With etnies being founded in 1986, the brand can celebrate its 35th birthday this year. A lot has happened during the time in the company that was originally founded in France under the name etnics, and over the years, it grew into Sole Tech, under whose umbrella further brands such as Sheep, Emerica, and éS were created. In addition to Pierre-André Senizergues, it was primarily Don Brown who built and shaped the company. If you don’t know Don, it’s hard to introduce him to you with just a few words cause he’s done so much, like coming up with the idea of “Go Skateboarding Day.” Originally from England, he became a freestyle pro for Vision in the ‘80s before he started working at etnies, where he was in charge of team-, brand-, and whatever-else-managing, shaping brands, and also designing shoes. For us, he opened the treasure chest in the office to dig out some classic designs and the stories that come along with them.
Starting in France in 1986, etnies had many vulcanized styles of shoes in typical ‘80s vibes: bright colors, lace savers, and creative drawings and sketches. Having connections to a large fashion conglomerate, there were also a few crazy-looking, non-skate shoes floating around too, but many of those got squashed by the core skate crew. There are rumors, however, of the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, and other ‘80s cult figures to have been seen proudly wearing etnies. In the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, a Japanese company had stolen the etnies trademark and was pumping out all kinds of weird and wacky designs – it would be interesting to see some of those looking back. We got the trademark back and got the real etnies back on track for the Japanese skaters.
The etnies Natas shoe was the first ever pro skate shoe. Created by etnies in 1987, it enabled us to give back to the skate community in comparison to the bigger athletic brands that were taking and not giving back. Around 1989/90, the Ollie King, Senix, and Rap had been developed and Pierre-André Senizergues, as an etnies pro skater and now the USA etnies distributor, was getting things cooking from a skater-owned perspective versus the competition that was all corporately owned. During this same period, the skate industry took a downturn due to a global recession and experienced the ten-year boom-and-bust cycle of skateboarding. The bigger skate footwear brands at the time – Airwalk, Vans, Simple – scrambled to make up the sales that they were losing at any cost, which compounded their decline furthermore. Etnies, having such small overhead and great skate shoes, was positioned perfectly to grow. Through tight connections to our friends that were top riders, retailers, and the industry members, etnies rapidly became the skate footwear brand of choice.
"The early ‘90s was an anarchic period for skateboarding. The skateboard industry had imploded, all rules and regulations were thrown out of the window, and a new skater-owned industry took over."
Knowing Pierre since first meeting him in the UK in 1981 and riding for Vision together, we were skating at Huntington Beach Pier in 1991. He mentioned he needed some help at etnies, so I joined him to help with sales, shipping, marketing, product, and team.
The early ‘90s was an anarchic period for skateboarding. The skateboard industry had imploded, all rules and regulations were thrown out of the window, and a new skater-owned industry took over. It was mostly skate hard goods that were booming with new brands popping up with Steve Rocco leading the charge with World Industries, Plan B, 101, Ghetto Wear, Big Brother, Bitch skateboards. In Costa Mesa, Steve Douglas and Paul Schmitt created New Deal, Mad Circle, Underworld Element, Sophisto, and 411 Video Magazine. In San Diego, Tod Swank created Foundation skateboards. Alien Workshop was created in Ohio, and 5Boro and Zoo York in New York. This was happening globally with new skater-owned brands being born, so with etnies, we fit right in with this new skater-owned, skater-driven movement. Etnies grew rapidly, hooking up the best skaters in the world who overwhelmingly were seen in videos such as Plan B’s Questionable, World’s Rubbish Heap, New Deal’s Useless Wooden Toys, Underworld Element’s Skypager, and every issue of 411. Etnies, although created in 1986, had its most impactful period in the early ‘90s, which led to creating other footwear brands: éS (1995), Sheep (1996), Emerica (1997), and Thirtytwo snowboard boots (1995). Below, I want to show you some of my favorite shoes from the ‘90s.
Within the early ‘90s anarchy, the trend for skate and street brands was to borrow corporate logos from the world’s most known brands. I call this period the cease-and-desist era as once the corporate world saw what was happening with their trademarks and intellectual property, they were sending out hundreds of cease-and-desist letters to the industry. Playing on this trend, I took inspiration from a larger German athletic brand and made their logo into an “E” facing downwards. Over time and numerous cease-and-desist letters, the E became much more rounded to avoid any confusion. The Lo-Cut evolved into different models, such as the Lo-Cut 3, the Calli-Cut, and many more and is one of the top-selling styles for all of Sole Tech and perhaps in skateboarding.
This style, designed by Pierre, was a very simple cupsole shoe for the time and rapidly became one of the top-selling styles. During this period, DuFFS shoes started with Steve Rocco, Per Welinder, and Pierre’s ex-business partner. They took this exact model and created the DuFFS Cobnobbler, which launched their brand.
The early USA etnies days were pretty wild. I’m not sure how many rules were broken, haha. Pierre being French and me being English, we had lots of European friends that we had grown up skating with. To help us with our warehouse and shipping, we had a whole crew of Swedish skaters. A lot of beer was drunk every day, so this shoe was aptly named the “Skål,” which means “cheers” in Swedish. It was written how it’s said in English: Skol! The Skol was a top-selling style and evolved into éS as the Accel with an added toe piece.
The name creation comes from a “Screw you” message to Pierre’s ex-business partner. The tongue of the shoes featured a child-like face with one of the eyes blacked out. This graphic was called the “KO Man” and was based on Pierre winning the legal fight. During this period, the family of top Australian skateboarder Chad Bartie distributed etnies in Australia. His favorite shoe was the “Screw” and he created a lot of demand in Australia by wearing it. So much demand that a newly-created brand took the exact design… The Screw was also seen on Emerica under the name “Mute.”
As I developed the etnies team, we had too many of the best riders in the world – if that’s even possible. We created éS (from the first and last letters of etnies) in 1995 as a more technical, sporty, and sophisticated skate footwear brand. I took the most elite, sporty, and fresh riders from etnies and éS was born. Pierre’s designs for éS were phenomenal and we really set the bar for technical skate shoes, and in conjunction with the team, the brand rapidly became the top selling, most demanded skate footwear brand.
I got the chance to work with many of the guys’ pro shoes and was lucky to be able to work with Eric Koston on his first shoe. In first discussions with Eric on what he liked, he and Rick Howard were both into indoor court-type shoes, like a Hi Tec-type style: double cup, white mesh, and suede upper. As we were playing around with shoe ideas, a box of samples got delivered to etnies/éS. I opened the box without realizing it was a box of samples intended for Troop shoes, which was a New York street brand. Being nosey, I looked inside since the box was opened. Amongst the different styles, there was a shoe that had an E-looking design in big across each side of the shoe. I figured that this could be an E for Eric on the side. I put this on paper, added the mesh and gum double cup like a court shoe and the suede and nubuck upper. The first samples came out perfectly and the shoe was introduced in 1997 and became one of the top-selling styles due to its unique look and material selection for skate shoes at the time. Today it remains the top-selling request for éS to reissue.
Rick was wearing éS for a while but wasn’t officially on the team. Since he was hanging with Koston so much, we started to play around with a design for him. The first was similar to the concept of the court shoe, but then he came in with a perfectly drawn-out shoe that looked amazing. Around this same time, DC had offered him to come ride for them, which he ended up doing and taking this great design with him.