Don Brown Red Bull Interview
|Date||March 6, 2009|
He left the UK 25 years ago armed only with a skateboard. Now at the forefront of the sporting business world, he’s still more likely to be on a board than in a boardroom.
Don Brown’s wardrobe is that of a man who hasn’t compromised on his path to success. His staple work attire consists of shorts and T-shirts and, he jokes, Speedos on Fridays. It is almost exactly what an 18-year-old Brown wore when he packed up his skateboard and left England 24 years ago heading to the US.
In the intervening years, Brown has made his mark on the history of the evolving skateboarding scene, becoming a world champion freestyle skater and then an innovator who helped build a unique skateboarding company now worth more than $200 million in sales per year.
As a 10-year-old, in 1976, Brown was acutely aware of just how cool skateboarding had become. Imported American magazines made international celebrities of the Dog Town skaters of Santa Monica who were carving out surf moves on concrete. Thousands of miles away, in Brighton, Brown stood on the sidelines, a plastic skateboard stolen from his sister in his hand, watching the first wave of skaters get chased off the streets by the police, who would go on to inspire the town’s nickname.
“Brighton was kind of the Dog Town for England,” Don remembers. “When the Pig City crew turned up, there would always be mayhem and madness.” Jeremy Henderson, an American skater who moved to Brighton in 1976, remembers the trouble with the police, as well as the younger skaters of Brown’s generation – “little guys with their socks pulled up like they were playing soccer. I think we gave Don’s generation a flavour of skateboarding’s rebelliousness.”
Just a week after turning 18, Brown, by then a known skateboarder in Pig City himself, arrived in San Diego with no particular plans and $300 to his name. He slept in skateparks and on beaches, living off $1.99 breakfasts at fast-food chain Denny’s. He was on his skateboard for eight hours a day, honing his style and technique, and was soon placing well at amateur contests.
“I was living in the moment,” he recalls. “I remember going to a contest in Huntington Beach one day, looking in my wallet and realising I only had a dollar to my name.” So, Brown took a warehouse job with Vision Skateboarding. After winning three consecutive amateur contests, Vision became his sponsor, eventually giving him what no other English skater before him had managed – a professional board model named after him.
By 1989, Brown was well-known in the skateboard community, cementing his position with a win at the Freestyle World Championships in Munster, Germany. He now had numerous sponsors, was making enough money to get by, and had moved in with the girlfriend who would later become his wife. But gnawing at Brown was a desire to do more with the scene that had become his life.
In the 1980s, skateboarders found little quality among the numerous footwear brands around. One company beginning to change that was a little-known French skate shoe company bought by an old friend of Brown’s. Pierre Andre Senizergues and Brown had first met in a skate park in Farnborough in 1981. “I clearly remember Don on that day,” says Senizergues. “He was young, just a kid, and he had these skinny legs, ridiculous long shorts and socks that came to his knees.”
“He always mentions my skinny legs back then,” says Brown, “as I always remind him that he had a moustache, a ponytail and these tiny Dolphin shorts.” Over the years, the pair regularly met to skate, and in 1990 Senizergues approached Brown about joining his company. It was called etnies, from the French word for ethnicity, a nod to the underground tribes at the core of skateboarding. “I knew I had to have someone great at skateboarding, who’d been skating a long time – who had a sense of integrity,” says Senizergues, “someone who was ready to create skateboarding shoes that would help skateboarders. Straight away, Don and I were on the same page.”
Brown joined Pierre at etnies during the economic downturn of the early 1990s. “The good thing about that was that the corporate giants left the industry and as a result it was back in the hands of genuine skateboarders,” Brown says. “Shoe companies at the time felt you needed this visual durability factor and just threw lumps of rubber over the shoe so it looked durable, but it actually made them harder to ride in. We used rubber underlays so they looked good but had the durability – there was lots of stuff we did that made us stand out.”
High-profile skaters of the time such as Rodney Mullen began to wear etnies and appear in skate videos that were sold worldwide. In 1993, Pierre and Brown launched their lo-top trainer, a design that spawned a new generation of skate shoes as other companies played catch-up. But the going was still tough, and Senizergues and Brown worked tirelessly to make the business a success. “We weren’t making any money,” says Brown, “but we were committed to making it happen. As a kid, my family never had any money, so I guess that survival instinct was in me – you just do whatever you have to.”
In the mid-1990s, when the skateboarding scene grew to epic proportions, the popularity of the authentic etnies trainers rocketed. In 1996, three more brands were created alongside etnies, with éS, Emerica and ThirtyTwo added under the umbrella of Sole Technology. In the same year, the company was awarded the Rookie Manufacturer of the Year title by Action Sports Retailer magazine.
Ryan Sheckler has been with etnies since he was eight. One of the scene’s prodigious talents, Sheckler, now 19, says the company stands out from others that have begun populating the booming industry. “The difference with etnies is the sense of family,” he says. “They know where they’ve come from, they keep their heads up and keep going strong.”
“Don has always been a down-to-earth guy who remembers his roots,” says skateboarding historian and author Michael Brooke. “I can’t ever picture Don Brown in a three-piece suit. If you really peel back the onion with him, you can take the boy out of Brighton, but I don’t think you can take Brighton out of the boy.”
Brown agrees. “I still skate frequently,” he says, “still get arrested for it, and still leave pieces of skin on the pavements around the world. At 42 years old, you’d think I’d grow up and get a real job.”