Back in 1985, 12-year-old August Benzien worked odd jobs for two months around his Stratford, Conn., neighborhood to save enough money to buy a pair of Nike Air Jordan Ones—the basketball shoes had hit the shelves just a year earlier. He bought them and wore them everywhere, until he wore them to death. Then he performed an autopsy.
“When the shoe was done,” he says, “I'd just slice it in half and say, ‘Huh, I don't know what that is.'”
Benzien and I sit in the showroom of Dekline Footwear's Logan Heights headquarters, where he's the lead designer. Benzien co-founded the company in 2002 with Kevin Furtado, just as skate shoes began the transition from skateboarder-specialized regalia to hipster and hip-hop fashion. Last year, sales of skate shoes grew 34 percent, faster than any other segment of the footwear market, according to retail market researcher NPD Group.
In just a few years of existence, Dekline has established itself as an industry leader in look and feel. At last month's Action Sports Retailers convention in San Diego, skate and shoe sellers repeatedly referred me to Dekline as the It company in the field.
The force behind Dekline is Benzien. Lanky and with a close-cropped haircut, Benzien at 34 still loves to tear up a shoe to see how it works, only now he knows what all that stuff is. For all his technical virtuosity, he still looks and sounds like a skater, with a laid-back tone reminiscent of Tommy Chong's burned-out stoner on That '70s Show, especially when he forgets he's being interviewed and verbal tics like “man” and “y'know” mix with the technical terms. Our meandering conversation is peppered with shoe and skater lingo, his sentences traveling elliptically around each subject until suddenly veering into the heart of the matter.
Dekline's offices are casual, wide-open spaces, and Benzien himself is dressed low-key in a black hoodie, blue jeans and, of course, sneakers.
His shoe designs mirror his subtle but distinctive personal fashion.
“If it's a black shoe, how's it going to separate itself from all the other black shoes?” he says. “I do that with texture and materials—using pinstripe material, or flat black with some reflective material.”
When he uses colors, he keeps them simple and bold, like bright red with a white stripe, or a subtle pattern of green and black. He draws inspiration from everything around him: A recent sneaker combines tweed and leather, like the sport coat of an Oxford Don, while a new high-top shoe combines the functionality of an ankle brace with a boxing-boot look.
“I let the ideas scramble around in my brain for a while,” he says. “Then I sit down to the computer and design it.”To break free of routine, Benzien will partner with the more freewheeling imaginations of artists or professional riders. He's got a shoe on the shelves right now that he built with Portland-based artist Bwana Spoons. Spoons' four-legged “whale-agator” mascot, Killer, sleeps on the side of the shoe, and his dream of iridescent stars and moons spreads over the top and sides.
“The shoe ends up much better than what I could do alone, or what the artist could do alone,” he says.
Models like this only get limited runs, but they attract the kind of trend-setting lifestyle consumer Dekline needs to grow.
As a kid, Benzien did this kind of free-form art, but he also had a thing for puzzles. He described for me the classic puzzle in which two horseshoes are attached by a pair of chains. Encircling the chains is an iron ring. The trick is to find a way to free the ring.
“You look and it's, like, man, it's impossible,” he says,
“but you move it around and do like this, and like that.” Benzien's hands are moving as he speaks, miming the way he'd move the ring along the chain. “And you're fiddling, y'know, and then suddenly, it's off.”
Solving problems beautifully but within fixed limitations defines Benzien's direction as an artist. The need to make his art practical lured him to study landscape architecture at the University of Arizona. He worked for the prestigious Connecticut firm Rolland/Towers before he lost patience with the slow pace of building (“Five years from design to construction?!” he says) and switched to a freelance career in graphic design in New York. Before long, a buddy invited him to join a pro-skateboarding tour in 1999 as a kind of skateboard groupie.
That was where Benzien met pro-skater (and former Flogging Molly accordionist) Matt Hensley. Hensley hooked him up with a workspace in a small skate-apparel business in San Diego. What started as a trade of space for design advice eventually became a paying gig, which, in turn, became the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to design sneakers for Duffs, then based in Vista (now in Oceanside).
“I told Matt, I'm going to give you the shoe you've always wanted,” Benzien says.
At the time, skate shoes were layered with gizmos—like airbags for cushioning, for example—with each company trying to leverage technology to beat the other. Benzien decided Hensley's style was low-key and basic, so he stripped down the shoe to its fundamentals. On the outside, he gave it a two-color design, including a long, round curve that would define Duffs well into the future. The shoe, called “The Gambler,” eventually became the company's best-selling model.
Seeking more freedom, Benzien joined up with Furtado, and parent company Tum Yeto to founded Dekline in 2002 (two years passed before their shoes hit the market).
What Benzien truly loves are the parts of the shoe the skater feels but never sees. To improve the shoes' padding, he had to change the entire production process. To make the shoe last longer, he reinforced the toes.
And that was the first major puzzle he had to solve—how to get his Chinese factories to make the shoes to his specs. “I said, ‘Look, man—you had a spec, you had instructions, and you didn't follow it.' They said, ‘No need,'” Benzien recalls. The factory owner, with 40 years of experience making shoes, didn't see the point of a reinforced toe. So Benzien grabbed his skateboard and spent an hour-and-a-half skating in front of the factory. He brought the wrecked shoe to show the factory owner.
Then he ordered up a pair with a double-layer toe design he'd come up with, and then took that outside to skate on. The new shoe held together much better, and the owner was sold—both on the double-layer and on Benzien himself. Of course, he had spent roughly three hours skateboarding on the plaza in front of a giant shoe factory in Chengdu, a city where skateboarding isn't exactly part of the culture. Benzien was getting wary looks from passersby, until the 5 p.m. whistle sounded— quitting time.
“It's like a city opens up,” he recalls, “people going home. I hit a pebble, and go EEEERRRRR”—Benzien makes the classic car-crash sound effect—“and I wipe out, right? And I hear, ‘BA-HA- HAhahaah'—500 people cracking up.”