Words by Daniel Fedkenheuer
As a contributor to the skateboarding world still attempting to grow within the industry, I reach out to a number of riders, company owners and brand associates on a daily basis. In the myriad of replies and declines I tend to sift through, rarely have I been approached about the release of a new product in the same way. That being said, when Michael Fransko, Owner and Developer of the Houkie Skateboard Shoe Protector, reached out to tell me about his gear and intentions to revolutionize the skate footwear protection game, I was all ears.
What Fransko went on to tell be about was an effort rooted in a George Powell-esque effort to create an innovation solution for his skateboarding son. In this case, however, the focus was turned to the wear and tear of skate shoes. To explain, Fransko told me, “The project started between me and my currently 23 year old son. He has been a skater since he was 12. Of course, I would have to buy him new skate shoes every couple of months because he destroyed them. I said that someone should come up with a way to save these shoes from getting shredded… Years passed and when he was 20, he came to visit me and I saw that his shoes were still shredded. I said, ‘Well, it’s time we made something to save these skaters and their parents money.’ ” Thus, one of the most comprehensive attempts at conquering skate shoe protection was born.
In essence, the Houkies, sold in pairs of two, are rubber sleeves that slip over skate shoes as a durable, all-over layer of protection against wear down from grip tape, foot stopping or any other abuse on any side of the shoes. The protectors feature a smooth layer of flexible rubber on all sides including the bottom, where a base layer mimics the tread pattern of the sole of the skate shoe. For a snug fit, the material is vented on the tops and sides while the bottom features a break in the material to help slip them over your shoes. Though Fransko and I originally had plans to give them a shot somewhere in between our homes in North and Central New Jersey, a delay in the manufacturing process and my recent move to the West Coast meant that I would be taking them out for a spin in the Southern California sunshine instead.
Luckily for me, The Houkies arrived at a point where my Nike SB’s had just about worn though the last layer of the Shoe Goo I applied to them. Admittedly, I tore the packaging open, slipped the shoe protectors on and burst outside to take them around the block and see how they felt. Expecting a bit of discomfort due to my unfamiliarity with them, I only realized after I got back in and read the directions that to properly fit them to your shoes, they had to be boiled and quickly adorned to take a more form-fitting shape. Once I went through this properly, they fit like a charm.
Perhaps the most enticing thing about the latest iteration Houkies is the look. In a world where skaters are more prideful of their shoes than the participants of any other sport, the clear material used for the protectors is a crucial piece to keeping the aesthetic of the form on point with the function of the product. When you look down at them, it is an unfamiliar sight to get used to. However, the functional durability that they provide soon alleviates any doubt over their appearance. This is something that Fransko noted by acknowledging, “My son and I collaborated and came up with many designs until we ended up with what the Houkie is now. Gotta trade some looks for productivity.” Nevertheless, they can hardly be noticed on the riders feet from far away, unless specifically looking for them.
As for putting these things to the test, I was clearly in the presence of quality company in the review department with names including Sam Tabor already giving glowing reviews on their functionality. After a number of rips, I can attest to a similarly positive experience with the Houkies.
When you first slip them on, it takes a moment to feel them out, just the same as it does to get used to looking down at them. When you take the first push though, the inherent difficulty of skateboarding seems to take over as the feeling of the shoe protectors take a back seat. What this goes to show is the care that Fransko and his son took to develop a covering that molds to the shoe like a second skin, so as not to pose as an obstruction.
Moving forward, these things stayed in place perfectly after the cycle of ollies, varial flips and beyond that I put them through. Serving to mimic the same sense of board feel provided by skate shoes on their own, the Houkies gripped the pavement perfectly with each push and maintained the proper hold when digging my back foot in the pockets and tail for popping and scooping tricks. As for the front foot, the top of the material remained flexible enough for the necessary feeling of a smooth flick. The best part? As I ended my session and slipped them back off, there were no signs of any sort of wear on the protectors – only the presence of a mostly thrashed left Janoski that probably could have used a solution like the Houkies a long time ago.
If you’d like to cop a pair for yourself, you can scoop them from their website here. Otherwise, you can stay tuned to their site for a future that Fransko claims will be filled with new colorways, potential designs, sponsorship opportunities and above all, savings for parents and skaters everywhere.
All photos shot by Andrei Churakov
Words and Photos by Daniel Fedkenheuer
Working at a skate shop in Southern California is an experience that truly makes a person realize how much of an epicenter the area is for skateboarding and longboarding. The amount of figures in the industry that flock to Los Angeles and the surrounding counties is only surpassed in number by the thousands of skateboarders and longboarders that take over the streets, parks and garages. Immersed in this land, it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole world of skateboarding and longboarding that exists far beyond the bounds of blue skies and palm tree-lined streets. However, when my co-worker, Christian Teplitzsky, returned from a Euro trip with a fresh dancer longboard dubbed the ‘Ostrich’ in hand, I was reminded of just how expansive the skate world actually is.
After gawking over one of the most elaborate sets of top and bottom ply graphics I’ve ever seen and running my hands along a set of colorful urethane-infused tips, I reached out to Szymon Śmiałek, owner of Alternative Longboards, and posed him with a few questions on how he was able to craft such a beautiful board. Between the historical ruins and the mountains surrounding the southern city of Nowy Sącz, Poland, Śmiałek gave me the inside scoop.
The story behind the growth of Alternative Longboards is one rooted in a daunting trial and error process, whereby Śmiałek and his team exhausted countless resources to find the right combination. Initially plagued by the frustration of not being able to forecast problems the team was further beset with the challenge of finding efficient ways to solve and circumvent future conflicts from arising.
While their initial run alone required figures upwards of 100 decks and 4,000 sheets of graphics, the numbers go up from there. In fact, since their inception, they’ve spent over 1,200 hours creating the right molds for their diverse lineup of shapes. In they end, they devised a system that requires a cutting mold and a pair of press molds to get their wood ready for a refined, four-step grinding process. Nevertheless, the team still claims they go through up to 40 prototypes of each new board before it is released.
What this extensive research and development process goes to show is the emphasis that the Alternative crew puts into their craftsmanship, despite releasing ten distinctly unique boards in each series. To Śmiałek, the immersive approach of crafting these boards in a small-scale manufacturing environment is important because as he says,
“Making the boards with your hands gives you the opportunity to create something new; to learn how to work with different materials and introduce new ideas.”
However, the name of the game for Alternative Longboards has been and continues to be providing a strong point of differentiation at a modest price. Figuring out the optimal levels of weight and durability for these boards is also factored into this search for a justified price point. Nevertheless, Alternative faces these challenges in a more aggressive manner than many other board manufacturers currently do. Learning from their past but keeping their eyes on the future, Śmiałek asserted, “When you look at the past and check our previous collection, you’ll find a lot of differences, but we aren’t afraid to try a new solution! Next season we are going to release new collection, so expect something dope.”
Though the back end of the operation is enough of a story on its own, the graphics on these decks add the final layer to a board that’s as visually appealing as it is technically sound. For each new series of boards that Alternative releases, they take a unique approach to curate a meaningful aesthetic in a interconnected way. As Śmiałek commented on the brand’s art direction he said,
“Graphics are one of the most important things, because it creates the soul of board, and helps owner to express oneself. Each year we are looking for the artist who will create something special. We spend a lot of time on Behance/Instagram to find that person who has their own style which fits our taste. We create one big graphic and split it to each board to connect the whole collection. All boards are different, but something must connect it. For us, this thing is a graphic.”
With artistic and manufacturing-related ends of the operation thoroughly covered, the only piece left in the puzzle for Alternative Longboards is scaling and distributing their product globally. Understandably, they’re making quick work of figuring this out too. The team already has an established following across Europe and Asia while team riders like recent RedBull ‘No Paws Down’ winner, Patrick Lombardi, have been holding them down in the streets. This makes the earlier-mentioned skateboarding mecca of America one of the next places for Alternative Longboards to cross off their list in an effort to get their boards out to every continent. “It makes us proud, when somebody from another country asks for our boards, because it shows that we’ve done a good job,” Śmiałek added.
If you want to give Szymon and the Alternative crew the pat on the back they deserve, go out and hound your local longboard shop to start stocking their decks or take matters into your own hands by scooping up something from their 2018 lineup online here.
From The [cw] Community:
Thanks to Nate Braks for submitting an awesome review of the Clear Zombie Hawgs wheels with some buttery slides from Boardworks Tech Shop team rider Ben Bartlett. Check it out:
Boardworks Tech Shop
Rider: Ben Bartlett
Ben Bada Boom