Posted February 10, 2015
Interview by James Stavrinides
Photos by Julian Berman
Where to begin an interview with Alyasha Owerka-Moore? With a career that spans over twenty years and several industry-defining brands – Phat Farm, Fiberops, and Alphanumeric, to name a few – it’s hard to choose. And this is to say nothing of his encyclopedic knowledge of American pop culture, his proximity to punk and hip-hop’s formative years, and his lifelong investment in skate culture. Or that today, in addition to working closely with PF Flyers in revitalizing their brand, Aly’s looking to launch another one of his own: North Manual Vocational.
Fortunately, Aly gave us an entire afternoon at his live/work space in San Diego to sort it out; the result is a conversation that we hope does justice to the enormity of his experience. We had a lot to ask and, thankfully, he had a lot to say.
Table of Contents
North Manual Vocationalnorthmanualvocational.com
Your official title at PF Flyers is “Brand Ambassador”—what does that involve?
This involves a lot of brand research, archival collecting, and organizing existing materials; from there I try to reference potentially lucrative points in that archive. I also try to get shoes to people – vintage dealers, collectors, designers, musicians, etc. – that already dig the brand. Helping connect the dots amongst existing fans of the brand and creating a network. I’ve done a little bit of design, as well: 2 uppers and several t-shirts.
Is this a position you sought out, or did it find you?
I met the PF guys through Frank the Butcher. He asked me if I was still collecting sneakers, which I did a lot of back in the day, but at that point I had sold almost everything but my PF Flyers. I was really fascinated by the brand’s history, even doing some research on my own time – collecting old point of sale cards and kids shoebox prizes, for instance. So Frank asked why I wasn’t doing anything for PF, and it was mostly because I didn’t know anyone there. So he plugged me into Vic Aveles, their GM. We had a great conversation and the rest is history. I am truly honored to be part of such a great team and brand.
PF has been dormant for years. Why do you think it’s coming back now? Why does it matter, and why should people care?
Read any new company’s mission statements, one finds many of the same key words rearranged: “we appreciate heritage, craftsmanship, America, etc.” It’s all the same words laid out like refrigerator magnets. But PF Flyers actually has American social and pop cultural relevance. There are ads with Mickey Mouse wearing PF – they sponsored the Mickey Mouse Club for like 10 years – and they sponsored American Bandstand. If you want to get into “Americana” and “heritage” it doesn’t get more American than Mickey Mouse and Dick Clark. So my stance is that, instead of chasing the market, just tell people what you did.
PF is a genuine American heritage brand with a strong and fascinating history.
You’ve done your share of sneaker research before and after starting at PF–what have you learned along the way? What can you share with us?
At the turn of the century you have schools paying more attention to athleticism, but kids mostly wore shoes that were glued or stamped onto a leather sole. I’m not exactly sure who first applied the process of vulcanization to an athletic shoe, but from all the research that I’ve done—and I’m by no means an authority—Colchester were the first people to do it. If you Google “Colchester shoes,” you’ll see all of the classic sneaker DNA: patch on the ankle, vulcanized wrap, and canvas on the upper. Colchester were the first cats to do this kind of athletic shoe.
Shortly thereafter, or at around the same time, several rubber and canvas companies entered the athletic shoe market. Most people don’t know this, but Converse and BF Goodrich (PF) made rubber way before they made shoes. So from the 1930s from the 1960s, you have the big 3 running parallel with the same formula.
One interesting thing about PF is that they went really went big into rubberized shoes and work boots. Adults at the time didn’t wear sneakers–ever. If you were an adult mowing the lawn, you’d be wearing a captoe shoe or a buck, or something of that nature. So what PF did, which is kind of the beginning of the dressed down Friday thing, was that they made casual mens uppers on a rubberized sole. They weren’t the only people to do it, but they made bigger inroads than most into casual and semi-formal mens footwear. They made it so you could essentially wear sneakers with slacks without looking like you were wearing sneakers with slacks.
And the name, “PF Flyers?” Where did that come from?
BF Goodrich worked with orthopedists to develop the BF Goodrich “Posture Foundation,” which added a ridged wedge heel counter and built-in arch support. To cater to the children’s market, “Posture Foundation” was trimmed down to “PF-Flyers.”
2 The Internet
Looking at your general social media activity and your Tumblr, in particular, it looks like you’re focused on propagating a certain kind of imagery–that is, people of color in classic styles. I suspect this is what “The Other 1950s” refers to. What should we make of this? What are you trying to say, if anything?
The Tumblr is largely me digging a hole to research something, then tossing out little pieces of what I find for people to see. I do have a point, so there’s usually some trail of breadcrumbs to find.
It’s interesting. I’ve had art directors and creative directors ask me: ‘why is your Tumblr so fragmented?’ But what they don’t realize is that it’s actually really concise. A Tumblr is, at least in my estimation – people will use the platform for whatever they want – for sharing things about oneself and personal inspiration. On the flipside, Tumblr makes it really easy to propagate the status quo. Ninety-percent of the brands out there look the same because they reference each other instead of having their own voice. It’s like those boilerplate mission statements I mentioned: take any handful of clothing lines, swap the labels, and you would never know the difference. A brand is supposed to have its own handwriting, and the people behind it should have the same. The things I put on my Tumblr are genuine sources of inspiration.
This brings me to a weird shift in design and in the sociology of design, if you will. A lot of these younger cats say, ‘I want to make stuff that is just like that guy’s stuff but my version,’ or, ‘just like what he does, but my way.’ Because of this, there’s a ton of reference points that people don’t even bother to look at. They don’t care about what was actually going on in the eras they draw inspiration from. You always need to go to the root if you want to understand why stuff was the way it was—what was happening economically and culturally.
Since you bring up the connection between style and economics/culture, to what extent can we make these connections today? If you look at photos of people before the total saturation of the internet, I think it’s pretty easy to infer from their clothing the culture or lifestyle to which they belonged. Can we still do this today, or have things changed?
Things have changed. The phrase you usually hear is, “the internet has created a level playing field.” And it has, but it’s also created a disconnect between real culture and its corresponding image. Here’s a story that speaks to this:
I was working at a skate shop in Hong Kong when this kid came in wearing a Misfits hoodie. Even his Vans had the crimson ghost on the toes and I got super psyched; he had the spiky punk hair and everything. I started talking to him in broken Cantonese with some help from my friend, Brian, asking: “do you like the Misfits?” He says, “yeah, yeah, yeah.” So I start playing some Misfits on the speakers, and the kid asks: “Brian, what is this? This is The Misfits?”
He didn’t know they were a band. His knowledge of The Misfits stopped at Lil Wayne on Hypebeast wearing their shirt with the gold tooth, so he just bought whatever he could that looked like that. This icon meant something to an entire generation–then, through blogging and reblogging and whatever else, it became yet another image among countless regurgitated images.
The kid was pretty bummed, so he bought a new sweatshirt.
The internet can’t be all bad, right?
It’s a double-edged sword. I know my friend’s kids who are both punks and ill breakers, which shouldn’t be surprising because both punk and hip-hop were popular around the same time and were about similar things; both genres started on the street and a lot of these bands ran together in the 70s. But most people forget that, so the internet has helped kids make these kinds of connections.
At the same time, what usually happens is that people like what the guy with the most followers likes. Few do the research themselves anymore. There’s no digging, you just click from page to page and eventually you end up at Amazon or iTunes. You’d think the internet would make us more well-rounded, but both Facebook and Tumblr deliberately herd people. They say, “Be in trend!” by constantly showing us what everyone else is talking about. This is a Huxleyan, Brave New World way of making us sheep.
I think I just miss that old sense of discovery. There used to be more room to develop your own style even if it fit into a larger aesthetic group. But now it’s more like a uniform because each thing comes pre-packaged. Even smaller companies will package outfits for you, which I think is making people lazy.
What we wear does not reflect music-based subcultures anymore. And some people would argue that it’s a good thing. Maybe they’re right.
I think I just miss that old sense of discovery.
Our cultural tendency, and this isn’t limited to fashion, is to appropriate and sample different cultural aesthetics, old and new. Contemporary music is very similar in this regard. That being said, where do we go from here? Are we trapped in a vicious circle, or should we still expect something genuinely new? If so, how do you envision this change coming about?
I think two things are going to happen, and this is the way history generally works. First we’re going to get full-on branded people (like in Idiocracy): the “7-11 guy,” for example. And as much as I like Uniqlo, you’re going to see it there. Then, and this is the way history always works, someone starts something new. It’ll start small and then, like a single-celled organism, split. And then split again. Streetwear happened like this. A bunch of kids around the world that were sick of The Gap and Ralph Lauren had a lot to say, politically and musically. These people gravitated toward each other, created an industry, and eventually became the status quo. This is the cycle.
That being said, I think the “traditionalists” will always be around—the skinheads, the mods, the rockabilly revivalists, goth kids, etc.. They will always be in their own worlds living as they always have.
3 North Manual Vocational
Your new brand, North Manual Vocational, takes its historical and pop cultural reference points pretty seriously. What more can you tell us about it?
I think the story behind one of our upcoming pieces really shows what I’m trying to do with the brand.
Alan Freed, a DJ, threw some of the world’s first rock and roll shows in New York. Nobody knows this. Rockabilly dudes who are really well-learned don’t know even know this. Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and Frankie Lymon were all at the Brooklyn Paramount on the same stage. And part of the reason Alan Freed was eventually crucified by the IRS for payola – which wasn’t even illegal if you reported it to the IRS – was that he was adamant about having a mixed crowd at shows. Normally the black kids would go in late once the musicians were tired, and the white kids would go for the matinee.
But Alan was like, “rock and roll is going to unify the kids of the future.” And he was saying this in the 50s – this is not some John Lennon stuff, but the events that inspired John Lennon. Alan was bringing kids around the world together through rock and roll, so they had to make an example of him. And this isn’t some conspiracy theory, it’s well documented. This guy had to go.
So North Manual Vocational is going to have a lot of Alan Freed references. The first piece we’re doing with Ebbets Field is based on a famous photo of a hundred kids at Alan’s forced retirement. They’re all wearing black satin bomber jackets with “Rock and Roll” on the back that they all made to say goodbye to him. The first North Manual Vocational piece will be that jacket, and on the hang tang we’ll explain the social reference.
We’re doing 1940s and 50s-inspired mens casualwear, a little bit of workwear, and select vintage reproductions–but mostly daily wear. We’re making a chore jacket based on one I found in Tacoma made from polyrayon houndstooth. It’ll be drapey likey a gab jacket, but also super durable. We’re also doing a cabbie jacket, which is a short cropped jacket that has lapels like a suit. Watch any movie from the 50s with a cabbie, bus driver, or gas station attendant and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
I find that most of the brands that do vintage reproductions only do over-the-top stuff—the crazy black and pink Gene Vincent gab jacket, for example. That’s cool, but NVM is mostly built for entry-level vintage enthusiasts. Or the the guy that has a vintage pair of gab pants, but will only wear them one night at Viva Las Vegas; we’ll have a pair that he can wear every day without being afraid to mess them up. We’re making daily wear.
And the name?
There’s a book from 1953 called Blackboard Jungle, which was basically the first story about a teacher who tries to fix the rough and tumble neighborhood’s high school. He’s the only one left who really tries to reach out to the kids and care. The story takes place in Brooklyn at a high school called North Manual Vocational.
The book was turned into a movie starring Glenn Ford, who was huge in 54, and a young Sidney Poitier (who isn’t billed as the supporting male, but he is). He’s the guy that the teacher connects with, which was really controversial for the time. It’s a mixed-race high school, and the first movie to have a rock and roll theme song: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” It was used in Happy Days and everything else because of this movie. This is also the start of the whole “teenage delinquent” sub-genre, so I trademarked the name.
Visually, it peels back the popular conception of what the 50s in the city looked like. A lot of it just shows how kids dressed in the 50s, and a lot of them dressed better than the “dapper dandies” of today. There’s a perception of the kid in the 50s as always wearing cuffed jeans, a striped t-shirt, and high-top sneakers. But kids wore rad stuff to go to school; if you watch that movie and look at what the extras are wearing, they’re dialed.
So yeah, I’ll have that stovepipe late 40s early 50s jean, and there will be some workwear, but no dustbowl crap.
Your background as a skater is present in almost all the work you’ve done over your long career. What makes skating such an important reference point?
The people that introduced me to skateboarding were creatives. Everyone that started out with Paul Smith were skaters. Spike Jonze was a skater.
I discovered it when my friend Jake Burlingham gave me a bunch of mixtapes, punk tapes, a Misfits t-shirt, and a couple of Transworlds and Thrashers. This was my starter kit. Every skating magazine in the 80s had a section about skateboarders that either painted, illustrated, sculpted, or both. I remember showing these magazines to my mom and, since she was an art historian, she was like: “this is really cool.” Since then I’ve met people from all socioeconomic walks of life that all went on to do really great things through skateboarding. Most of us have been friends for more than 30 years. There’s a certain freedom that skateboarding and the immediate culture that surrounds it kind of promotes. It’s an autonomous sport, which was one of the things I always loved about it. No one would get bummed if I didn’t make the goal or the pass. If I didn’t make a trick, the only person that I had to be accountable to was myself. It’s like a martial art in a lot of ways; you’re constantly just testing yourself. And you don’t have to be good in anyone else’s eyes because its your own deal. That’s what’s rad about it to me, and that’s why I’ve always kept it close.
Skating requires a person to think about their surroundings and surrounding objects for uses beyond their intended funtion, which I believe is an inherently creative activity. Could this account for the connection between skating and design?
Definitely. I can liken it to “assess, adapt, and overcome,” a military term. You constantly ask yourself: “What can I do with this curb? Look at this crazy cement thing that’s made to be the entryway to a basement door grate – what can I do with that? What about this curb cut for wheelchair accessibility?” You’re forced to look at your surroundings and architecture in a different way. Yes, this is essential to design.
Excluding financial success, what are you most proud of? And what’s your personal metric for success? How do you know when you’re doing the right thing?
I’ve always felt like having a clothing company should be a sounding board for social and political issues, so I’m proud of always sticking to this with whatever I do. With Alphanumeric we always pushed people to question authority and keep educating themselves. Self education is cool, and education is cool. Never stop learning; never stop exploring. I know this sounds corny after trashing other mission statements, but it was still the ethos for the brand. I think it resonated with people.
Your second question is a tough one. This may sound narcissistic, but I like being right about something being big before it comes to market. I like proving naysayers wrong. Then there’s the satisfaction of these people coming back to ask if they want to work on that project I told them about months or years ago.
I know that I’m doing the “right thing” by following my instinct.
I know that I’m doing the “right thing” by following my instinct.
Your successes outnumber your failures, but can you speak to some of your bigger missteps? What did you learn?
The end of Alpha can answer this question, and it’s why kids with unwarranted bravado freak me out. By all means, be confident in yourself, but also be clear about what you want to do. If you just want to be rich and famous, or just famous (which is a lot more common these days), then go for it.
At the height of Alphanumeric I was in my late 20s and making like $400k, which made me very overconfident. This lead to a falling out with our financiers. They fired a member of my staff, and I was like, “Hey, are we gonna have a sit down to try to mediate this?” And they were like, “Absolutely not – your guy is fired.” They could fire any of my people and I wouldn’t stand for it. Assuming I could have a new brand up and running in a couple weeks, I quit the company and my friends lost their jobs. I opened a new store, made really bad retail decisions, bought all the product outright, and kept it open out of pride. Eventually my business partner embezzled $100k and I ended up in debt with the IRS. This is money I could have used to buy a house or start another brand, but it was wasted because of my ego.
So I get really freaked out when I hear kids talk big when you try to caution them about mistakes they might make. I had a conversation with this kid about being an intern the other day and I asked, “well, what do you want to learn?” And he said, “I just wanna get my foot in the door and be famous.” He never mentioned design. We started talking about Instagram, so he asked how many followers I had. Since he ended up having more, he ended the conversation with: “Then I guess there’s no need for me to talk to you about this stuff anyway.” He had already surpassed me. Fair enough.
We live in a fascinating, occasionally depressing time. But I’m sure 40 years ago someone was saying the same thing. Every generation has issues with change.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to be remembered as a man with integrity, and as someone who helped pioneer the industry we now call “streetwear.” I want to be remembered as having inspired people to learn a trade that would put food on their tables. Eventually, I want to be remembered as a good husband and father.
For all my eccentricities, I’m a simple creature.