It’s a hot September afternoon in San Francisco and my girlfriend and I are navigating the South Of Market area of the city, trying to find Benny Gold’s office-cum-warehouse. We’d be forgiven for walking past it twice, the front of the building is made up to look like an old pawn shop, and all you can see through the windows is lines of boxes and the brand inventory. We eventually find it and in it our subject for the day – skateboarder and designer Benny Gold.
Once we booked the trip I set about setting the interview up, I’d wanted to interview Benny for a while and even though I felt I knew a lot of his story already from following him and his namesake brand, I had a lot more I wanted to ask him.
We were given a tour of the building, the warehouse at the front and in the basement, the office at the back, shown linesheets for 2015 before eventually settling in the basement next to a PBR fridge (Don’t mind if I do, thanks Benny) behind a pool table set up that looks as if it’s been dragged from one of the Mission Districts many dive bars. I like it here.
We settle into the interview and Benny is relaxed and candid. As a person he’s softly spoken and accommodating, he listens intently and thoughtfully answers questions. It’s obvious now why he’s so well liked and his roster for his design work is bulging the way that it is, here is a genuine and friendly guy who loves skateboarding, loves design and loves streetwear.
For those that maybe have not come across Benny’s ‘Benny Gold’ brand, he’s created a design-led skate and street brand thats strongly influenced by his surroundings – San Francisco. While other brands in the late 00’s and early 10s were shouting and screaming for attention, Benny was quietly going about his business, opening a store in the heart of the mission, collaborating with all the right people and focusing on the things that matter – good design. The result is a Californian brand that is wholly authentic – nothing seems forced and every decision made with integrity.
Naturally, I wanted to know more.
Did you start skating in Key West?
I did, I was such a weirdo in my hometown. I skated by myself, I had met some kids that got me into it in elementary school and then by the time I got out of junior high I was this weird kid who would listen to punk rock and skateboarded alone. I don’t think any of the other kids knew what to make of me.
Do you miss it sometimes?
I miss the island life, I like the idea of going to the beach and hanging out every day. It’s really relaxed, you know? I’ve always dreamed about living in San Francisco, just from the skate videos and the type of music I listened to. I dreamed of living here forever.
What pushed you to finally move – was it ‘finish school and move’?
Yeah. I was graduating high school and my mother asked me what I was doing, I told her I was moving to San Francisco to go skateboarding and she’s like, “Like hell you are, you can wait until you get out of college!” I don’t think I was smart enough yet to figure out there was colleges out here (San Francisco). So I went to the closest art school I could find…
That was in the city?
No, that was in Miami. It was a little, quick two-year art college, an AA…
For our English readers. whats an AA?
AA is an Associate in Arts. The more serious schools offer the BA, which is Bachelor in Arts. The AA is like a basic requirement. I was just doing it so my mother would leave me alone and then I’ll move to California. So I went to school and actually I really liked art, like, “This is cool”, so I transferred to a better school after the year and got my Bachelors.
Did you do design before you went to art school?
I mean, I was drawing comic books and skateboard logos on my grip tape and punk rock and shit.
So you did your BA in Miami?
No, I transferred to Savannah, Georgia to an art school called SCAD – Savannah College of Art and Design. I fell in love with art and I was thinking, “Shit, I better get to a better school if I’m gonna be serious about this thing” and I started getting all these brochures for art schools and one from Savannah came back and I was like, “Oh!” – I had a skate video called the Savannah Slammer – “There must be a good skate scene there”, so I went there without even thinking about it. I got there and was like, “Where’s the skating?” and they were like, “That hasn’t happened since the 80’s!”
No! [Laughs] So then from there you went to San Francisco?
So you sort of suddenly moved across the country like this…
Yeah as I got more comfortable to get away from my hometown and stay away.
You started out, when you got here (to San Francisco), still designing and stuff, you started working for HUF, right – you did the original branding?
Yeah I did the original branding for HUF, but that was a lot further down the line in my career. So I got out here and — art school, they fill you with all these things that you wanna accomplish like, be in these design magazines and work for the esteemed firms and win these design awards — so I went down that path I guess and started with the branding firms. I got out here and they didn’t tell you in school that it’s a lot of work. I was working until like, 1, 2 in the morning every day and I was in my early twenties and everyone was out partying and skateboarding and I grew up never having anybody to skate with, so all of a sudden I’m in the mecca of skateboarding and there’s a million people skateboarding and I’m sitting there working every day with a pair of Dockers on you know, business attire.
So I did it for a couple of years and I was just like, “I can’t do this anymore. I wanna go skating, I wanna get laid, I wanna drink beer”, so I took a couple really easy corporate design jobs. Then Huf (Keith “Huf” Hufnagel, owner of HUF) opened his first shop around the corner from my house and we went skating together one day and he was complaining about how he doesn’t have any logos for the shop and one of my friends says, you know, “Hey, Benny does logos” and he looked at me and I said, “Yeah I do logos” and that’s how it started.
So did you start doing a lot of work for them as it went through?
Yeah and then when I’d get home from my full-time job I’d work on HUF stuff and the other side projects I’d get and then it just got to a point where I had enough work to leave my full-time job.
So who else would we recognise that you’ve worked with? Obviously there’s Mash…
Yeah, Mash. I did lot of local skate shops in the city and I started doing graphics for Real, Spitfire, DVS, IPath…
So really you grew up skateboarding and then designing graphics for all your favourite brands?
It was amazing. I couldn’t believe it, I would call my friends back and home and tell them like, “You can’t believe the work I’m doing and the people I’m skating with now. I’m never coming home!”
As I understand it, when the Benny Gold brand started you had the logo and you put it on stickers based on the Stay Gold brand and the mantra behind it and you were sticking them everywhere in the city, while out skating. How did it grow from that to a t-shirt line and what made you think, “Actually maybe there’s a brand here and maybe I should do this”? What was the thought process?
It was just stickers and then I bought a little one-colour screen in my studio apartment and I screened this shit for me and a friend,we went to a party and Barry McGee was there, Twist (graffiti/street artist)? And he told my friend Will, “That shirt’s awesome!” and Will came back and he was like, “You won’t believe who just told me he liked my shirt!”, so I was like, “I gotta make more of these things.”
I went home and screened a couple more, gave them to friends and then a couple years later I met Keith when he opened his store and he told me to put some shirts in the store, and they sold. So he told me to put more shirts in the store and they sold. So that’s when I thought I should take a crack at this thing. It was never a big master plan or anything, it all just fell in place.
How long has it been going for now?
Officially I started in 2007, but it’s really hard to say because I’ve always kind of made stuff. I mean, even in college I was making stickers and shirts — with the Stay Gold and Benny Gold stuff, 2007.
I’ve recently noticed you can now get your entire outfit from Benny Gold. You can get selvedge jeans, socks — last year you could get collab trainers with The Hundreds. How important to you, do you think it is, to offer that full option for customers?
I think for a brand to grow… I think everything has to evolve. Everything changes. I want it to grow and have a life that’s capable. I don’t want me to hold it back with my own ego or whatever you know. Just because I don’t know how to do something, I don’t want to hold it back. I started with stickers because that’s what I knew what to do. Then I figured out how to screen a t-shirt – make a t-shirt – and when I figured out how to make a hat, I made a hat. That’s how it goes.
What percentage of the graphics do you still do now? Is it very hands-on and very involved or is it more removed?
I still sketch a pretty good portion of the whole season and this is the first year that I hired a designer to help me. It’s been interesting, it’s been a learning process for me that — of letting go I’d say.
How difficult is it to let go?
At first it was hard, but now it’s getting easier. The first — the other designer that I hired is amazing and I couldn’t be happier with it.
Are you quite a control freak with that sort of thing?
Well, I sketch everything still and you know, me and him talk about what I want to do and figure it out and…
I know you’ve had a few setbacks along the way – you are always quite honest with it. I feel like Benny Gold, the brand and the Twitter, the blog and Instagram is always quite honest with what’s happening and the way you have problems and approach them. What sort of problems have you had along the way that have been major setbacks? Obviously the fire’s a big one, at the start of 2014.
Yeah the fire was a huge one in our warehouse. We had to move everything overnight into storage and find a new space and still ship to our wholesale accounts on time, but still design next season and all that surrounding it.. That was the biggest – and I think the biggest setback was always managing growth and have a cash flow and where to invest and where not to invest and you know, I don’t want to grow too fast and blow it out. I want to hold it back from what it can be.
What was it like when you arrived at the warehouse fire?
Everybody was outside at the warehouse – it was big a warehouse and there’s other people in the place and people living in them… and everyone’s outside, you know, worrying and crying – I grabbed everything and left.
So you were quite calm in the situation just thinking, like, man chill out, get a truck, get everything…
“As soon as the firefighters leave I’m back with the truck!”
Do you think that with been honest about some of those setbacks and putting it on blogs you know, “We had a fire, this is what’s happening, we’re overcoming it, we’re doing this” — from a brand point of view that’s actually better because you almost in a way, customers can kind of go, “They’re going through problems as well, like, they’re not gliding through”. With some brands, you just see them popping bottles and partying and everything else and you don’t really see some of the behind the scenes stuff, but from your point of view you think it’s more important to present that, “You know what – things don’t go right sometimes and we’re still here, we’re still doing stuff and we’re still serving you as customers”, you know what I mean?
Yeah that’s interesting, I hadn’t really thought about it that way, I just was presenting what’s in front of me at the moment and you know? It makes sense for me and what works for us, doesn’t really work for everybody else and if my life was popping bottles I’d be showing popping bottles! But that’s definitely not how my life is. You know, leaving work to go pick up my daughter from school and go to a skatepark on the weekends and shipping boxes and warehousing.
With regards to that sort of thing, if somebody came to you now and asked, “Oh man, Benny I love your brand, I’m going to start a brand, I’ve got some t-shirts…” What, knowing what you know now, advice would you bestow on that person?
To make sure they really want to do it and work. I mean working for — when I was doing design for other people. it’s easy. And I think I probably even made more money back then. Just because I’d draw the picture, send them the art, they’d send me a cheque — image, invoice… then I’m off down to the skatepark. Now I have to design it, promote it, sell it, ship it and then you actually see a return on it.
What’s it like, as a designer, dealing with things like creative blocks when you’re on deadlines for seasons and stuff…how you have to fit into…now you’ve got responsibilities of worldwide distributors and customers and stuff, you have to fit into more rigid seasonal approach and you have to have a sort of…how difficult is it to…sit there staring at blank iMac going, ‘ARGH!”?
I’ve been pretty fortunate to not have many creative blocks and I think it’s because I heavily sketch. I don’t just sit down to create on my computer. I’ll draw an entire season of graphics by hand and not all of them make it into the final, but as the sketching process develops — some of the ones you started with and you think they’re great, at the end of the season you think that they’re not so good. So everything evolves and it gets better. I think just taking that time to really sketch and think about what you’re trying to do, it helps you overcome the creative block. I think the creative block happens when you’re trying to force something, you know, and if you just sit down and take the time for anything it pays off in the long-run.
I’m interested about the Jansport and the Redwing collab products you did. Now that you’re bigger and starting to do collaborations with more people, how — with the bigger brands, Jansport in particular — how much creative freedom do you have to do that sort of thing? Because sometimes with working with bigger brands there can be lots of layers of management and red tape and brand guidelines and stuff. Is it difficult to work within those parameters?
I mean there is definitely more red tape than streetwear brands, but I’m used to it with doing corporate design for years, so I know how to — when I’m sitting in the meetings with them it feels like I’m flash backed to when I was working in places like that. It’s great and this brands help us with name recognition and especially having a store — streetwear is still very niche market. It’s tiny and all these few people know about it so, people walking down the street have never heard of Benny Gold, sometimes they’ll walk into the store. But if they walk in and they see a Jansport bag, everybody knows Jansport, so that customer can now become a Benny Gold customer.
So did the Jansport collab open up the floodgates almost for Redwing and Pendleton?
Kind of. I was working with Pendleton first, before Jansport and I had made a print that was real popular I designed it a long time ago. It was like the first thing that we designed that was on trend or — I’ve never been a trend-based designer and for some reason this one just hit at the right time and stores couldn’t keep the hats in stock with the pattern on it and I kept getting reorders and reorders. I was like, ”Alright, this is — I’m going to reach out to Pendleton and actually really make this bag work”. So I reached out to them and they were like, “Oh we love it, we love what you’re doing and we’ll work with you guys” and the guy called and they sent me this bill for how much, because they have yardage minimum, “This is what the fabric’s going to cost you” and it was huge, it was like hundreds of thousand dollars. I was like, “I can’t afford that”.
Then I called Jansport like, “Hey do you want to do another bag with me together? I have all this fabric, you just gotta pay for it” and they went for it, because Pendleton wouldn’t work with Jansport before we tried. Pendleton was really protective of the brand image and they didn’t want their bag to show up in the outlet malls, and so I had to promise Pendleton that it wouldn’t. But it was awesome because we got the fabric and everything got made that I wanted to get made. It all worked out and I didn’t have to pay $100,000.
So how did the Redwing collab come about?
The Redwing thing came about all through Jansport. So we had a huge success with the Pendleton and we were like, “How are we going to follow this up?”, then their (Jansport) anniversary of their Right Pack was coming up with the leather bottom and Redwing, they liked it. Who else does that kind of leather?
And the rest is history…
Yeah. And I designed the pattern, then they laser etched it and that was it.
So with that, you designed and worked with Pendleton, and you designed that ages ago. How many more of those patterns have you got in the bag, ready to come out? Because I know with the fog camo again, that hit at the right time. That’s great because you could argue that you’ve got the fog camo, HUF have got the weed socks and The Hundreds have the jags pattern. Do you think a brand should sort of own that sort of pattern? It’s part of the brand makeup, isn’t it, that sort of thing?
I’ve always been really interested in pattern ever since I can remember, but I mean people even like Bathing Ape always had that pattern, so I think it’s just part of streetwear. I’ve always believed in — there’s never been a pattern that I’ve put out that’s a stock pattern, so I firmly believe that if you’re going to put something out to make it your own and put your own spin on it. I love camouflage, but I just didn’t want to put a normal camouflage out. So, I did one based on San Francisco, that kind of fog.
Are there any trends in streetwear or skateboarding that you wish would just go away?
I can’t say I can think of any. I wouldn’t mind if I could hit a trend earlier. Or maybe start a trend.
I think if anybody in streetwear could get a Time Machine, they’d go back in time and do weed socks before HUF did.
What’s funny about the weed socks is they were — when I was still helping him out, the designer after me, Hanni (El Khatib, HUF designer turned musician) was brainstorming, the weed socks just came from us joking around about San Francisco culture and hippy culture and like the Haight Street Burners, just a joke and they put it out after I was gone and I mean, Hanni designed it and he put it out and no one cared about it for years.
Tell us about the white label?
I met my Japanese distributor when I was in Japan touring with Mash, the video, and we were working together when the brand was super small and they stuck with us. So they just wanted something for the Japanese market, let them run with it and we approve the designs. They design and produce it all in Japan and it’s so exclusive in Japan. I managed to pick up a few things for the shop.
What’s it like working with Danny Steezy? Do hot girls still sell streetwear for, like, 14 year old skate kids?
Danny’s awesome. It’s funny because I’ve never been on any of these photo-shoots They’re all happening down at Danny’s apartment or wherever. Danny’s awesome. He reached out as a fan of the brand, like, “Send me some stuff, I have a couple of shoots coming up” and I sent him some products as I was honoured and then — it’s funny because I’ll put my own lookbook out, put people in it, you know and then he’ll — same clothing — then he’ll shoot one with a girl and I’ll look and Hypebeast will post both of them, or High Snobiety or anybody will post both of them and I’ll look at the views, and one will get like 30,000 views and the next one will get like 300,000 views.
So it does still work?
It still works and then my wife’s always like, “Why were you sending this guy clothes again? It’s off brand” and I’m like, “It gets so many views, I can’t not do it!”
Is Danny doing it almost like a way of disassociating, so it’s not “off brand”, but he does it and it’s a separate thing, but it still gets the views and it’s still got the brand in front of people? Like having a magazine do an editorial…
Yeah I guess so. I never thought of it that way. Definitely is — because I’m a family man. I have a daughter and a wife. I’m not really the partying type of guy either, so I might head down and do art and stuff and skate, so a lookbook for me that I concept is going to look a lot different to any of Danny’s concepts.
How do you balance your time between skating, family and the brand?
Time is valuable. Time is hard. I mean, especially now I’m trying to break up time in my day, to meditate every day and go to the gym for the first time in my life and still find time to do art and manage the brand and be present as parent when I get home to my kid. I walk my daughter to school every day. It’s hard, you know.
Are you good at switching off?
I’m really bad at it and that’s where the meditating’s coming in, trying to like, be here now and be present in the moment and not think of what I need to do tomorrow or what I had to do yesterday.
So what’s next for you guys?
Right now we’re shipping out our Fall collection and you’re going to see more stuff from us, before we only did two seasons a year because that’s all I could design myself and so now I have a little help so we’re going to get up to speed and get on track and actually see where to go from here. See where to go when it becomes less of a personal project and more of a serious….clothing brand [laughs].
Words & Photos: Tom Kirkby
Transcription and copy editing: Katie Thirkill