As a kid growing up in Puerto Rico, I never had the ovaries to try skateboarding. It looked too dangerous and painful, with skateboarders sporting more than a few scratches and bruises. Still, I envied the cool California-inspired look shared by the women who practiced the sport in San Juan. So I went shopping at the local PacSun, looking for anything that would signify the kind of cool-girl aesthetic that would make me look as if I owned a skateboard. Think: board shorts, Roxy-logo T-shirts, colourful backpacks, low-rise baggy jeans, and Converse sneakers. But at some point, I couldn’t keep up the ruse, so I gave up.
Now, with the return of ‘90s and early 2000s style, skater fashion is yet again having a moment. And I’m keeping an eye out.
Recently, Shakira sported metallic pink baggy pants with a matching beanie, paired with black elbow pads and Vans high-top sneakers on the video for “Don’t Wait Up.” Meanwhile, Avril Lavigne made her TikTok debut in June, lip-syncing to her 2002 hit “Sk8er Boi,” alongside skating legend Tony Hawk. In November 2020, Bad Bunny released a skateboard-heavy video clip for his single “Yo Visto Así,” in which he sings over a trap-rock beat that might as well be a Linkin Park song. Over the past year, rollerblading and skateboarding also started trending on Instagram and TikTok, as people gravitated toward the sports to combat pandemic anxiety and spend some much-needed time safely out of doors.
It’s been six decades since skateboarding was first created by California-based surfers who took their water hobby to land. This year, the sport debuted at the Tokyo Olympics, alongside other newcomers surfing and climbing, cementing its role in the international arena. Fashion has taken notice: since April, searches containing the word “skater” have increased 46% on the global fashion engine Lyst, and searches for Nike skateboarding products rose over 35% after the first Olympic competitions took place in July.
One of the brands benefitting from this surge is PacSun, the skate and surf lifestyle retailer. The brand’s president Brieane Olson has overseen the company’s return to its heyday-like trendiness over the past five years, using the power of influencers and tastemakers to harness PacSun’s popularity with today’s generation.
“We are very proud of our heritage,” she says. “But we are thinking about the relevancy that the brand has for the consumer, especially Gen Z.”
Earlier this year, the brand partnered with cult YouTuber and influencer Emma Chamberlain to curate a set of styles available on PacSun’s website, including oversized T-shirts, tie-dye sweatshirts, pastel-coloured lounge sets, white Vans sneakers, and crop tops. In June, the brand announced that rapper A$AP Rocky would become its guest artistic director, releasing a nostalgia-heavy collection full of printed loungewear sets, basketball-inspired T-shirts, and flame-embellished Vans sneakers.
These campaigns, says Olson, are a way for PacSun to capitalise both on its long history within skate culture and the industry’s current obsession with ‘90s style. “We’re seeing designers and luxury houses do it, and the impact that social media has had in bringing back the Y2K and late ‘90s aesthetic is very important,” she says.
Marian Park, a youth strategist at forecasting agency WGSN, notes that the revival of the era’s style doesn’t necessarily mean creating exact replicas of what people used to wear. “As always with Gen Z, previous iterations of skater fashion get mashed up with other key reference points, this time from the ‘90s and ‘00s,” says Park. “So we are seeing strong affiliations in wider youth fashion trends to skater style proportions.”
From a marketing perspective, Olson says that the Olympics provided a unique opportunity in the brand’s history to play into an international event this large. She says it also offered a chance to show the audience the athleticism skateboarding requires, and subsequently, the clothes and footwear that help now-Olympians win gold. While PacSun has long sponsored athletes, the Olympics’ stamp of approval added some credibility to the sport. “Those are undeniably elite athletes and it gave them a much larger and much more global reach,” she says.
This year’s Olympics also saw athletes, including skaters, jump on TikTok to share behind-the-scenes glimpses into their training and everyday routines at the Olympic Village. Olson says that this helped PacSun boost the brand’s relevance for a younger generation who weren’t around to witness the rise of skate culture in the ‘90s. On the app, #skateboarding has generated over 12 billion views, while #olympics has over 8 billion views, with the help of skateboarding Olympians Brazilian Rayssa Leal and American Jagger Eaton.
“The app was creating a dialogue with the audience that I think is important in terms of building community around the sport,” Olson says.
According to WGSN’s Park, Gen Z’s self-expression and freedom are redefining skateboarding style for the TikTok generation. While there are still gender inequalities in skateboarding, its fashion is heavily gender-fluid, and Park sees the sport’s mostly unisex clothing as a major appeal factor for Gen Z.
Skateboarding’s fashion moment has also been boosted by the current boom of resale and thrifting. On Tradesy, the online resale marketplace, there has been an increase in searches for sneakers, oversized sweatshirts, and belt bags over the past year. According to Tradesy’s senior style editor Michelle Li, these items speak to the “laid-back, slacker-chic aesthetic” that has long characterized skateboarding culture.
Every time I pass the local PacSun store, I am reminded of just how much I wanted to belong in that world. Dressing the part is half of it, and I’ll make do with oversized T-shirts and the occasional sneaker, while others with actual skills tear up their denim at the local skate park.