An Interview With Salman Agah On Industry Ups & Downs, His Vans Reissue, & How Timing Is Everything

"From the [first] day I was sponsored by Real, wearing Sk8-His." Photo: Luke Ogden

“From the [first] day I was sponsored by Real, wearing Sk8-His.” | Photo: Luke Ogden

There’s little to say about Salman Agah. His contributions to skateboarding are legendary and have pushed street skating as much as any other person during the early ’90s. A lengthy career full of highly regarded video parts and shoe models has now flourished into success as a restaurateur with Pizzanista. If things couldn’t get any better, in celebration of their 50th year anniversary, Vans has decided to reissue Salman’s legendary first pro model to solidify his legacy even more.

In wanting to know more about his recent reissue, we were thrown into a history lesson of Salman’s memorable career. Everything from ups and downs, Agah spares no detail.

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"Poster for my first shoe." 1994

“Poster for my first shoe.” 1994

Do you keep up with [skate] stuff?
It’s hard these days, simply due to the volume of stuff to keep up with. I’d say I keep up as much as I can; I mostly watch new video parts when they come out. I just watched that BLVD kid, Tiago.

Oh, man.
Yeah, that was a sick part. I watch stuff like that. I don’t try to keep up with everything, mostly whatever gets on my radar and things I’m interested in. Fortunately, I’m able to stay in the loop with lots of things happening in skateboarding because we cater lots of skateboarding events. We’ve catered events for Volcom, Thrasher King of The Road, Vans Skateboarding and Surfing, Adidas, Nike, New Balance, Santa Cruz, Deathwish, Girl & Chocolate, Street League, Vice and most recently collaborated with The Descendents, to name a few, as well as individuals like Glen E. Friedman, Mark Gonzales, Christian Hosoi and many other iconic people. I like to watch video parts when they come up, but don’t keep up with everyone’s business. I didn’t know about some of the brands you mentioned that went under [before the interview]. I heard that some were struggling due to the economy.

There’ve been a few brands that’ve gone under that were a hard pill to swallow.
No matter what size business you have or whatever business you’re in, it’s always challenging and hard. Unfortunately, it’s natural and part of the economic cycle.

Vans doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
True! Vans made a remarkable turn around! That being said, they also faced the same types of challenges that companies were presented with in 2008 after the housing bubble burst. Vans overcame identity and financial challenges, but even they filed bankruptcy years ago and reorganized, so it’s not uncommon for companies to face their mortality as they grow. When you’re a new brand and small without much experience, it’s difficult to comprehend how macroeconomics can positively or negatively affect your business. It’s inevitable for brands go through many stages during the vicissitudes of time. And they all do and will. Some companies choose to push and learn through it to survive and thrive – some can’t, some don’t.

"This was supposed to be my 2nd shoe. It never came out. I liked this shoe - Vans did not like it and came out with a different design for my second shoe that had a horrible outsole and upper. It was white and green. I hated it and the ads by Macelroy, their agency at the time, were even worse than the shoe that they put out."

“This was supposed to be my 2nd shoe. It never came out. I liked this shoe – Vans did not like it and came out with a different design for my second shoe that had a horrible outsole and upper. It was white and green. I hated it and the ads by Macelroy, their agency at the time, were even worse than the shoe that they put out.”

I’m not jealous of anyone who’s in the hot seat when it comes to making those calls.
Business is always hard, like I said earlier. It’s even harder when it’s not just “business”, but it’s your life. I think most people who are involved in skateboarding would say it’s their life, so yeah, it’s hard to make decisions that will affect people who we all consider family. Powell went through it and any company still around that was big in the 80’s has gone through it. Many companies have gone through bankruptcy reorganization and come out better for it. Going through tough times, economic or otherwise, helps you understand how external forces affect your business. It’s difficult to imagine what those forces are until they weigh down upon you.

Keeping faith in skateboarding and skateboarders can be difficult as well. We can be fickle.
That’s the other thing. Companies the size of Vans don’t rely primarily on skateboarders anymore to fuel their sales & growth. They sell far outside the skateboarding demographic. Because of Vans’ heritage, they’re fortunate that they can use skateboarding to communicate their brand, but they don’t have to rely on it, unlike smaller brands that don’t have that benefit. Smaller brands have to focus and, let’s face it, shoes are expensive to make, ship, market, stock, distribute, etc. If skaters decide your shoes are no good, then what? The big brands are really good at what they do, so yeah, it makes life tough for independent skate shoe companies.

"A drawing of the first idea I had for a graphic for the woven label of the shoe."

“A drawing of the first idea I had for a graphic for the woven label of the shoe.”

So, what was the process of your shoe getting the reissue? How’d that go down?
Patrick O’Dell hit me up. He asked me if he could get my shoe reissued, would I be down for that? I told him I’d have to ask my manager. He replied, “Who’s your manager? You’re wife?” I said “Yes, she’s my manager and that she said it would be ok.”

I don’t remember the name of the person who kicked me off Vans, but after that event took place I ceased to have a relationship with Vans apart from my personal relationship with Steve Van Doren and getting flowed shoes periodically. Steve has always been supportive of me, regardless.

My initial reluctance to reissue my shoe had more to do with how the company Vans wrote me out of their story up until this 50th Anniversary moment. In a way, it’s not surprising. I started to get heavily into racing motocross and surfing, along with other interests outside skateboarding. One racing accident put me in the hospital with a concussion, 2 rib fractures in my chest & 5 in my back on my left side along with a punctured lung. I haven’t been the same on a skateboard since.

As well, I think apart from the time that they went through major financial struggles, the time from when my first shoe came out to when my last one came out was Vans at their worst. It was the time when they were copying DC & Sole Tech, trying to be tech as opposed to embracing their heritage. Part of the reason why my first shoe was so terrible, in my opinion, was because Vans was transitioning their manufacturing out of Orange to China. They hadn’t figured out how to make shoes in China yet. They used an outside advertising agency that thought it was fine to feature a skater in an advertisement wearing a different shoe than the one they were advertising. They had designers that were shopping on Melrose for inspiration who didn’t have a clue about skateboarding. Vans’ upper management, design, & marketing were “Ask-Holes.”

An Ask-Hole is a person who brings you in to meet with you to pick your brain and asks you what they should do because they don’t know. After informing them as to what they should be doing, they go and do the opposite of what was talked about. I sat in a meeting with all of the top people at Vans at the time and showed them designs using the side stripe that’s on the Vans Old Skool shoe and I was informed that I couldn’t use it on my shoe because Vans was uncertain if they were going to continue using that on their shoes in the future. After that meeting, I stopped caring and then Geoff’s shoe came out and the rest is history. Vans also went through so many team managers and each one had their pet team, which was annoying. I’ve always been very independent and didn’t care to be in a crew or part of some pet project.

The last thing that didn’t interest me was Vans’ original plan to re-release my shoe through Supreme. I wasn’t into that.

They’re not really indicative of the time your shoe was around. I don’t know if you’re concerned about that…
I wasn’t interested in a reissue just to Supreme. That wasn’t a good way to do it, in my opinion. I know a lot of product goes in there and that it creates more demand, but for myself, I just thought that wasn’t an authentic way to release my shoe. I liked cherry but I have no association to that brand.

It’s not a full-blown reissue where it’s available everywhere. I think that this interview will come out, and it’ll be in a couple Instagram posts and then go away. No one will ever hear about it again.

"OG pair of made in the USA Agah Vans with custom box."

“OG pair of made in the USA Agah Vans with custom box.”

You’re ok with popping up for a minute then getting back to your life?
It won’t affect me one way or another. I think it’s cool for skaters who were around then, to bring back some fond memories of skateboarding in the early ’90s. For that reason alone, for guys who are in their late 30s, early 40s, I think it’s really nice for them to have something to reignite feelings about skateboarding from that time.

It’s interesting how a shoe can do that. I think there’s a cool, kind of romantic quality to it like that.
Yeah, without a doubt. My shoe was the first shoe to come out for any of my generation of pros. My shoe came out, then Danny and Colin had shoes come out on DC, Sal’s shoe came out…

Holy shit. I never realized that. It was the first one of the era, huh?
So, Cab had his shoe, then my shoe came out. At the time, at Vans, it was a toss up as to who they wanted to make a shoe for. Dyrdek was on the list, I was on the list. Yeah, it was me and Dyrdek and [Kris] Markovich and maybe one other person. Everyone either rode for Vans or Airwalk at the time. There weren’t any other brands around besides maybe –

Etnies?
Yes! It’s funny you mention Etnies. I had the cover of Big Brother wearing Etnies, and I was going to ride for them at the time. I was talking to Don Brown, I was getting shoes from them to try out, they were starting to build their team. It came down to Vans being the ones who offered to do the shoe with me, so I went that direction.

At the time, Vans was still making shoes in the United States and they only did vulcanized. In the early ’90s, everyone was making cupsoles and getting things high-tech, and Vans was transitioning out of the US into Asia for all of their production. They were playing catch-up, in a sense. They never really did catch up – everything they made that wasn’t vulcanized wasn’t really all that great.

"The skater behind me is Gabriel Rodriguez. This was taken by Jake Rosenberg, I believe at either a Powell Am Jam for all of us who rode for Powell Peralta or at the Quarter Master Cup contests."

“The skater behind me is Gabriel Rodriguez. This was taken by Jake Rosenberg, I believe at either a Powell Am Jam for all of us who rode for Powell Peralta or at the Quarter Master Cup contests.”

Then eventually they did the Rowley and changed everything back to vulc.
Of course, Rowley being who he is and the skater that he is and these very iconic images of him, along with the design of that shoe, that was a very powerful campaign to help Vans understand their identity. They had lost it, for the most part. Their strategy with Flip and Geoff and Ian Deacon and Dan Sturt in on that – they were very involved with creating the visual concepts for the Rowley campaign. That was great. That’s what Vans needed.

It definitely brought them right back to the forefront.
That first Rowley shoe was a great shoe. It looked good and it really captured the spirit of Vans as a brand. They nailed it.

And you had 5 models.
There were 5 total. Vans had a calendar and, what’s funny is, I wanted to have shoes come out, not as often as pro models but my thought was that we should introduce a new product every year. I think part of the reason that wasn’t happening was the transition to Asia and they were trying to figure out how to make shoes in a factory that wasn’t their own. There were a lot of things to figure out and me probably not understanding the times between design to production to logistics to marketing…

Even just getting the samples right.
Exactly. My timeframe was we should have a new shoe released annually, which never happened. It took much longer than that. I think for a skateboarder, you only have so much time where you’re in your prime and you have that force behind you to really influence the market and you gotta take advantage of that. Geoff did that really well with his campaign. They brought out his first shoe and followed it up, and kept following it up with new products. That’s totally how it should be done. Plus, his skating and the imagery surrounding it cemented him as an icon, and I think that was the way to do it. Timing-wise, for me, even though I had that idea, there was no way to execute it at the time.

"Vans team shot. See if you recognize all the guys..."

“Vans team shot. See if you recognize all the guys…”

It’s crazy how important timing is with skate shoes.
The thing with footwear, or anything for that matter, is you have to put things out and it’s not so much to sell the product as much as it is to push the design or envelope, push the technology and functionality. It’s for the purpose of not trying to pigeonhole your brand. Nike does that really well, but they’ve always been about innovation & they have the money to experiment. I just think that’s important. Sole Tech did that well with éS, they were always dabbling with technology and that stuff would trickle down to Emerica or Etnies. It depends on the brand and what they’re going after, and for Vans embracing their roots and their heritage, the whole California lifestyle, whether it be surfing or skateboarding, obviously it makes a lot of sense.

Great point. Speaking of shoes, do you have a top 5? Like top 5 skate shoes?
I’ve pretty much worn the same thing my whole life. I skated in Sk8-Hi’s, Half-Cabs, Eras, my own shoes. My favorite shoe is the Half-Cab. That’s the shoe I’ve skated in forever. I also like the Old Skool – the low with the stripe – I skated those a lot growing up. Another shoe we skated a lot was the Shelltoe Adidas.

Closing up here, I must know…who won the chess game between you and Cab at Slam City Jam in 411 23?
I won that game.

I’ve been waiting to find that out for 20+ years. Thanks for putting that to rest.


Interview: Joel Weichbrodt
Photos courtesy of Salman Agah
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Comments

  1. tomisrad

    November 22, 2016 4:23pm

    That is so funny Agah hated his second shoe!!! I had it in 8th grade, my mom came home with these after I had Sal 23’s at the end of the school year 7th grade and I was slightly crushed. I had the charcoal grey suede, with a sewn in stripe. I don’t remember the outsole being horrible, just the tongue would slip around and Vans were slightly dorky at the time. I would like the shoe now (maybe?) if it had a solid heel cup and good grip, but can’t remember anything except I learned heel flips in them. Well Salman, I will be getting this shoe for sure! No reissue for the second one hahahaha

    Reply
  2. C

    November 22, 2016 9:34pm

    Excellent. Thanks.

    Reply
  3. thw

    November 24, 2016 8:53am

    Sad that the half caps you can buy today are shit compared to the older itterations.. 🙁

    Reply

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