Apr 2, 2013
Author: Sean Mortimer
PD's PUNK REIGN
Thirty-Five Years Of Skull Skates
Story by Sean Mortimer Photos by Brian Peech
At 50, Peter Ducommun still looks the punk. He almost always dresses in black. His body has filled out slightly, but his grey hair remains thick and shorn. He can usually be found sitting behind the counter at the iconic PD’s Hot Shop, relaxed like a Bowery Buddha, welcoming first-timers, old-timers, college cruiser kids, street skaters, backyard bandits and tourists. He has for decades.
He also runs Skull Skates out of the Hot Shop; powering one of skateboarding’s most durable brands with his punk ethos. But PD’s punk isn’t mainstream rejection for attention’s sake, or an outlet for anger, it stems from sincerity and the strength to ignore outside pressure. If you’re sincere about skateboarding, no matter if its knocking coping blocks loose or free styling in your basement, PD and Skull Skates are down with you. And that inclusivity coupled with his follow-the-gut business plan has allowed PD to survive and thrive.
The Beginning, 1976
Skull Skates started with cheesy T-shirt iron-ons—those heavy, plastic heat- transfers that stick to your chest when you sweat. Huggy Bear posing with glitter borders; Fonzy giving the thumbs up; Gas, Grass ’n’ Ass mottos... you get the picture. Twenty-four-year-old Rick Ducommun owned an iron-on company and made regular California runs to scoop the newest designs. Living in Nanaimo, Rick had already bypassed skateboarding, but during his south-of-the-border travels, he’d often pick up skate equipment for his 14-year-old brother, Pete.
By 1976, Nanaimo had a healthy skate scene. But Canada was on the far side of the moon regarding modern skate supplies, and word spread fast that a local kid was running the primo California gear. “Eventually, other kids wanted parts, too, and Rick would go to California with these lists,” PD says. “It grew into a business because we saw that people wanted the stuff in Canada and you couldn’t really get it.”
Rick moved his iron-on company to Regina Sask., but continued filling his brother’s wish lists and selling Grey-market goods out of his garage. By the time Pete hit his early teens, he was skate obsessed and christened with a new name. “It comes from Tony Alva being called T.A. obviously,” PD says. “But my family—everybody just calls me PD That’s my name.”
PD visited Regina often, and the brothers’ new skate business consisted of simply saving up and stuffing the vehicle with product. Rick would bring back brands like Santa Cruz, Tracker, Bennett trucks, road rider, Fibreflex and Hobie. “All that classic stuff that was coming out of California in the ’70s,” PD says.
The brothers realized they’d started a business by accident and decided to get legit. Great North Country Skateboards (GNC) began officially selling product out of Rick’s garage. “Initially, we didn’t have a storefront, we were just doing mail order,” PD says.
The younger Ducommun was an obsessive tinkerer, and his company role evolved from ordering stock to designing gear. “I’ve always been curious as to how functional design works and how it comes together,” PD explains. “I was always taking things apart and cleaning them and tuning them up and fucking around with tension adjustments on my trucks. Quite early on, I had an urge to tweak things on my own. I’d think how cool it’d be if the wheelbase was half an inch longer, or if the board was slightly wider.”
GNC released their first run of boards at the end of 1976. The following year, Rick moved out of his garage and opened a Great Northern Country Skateboards shop in Regina. GNC’s major seismic shift occurred in 1978 when Rick locked onto his visiting brother’s crude artwork. “The reason that the skull is very simplistic and has these hard, straight, almost jagged lines is that, initially, it was cut out of griptape that was already stuck to the board,” PD says. “I cut it and peeled the bits up,” he says. “My brother saw it and said, ‘That should be our new logo.’ of course, I said, ‘No, I can draw a way more evil looking skull.’ He said, ‘No, that’s it.’ He liked the simplicity.”
There was no board meeting, no market research needed to discover that crude skulls attract skaters. It’s difficult to fathom, but skulls were not a common skate image in 1978. The crude skull only represented a new logo—the boring GNC name remained stamped next to the skull. It would take outside forces to serendipitously create one of skating’s most enduring brand names. “We started to get letters from kids addressed to ‘Skull Skates,” PD says. “The more that happened, the more we realized that they weren’t even seeing the little GNC in the corner of the logo. They were just seeing the skull and the skates. We didn’t rename it, really, the customers renamed it.”
In 1979, Rick shut his Regina shop and iron-on operation and moved to Vancouver, where he reunited with his brother. They opened the GNC shops in Stanley Park and Richmond. Skateboarding’s popularity crested, and Rick capitalized on it, pumping promotions with a flair unique to the Canadian skate scene. He secretly brought up Tony Alva and Steve Olson (the two most popular skaters at the time) for the Canadian championships in the fall of 1979. They arrived to a darkened arena, chauffeured in a black stretch limo. For Canadian skaters, it was as if the gods had descended Mt. Olympus. Unfortunately, by the fall of the following year, these gods were reduced to mere mortals when skating’s popularity shriveled up and it was viewed as an embarrassing, washed-up fad.
Ironically, it wasn’t until the mainstream skate scene died in 1980 and most major skateboard brands ran aground that PD’s legacy started. Creatively, it was the perfect storm. His interests naturally gravitate towards anti-established, underappreciated activities, and skating didn’t get more underground than the early 1980s. For the following decade, skaters would create all legitimate skate product, and there was virtually zero mainstream interest. Skaters had to search out gear, and no one wanted to look like a skater unless you were one, which pretty much guaranteed widespread harassment. Also, PD had just ditched high school in Grade 11, terminating his major distraction.
Skating was a tight community, and Rick realized it was stupid to not leverage his brother’s reputation and renamed the store PD’s Hot Shop. While Rick rightfully reasoned that his brother had more pull than a weak, rebranded logo and a wonky name, PD had reservations. “I thought it was pretty corny putting your own name on the business,” he says. “It was embarrassing to have my name on it. I still cringe. But my brother said, ‘oh, no, it should be on there because you’re always out everywhere skating, bike riding and snowboarding, and people see you around and know you.”
For one of Canada’s most legendary skate stores, it’s interesting that the peculiar name is an import. “Hot Shop’ came from the BMX world,” PD says. He rode BMX, as well as skated, and at the time, Se racing issued dealer stickers announcing that said store was an ‘Authorized Hot Shop.’ That struck me as being pretty cool,” PD remembers. “Anybody can tell when they go into a store—and this goes beyond skateboarding—if it’s not that awesome or if the people running the shop are totally keyed into the details and actually care about not just selling you crap, but stoking you out and making sure that crap works for you. To me, that’s the difference between just a shop and a hot shop.”
PD applied his hot shop philosophy to the board company, and his fingerprints became more visible on the brand. A major reason for that skull’s longevity is it’s a conjoined twin of sorts with the Hot Shop. As most skate companies grow, their success creates a distance from the streets and skaters’ mercurial needs. PD instinctively understood that his shop was a direct line to skaters and the perfect R&D lab.
“By ’81, it was pretty established that we were doing our own thing,” PD says. The Hot Shop operated as a traditional storefront, but also allowed the Ducommuns to mix Skull boards in with the most respected skate equipment of the era. “Nowadays, people put out their own shop boards, and it’s a thing where they put out a price-point board to hopefully make better margins than they would on other brand- named boards. But ours was never meant to be a shop brand. The idea was just to make a better skateboard, to make something that I was stoked to skate on. It was just a coincidence that we had a shop, as well.”
Skating began heating up again by 1983, the same time as Rick’s acting career. PD’s Hot Shop remained open, but the brothers migrated south to take on the big boys in the skateboard Mecca of California. “My brother got into show business and he moved to Hollywood,” PD says. (Rick co starred with Tom Hanks in The ’Burbs, Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, had his own HBO comedy special.) “It took us from being this Canadian company and made us a more internationally recognized brand,” PD explains. “But I don’t see us as a Canadian company or a California company, I just see us as skateboard brand. Some people are proud of Skull being Canadian, but I’m just not a super patriotic person. I don’t think its super important what country you’re from or you support or whatever.”
Skull quickly erased any “small Canadian company” stigma after partnering up with some legendary heavies. They worked with old friend Steve Olson, who became Skull’s first pro. The brand solidified their image in an industry heading towards Day-Glo by offering multiple punk band boards. Musician Skate Master Tate worked as Skull’s new brand manager, and hooked up PD with Gang Green, The vandals, Social Distortion, red Hot Chili Peppers and Wasted youth. Rick focused more on his career, while PD stepped in and began controlling the brand on his own. With a Zip code in the heart of Hollywood and PD’s rep for hopping fences to invade pools and ditches, the brand established an international reputation.
Olson’s pro model showed that Skull had matured into a brand able to support pros, but nobody expected them to join forces with one of the most popular skaters of the ’80s. “[Signing] Steve was the first step in making boards for somebody like Christian Hosoi,” PD says. The partnership was atomic. In 1985, Hosoi posed with his three different-sized models in ads, and blasted judo and rocket airs on Skull/Hosoi planks while PD and company produced more product than ever before.
“That made me realize that they were on a different level,” says Kevin Harris, a freestyler who at the time was ranked second in the world behind Rodney Mullen.
But did a flamboyant superstar dilute the small hardcore company steeped in punk tradition? “I don’t think it changed the brand,” PD says, “but it enabled us to do bigger numbers. We never did as big a numbers as we did with a mini, mid and max Hammerheads. Those sold in the thousands every month.”
It’s a little fuzzy now, but there was a surreal point in 1987 when Hosoi began working with Santa Cruz, and stores stocked two separately manufactured and distributed Hosoi brands. “There were definitely some difficulties that were related in dealing with a rider that high-profile for sure,” PD says, but in his relaxed, bedtime reading voice emphasizes that even after the break-up, it’s all good. This was the ‘80s; after all, when some of skating’s biggest deals were sealed with a handshake.
Skull rode the California dream until the end of the decade—pretty much like every other established skateboard brand. Then “skateboarding ate shit,” PD says bluntly. “The ’80s had just burned themselves out, not only in skateboards; the crazy teased hair and all that ’80s shit reached its climax and ended.
It made more sense for me to be back in Vancouver running the store again instead of down there running Skull Skates. We were grouped in with that ’80s thing. We weren’t Blind. We weren’t World Industries. We were Skull Skates, and people basically weren’t interested in that shit anymore.”
( A lot of people talk about skateboarding but PD actually does it. Backside carve, Puerto Escondido, Maxico —photo McKinlay)
Full Skull Circle
A 12-year run is respectable, and PD could have closed shop and coasted on saved money while attending punk shows. But talking to PD, I get the sense that he was never totally comfortable in the States, and while “success” had some obvious perks, it wasn’t a natural fit for the flat-top skater who enjoyed making his own photocopied zines, paper stickers and tinkering with skateboard designs.
PD has always followed his interests, whether or not they were deemed “acceptable” in the hyper- critical world of skateboarding. PD had been hitting the slopes for years when snowboarding was still a bootleg activity, and it helped pull the brand through the dry spell of the early ’90s. “Snowboarding became really big, and we had been making snowboards since 1983,” he says.
While snowboarding picked up Skull’s financial slack, it also allowed PD to refocus. “You can’t be afraid to work every day and make shit happen,” he says. “That’s the bottom line of owning your own company; there’s really no one else to pass things off to. It’s up to us to make it happen or not. Determination to make shit happen comes from being a skateboarder—that whole idea that you keep practicing something until you get it down. When you eat shit, you don’t let it put you off.
“Whether it’s booming or scrambling, it’s just the flow of things,” he continues. The paycheques dropped some zeros, but PD never considered a second option. “When you know that this is something that you’re going to do for your whole life, then you just ride through whatever comes at you—good, bad or indifferent.”
PD took his tinkering to deeper levels and used his shop as a Skull Skates hub, running the brand while working the shop. He expanded from the standard shapes, and offered a variety of skateboard shapes before most brands clued into cruisers and longboards. “Everything is up for personal interpretation,” PD says. “If you’re on a skateboard, how can it be bad? Even if I think the guy is a kook on a longboard, there’s no point in disrespecting him because he’s skateboarding and doing it in his own way. When I got into skateboarding, there was slalom, freestyle, high jump, barrel jumping, just skateboarding. Skateboarding is a weird thing. Sometimes the vibes are pretty thick, and sometimes they can be very welcoming. In our store, if people are cool, then we’re incredibly cool to them.”
In stark contrast to the Hosoi blowout days, he carefully crafted Skull as a hidden treasure. He has a lot of trust in his customers, and feels that they’ll clue into his commitment behind the product. Instead of seeking wide distribution (already offered by Harris and ultimate Distribution), he made Skull a secret society of sorts. In Vancouver, still to this day, PD’s Hot Shop is the only local store that sells Skull product. “I think anything cool has to be a little harder to get a hold of,” PD says. “You shouldn’t be able to just go to the mall and pick it up.”
Even when PD does expand, it’s not in any traditional way. Skull Skates Japan (est. 1994) and Switzerland (est. 2005) are also run out of shops. “In both of those cases, I was approached by people who said that they liked what we were doing and wanted to do it in their countries,” PD says. “In many ways, I think I can be quite naive. I just think you try stuff. If this dude was stoked on Japan, and I’m convinced he’s pretty sincere, well, let’s just try it and see what happens.”
Skull Skates Japan likewise adapts to its customers’ shopping habits with 8 p.m. ’til midnight hours. “The cool thing about Skull Skates Japan is that it’s very much Skull Skates, but also very much Japan,” PD says. “It’s [the owner’s] own take on it. I really dig it, actually. Part of that is due to us giving him the freedom to feel it out and do it the way he wants it. But he also recognizes that he’s part of a lineage and wants to keep that thread running through what he does. It’s worked out great by naturally making it happen and not pushing it.”
The storefront/brand headquarters in Vancouver is a major reason for PD’s continued enthusiasm. Skull may be an artistic outlet for PD, but his shop allows him to interact and do what he loves: stokeing people out.
“You kind of want to blow minds. You want people to come in and be overwhelmed by awesomeness. For a lot of shops, their awesomeness is their shoe wall, which is totally cool, but I’m really into skateboards. If you want a freestyle board, a drop downhill board, a transition board—we’ve got them. We sell a lot of boards geared to cruising and commuting. We sell lots of technical boards, even in our own brand. A lot of people see Skull as an old-school thing, which is totally fine, but to exist as a viable company over decades, you can’t be stuck in one style. There’s going to be demand for things that I’m not going to skate. A typical example is a Popsicle under eight inches. I can appreciate what those are about, but I’m not going to ride it myself. We’re completely connected to the people using our stuff. Our customers’ and people-on- flow’s input is a very intimate and direct connection. Everybody will tell you that their stuff is designed to be functional, but the further you are away from the people using your stuff, the less up-to-the-minute your product is going to be.”
That an independent skateshop survived two major economic depressions says something for Pad’s durable business savvy, even if it bucks common sense. An example: PD doesn’t accept credit cards. If a customer buys a sticker it’s no big deal. It gets more complicated when purchasing a complete or a Skull cruiser bike. “Imagine if an accountant calculated how much money he’s lost by not accepting credit cards,” Harris says. “It’d be substantial. You’ve got to hand it to him for his ethics over all this time—he’s never changed.”
Compared to most modern skate brands, Skull is not polished; there are no carbon fiber inserts or kevlar layers in the boards. This isn’t to say that PD isn’t particular about his product. He literally takes a hands-on approach and keeps his Canadian suppliers secret. “We’ve always tried to make stuff very close to where the wood grows,” he says. “A wood skateboard is made from something that was a live tree, and I compare it to making food; do you want a salad that’s made from ingredients that have been shipped through several climate zones? Really, the best skateboards are made from where the trees grow. The best maple skateboard is going to be one that’s of clear material, a dense material with a resiliency to it, a proper snap and flex. When it crashes into something, it dents but it’s not going to explode. My opinion is that they need to be made in small quantities close to the material source.” And Skull’s wood does have its dedicated fans.
The locked Room
Harris, with his experience running ultimate Distribution, knew there was a strong demand for Skull products, and often talked with PD about working out a deal. “Kevin has been an old friend since the ’70s, and he started Ultimate Skateboards, which is a great distribution company, and he’s been bugging me for decades to distribute Skull Skates,” PD says. “I was always comfortable doing my own thing, but there have been some real changes in the industry. We do sell direct to dealers, but you have to prepay us before we’ll even ship anything. And most of the industry runs on terms, and we’re not going to offer anybody terms.”
PD and Harris worked out a deal that widened distribution but built a fence around the Skull brand. PD wants to keep his Hot Shop exclusive so nobody in Vancouver can sell Skull and it doesn’t really open up that much across the country. “I’ve heard that Ultimate sells to 800 to 1,000 dealers across Canada, and at the moment we’re authorizing 80 dealers,” PD says. “I’m not trying to be a dick and say, you can’t have it because I don’t like you or anything stupid like that. We’ve always been pretty strict with how we’re represented, so it needs to be a proper skateboard shop.”
Strict is right. PD laughs when I ask about the infamous locked room that stores Ultimate’s Skull stock. It wasn’t his idea, but apparently shops unaware of restrictions were throwing Skull product into their boxes along with other brands. Now you need an escort if you’re hand-picking through the Skull stash.
Skateboarding may be more mainstream than ever, and while he doesn’t want Skull in a mall shop next to bathing suits and scooters, he isn’t too worried about the integrity of the activity. “What’s great about skateboarding is that even if you look at the business side as being sort of washed or blown-out—skateboarding is always going to have that difficulty—there’s always that risk of falling down and getting hurt and ending up being gurney’d out of a spot,” he says.
“There’s something exciting about that. None of us want to get hurt, but it keeps everybody from doing it. They’ll wear the shoes, they’ll go buy the T-shirt in the mall, but a lot of them will never push off in the street or drop into a bowl because they know it’s going to hurt like fuck if it doesn’t work out. I think that’s skateboarding’s saving grace.”