“Do you know there is a Black Sheep in America?”
“Yeah, we’re doing a shoe with them.”
It is often professed that as skateboarders we see the world in a different way. Whether dressed up as ‘unlocking the potential of architecture overlooked to the general public’ or more a simple lifelong desire for the perfect knee-height ledge; the world is your concrete playground. A skateboard allows us to travel to new cities, and even countries, easily connecting with other skateboarders along the way.
With this in mind, I find it difficult to consider how two independent businesses approximately 3,685 miles apart who share nothing but a name and love for skateboarding could be bound by anything else.
Last week saw the launch of the ‘Black Sheep vs Black Sheep’ New Balance Numeric 598 and 998. Flocking together, Black Sheep Skate Store (of Manchester) and Black Sheep Skate Shop (of Charlotte, North Carolina) have created a first for NB# and skateboarding footwear as a whole.
Once a collectable rarity, it could be argued that collaborations have become a seasonal staple. Most brands adhere to some varying combination of hardgoods meets footwear meets apparel and so on. Something that Tez Robinson, bearded coffee drinker and co-owner of Manchester’s Black Sheep, agrees with: “You see a lot of companies going for the biggest name brands out there to sell numbers. But it’s good to see that it can be done on a smaller, almost more, independent level.”
Tez and Paul ‘Harry’ Harrison (the other half of Black Sheep MCR) began working on a New Balance Numeric colourway after Seb Palmer approached them and the owner of Black Sheep NC, Josh Frazier. “Harry and myself were initially CC’d into an email from Seb. We were both home at the time so the texts started between us like, ‘Have you seen this?!’ Stoke levels were high from the start.”
Tez admires the endeavour to establish a more grassroots connection between the brand and stockists saying: “All the global team have spent two weeks in Manchester. Hanging out in the store, seeing Arto (Saari) down the local camera shop… Those guys put the effort in for sure. Then what (Dave) Mackey and the Euro/UK team are doing is amazing as well. Some other well known brands have completely dropped off supporting the local guys so it’s great to see a brand putting back in rather than just taking.”
“It was rad seeing the emails and the way it came through to the final product. We’re honoured that we got to do it and stoked it came out so good,” adding how this first shoe collaboration feels appropriate as, “to quote the hashtag, it’s a #BlackSheepFamily affair.”
Now to hand things over to the other Black Sheep bossman, Paul Harrison…
So Harry, Black Sheep has had a few different incarnations over the years, can you run me through the history of the shop?
We started Black Sheep inside Central Skatepark, I think was it 2006, and it was called ‘Two’ before that. It just seemed natural to do something with the shop, from the skatepark, with everyone involved.
We opened a skatepark because Manchester needed an indoor skatepark and then eight years later it was just redundant. There were other parks everywhere that developed over that time, Central wasn’t necessary anymore and it was a big headache looking after the place. Skateparks never make any money and it was a struggle the whole time so, whilst it was fun, it served its purpose and now there are other places to skate, or ride a bike, so we moved away.
We had a Vans partnership store, the first one in the country, that was run in parallel with Central pretty much the whole time. Four years ago Vans wanted to move into the Arndale [shopping centre], after their success sort of blew up, but that just wasn’t us. We were left with the lease on that place and that was a Black Sheep for two years on Church Street. When that lease expired we had already moved to our current location at Dale Street and happy ever after…
How would you describe Manchester’s skate scene?
What’s a good word… Productive? That’s a bit overused with Manchester, innit?
Fortunate that one actually functions, serves, fills and does everything a skate scene is supposed to do quite happily and correctly. Productive comes after the fact that it exists as it does. Because of the amount of people, because of the involvement, because of the support from both shops in Manchester that’s what makes it productive.
Would you say one of the most unique aspects is that it is possibly the only city to contend with London, in terms of output, despite being a fraction of the size?
I think it’s just more concentrated because London is such a big area. Manchester is more focused and in some ways that works better. The productivity seems better when it’s more condensed. I think it even works a bit better than London because it’s not so spread out and all over the place. It’s quite easy to bump into people all day long.
When did you first learn that there was another Black Sheep in North Carolina?
It must be four or five years ago, I guess. People used to phone up and ask for things and we’re like, “This is the wrong Black Sheep.” I suppose it happened vice versa.
I was stoked. We messaged them at some point early on and always meant to do something before now with shop t-shirts or something; we do one of theirs, they do one of ours or whatever. We had spoke before but never got around to it so it was good that this time we got to do this.
How knowledgable are you of the other Black Sheep and its scene?
We spoke to Josh Frazier through email and follow all their videos. We see that they’re completely on it and that’s one of the reasons why Seb Palmer did this shoe because they’re equally as productive and functional as a skate shop in every way; through the scene, being progressive and creative. I think that’s one thing Seb pointed out from the beginning. That coincidentally Black Sheep, in America, are very proactive socially and online, as are we. It made sense for him as the first New Balance collaboration because we are both pretty productive in all aspects of the shop.
How far back does your relationship with New Balance Numeric go and what were your initial thoughts when they entered skateboarding?
We did it from the beginning, we’ve done every season and backed it from day one. The way Seb Palmer pitched it was that it’s about the shoe and quality first and foremost. Its USP is that it is about quality. It feels like, “Oh right, you aren’t mass marketing shoes to then rip off designs and put it on the high street. You’re making things of a high standard.” Skateboarders want the best stuff. If you’re really into something you want the best there is to help you do what you do in a certain way.
There are two shop riders, Eddie Belvedere and Seb Batty, that both get shoes from New Balance too. The plan was to send a rider from Manchester to North Carolina and vice versa. But with the legendary Manchester weather getting in the way of things during late November it would have been pretty useless for anyone from NC to come skate Manchester.
In the end, Seb (Batty) flew over for a week to film with the NC guys. He tweaked his ankle pretty badly on the last few days but I think he racked up enough footage to make a rad edit of his time over there. He might be stressing about filming for his part in Isaac Wilkinson’s video when he gets back but from what I have heard and seen he has more footage than most so it should be all good.
New Balance has focused on videography and unique projects like the ‘Barge At Will’ tour rather than buying up the best team they can. Because of that it feels like Numeric doesn’t have the same, almost hostile, approach as some of the other sports companies which have entered skateboarding. Would you say that attitude is reflective of NB in general or doing business with them?
I think that’s an understanding from Seb Palmer. From his history and his understanding of how things work he knows that you can choose a team that reflects the brand well without the dollars and the aggression and all the rest of it. It’s kind of a fun thing with New Balance; there is no drama, no pressure, no hefty sales.
I think that reflects in the videos and reflects a big demographic of skateboarders who just want to skate and travel. It’s just a mellow vibe that works well. There is no need for any ego they just do what they do and seem to enjoy it along the way. I think people like Arto (Saari) typify that for New Balance. His whole outlook and how he is put across is how New Balance is as well.
I mean there’s a wider issue here where New Balance is a bit of a different animal because it is privately owned. My liberalism admires it in the same way to Lego. Because it’s privately owned they have way more control than a lot of corporations with CEOs that get sacked for not making an extra billion in profit every other week. It doesn’t work like that.
But then again it is a functioning business so it has some levels of that but there is almost, not exactly a Co-Operative type feel, but that vibe I guess. People aren’t flitting in and out of the company all the time. If it’s possible I guess there is a family element to it. That’s my view and how it appears to me.
The owner of New Balance has been in the shop and asked for a pair of shoes, which kind of threw me, (laughs). The owner walked in here, Mr-Corporate-Whoever has never been here, do you know what I mean? It’s in a similar way to Sole Tech; Don Brown has walked in here and I’ve had lunch with him in the kebab shop. You’re closer to the people who make all the decisions and who own the company, in effect.
Why did you choose the 598 model for the colourway? That shoe is inspired by the 998 running shoe which accompanied this collaboration, right?
It was really well priced and a really good looking skate shoe. We chose that from the beginning and then there was talk of the 998. They are only USA made so they are always collectible in the sneaker world because they’re only ever made in America. That got talked about then as it got closer we were a bit unsure. In the end it obviously came out and we were super stoked on that.
How many samples where there throughout the design process? Where there any significant changes over the course of design?
There was a whole bunch of drawings that went back and forth with input from Josh, Seb Palmer and us. Nick Pappas at New Balance was involved the whole way through, he managed the project details for both the 598 and the 998, we dealt with him a lot of the time.
We started to talk about materials, colour-ups and then I think it was around May we started getting samples and scaled it down to three that were mocked up. They sent one to us and one to Josh, we got one shoe, they got the other, (laughs). Three samples and then from that we had a couple of days to think it over and we all came back with exactly the same shoe.
There was a few tweaks after that. We added the wool accents which I think really set it off but they were added after the mockups. We kind of knew we wanted the black rough wool because we’re Black Sheep, obviously, (laughs). But the charcoal wool accents, the reflective highlights, laces and stuff were added after. We kept asking for things like the three sets of laces including reflective laces and the blue/red/white ones. New Balance and Nick Pappas just made everything happen. It came out amazingly well in the end.
Obviously, because of the distance between the shops, collaborating like this isn’t as simple as sitting down to discuss the details. What was the communication process like throughout the design period?
Emails with people CC’d in. Thousands of them back and forth and everyone had their say and everyone understood what went on. Sometimes you wouldn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks or so and then it would start again. I think everyone was really agreeable, it was a real easy process and easy to follow. You got to say what you wanted and everyone pretty much agreed, coincidentally we all think on the same path.
So, if the wool accents came from you and Tez, which features of the shoe came from Black Sheep NC?
The original layout – I think they put forward proposals and mocked something up right at the beginning. The colour was a bit obvious, it had to be black, (laughs). New Balance’s knowledge, like the white tongue and the numbers, is them more than both of us so we got to add the frilly bits at the end, (laughs).
How does this collaboration compare to others that the shop has been a part of?
It has been probably the most involved. I did the artwork when we did an enjoi board and other things. That is pretty simple compared to the shoes because this was two completely different shoes. All the mock-ups, thousands of emails, graphics – there is quite a lot of work that has gone into it for the end result so it has been the most involved collaboration we have done for sure.
What’s next for Black Sheep?
We have got a few more collaborations before the end of the year. Then the main one is the video, ‘01FUCKIN61’ with Isaac currently praying he will get it together.
Isaac just hung out here and has been filming for a good few years in Manchester. Most of his friends are on Black Sheep already so it’s just a natural fit for him to be doing this. As far as I know it’s going to be Rikk Fields, Ricky Davidson, Seb Batty, George Bulin, Josh Bently and Armani Rockford and a few more. Ninety percent of the footage is there, now he has just got to pull it all together and put it out. It’s not the first full length, we have done two before, White Noise and Too Right by Rob Smith, but Isaac’s video seems to be ‘the one’.
Harry and Tez would like to thank Josh Frazier at Black Sheep Skate Shop NC, Sebastian Palmer, Nick Pappas and Dave Mackey at New Balance Numeric and everyone else involved.