Is it finally time to officially mourn Zoo York’s demise? Being taken over by a brand called Iconix who dismantle an established skate program to put loyal ZY riders like Zered Bassett and Eli Reed out in the cold is a low blow that indicates that the brand’s finally teetered over the edge its been wobbling on for just under a decade. Having been in business for over 19 years, it’s a real shame too. If you’re wondering why a situation involving a brand that frequently makes TK Maxx appearances irks me so much, is because of the history. I can still remember spending an afternoon on a J.R. Hartley style phone-around to every skate shop that advertised in ‘Sidewalk Surfer’ in the hunt for the black Zoo York hoody with the white letters — for those old enough to remember, there was once a point when that seemed as hardbody as a Supreme shirt. Post-Millennium, it all seemed to take a gradual slide.
The Zoo York story actually pre-dates 1993 by a couple of decades. While there’s no official tie between the two entities, the Zoo York Soul Artists, led by ALI, who founded the collective did give permission for Zoo York to use the name. It’s frequently forgotten that Zoo York Soul Artists (RIP Andy Kessler) helped spawn the Zoo York Recordz label, that released several records between 1981 and 1983, with ALI performing on ‘Shoot the Pump’ under the J Walter Negro name. You can read more about that label in this 2005 blog entry. I know a few graff nerds out there too — so can anybody confirm that the top picture (taken from Norman Mailer and Jon Naar’s ‘The Faith of Graffiti’ is the fabled Zoo York wall? (Edit: Mr Sofarok forwarded me this link.)
This Karmaloop video on the 1993 Zoo York mastermind Eli Gessner, explains how he was affiliated with the original squad, but after SHUT’s closure, Rodney Smith spoke to ALI, leading to Eli and Rodney setting up Zoo York 2.0. Having built it on the back of Eli’s work with an early Phat Farm, those shirts appearing in 1995’s ‘Kids’ during the park scene (lettering and a subway design), with Justin Pierce (RIP), Javier Núñez, Jeff Pang and other Zoo Yorkers making up the film’s cast. It was a decent piece of global marketing — especially on the back of the movie’s controversial nature.
The above ads were borrowed from the excellent Skately library.
1997’s ‘Mixtape’ video (salutes to scottieb1 for upping it on YouTube) reinforced the power of the team and the brand — that authentically NYC mix of street skate (with shades of classic 411) and gutter hip-hop, with Harold Hunter (RIP), Roc Raida (RIP), Anthony Correa and Peter Bici making memorable appearances. 1999’s ‘Peep This’ and ‘Heads’, 2001’s E.S.T. 2.0 and 2002’s ‘Unbreakable: Mixtape 2’ (Akira Mowatt is currently doing his thing with the After Midnight brand now) were all a strong visual reinforcement of the Zoo York sensibility.
The whole post 9/11 ‘Unbreakable’ campaign was one of Zoo York’s finest moments and when eckō acquired the brand in 2001,externally, Zoo York seemed to operate as it always did (though Mr Dave Ortiz did once mention to me, that the tiny inner bird print during the early days with eckō was a joke about how a little bird might rest on a big rhino) — the Nike Dunk SB from 2002 was part of that carefully curated approach to entering the skate arena with credible partners. Greg Lucci and Sal Barbier were a smart addition to the brand to maintain some energy and creativity. In 2003, Zoo York were tapped up to make some non-SB Nike Blazer colourways too. Pharrell wearing the brand before every rapper dressed like an explosion in the Karmaloop warehouse was no bad thing and Bad Brains in some magazine ads was a good look, but the 2004 use of Ashton Kutcher as Zoo York’s frontman was a truly strange moment. 2006’s team up with Lady Sovereign was just as baffling. But having the homie Grotesk as art director ensured their visual direction was on point.
But then having Skechers producing Zoo York footwear? Uh-oh. Zoo York’s tumble into a sub Route One world of big store basements and slashed prices was conferred when it was singled out in the equally mediocre HBO show ‘How to Make it in America’ as an example of a brand losing its edge (some kind of revenge by Zoo York OG Eli Gessner who was a creative consultant on the show?). Which leads us to Zoo York 2012 — I like Kate Upton as much as the next man, but it felt like an M&Ms commercial with bonus boobs.
I’m no stranger to the difficulties of losing your edge when the cold, hard truths regarding cashflow come in and I’m fully aware that explaining cultural cache, credibility and limited editions to a suit is like trying to discuss Sartre with a rampaging bear, but to lose all your ties to the early 2000s in such a calculated way is a kiss of death in the long run. Still, there’s plenty more companies to pick up the team riders you’ve discarded like a McDonald’s bag. Salutes to the real New Yorkers like SHUT, UXA, 5Boro and Supreme.
I can’t work out Jay Electronica at all. The track with Mobb Deep was heralded on Twitter as the second coming of pretty much everything and turned out utterly unremarkable and I have a feeling that many will die of old age waiting for that album to release, but Jay seems to have made some of the most bizarre career choices of any rapper ever — that suited role in the near decade old Benzino video that leaked earlier this year, where he babbled about Satan and Eminem, despite working with Denaun Porter later on in his career pales next to his Daily Mail appearance — the culmination of his friendship with Zac Goldsmith is that he’d been boning his brother Ben’s wife, Kate Rothschild. Illuminati theorists everywhere must have damn near erupted. Was Jay on some strange mission to break up powerful unions from the inside, or did he just want to sow his oats? I’m thinking it’s the latter, but I want to believe the former. What next? Currensy becomes part of the Mittal family?