do you work with your skate sponsors?
No, we do all that independently. We have a full cut and sew line that we wholesale out to stores and do distributing through other countries.

So, you actually sell some of those to other stores, too?
Yeah, I mean, we want to be a legit brand, like Stussy or something like that. We really want to have it last for the long haul and be around for a long time.

As far as collaborations, most of them make sense to someone in the skateboard world, like DVS, Vans, Adidas, Cons, Nike, Altamont and Thunder, but how did the HUF X Jansport bags come about?
[Laughs] Really, we wanted to do a bag, but when we looked at it, you would have to produce three or four hundred bags and we couldn't do that. Then, this girl that used to work at Adidas hit me up and was like, "I work at Jansport. I want you to come in and check out the product." I told her I wanted to do a collaboration with those guys and she eventually talked to them. They're in the East Bay, so we went over there to talk to them and they were into it.

For us to do something with Jansport is great. It's a classic thing in American culture. We all had Jansports as kids at school and had the really basic ones skating around town, so we wanted to do a collaboration that added skateboarding onto Jansport.

HUF

Is that how it generally happens? Do people approach you for collaborations or do you approach them?
It goes both ways. Some people approach us and sometimes we approach them. We always want a good reason to do a collaboration that's kind of mutual. We want both parties participating in the collaboration. You can just have one party do it, but we want it to come from both ends.

So it's not just your name on another product.
We try not to do too many [collaborations], but we end up doing a lot. We kind of cement an idea and they'll either say, "Hey, we like this idea, but maybe we could change it this way or that way." That's how a lot of Nike collaborations come about, because we're a good retailer of them and friends, so they help us out with doing collaborations. But, things do get denied, too. Things can sit on the table before they're even produced.

You've approached companies and they just deny it?
Yeah, also we like to get a little more risky with our graphics, because we have that skater mentality when it comes to more shocking stuff. The legal departments don't like us most of the time [laughs].

You have three sneaker collaborations this season, right—Vans, Cons and Nike?
We do...Actually, we're like a sneaker whore this next couple months. We did Converse, Vans and have a Nike out November 7th. Then, we have a Reebok coming out November 20th. Then, we have another Nike coming out in December, so this is a unique month. We just did so many and they happened to come together this and next month. We don't really want it to happen like that, usually, but it did.

The HUF X Conx shoe is a (Red) Product, right? Could you tell me about that?
Yeah, the money from the sales that Converse produces goes to give money to the Global Fund to buy antiretroviral drugs for Africans living with AIDS.

And, who ended up doing the HUF X Vans shoe?
We sent them the design. Our designer at HUF sent them the design a while ago and they went with it. We do a collaboration with Vans about twice a year that's only for our store.

You just opened the HUF store in LA, right?
Yeah, about a year or a year and a half ago.

Do you help run that store as well?
I don't do anything for that store. Anne is in charge of that and we have a manager down there. We have about half our company in SF and half our company in LA—two shops in SF, do the design in SF. Then, LA has a store and a warehouse where they do our distribution.

What's the day-to-day like for you?
I don't actually run the stores any more. I handed them off, because I need time to be with the designer, producing lines. So, I help design the line and then help do a lot of the production side of the company. I talk with the factories, get their numbers, make sure everything's on time, handle shipping and producing and whatever other little things come up. I need to go skate, also, so...

HUFNike, the king of the limited. This is this season's Nike X HUF.

It's like having a totally new job to balance with skating, isn't it?
Yeah, it still feels like I'm skating, in the sense that it's still the same lifestyle. There's a little more responsibility, I'd say. As a pro skater, you can skate if you want or you can go f**k off and not skate if you want. With this, it's more of a job.

Do you plan on having a part in the upcoming Real video?
Yes.

How's it's shaping up? Are you getting out to skate a lot?
It's on and off. It'll be going really well, out getting a couple tricks a week and then there's a dry spell, where you don't get anything. The skate schedule is so sporadic. I'll go out a few times a week, I'll feel good, but then I'll have to go away for a bit and when I get back, I have to start all over again.

Part of my approach is to go out and enjoy myself and then when I'm ready, I'll get the filmer and try to bang it out. It's stressful to try something when it's not working out, but it's so fun just to go out and skate with your friends and do slappies or do flatground or whatever.

It can also be nice to have things going on between skating to make it fresh, too, I would guess.
Yeah, it's definitely changed my outlook on skating. When all you do is be a professional skateboarder, you get very burnt out on skating. Since starting HUF, it's like an outlet. I'm just very thankful to skate.

You've been in SF for a while, now. So, how has it changed in that time?
When I started here in '92, it was the hottest spot to skate, ever. It was like that a few years and then fizzled out. They brought in a weird skate task force at that time. They messed with kids a lot. I feel like it just died for a minute. At that time, I left and went to NY and LA. When I got back in 2001, it was pretty average. Now, with skateparks coming in, I see skaters everywhere. There may not be as many spots as back in the day, but there are all these little nooks and crannies in the city. Kids are skating everything now and if you search, you'll find something either here or across the bay. There's s**t everywhere, still. I find something new every day.

Who are some of the kids coming up around SF that you really like?
I'm a big fan of Justin Brock. It's really kids that I skate with, so a lot of the Real team. He's not in SF, but I like Jake Johnson a lot. I don't really know him, but I like his skating a lot. Torey Pudwill—I'm definitely a big fan of him...I don't know. The kids these days can do everything. It's really amazing how they skate. Some have the most ridiculous pop and can do every flip trick possible. It's really impressive.

It's like they start out with a different set of skills than back in the day.
It's really cool, man. There's not that many kids that can do it, but this generation is going to be killing it. They're the future.

HUFCollabo, collabo, collabo...it's become a word now so overused. But, Huf always does it right. These Vans are limited runs, which you can only find in the HUF store.

Last I read, you were helping to push for another skatepark in SF, as well. How's that going?
It's going. Basically, they have a plan for five or six parks. We have one park that's designed and just waiting for funds from the city. There's this area Hayes Valley in SF, where the old freeway used to go. The freeway fell in '89, but that section stayed. Then, they ended up putting a roadway there and there's all this open land they have that's been auctioned off. That money from the auction has to go back into the neighborhood and be used for development on that land. So, that park will probably happen by the end of 2010. Then, there's another park—Golden Gate Park—that might happen even sooner. They seem pretty gung ho about getting it built. They just picked a designer that will do the drawings...it's crazy how much money they spend on these things. They give that guy something like $80,000 to draw up the skatepark and then they fund it with another million dollars. This one's through the Park and Rec, so they have to spend the money in their yearly budget. If those parks get built in the next year, it will be really good for SF. It'll bring a huge scene here. From there, there should be two more parks being built in the city in the next few years.

What do your parents think about what you're doing now, years after they were so adamant about going to college?
Oh, they're super stoked on it. They were super stoked when I pursued skateboarding. They just never thought you could actually make money at it. They didn't understand. Hopefully I won't ever have to apply for a job where I need a college degree, though [laughs].

After starting in NY and bouncing around to SF, then LA, NY and SF, while being a pro and transitioning into a businessman, does it feel like you're closer to your beginnings or further away from where you started?
I feel like San Francisco's my home now. This is where I'm at and where I want to be. I'm super stoked on where I am, with the HUF brand and with my skate career and all that. No matter what, I can always skate more, but with HUF, we have dreams of what we can do and where we can grow. I might not be exactly where I started, but I'm heading in the right direction.

MORE ACTION SPORTS HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM