Eli Morgan-Gesner’s Zoo York Chronicles | In episode 53 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits talks to the Zoo York founder who recently rejoined as creative director, Eli Morgan Gesner.
Eli Morgan-Gesner co-founded Zoo York and Shut Skateboards, which were the first east coast skateboard companies in the early 90s. Skate culture, which originated in California, caught on in New York City among the graffiti writers. But this culture lacked any sort of mainstream representation at the time. Fast-forward thirty years and this is the culture that has taken over the world. Not long after Zoo York and Shut came Kids, Supreme, and the cultural revolution that the idealization of that aesthetic created. Eli joins us on Light Culture to talk about his story which also plays a key role in a new documentary called All the Streets are Silent which covers the years where Hip Hop and skateboarding crossed over.Read Transcript
Eli Morgan Gesner is a born and bred New Yorker, who fell in love with graffiti, skateboarding, and hip-hop, and never looked back. One of the founders of Zoo York, Eli, along with Rodney Smith and Adam Schatz, established the first major East Coast skateboard company that incorporated graffiti and hip-hop culture into their designs. As Zoo York’s graphic designer and creative catalyst, Eli was at the center of its visual identity as it became a global brand, before falling victim to corporate greed. A new documentary, All the Streets Are Silent: The Convergence of Hip-Hop and Skateboarding, 1987 to 1997 by Jeremy Elkin, tells part of the story. For the rest, we’ve got Eli to fill in the blanks and provide some all-important context. Welcome, Eli.
Thank you, David. It’s good to be here.
Yeah. I’m glad we had a chance to catch up here. I’d like to know why was it such a big deal to incorporate graffiti and hip-hop culture into a skateboarding company, Zoo York, back in the day?
The way that you presented the question makes it seem like there was some sort of acknowledgement that there was something wrong in skateboarding. But it wasn’t really even like that.
When I got into skateboarding, I kind of got into it because graffiti was becoming a little bit too dangerous. And they started cleaning the trains. And you could kind of sense that the eighties pop explosion and the great golden era was fading away. I was hanging out, or more so like annoying [laughs] these graffiti kings in my neighborhood, who were the TC5 crew. Most famously, Doze and, Doc, and Beam, and Web. And they were older than me. They seemed like grown-ups, but they were probably in their early twenties or teenagers. And I was, trying to insert myself as their apprentice cause I really loved them as artists. But, once I’d become accepted by them, and they knew who I was, uh, they were immediately just like, “Graffiti’s dead. 1985. TC5. End of graffiti.” [laughs] I was crushed. “What are you talking about? This is what I want to do with my life.” They were just saying, from their point of view, starting writing graffiti in the seventies, you could just take the train up to a yard. There were no fences. You walk right in with your paint, and some beer, and your friends. Do some pieces. By the time I was getting into it, the city had put up double chain-link fences with German shepherds, and barbed wire, and there were gangs and guns. And people were getting shot at. And then everyone knew they were bringing in the stainless steel trains. In New York, uh, especially at that time, the pinnacle of it, was to get on the trains. And if the trains weren’t part of the game plan any longer, then, people were gonna tap out. At least at that moment. Obviously nowadays, it’s turned into something quite different. So, I was a bit crushed. You know? Like, “Aw, man. I’m gonna have to just give up on my graffiti dreams.” Although a lot of other of my contemporaries, most notably, REAS, Todd James, and that crew of the AOK writers. They just kept writing as if it didn’t matter, because that was their thing. I had my one in into graffiti with the TC5 guys. But I was just an annoying little kid. I would go writing by myself on the streets, or go to a train yard. It just was way too dangerous. The city was overtly prosecuting and hunting people down. The point is, [laughs] skateboarding appeared.
Ooh. Skateboarding seemed like a safe alternative in a way.
It was a safer alternative. And on top of that, I was, besides being an artist, I was always a lunatic kid. I was always in Central Park and Riverside Park, and climbing up the monument and swinging on ropes that were being hung, and jumping off of things. So, I always had that, uh, frenetic kind of energy that didn’t really translate so good to graffiti. Even today, I have graffiti friends who are super famous and have never been arrested. Never been caught. I was talking to one of them, who I’m not gonna mention his name, and I was like, “How is that possible?” My graffiti career was so small in the eighties, and I must have been arrested like four or five times. And I think, looking back, I just was just too much of a- a spaz. Like, I was just running around and had too much bottled up energy. When I talked to this gentleman, who’s a very good friend of mine, he basically was like, “Since day one, it’s always been a very methodical, kind of, military, endeavor to go write graffiti. To plot out areas. Keep lookouts. You know, thereby not getting arrested.” I didn’t.
Well, what about like skateboarding though? So, skateboarding, you know, it was a big deal because you had incorporated graffiti and hip-hop as part of your aesthetic. Whereas the alternative was what? What were other people doing?
Well, the alternative was California. Even when I started skateboarding and I got into it, I knew that I was doing an outside of New York thing. It was, an exotic import is what me and friends were doing. It was so foreign skateboarding in the eighties back then. I vividly remember skating to Washington Square Park and businessmen, or guys sweeping up in front of the shops – We weren’t even doing anything. We were just skating to get to Washington Square Park. And people would stop and watch you go by. Like, “Whoa. That’s so weird.” You know? Um. So, it was this weird place that me and a lot of my contemporaries who I ended up starting, Phat Farm with. We all, later on, started Phat Farm. But, in this one moment, we’re like, “Oh. You skateboard and you write graffiti?” And we just sort of all, kind of, coalesced and came together in this, small group of New York City skateboarders. At that time, in the mid-eighties, there were probably only about thirty of us. And I would say, within that group of skaters, about half of them were active graffiti writers. Ian Frahm, who, was probably the best skateboarder in New York City at the time. He wrote THOR for IBM and he’s in the Bones Brigade video. We just thought it was a colloquial New York hybrid. You’re skateboarding, you’re a juvenile delinquent, you’re writing graffiti. Welcome to the club. You know, that was it.
And in LA it’s sunny, it doesn’t rain or snow, it’s not the streets. People aren’t usually skating in the streets. It’s a very different aesthetic. Graphically as well.
Of course. And I gotta tell you, besides all the other things that I might be perceived of as accomplishing in my life. The one thing that I really cherish is how fortunate I was to be between New York and Los Angeles before modern American subcultures got homogenized. You know? There was a clear differentiation between the East Coast and the West Coast. Obviously, Biggie Smalls and Tupac. But, you know, in New York we had hip-hop and graffiti, and then in Los Angeles they had gang culture and car- hotrod culture. And you could tell, even in New York in the eighties, if a visiting skater from Los Angeles or San Francisco came into Washington Square Park. We knew it the second we saw them. Because their clothing was different, the attitude was different. And when I would go to Los Angeles, people didn’t know what I was. They were like, “Wha- What is this kid?” You know. Um. And I think that was a really, really beautiful thing. And one of the observations I’ve made, from the late-eighties into the nineties, even into the early-2000s, if I went to a club, or a restaurant, or some kind of scene in New York, I knew I was in New York. And if I went to it in LA, I knew I was in LA. And then, I think because in the early-2000s, because airfare got cheaper, the Internet came out, American Apparel happened, and then, suddenly, I would start seeing the exact same thing happening on both coasts. And the exoticness of bouncing back and forth, and taking these two different worlds together, started collapsing. If you went to a club in Los Angeles in 1995, you got a way different mix of dancing, different types of ways girls dressed, the way that guys dressed, the way that music was. And then you’d go to New York and it would be completely different. Now I got to New York, it’s the same thing. I go to LA, it’s the same thing.
It’s globalization. It’s the mallification. It’s gentrification.
A lot of shit’s happened over these years.
I’ve seen All the Streets Are Silent and I think it captures a great decade in youth culture history. We’re talking New York in the late-eighties and early- nineties. Why begin in ’87 and end in ’97? What is it about that [laughter] those years?
First, I would like to state that it’s not my movie. [laughs]
This all began because I met Jeremy Elkin, a few years back. And he asked me, because of the Zoo York tag, my graffiti hand style has its own little, whatever, people are attracted to it. So, I frequently get asked to go and do tags or write things for different projects. For friends of mine or I get paid for it. So, Jeremy, I didn’t know him. Some of my skaters for SHUT Skateboards were in a video he made. And they introduced me. Jeremy asked me to do all the credits and write everybody’s name in my handwriting. So, that’s how I met Jeremy. And, then we ended up living close together. So, I would run into him. And I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but told me he was trying to make a documentary about New York in the nineties, and this convergence of hip-hop, and streetwear, and skateboarding, and the movie Kids, in this time period.
And I was, you know, “Oh. I have shoeboxes filled with videotapes of all this. And, uh, let’s make a deal. If you take the videos and you digitize them all, and you put them in order. [laughs] And you label everything so I can have digital versions of them that I can just access. You’re free to use whatever you want.” And he enthusiastically agreed. Jeremy is a different type of a personality than I am. I don’t have the patience to sit down and catalog things like that. I don’t even catalog a lot of my own work. It’s just I do it, I put it out, it gets lost, and, you know, sometimes it pops up. It’s kind of fun. People, strangers, show up with something you made twenty years ago that you’ve forgotten about. Jeremy’s the opposite. Everything is labelled, everything is organized. So, I gave him the videos and he digitized everything, and then started doing interviews. And originally, I was just another interview. I just sat down and started talking. But I think as he started editing, he saw that a lot of things that were happening were, one way or another, motivated or connected by me. I was a node. You know this word? A node.
I was the- the fulcrum for a lot of this happening.
You became the narrator of the film,
The narration in the film is my interview.
Interview. So, he edited those into a narration. It pretty much spans the entire movie.
Oh. It does. For sure. It was a director’s choice from him. That the – In early versions of the film, I was just like everybody else appearing with the, my little- with the chyron.
But, people who were producing and other people who were in the film were kind of, like, “Oh..I can’t believe I’m in the Eli documentary.” You know? And the idea was brought up, “Oh. Why don’t we just remove Eli’s face and just use the voice.” So, I’m this disembodied narrator of the story. And I think it- it worked.
Well, we missed your face, but your voice is present. And I think it really becomes the voice of the film. So, what do you think of his decision then to make it about ’87- to ’97? What happened in the world at that time that made this an important decade?
I really think that a lot of it has to do with hip-hop becoming mainstream. Me and my friends were skateboarders. And, as you well know, David, the New York City nightlife scene always would embrace skateboarders. We were cool, juvenile delinquent guys. Maybe not everywhere, but if I had a skateboard and some of my skateboard friends we were, you know, let in. But at the time when we would go out to clubs, it was all house music. Or something thereof, kind of like dance music. And also, if you’re not from New York, you don’t know this fact, that New York radio – Even though New York is the birthplace of hip-hop – New York radio did not embrace hip-hop. The only time you could hear hip-hop on the radio, was on Friday and Saturday nights for just like two or three hours. DJ Red Alert, Chuck Chill Out, Mr. Magic Rap Attack. Besides that they wouldn’t play hip-hop on MTV, they wouldn’t play hip-hop in night clubs. You could go to like one-off parties. You know? And it was so hard to get a hold of the hip-hop cassette tape and recording the hip-hop show, we would all have two radios and two cassette things to record the battling hip-hop shows at the same time so you could listen to it. But basically, when I was a teenager – we’d go home, have dinner, work out plans. Where are we gonna go skate? If you were gonna go write graffiti or maybe try to get into a party. And then just wait for, you know, DJ Red Alert to start, Mr. Magic Rap Attack, press record and then leave the house. So, you’d go out skating. You might go to a nightclub. You might end up at the old Tunnel. And. you know, it’s just house music. And that’s fine. I love house music. I love it. You know? But, you know, the only hip-hop song I remember when the whole club kid thing kind of popped off around 1987, ’88. During that time, I was going to the Tunnel, and it was just house music. Bang-oh, bang-oh, bang-oh. That kind of era. But the one hip-hop song they played was It Takes Two by Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock. And as soon as they would play It Takes Two, the whole place would just go ape shit crazy. And then maybe they would play Girl I’ll House You by The Jungle Brothers. And then that was it. That was it. Two hip-hop songs that you would get. And then everyone would just go back to acting calm. Plus, if you did in fact go out to these kind of underground hip-hop clubs, there were shootings and violence.
The good old days you’re talking about. That’s the shit you miss now. Right?
Exactly. But, you know, I think a lot of things succeed because somebody makes an observation. Like, “Why don’t they just do this?” Like, Heinz Ketchup putting the opening to the bottle on the bottom of the ketchup. So, you don’t have to shake the ketchup to get the ketchup out. You know? Why don’t they just do this? So, that was my, “Why don’t they do this?” moment. Was, why don’t they just play hip-hop for this specific audience? Obviously, certain people wouldn’t be into it, and it would attract a kind of element, but all of my friends were just basically the crew that would hang out all day in Washington Square Park. You know? And there were bad elements there, but there were no shootouts.
So, after you started Zoo York, you got involved in the promoting clubs? Or was this all happening at the same time? It sounds like you were doing lots of different things.
No. The bar graph of skateboarding and hip-hop, for me, was around like – I started skating in 1982, and then I was just skateboarding in New York and writing graffiti. I didn’t think there was, I didn’t even ever entertain the idea that skateboarding was a career trajectory. And, also, graffiti’s not a career trajectory. I just knew I could draw pictures. So, I kind of always knew I was gonna do something in art. But neither of those things were a functioning industry that I could get involved in. So, we would just skateboard in the eighties just for the fun of it. That was the whole reason why we did it. We would just skateboard. There’s no future. Maybe I would get a picture in a magazine. That was kind of the highlight of what would happen. I’m not gonna make any money doing it. And I just keep writing graffiti pictures on my skateboard, and with my friends, take some tags. That was just done strictly for my personal fun. It wasn’t done because I thought like, “I’m gonna get rich!”
So, the Tony Hawk and the Christian Hosoi, Swatch Tour, 1980s skateboard boom sort of started fizzling. For me, around ’88, ’89, everybody who I grew up skateboarding with who was like my entire grouping of friends just stopped skateboarding. They were just like, “I’m done. It’s not cool anymore.” They went on to do different things. To be adults. I was the jackass who just kept skateboarding. But the happenstance, the one magical moment that allowed me to do all this, was my mom getting mad at me because I was going to film school at School of Visual Arts, and skateboarding, and going out to nightclubs. That was my entire life. I would get up, go to school, skateboard, go home, eat, go out to clubs. Come back, go to sleep, get up, go to school. And my mom was fronting the bill. Like every, you know, “Mom, can I borrow twenty bucks? Can I borrow twenty bucks?” And she just was finally just like, “You’re not going out anymore. You have no time. You’re going out too much. You’re not allowed to go out at night. You need to get a job and you need to pay for all this.” So, I got really bummed out. The usual, you know, I’m like eighteen, living with my mom. And, “Aw, man. This sucks. What am I gonna do?” Trying to figure out some way to con the system. And my friend, Carter Smith, who you probably know. He called me up and was like, “Listen, there’s a new nightclub opening up called Mars, and they need promoters.” And for those of you who don’t know, at the time that meant not what club promoter is today. It meant getting a knapsack filled with postcards for information of different parties, and going out to all the nightclubs in New York City on foot, and then walking through the crowd and physically handing out these cards, these passes to get into all these clubs. And he said I could get a hundred dollars a night for doing this. And that’s a lot of money for an eighteen-year-old in 1989. So, I started doing it with him. So, we got the hundred bucks, we got all the passes, and whatever money we didn’t spend on cabs, or getting into clubs, we got to keep. So, I would just like skateboard around with him. We’d get into clubs. We didn’t have to pay for taxis. And by the end of a couple of months, we knew all the doormen. Everyone would just let us in. All the bouncers knew us. Everybody loved us. And we were just like stoked that I somehow got to continue my little, you know, juvenile fantasy world of going out to clubs, skateboarding, and going to film school. And, after having success at this, just like continually doing it, I started bringing around my friend, who was a skateboard graffiti writer just like me. And he lived in the housing projects behind Lincoln Center Yeah.
He lived in those projects. And we would meet up and go write graffiti and skateboard all the time. Me and him were like a little dynamic duo. So, he started coming with me to the parties, the owner of the nightclub, uh, Yuki and then also the head promoter of the club who was Rudolf.
Rudolf is like an amazing and important figure in New York City nightlife. I think he was the guy behind Danceteria. So, that was the first club I ever went to. And I was like, “I want to be part of this.” You know? They had sort of like the basement of Mars, after about the first couple of months, there was nothing really going on there. They just had music playing, like pre-recorded cassettes of DJ sets. And I guess people who were exhausted – this is pre-bottle service and booths, where they encourage you to sit down. The old clubs, there was nowhere to sit down.
You had to stand the entire time. So, people would just congregate the basement, smoke cigarettes, and sit around doing nothing. So, they wanted to see if they could utilize this space into something more exciting. I would see Rudolf and I would see Yuki occasionally walking through Washington Square Park, and they would see me skateboarding, and be like, “Oh. This is cool. This is where all the teenagers hang out.” I’m like, “Yeah. This is our little area here.” And all the pretty girls were there, and they would all sit around smoking. And all the skaters, and graffiti writers, and the, like, hoodlums. The rastas, the punk rock guys. It was a really cool mix.
The pot dealers.
The pot dealers. But were they really dealing pot? [laughter]
Oregano. So, that was how I pitched the idea to them. It wasn’t, “I’m gonna make a hip-hop party.” It was, “I’m making a party for everybody in Washington Square Park.”
Oh. So, you just approached them in the park and started talking about it?
The simple fact of it was that, at the time, I had a little bit of a reputation, you know. So, I had this guest list and I had people who would come to my parties.
Oh. As a promoter. Yeah.
So, as a promoter. Right. So, I had a little bit of weight. And I was, you know, “Can you do something interesting in the basement?” Of course I can. I’m gonna invite all my friends and you like them all. We’re gonna make a party tailored to them.
And your friends – And your friends were into hip-hop and they were into skating.
Yes. But they didn’t know that at the time.
Right. They didn’t know that they were gonna get a hip-hop party that would attract all the new rappers, Jay-Z, and Nas, and whoever. Right?
Well, that didn’t happen yet. That comes a couple months later –
Well, eventually it would happen.
And it turned into-
The baby steps.
The first real hip-hop, downtown party.
The block would get closed down. It was known generally that it was a scary place, as you had described earlier. That shit happened. Guns would pop.
[laughs] But it didn’t start like that.
No. It didn’t start like that. I’m just saying it went that way. It never starts that way.
Of course not. everything gets to a certain point and then it breeds something else. But, you know, Duke of Denmark, the DJ, Duke of Denmark, he was a famous house DJ and I knew him because he worked at the club. But then when I got to know him, I was like, “How did you get the name Duke of Denmark?” And he was like, “Oh, I’m like a world champion breakdancer from Denmark.” [laughs] Because he has an accent. He was like Eastern bloc guy. But, I was like, “Oh. So, you like hip-hop, not just house music.” He was like, “No. No. I can DJ hip-hop. And he started DJing, like beat juggling and scratching. He was amazing. Even to this day, he’s probably one of the best beat jugglers who ever existed. So, we went to him, and we were like, “Listen, we’re gonna do the party in the basement and play hip-hop.” And he was like, “Oh, yeah. Yeah. I’m on it.” I think we even worked out a scam where if one of the bosses came down, we would put a house record on and then wait for them to leave, and then put the hip-hop back on.
Like, “Yeah. Mom’s coming.” [laughs]
Exactly. We had a go-to record right there. [laughs] a house record. So, we were doing these little parties and it was all the kids from Washington Square Park, and it was our little club house. And Beezley, one day, found a microphone in the copy room. Like a Shure microphone, a crappy one. And he was like, “We’re gonna rap! Me and you, we’ll go down stairs and rap for everybody.” I was like, “I’m not rapping for anybody.” So, he took the microphone, plugged it in, and started just rapping. But it was not even rapping. He was like calling people out and making jokes. And it was super juvenile. Something that any high school kid would have done at a party. And as we’re doing it, this heavyset, smooth black guy with a cocktail, who’s looks like he’s in his thirties, walks up and is like, “Hey, can I get on the mic?” And we were like, “Nah, man. Come on.” And he just sat there waiting for his turn. And then finally, he was like, “Come on. Let me have the microphone.” And we were like, “Okay.” And he was like, “It’s Almighty KG, Cold Crush Brothers, representing.” And we were like, “Oh my god, it’s KG from The Cold Crush Brothers.” And that was it. As soon as he was on there for one minute, we just gave him the microphone, and Duke lost his mind. Duke was like, “I’m DJing with like one of the actual Cold Crush Brothers.” And it just changed the whole dynamic, that one night. And when the night was over, we were like, “You want to come back?” He was like, “Sure. Can I get free drinks?” And we’re like, “We’ll give you all the drinks you want. Just come back.” He was like, “I’ll see you next Friday.” And that’s how it suddenly just snowballed into this thing. The word of mouth got around. In the basement at Mars, there’s an actual MC and there’s a DJ, and it’s a hip-hop party at a real club. And on top of that, you’re free to go walk through the rest of the club. You’re not just stuck in a sweaty hip-hop party at Irving Plaza all night. You know, you can go up to the house music floor. That’s really what started it off.
You mentioned kids and Washington Square Park.
Which makes me think of Kids in Washington Square Park, the movie, with Larry Clark. That also changed everything. Right?
Where were you in those days? Did you like what was happening?
Kids is a strange thing for all of us who were involved with it. Because, what you were saying earlier about “How did you know to put hip-hop with skateboarding in New York?” I didn’t know that. That was just what I did, you know, that was my thing. And Kids was sort of the same deal. You know? At the time, me and Harmony Korine were hanging out a lot, because we were older skateboarders. Not really like skating every single day, all day. We would skate once in a while. But we were older, and we were into film. And Harmony was much more into, I would say, high-brow, high-low-brow, kind of, art. And was super knowledgeable about galleries, and photographers, and more obscure cinema than I was into. My kind of leanings were more towards 1980s horror movies, and Mad Max, and Godzilla, that kind of stuff. And he was kind of more into Gus Van Sant and people like that. So, around this time, we were just starting Zoo York. So, Zoo York was starting to get some kind of traction.
At this point, it’s a few years after my whole nightclub thing. I’d given up on the nightclub thing, and started Phat Farm with Russel Simmons. And that led to me starting Zoo York with Rodney and Adam. So, Zoo’s starting, I’ve got a little video camera, I’m like the only guy with a video camera, kind of shooting all the early Zoo York video stuff. Also, side bar, I’m also shooting all the Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito stuff with the same video camera. And I start noticing this clearly older gentleman, dressed like a raver, with oversized clothes, but with a mustache and a grey ponytail. And he’s running after these little skaters and taking pictures. And immediately, I was just like, you know, pedophile alert. There’s something wrong with this guy. And I didn’t engage him, didn’t talk to him. I just kept my eyes peeled to make sure he wasn’t scooting kids off to the side. Cause that’s what it seemed like. I didn’t know it was Larry Clark. I didn’t know he was a famous photographer, and I had no idea of the history of what he was doing.
Then, around the same time, Harmony comes up to me in Washington Square Park one day with this big ass book. And he’s like, “Check this out. It’s Tulsa.” And I was like, “What’s this?” He’s like, “It’s my favorite book. I met the photographer. His name’s Larry Clark. He’s amazing.” And I start looking through these pictures, and they’re just beautiful, shocking, you know, and you can see the influence that he had on Gus Van Sant and so much more art. And also, just like what a crazy life this guy has led. And as soon as Harmony explained to me who he was, I was like, “Oh. The creepy old pedophile guy is actually Larry Clark.” And he’s this sincere, artistic photographer. So, that sort of changed my perspective on all of that. And then I got to know Larry, and I was like, “Okay.” We all hung out. And it was much cooler. We knew who this guy was, and we were his new subjects. He’s just into this scene. He knew that I was a little bit older than everybody, and he explained his life to me. Going to prison, and how he would drift between fringe youth cultures. In the eighties he was documenting, gay street hustlers on 42nd Street during the crack epidemic, and things like that. We were the new, fringe juveniles.
And then, one day, Harmony, running down the street, “Guess what?” “What?” “Gus Van Sant’s gonna let Larry make a movie about skateboarding and I’m gonna write it.” You know? And we’re like, “Oh. Cool. How much?” “For a million dollars. And everyone’s gonna be in the film.” It just seemed like it was gonna be a lark. You know? I mean, this is a well-respected artist, but also Harmony’s never written a script, none of us are actors. None of the skaters are actors. This is Larry’s first film. And, the idea gets made. Harmony goes and writes the whole screenplay in one sitting. And, everything just kind of moves along. We shoot the film. Uh. And, because Zoo York just started and we had all of the skaters of New York City skating for us, they just all migrated into this movie. You know? It kind of ends up being this huge Zoo York commercial. You know? The skateboard that they beat the kid up with, we had to go pick a skateboard to make the stunt double’s foam skateboard. It’s a Zoo York skateboard. All the kids are wearing Zoo York clothes. So, um, it was just- that’s kind of what Jeremy’s documentary is about. Like, how did all of this happen?
The thing that’s fascinating about it is it’s not a battle plan. No one sat down to say, “We’re gonna go and open up Supreme. We’re gonna go and make Zoo York. And we’re gonna go and make Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito show. And we’re gonna go make Kids. And all of this is gonna make us all wealthy and create this whole culture.” That’s not what happened. It’s really just a bunch of people who just happened to all hang out and have different interests. And for whatever reason, it- it exploded into something.
Let’s talk about that. About what happens, when it does turn into all those things that you never really planned on it turning into. When Zoo York is actually a force, and it becomes a big brand you go through certain decisions along the way. You wound losing ownership of it, or giving up ownership at some point, now you have ownership –
I gave up ownership of it. [laughs]
Okay. You gave up ownership. Now you have it back. So-
Well, actually, no we don’t. Me and my partners don’t own Zoo York. Another company, who’s a giant, publicly traded licensor,
Iconix. They have Joe Boxer and other brands. They’re the ones who own it. We’re just sitting there trying to help them manage where the brand is now.
Oh. I see. It’s a little bit different. But anyway, let’s just go back because I know there were some moments, as a businessman you sort of had to become one whether you wanted to or not.
[laughs] A reluctant businessman. It’s true. Yeah.
There were moments where there were decisions that you had to make about the future of the company, where you had some options, like with Nigo from Bathing Ape, who was interested in maybe doing something with you guys, where you could have gone, Supreme. Or you could have gone bigger, more mass market. And you decided to go more mass.
Yeah. That’s a hundred percent true. I think as a case study, Zoo is very interestingly placed. Because, at a certain point, there was Zoo York and there was Supreme. And we were, kind of equally as large. Zoo might have even been a little bit bigger because there was just the one Supreme store.
And you would distribute it, at that time, all over.
Oh, yeah. We were a global brand. This is also before the Internet. This is also before the idea of a Supreme, actually seems to work as a viable business model. You know? The only thing before Supreme, was Stussy. They had a couple of shops. But then Stussy also was available in Bloomingdales, and also available at skate shops. The super exclusivity idea of what Supreme is, and all of the companies that it spawned after that- that didn’t happen. And Nigo was doing Bathing Ape, and there were a couple other companies in Japan like Neighborhood, uh, who were doing stuff like this and trying to be very, you know, approaching it more of an entire super well-controlled identity. That was the point of it.
Zoo, you know, we’re a skateboard company, first of all. A lot of what we did throughout the entirety of the beginning of Zoo York was to promote the skateboarders. All the ads aren’t about clothes, our ads aren’t using Ghostface Killah and Kate Moss to promote the clothes. We’re using our skaters and New York City to promote the brand. And we want to make money so that we can support all of the skaters. So, that they all get paid. We can send them out on tours. They can get more footage and thereby propagate this idea of what Zoo York is. And the idea of trying to open up stores and control the stores almost seemed like another headache to do, to deal with.
And on top of that, at that time, everybody shopped in all these stores. Everybody went to Macy’s. Everybody went to Bloomingdales. So, in fact, if you had, Bloomingdales or, Fred Segal calling you up, “We want to carry your stuff.” That was like, “We did it!” That was like, you made it! You know? So, as soon as that happened, that was like, “Oh. This is great. Now we can just design what we want in-house and ship it to all these cool stores that everyone goes to. And we’ll just collect the checks.” And that, by the way, is the successful business model for owning a clothing brand up until Supreme. That’s what everybody does, you know, Of course there’s the Polo mansion, but you can get Polo everywhere else in the world. You know? So, that was a case study, where Zoo was like, “Okay. We’re gonna go to the mass market. We’re going to make a whole lot of stuff and just flood the market with it. And, let’s see how that works.” As opposed to James Jebbia and Supreme, which was much more tailored, bespoke, controlled, and, uh, refined business model. And as you know, James, goes all the way back to Parachute, back in the 1980’s. Selling very expensive Yohji Yamamoto suits. And everything is in black, and you’re coming into the space, and the space is also an experience. And then he goes on to do Union. And Union’s got the raver-vibe. And the Stussy stuff. And still, controlling the space. It’s about the space and how we’re selling these items to people. We didn’t have a store. We were in a warehouse. We were putting out media and propaganda to try and hype everybody up to run to Bloomingdales to get the stuff, you know. So, I think the Supreme model is more of a practically engineered immersive experience, whereas what we were doing at Zoo was more of a psy-ops, a psychological operation. to create media and promote ideas through magazines and videos that would resonate in people’s minds. And then when they walked into Bloomingdales and they saw the Zoo York sign, they would be like, “Oh. I’m buying this.” You know? It’s funny how everything changed now.
Well, I know. And it’s almost flipped back to your concept, because stores are- are dead, and people don’t want to-
A lot of new companies are only selling online. You don’t need the stores in the same way that people were using them-
I want to, you know, follow that trajectory. So, Zoo York is doing really well. Attracting interest from potential investors. Right? And then you made this deal with Ecko?
They were bought by Iconix or some kind of thing like that. Right?
Yeah. Well, you’re jumping ahead. You’re jumping ahead years and years.
Okay. Give it to me. [laughs]
I got out of there at a certain point. You know, the other thing, for me personally, is as I said in the beginning, when I was skateboarding and writing graffiti, that was not a career choice. That wasn’t like something I was planning on my life to be doing when I got older.
It was lifestyle.
It was for fun. Other people besides my little group of friends saw the value in what we were doing. But at that time, I just wanted to go and make a film. Film and television and tell stories. In fact, you know, Zoo York in a very real way is a story, or presenting a kind of idea. That was always what I wanted to do. So, what happened was, after- after Kids came out, we were kind of killing it in the skateboard industry. At the time, World Industries was sort of like the biggest skateboard company, and they were basically catering to thirteen-year-old kids who were coming in skateboarding and making graphics for young boys. And selling tons, and tons, and tons of these skateboards. We were making more sophisticated concepts – high-concept, kind of, more adult stuff. And we attracted, uh, late-teen, college age kids, basically. Twenty-year-olds, early twenty-year-olds who skateboarded knew that Zoo was cool, and was not a wet-willy cartoon skateboard. So, even though World Industries was selling thousands and thousands of skateboards, they were selling one skateboard to a thirteen-year-old who would skateboard and then put it in his closet. We had return customers. We had kids who were skateboarding every single day while they were going to college, while they were working their first jobs. And they would skate, skate, skate, break the board, back to the skate shop, get another Zoo York board. As far as a skateboard company goes, that’s exactly what you want. And, because the core skaters were so attracted to that, that started kind of having a spill-over to where people who couldn’t skateboard just wanted to get the shirt, or get the- the hoodie. You know? And, we would look at our sales, what we were doing. And we had our own woodmill. So, our skateboards were different from everyone else’s. Which could have been a positive thing, but we were working with the woodmill, trying to figure out, “How do we make more skateboards?” Meanwhile, we’re just blowing through clothes. So, we all had a big meeting one day, and we’re like, “Well, what do we want to do? If we want to make more money and expand the company.” We either have to make a distribution company, which is what all successful skateboard companies did. Meaning that you have your one skateboard company, World Industries, and it does good, so you basically make other companies so that you can have a warehouse with ten skateboard brands, and you start pumping out more skateboard brands and more wheel brands. But we were already having trouble making our own skateboards.
And so, we were like, “Look, let’s just go into clothes. Because I have a history with Phat Farm. I know this industry a little bit. We’ll go into that.” And then we started making clothes and the clothes were selling out. And we started having serious interest from investors. So, we had a lot of people coming and throwing millions and millions of dollars for mezzanine-tier financing to continue on developing Zoo York. [laughs] But the guys from Ecko, who we knew, were kind of more hip-hop. They were clearly having a huge effect on the marketplace going into the clothing industry. So, when we met with them, uh, the sell to us, or why we were attracted to them, was the infrastructure. They had factories already set up in Hong Kong, in China, they had an entire production office in Hong Kong. They knew trade tariffs, they knew shipping costs, they had hubs internationally. And we didn’t know that. We’re just dumb skaters. So, for us, to try and join with Ecko was because if we’re gonna go and try and push into the clothing market, these are the guys to do it with. Specifically, because of the international infrastructure and support that they had for it.
We’re running out of time, but I want to get in the Ashton Kutcher story [laughter] which I think sort of summarizes what happened…
Yeah. I’m sure everyone’s gonna remember this differently. But from my perspective. So, you know, Ashton Kutcher, at the time, is coming off of the success of That 70’s Show and then also has Punk’d on MTV, which is huge, you know. And, Jonny Boy, Jon Abrahams – Shout out to Jon Abrahams. Jonny is one of the kids in Kids. That’s how I got to know him. He’s the handsome one in Kids. [laughs] And he went on to have an actual film career. And he went off to Hollywood and was in movies, and actually became a real actor. And befriended all these Hollywood stars. One of them happened to be Ashton Kutcher. So, I started hanging out with Ashton Kutcher and Jonny Boy a lot in the late-nineties, early 2000’s. And, that was all fine and good. He’s a great guy. Super smart. And, once we got to Ecko, they kind of wanted to – this is such a stupid story, you’ve heard a million times, right, for every rock band. “We need to go more mainstream.” You know? We’re like, “No. Keep it core skateboarding. Core skateboarding.” Somehow, they find out that I’m friends with Ashton Kutcher. So, the guys at Ecko were like, “Listen, Ashton Kutcher is huge and valuable and we want him. Can you get us in touch? We’ll pay him.” Excuse me. “He’ll be our new spokesperson for Zoo.” And I’m like, “No. We are a core skateboarding company. It’s all about skateboarding. And we’re gonna use skateboarders. Maybe we’ll use a hip-hop performer. But Ashton Kutcher is not Zoo York. It doesn’t have anything to do with the brand.” And this was a big source of contention between the guys running Ecko and me, personally, because it was my personal relationship. You know? And then, I decided to go on a vacation, to go surfing. And I fly down to Panama for like a month. And then I come back and I’m just kind of immediately inundated with, “We signed Ashton Kutcher. He’s gonna be the new Zoo York spokesperson for a million dollars for one year. He’s gonna be the face of Zoo York.” – The deal’s done. And I was just like, “Oh my god. I can’t believe this. They must have gone to his agents and made this deal happen.” So, in my mind, I’m trying to rationalize how we can put Ashton with Zoo. And I’m like, “Alright. I guess Punk’d is a little bit like Jackass. That’s kind of like boy, juvenile shit. Like, maybe we’ll just go on that angle.” You know? And, uh, finally, the day comes. And we’re shooting the ads, and I go to the photoshoot and he’s there with Demi Moore. And he’s like “Oh. Eli, it’s so good. Thank you so much.” And I was like, “Yeah. Yeah.” And I don’t want to get into the whole thing like, “Nah, man. I didn’t want you to do this.” I’m just, you know, cause he’s my boy. So, I’m just like, “Yeah… This will be great.” And we finally have some down time, and Ashton’s like, “Yeah. The guys at Ecko, you know, told me how you were, uh, embarrassed to ask me.” And I was like, “What?” And he was like, “Yeah. The guys at Ecko called me up and they said that you really wanted me to do this, but you felt weird because we’re friends and that they were asking behind your back for me to do this for you.” And I was like, “Oh. Really?” Like, that’s it for me, man. I’m out of here. That was kind of like my, my like moment wake-up call of like I need to go out and do other things because this is not what I signed up for. Also, Zoo was working just fine without me. We had other designers doing stuff. I wasn’t controlling everything. And it was a Frankenstein that I built, and it was off and running, you know, through the village with a torch, burning things down.
Wow. The life and times of Eli Morgan Gesner. Thank you so much. I can’t wait to see what you got cooking coming up.
Yes. Well, I’ve learned the hard lesson, which is not to talk about that stuff. Because half the time it doesn’t happen. [laughs] But I’m definitely working on new stuff. Yeah.
I’m sure. And fortunately, you know, you have so much to talk about already. My god. I have only scratched the surface of my questions. So, maybe we’ll have to do a part two.
I’m always ready to talk to you, David.
Okay, man. Thank you so much.
Yeah. Of course, old friend.