Tony Hawk—My Skate Shoe History
From Vans to Airwalk to international fame and fortune and back again, Tony Hawk’s footwear story follows the evolution of skate shoes–neon plastic warts and all. Now, entering what he jokingly call his “twilight years,” the Bird looks back on lace savers (which his dad may have invented,) starting at one of the first huge skate shoe brands, (only to see it wither,) and a very interesting offer to endorse shoes with wheels built into the heel. We’d say Vans was the better choice. Congrats, Tony. —Michael Burnett
What shoes did you wear as a kid?
I mean before I ever got Vans I think I just wore Keds ‘cause that’s what my dad bought at K Mart.
What was your first awareness that skateboarding shoes existed?
When I got my first skate mag and I saw a Vans ad. That was it, there was nothing else. I wouldn’t even have considered any other options, I was just like, “Oh, that’s it. Skate shoes. Yes.”
Ollie to Indy grab in some full-priced Waffles
‘Cause there was a few others floating around, there was like Hobie and some weird ones, right?
Yeah, but I don’t know, you could just tell that Vans—that seemed like the upper echelon.
Right. Who were the guys that repped Vans in the very beginning?
Yeah, I’m trying to think of the photo I remember. It was like a photo of someone skating a pool with all the Vans around the deck of the pool. I don’t even remember who it was but I was just like, “Oh, I gotta get those shoes.”
So many to choose from! Vans ad, 1978
So what was the first free pair of shoes you ever got?
I got a pair of high top Vans from the Vans store in Encinitas that were sent to that Vans store for me and for Kevin Staab. So we had to go pick them up and I remember the first time we went to go pick them up, we didn’t have the right name because they had gotten sent to Peggy Cozens or something and they wouldn’t give them to us. We’re like, “Oh no, those shoes are for us.” They go, “No, it doesn’t have your name on it.” So we had to go back the next day like, “No, it’s for Peggy Cozens,” and they said, “Ok, you can have them.”
Because this is surprising, but skaters getting free shoes wasn’t normal in those days, right?
Oh, it was unheard of. I’m pretty sure I bought my first few pairs of Vans for sure.
Even after you rode for Powell, right?
Yeah. And then my dad would make lace savers, like leather lace savers.
Street Hawk putting those Vans (and his knees) to the test. San Diego, 1984
I was gonna ask about those, so then you would lace them into the shoestrings on the inside?
Yeah. I mean he would, like, sew them together. He loved doing that stuff.
Had you seen lace savers before that?
So Frank Hawk maybe invented lace savers?
Yeah, I mean around the same time I wanna say Tony Magnusson started making them and trying to sell them. But my dad just saw that I was burning through some laces and also I was burning through my toes. So he made them kind of come all the way down, ‘cause otherwise I was just putting duct tape on them. I remember literally knee sliding and burning my toenail. Have you ever done that?
Caballaeriel at Skate City, 1982. Note the homemade lace savers courtesy of Dad
I remember all kinds of fucked up shit with plywood ramps with nails and screws.
Yeah, I guess this was more of a concrete thing.
Remember the one where you would slide and the laces would catch a screw and all of a sudden you would wrench the shoes as tight as a football?
Yeah, just cinch up and then that lace is fucked. Yep.
Madonna channel, SUAS 1985
So it was pretty much Vans until when? 'Cause in the Animal Chin video you’re wearing Air Jordans in some scenes, right?
A couple times I am. During the Chin era I rode Vans, but it’s weird ‘cause we shot it in reverse order. So I’m wearing Vans on the Chin ramp and then sometime through that video we were getting shoes and I think I got a pair of Air Jordans. But there’s another shot of me wearing Pumas. So if you watch—I just saw it yesterday—the San Francisco street scene, I’m wearing Pumas. Because Puma sent me a pair of shoes and they’re like, “Hey, we’re interested in sponsoring you.” I followed up with them and then that never ended up going anywhere.
So before that and before Airwalk, did you know of any pro skater who was getting paid by a shoe company?
I wonder if Alva and Stacy got money in those early days?
I have no idea. I think nobody was making money, so to get free shoes was huge.
So how did the Airwalk deal come together?
That was Sin Egelja. Sin approached me and he said, “Hey, I’m gonna start a shoe line with this guy, an investor who is in the apparel/shoe business and we wanna make a skate shoe and call it Airwalk.” And he’s like, “So we have to get you on the team.”
‘Cause that was your trick.
First Airwalk ad, April 1987
And Sin, you knew him as a photographer?
Yeah, just a photographer, skater, he was one of the sort of—I hate to say it, but like skate immigrants that came to the Del Mar skatepark and just posted up. There were a bunch of people like that, like Cheese from Scotland. There were dudes from England, like they would just come and just sort of migrate to Del Mar and Sin was one of those guys.
So what was your first Airwalk meeting like?
It just seemed pretty loose. I mean I was just stoked to be part of something new and to be part of a skate shoe brand. Even though Vans existed it seemed like Vans was just already sort of not just skating. Like Vans was recognized on a bigger scale already and so I was like, “Wow, they’re gonna only do skate shoes, this is crazy.” And I always thought Sin was just super creative and funny so I was stoked to just be with him doing whatever.
So how did the first ones look that you held in your hand?
They reminded me of Converse. But that was cool, I rode Converse too.
So the first ones were like a Converse high top with a print on it? They weren’t the Prototypes?
Yeah, with the pterodactyl.
Right, so those were just like a simple canvas high top. But the Prototype and maybe some of those earlier ones came with the lace saver. Was that the first commercially-made shoe with a lace saver ?
I think so, yeah.
Cab nosepick in Oz in those pterodactyl canvas joints, 1987
What was your input on the shoe? What did you tell them?
I mean everything that I wanted was reinforced toes, better ollie patch and lace savers. So I’m sure that had an influence on it, but really I kinda let Sin come up with the ideas ‘cause he just had such a great vision for it. But the down side of that is that at some point Sin designed some crazy shoes. And when people would come to his office he’d have them on a shelf, they would laugh and he’d say, “Oh, Tony designed those.” I was the scapegoat for his shitty design.
‘Cause they had the Velocity which was like wild with plastic and colors.
I’m talking about stuff that wasn’t even produced. I’m talking about samples that were just like, Oh my God, this is a joke.
So was this a big boon financially? Cause the emergence of skate shoe companies was what made having a long-term skate career possible. Did you make a bunch of dough off of this in the beginning?
I wasn’t making royalties then. I only got a salary—which was okay. It wasn’t really that great honestly. It wasn’t anything compared to what I was making at Powell. I think it was comparable to what I had been making at Tracker.
80s explosion, Sept 1989
Yeah, it wasn’t huge, but like I said, it was so rare to have support from the shoe companies. So for them to be paying you was just like an extra bonus. I really didn’t make money from Airwalk until they released my signature shoe with Jason Lee.
Ok, yeah. I just hunted around and looked at that. And I know this probably wasn’t your only street ad, but you’re lipsliding the the rail at Roosevelt down in San Diego, which was pretty big for the time. Was there pressure for Street Hawk to perform for that shoe ad?
No, it was just kind of by default. That’s what I was doing then. I mean, that was right after I started Birdhouse. I was just on the road and out in the streets shooting Andrew and Berra and Jeremy and Willy. So that was just my scene at the time, and my ramp was falling apart and there weren’t any other ramps. So it wasn’t like, You gotta go skate street, it was like, Oh, I think I’m capable of something like this. That rail was Sturt’s idea.
First Airwalk pro model, 1995
Yeah, it looks great. And that wasn’t a tiny rail.
I’ll never forget, we pulled up in the parking lot, you know that parking lot is overflow parking for the zoo? And there was a car parked right in front of the rail and there was this sort of bittersweet relief that we’re not gonna do it. So Sturt and I just drove out to the front of the parking lot and we were just talking about what our next plan is and as we were talking that car pulled out and he’s like, “I think we’re good now,” and I was just like, “Oh shit, okay.”
So no problem?
No, I ate shit a couple times. I got gravel in my palms and then you know when you get the little bits of asphalt in your palms and then did the same thing again and got gravel into those bits? I was two layers deep, but I finally made it.
Up on those bars with his second signature Airwalk, Dec 1997
How big did Airwalk get? They exploded in the ‘90s right?
Yeah, I think they got bigger than they wanted to admit to us. Really I found that out because when they finally did give me that shoe, I was in a pretty rough state financially. It was right after I had to sell my house in Fallbrook, I was living paycheck to paycheck, Riley was little. And when they gave me that shoe that pretty much saved me.
From Thrasher’s The Truth Hurts video, 1993
Were there any activities for Airwalk? Did you go on demo tours? It seemed like it was a company and it had a team but it had no sort of team identity at all.
We did in those days. So in those mid ‘90s they would set up vert demos. Like, I remember going to Switzerland at the base of a mountain and doing a vert demo because they were big in snowboarding too. I remember going to Japan with them and doing these kind of odd vert demos at some of their outlets. But they had the budget to do it. Went to Japan a couple times actually with them, but not like a tour. It was always these one-off things.
Afro ad, 1992
So was there a breaking point with them or did Adio just come about?
For me the breaking point was when they only had a small office here that was their sort of skate and surf outlet. Or not outlet, but arm of the company and Rob Dotson was in charge of it and they just kept cutting stuff back from him, like resources. You could barely get product. You could tell that they kept moving him to smaller offices and I just felt like they were not prioritizing their team at all. It felt like they were just sort of shifting away until you gave up. So I didn’t have a deal going with Adio—I just left. Then Adio started around that same time and I talked to Chris Miller and in a lot of ways I was just gonna be sort of this old-school ambassador for Adio. Like, that was really how it was presented. I went to a meeting and Chris was, like, trying to sell this because they had a bigger conglomerate with...was it K2 at the time? I think it was K2 originally and then they sold it. I don’t know, whoever it was, and he had to sell them on the idea that they were gonna pay this aging vert skater to ride for their new shoe company.
You’ve been on death’s door since age nineteen!
And then, you know, things took off with Adio. Everything exploded around that time and then they started Hawk shoes and we had a good run for a while.
Sky’s the limit, Adio ad 1999 while filming for The End
Fuck yeah. When skate shoes got gigantic, how was it for you to skate in those giant D3-like plastic tanks?
I was so used to changing up my gear that I didn’t really consider it. I can’t remember what the name of the shoe was, but I did find one shoe that was like, Okay, this is the one I’m gonna go with. And then when I found that and when things eventually sort of disintegrated with Adio, I copied the structure of that shoe when we ended up doing Hawk shoes on our own. So I got to keep the license for Hawk shoes when Adio reorganized. And so I did Hawk shoes at Kohl’s and I pretty much copied the Adio that I was wearing at the time and that’s what I rode for a few years.
Were they just making kids sizes in Hawk shoes and then they’d have to make size 14s for you?
They had to make size 13s especially for me. It think they made up to size 12 so then they had to make them special for me.
Man, even to this day you must see people in those Hawk shoes.
Not so much anymore, but there’s definitely a nostalgia for them which just seems weird to me ‘cause it felt like we were just—it didn’t feel like we were that cutting edge with what we were trying to sell into Kohl’s.
Well, I think given it’s low price it was probably a lot of kids’ first skate shoe, right?
Oh yeah, and that’s what I’m saying, I was super proud that we had a solid skate shoe at that price point.
A Hawk for all budgets and sizes
So do Hawk shoes exist anywhere in the world still?
We still have the license for it, they existed at Walmart in South America and Canada for a minute a few years ago. They’re sort of an accessory to the Hawk clothing license and the Hawk clothing license is owned by a company called Apex. So usually we get to come in the side door when they do a deal with the Hawk clothing and the haven’t done much lately. So we have it but it’s just sort of dormant.
So once you were free of obligation, what shoes did you wear? I remember seeing you wear Spanky’s Emerica shoe.
I was just sort of getting them and trying them out and trying to find something closer to what I had worn before. Nothing was that bulky anymore, so it was kind of liberating. I just started wearing Riley’s shoe ‘cause I thought they looked cool and I could support Riley. Then I would put Jaws’ insoles in those and that made it feel cushy like my old shoes. The only issue with them is when you knee slide I would burn through my sock right at the bend of my ankle and sometimes on the outside. So that’s when I decided I gotta figure out other shoes to wear and then I just started trying other Lakais.
What were some of the wildest offers you got? Were there any British Knights or anybody come at you with any shoe schemes that you passed on?
Nothing like that, no. I think the closest thing to that would have been, like, right when the Adio thing started, I had an offer to do a huge thing with Heelys—like almost take over the company, on that big of a scale. Because I have a friend who’s a big investor and he’s like, “Hey man, I’m probably gonna buy Heelys and I would love to make you just like an equal partner if you just promote it.”
Try skating the vert ramp in some Heelys!
The funny thing is he doesn’t know skating at all and I could not get it through to him that it wouldn’t work. Like he just didn’t get it.
Tossed back Andrecht on some rare size 13 Hawks, 2009
So you ride Christmas completes like every other day and it doesn’t even matter. Are you the same way with shoes?
It’s not as easy with shoes for me. It think that’s where I find my sort of comfort zone is in my shoes. So to bounce around from different shoes is more of a challenge to me. But when I first put on the Vans high tops, it’s funny cause we’ve been working on this for awhile, it was a little bit of a shift for me, but in a good way. Because they’re way more sticky on the board. So that changes everything. It changes how you set up your feet, how you shift them, how you flip it or how you spin it.
Is there anything you can talk about on the record about your rumored Nike offer?
It never came.
I thought Nyjah took it!
Well they had me up there, this was around that time. They invited me up there, we were in talks and then it just fizzled. Like, they never followed up. And not long after that they announced Nyjah. So you could make that connection, but I don’t think Nike is at a loss for funding so I can’t imagine that like it was only this money and it had to go to Nyjah, that doesn’t make sense to me. But I’m happy.
It’s a funny story like that, though.
The timing was definitely that exact window.
So how long did you do Lakai officially? Two years?
No, it’s been three, almost four.
And what was your motivation for that? ‘Cause it’s definitely a smaller operation. But then Riley’s there.
Yeah, it was more at a time in my life when it just felt like a fun project. I didn’t feel like I was choosing a great security in the future. It didn’t feel like I was choosing like, Oh this is the thing that’s gonna take me to the end, to the twilight. It just felt like a really cool thing to be involved with because there was a lot of really young energy, Riley was in it and I was able to do stuff with him. We had a blast, you know, we got to do videos, we got to travel together, Brazil, Japan, and it was fun. I think what happened was it started to be hard to devote so much energy to it when my time was being pulled in every direction, especially in the recent years. I really had to make a decision and an effort to take back my time. Like that is basically the crux of all of this. I don’t have all this time and energy to put into all these different projects, to put into all these different promotions and obligations and even trips. I felt like my time and myself was kind of slipping away in that process. I mean it’s all kind of lofty but that really is what happened and then at some point I was like, Alright, I’m gonna focus on these certain things and let everything else sort of fall away.
The Prototype returns! Limited time only…
So now you’re on Vans. You’d never worn the Cab or the Half Cab before this right?
I wore Cab shoes once because—the irony was, I was in San Jose and we were doing a Huck Jam tour and I had left a pair of shoes in the last city and thought I had a new pair to bust out in the next city. And when we got there that morning of, I didn’t have any. And Cab was gonna join us in the San Jose demo and I was like, “Cab, can you get me some size 13s?” And he brought some. So that was like 2006 maybe?
Yeah those were probably some weird, mid-century Cabs. So what’s your Vans shoe of choice? Now you’re back to your childhood in a way, which have you tried out? Which work?
The classic high tops. That’s what I’m wearing. Makes me feel like my ankles have support and they stick to my board. I’m sure I’ll test out other ones as well, but for now I’m going old school.
Hefty Madonna, back to the future, 2020
Yeah, those knee slide decent. Those and the Half Cabs feel like no other skate shoe though, you know? I think they were made pre-computer so the way they fit on the foot is kind of like no other.
I don’t know, like I said, I’ve run the gamut of what shoes I wear and what shoes I skate in, so those ones feel like my youth.
Yeah. That’s a good thing, that no matter what, even if they feel stiff in one way or the other, the grip is always there and I feel like that’s most of the battle.
Yeah, that’s it. Exactly. It was funny, Cathy said we were talking about what shoes I would go to wear and I was like, “Maybe I should wear Lizzie’s shoes,” and she’s like, “No! You cannot get Lizzie’s purple shoes in size 13. Those will look like clown feet!”
Yeah, let’s talk about that in general, as far as gigantic feet. Because for years Figgy, who also has 13s, was stuffing them into elevens and I’m like, “Why are you doing that?” He’s like, “Dude, I just can’t look down and see those huge motherfuckers!”
Yeah, I could never do that. I think I did that once for an Airwalk ad because the only samples they had were elevens and they wanted an ad for the new shoes. I put them on for like a half hour, I did a trick and I took them off. I could’t do it. You feel like your feet are being tortured, I don’t understand how Figgy did it.
Are there any style considerations you have to make for having gigantic feet? Are there some shoes you have to pass on like the Lizzies?
When they have the toe caps they look a little bit bulbous and clown-like for sure on a 13. So I stopped wearing the white-and-red Lakai Prototypes because of that. So that's why I’ve been only wearing the black ones since they came out.
Frontal bluntal, 2020
What do you think is the best shoe for vert in general? Over all the years, what’s the best vert shoe?
I’ve been so exclusive to certain shoes that it would be hard for me to say. For sure these shoes, these Vans high tops are built to last.
What do you want to do for the future of vert skating? What are some of the things you care about that you’re willing to go out on a limb for to give those guys more opportunities?
Well, I don’t know what Vans wants to give away but that was part of my agreement with them is that we’re gonna do a vert event in the near future. Obviously nobody knows when things will get back to normal, but I’m stoked they want to support vert skating like that.
Jimmy Wilkins: a great vert skater or the greatest vert skater?
He’s one of the greatest.
Dude. He is so fucked. He is so good.
So good. I think the best vert skaters right now are Jimmy and Moto Shibata. But Moto covers a whole different era with his trick selection. I mean those guys are absolutely my favorites.
It’s insane. And as we covered in the mag, he broke his pelvis and his arm and maybe something else on your loop.
Yeah, we have that in common.
I’ve never seen a faster broken pelvis comeback in my life.
No, I kept asking him about that because that was the hardest injury for me to recover from and took me at least six months to get my balance straight and about a year to get my tricks back and my confidence back. He did not skip anything. I mean he didn’t miss any part of that, he just was like right back in straight to gigantic ollies.
Loop lifeguard, 2018
I heard a rumor that you might be putting the chain on the loop for awhile after that one.
I’m ready to just get rid of it. There’s nothing on the horizon that excites me about it. Like, we had so many firsts on it. I would keep it if Riley wanted to revisit it because Riley had it. But he doesn’t seem interested anymore and rightly so. To have Lizzie do it, the first woman, to have Felipe do it, it’s like I don’t have anything else that I would aspire to for it. And like we saw, Jimmy had it. Jimmy had it every time and then that one time that he didn’t have it was tragic. I just don’t want to see that keep happening.
Yeah, it’s like at some point you don’t push your luck.
Yeah, I mean if someone else wants to take it over it’s all yours. I’m sure you’ll have great success but you’ll also have great tragedy.
Lizzie makes herstory, 2018. Now get this thing outta here before it kills somebody!
Nothing’s for certain, but would you be comfortable riding out your golden years at Vans?
Oh yeah, for sure. I mean that definitely was part of the decision.
Even though you’ve been prepping for your golden years for the last thirty years?
These are the twilight years for sure. In terms of actually being a pro, like an active pro.
Yeah. Well, they’ve got the most robust legends program, too, which is cool.
Yeah, well, that’s why it was a good fit.
Foot the Bill, then tweak it out
So Vans has this Foot the Bill program, what do you know about it?
It’s a way to help shops that are struggling through this pandemic and probably ones that were having a hard time even before that. It’s Vans' way to give back to them and let them design a shoe and to get the proceeds to keep their doors open. I nominated Witt’s Carlsbad Pipeline for that program, because that was my first skate shop sponsor.
So they get to go on the Vans site and pick out this special designed shoe and even though the shops are closed they get some of the proceeds right?
Yeah, they sell them through mail order.
Sounds like a win-win. Congrats on your new sponsor, Tony. Welcome back.
9/28/2020Reynolds, Atiba, Tyson, Kirby and Steve Van Doren help out Watts Community Core, stoking out the kids with gear from Vans, Baker, Santa Cruz, Pro Tec and more. Give back when you can.
9/17/2020Vans will livestream the first ever Loveletters full-length film on Tony Alva, with a special Q&A hosted by Hosoi immediately after. Tune in at 5pm PST and tear up with Grosso one more time.
9/11/2020Brazil is known as a a hotbed for progressive skating, but Chile, Argentina and Colombia also deserve some shine. Lucas Tripodi highlights the heaviest locals for Vans, with a packed edit for each country. Brush up on your South American geography and check the tech.
9/03/2020Griffin gets a look at his new shoes courtesy of Mike and Rick. Fuel your next session with Pure Gass.
7/29/2020Tony Hawk, Omar Hassan and plenty of legends-to-be crew up in Canada to blast at the Big O and party in the parks. Our guy Rye Beres documents the destruction.