The world of professional skateboarding can be divided into two eras: Before and after Tony Alva. In the pre-Alva days, professional skateboarders were clean-cut surfers with sun-bleached hair, gymnasts performing choreographed routines, and “real” athletes representing their “sport” on national television with proper gentlemanly demeanor.
In the mid-to-late 1970s, Tony Alva – or just T.A. – changed all that, injecting skateboarding with attitude, swagger, and a rock star wardrobe.
Nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ by his peers for his aggressive riding style, Alva dominated the pages of skateboarding magazines wearing fedoras and leather jackets, flipping the bird into the camera, pioneering aerial moves over the edge of backyard pools in a whirlwind of stardom that sent a shock to the system, changing skateboarding culture and fashion forever.
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Here’s the inside story with commentary from Tony Alva, as featured in the first official book on skateboarding apparel Skateboarding is not a Fashion.
Tony Alva’s skateboarding journey started in 1967 when he discovered “sidewalk surfing” at the age of 10. Born and raised in Santa Monica, California, as the son of a Dutch mother and Mexican-American father, Alva learned how to surf on the beaches down the street from his house.
“The North Side [of L.A.] is where I grew up surfing. I caught my first couple of waves down there,” said Tony Alva. Skateboarding and surfing went hand-in-hand in those days, and Alva’s early role models included pro surfers/skateboarders from Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades such as Hobie team riders Danny Bearer, Torger Johnson, and the Hilton brothers.
Our deal was to emulate surfing on land. So we just wore whatever the surfers were surfing in.
“All our heroes were professional surfers. Everyone we looked up to in the sense of trying to emulate them were all professional surfers, not skateboarders,” said Tony Alva. In terms of skateboard apparel, the close ties to surfing also carried over into wardrobe choices.
“Our deal was to emulate surfing on land. So we just wore whatever the surfers were surfing in,” said Tony Alva, who would skateboard the concrete embankments of local school yards such as Kenter and Paul Revere wearing the “surfer look” of the time: deck shoes and tube socks paired with board shorts and a T-shirt bleached by the California sun.
But as Alva’s riding skills progressed, the young prodigy gravitated towards a grittier, more aggressive style of surfing pioneered by the locals in the harsh waters of Santa Monica’s “Dogtown” neighborhood on the border of Venice Beach. In the shadows of the defunct and rapidly decomposing Pacific Ocean Park Pier, Alva became part of a tightly-knit gang of outsiders with a “Locals Only” attitude, including Jay Adams and Shogo Kubo.
WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS
In 1972, Alva joined the junior surf team of legendary Jeff Ho & Zephyr Productions Surf Shop, located close to the beach on Main Street and Ocean Park Boulevard in the heart of Dogtown. Together with fellow “Z-Boys” – short for Zephyr – including Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta, the wild-haired rebel brought the low-gravity, aggressive surf style cultivated in the wreckage of the Pier into the streets, replacing the upright, somewhat stiff riding style of the time with a healthy dose of attitude and danger.
Ultimately, Alva and his cohorts graduated from the junior surf team to form the Zephyr Competition Skate Team, a force to be reckoned with on the competition circuit; equally feared and revered in their matching navy blue Zephyr team T-shirts and torn-up jeans.
In the streets and school yards, Alva and the Z-Boys soon became notorious for their reckless antics and trailblazing stunts, adapting low-slung surf maneuvers like the Bertlemann slide, named after surfing pioneer Larry Bertlemann, into the streets. Their early forays into riding vertical pool walls also called for more rugged, protective attire than “beachy” board shorts.
The 1975 National Skateboarding Championships in Del Mar are also remembered as the point in skateboarding history when the counter-cultural edge proliferated by Alva and the Z-Boys collided head-on with the old, gymnastics-driven style of skateboarding. In the newly revitalized skateboarding scene, the new “Dogtown” style effected a radical paradigm shift.
THE FIRST PIECE OF SKATEBOARD FASHION
The key enabler to this new, gnarly style of skateboarding had been the urethane wheel, unlocking a new world of sharper turns and previously unrideable terrain. This style of riding had received a major boost in popularity during the 1976 drought in Southern California that left a world of empty pools open for exploration from Beverly Hills all the way to San Diego.
As one of the key pioneers on the forefront of skateboarding in empty swimming pools, Tony Alva realized that it was time for another innovative step in skateboard equipment: padded, skateboard-specific shoes built tough enough to withstand the wear and tear of pool skateboarding.
With a design for a new, more rugged shoe in mind, Alva called on Vans, his shoe sponsor from 1974 onwards, and sold Vans founder Paul Van Doren on an adaptation of the classic Vans Authentic deck shoe. Replete with a grippy, waffle-patterned rubber sole, collar padding and supportive heel cup, the Vans Era model, co-designed by Tony Alva, made history as the world’s first skateboard-specific shoe, featuring the classic “Off The Wall” slogan above the heel.
In the world of skateboarding, previously a mere shadow phenomenon of surfing, the arrival of the Vans Era marked the dawn of skateboard fashion as we know it.
ROCKING AND ROLLING
The Vans deal put rocket boots on Tony Alva’s popularity. Out of all the hard-charging Z-Boys, who all went separate ways after the Zephyr team disbanded in 1976, it was Alva who would ultimately take skateboarding into rock star territory. And while Alva already knew how to roll, he learned how to rock with best of them from jet-setting millionaire and surfer, Bunker Spreckels (RIP).
Coming from money, Spreckels stylized himself into a larger-than-life surfing super star, known as The Player, dressed in leather jackets and fur coats, surrounded by a never-ending maelstrom of parties and chicks and weed and coke and orgies. Alva lived with Spreckels in Los Angeles and Hawaii for a period, during which he crafted his own bad boy persona and wardrobe.
“Bunker Spreckels was a full-on multi-million dollar playboy jet-setter. He had a lot of rock ’n’ roll influence on our style when we were off the board,” said Tony Alva, while pointing out: “But on the board we mostly wore stuff that was associated with sporting lifestyle. Like what Torger [Johnson] used to wear, cause he was from the Palisades and Malibu… nice sporty tennis gear and shorts and jackets.”
Off the board, Alva would take to wearing leather jackets and night club outfits, and a famous Art Brewer photograph depicts T.A. next to Spreckels in an all-white suit with his lion’s mane hair tucked under a wide-brimmed sun hat. Swagger. At high-profile skateboarding events, Alva would show up in competition suits covered in decorative rhinestones, custom-made by celebrity tailor Nudie Cohn.
After Bunker Spreckels passed away at the age of 27 in 1977, Alva carried the rock ‘n’ roll torch in skateboarding, taking super stardom to new heights.
Bunker Spreckels was a full-on multi-million dollar playboy jet-setter. He had a lot of rock ’n’ roll influence on our style when we were off the board.
L.A. STREET STYLE
As Alva’s popularity soared, the Los Angeles native became an internationally recognized style icon, touring from London to Germany to Tokyo as skateboarding’s most recognized ambassador. Alva’s signature “hat” – a slim fedora with tapered brim – would become his calling card accessory, deeply engrained into the collective skateboarding psyche.
Asked about the inspiration for the fedora – previously known as an “old man’s hat” – Alva allowed that it originated, not from stylistic escapades into rock ‘n’ roll couture, but from his Hispanic roots and Los Angeles street culture.
“We were influenced by the street. That’s how we started to wear fedoras. And that’s also how we wore the kind of chinos, the khaki pants the Mexican kids were wearing. Street style in L.A. has always been Chicano-influenced, Mexican-influenced,” said Tony Alva.
“On the far West Side, Venice had a lot of Chicano influence because there were a lot of Mexican kids that grew up there. But if you went over to East L.A. – Boyle Heights or you went to Lincoln Heights – those kids were wearing the same thing, except the guys at the beach were skateboarders and surfers, while the skaters from the inner city were just skateboarders.”
Street style in L.A. has always been Chicano-influenced, Mexican-influenced.
THE NEXT BIG THING
The year 1977 proved a banner year for skateboarding – revenues from skateboard products topped $400 million according to The Chicago Tribune – and Tony Alva cemented his title as the world’s best skateboarder on the competitive circuit as part of the Logan Earth Ski team. Next to winning the Men’s Overall Professional World Championship title in 1977, Alva also set the Guinness Book of World Records for jumping 17 barrels (he cleared 19 barrels later that year).
Much like his idol Torger Johnson, Alva evolved into an all-terrain skateboarder – riding freestyle, slalom, banks, pools – and strived to be the best at everything, with the swagger to back it up, always surrounded by autograph-seeking admirers and a claque of fan boys.
Outside the competitive arena, where champions are crowned, Alva earned respect where it counted – in the backyard pools where legends are born. In the summer of 1977, all the stars of his stylistic legacy aligned – the fedora, the wild hair, the lofty style – when Alva landed what is credited as the world’s first frontside aerial in a pool, captured in a Glen E. Friedman photograph at L.A.’s Dog Bowl. Skateboarding’s high-flying rock star had taken the sport above the lip, off the wall – and aerials became the new currency of skateboarding’s progression.
That year, Alva was voted Skateboarder of the Year in Skateboarder Magazine’s Reader Poll. The only way was up, and the next logical thing to do, was start his own brand.
ALVA SKATES: THE 1ST PERSONALITY-DRIVEN SKATEBOARD BRAND
As the hottest skateboarder on the circuit and ringleader of a new style movement, Alva instantly garnered support for his own skateboard brand. He found a business partner in Pete Zhender, who saw in the 19-year-old a value stock headed for super stardom. And while previous skateboard brands followed the blueprint of sports equipment manufacturers – running product-based ads with athletic performance as the focus – Alva and partners decided to switch things up.
With image-driven advertisements and lifestyle messaging, Alva Skates championed a new way of marketing skateboarding. And by putting Tony Alva at the center, and literally making him the brand, the company set the blueprint for a new generation of rider-owned and operated skateboard labels.
(Technically, the first pro skateboarder-operated company was Hermosa Beach-based Logan Earth Ski, started in 1970 by skateboarding’s “Royal Family” Brian, Brad, Robin, and World Champion Bruce Logan. But Alva Skates was first to put an individual rider front and center.)
Soon enough, tens of thousands of orders for Alva-branded skateboards came in, and the Alva logo became a recognizable brand emblem on boards and T-shirts. “The lettering for the logo was created by designer Eric Monson, who designed album covers for punk rock bands. He did it in cursive like a high-end script logo, like Ferrari or Cadillac, and it was a great fit not only for the brand, but it also looked like a signature. My signature is actually pretty similar, but not the same,” said Tony Alva.
“Eric also did all the ads, which had all these Photoshop-looking graphics before computers. He cut them out with scissors and pasted stuff up with glue sticks.” Alva Skates advertisements remain the stuff of legend in skateboard marketing. Featuring photography by Raul Vega in clean, modern layouts on plain backgrounds, the ads stood out from competitors by virtue of never showing the act of skateboarding.
Instead of athletic performance, the attitude-centered campaigns showed Alva lounging with Patricia Morrison from rock band Sisters of Mercy, standing in front of a graveyard with Jesus hair accompanied by the company’s phone number as the only information, while Alva wheels were introduced with the slogan THIS IS NOT AN ADVERTISEMENT. Ground-breaking stuff.
SKATE COUTURE: ALVA CLOTHING
Designed by Alva’s partner Wayne Woods, Alva Clothing set out to blaze a new trail in skateboard fashion. With their garish neon tones of orange and bright green and baby blue, the futuristic-looking puffy nylon shorts and long-sleeve shirts took skateboarding into the realm of haute couture.
“It was part of the evolution of skate fashion where it was influenced by punk rock and art and New Wave,” said Tony Alva, “and that’s why the colors were pretty bright on that stuff. We only did that for a couple of years, but we did have some success with it.”
At the height of its popularity, Alva Clothing was available at upscale department stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, next to designer fashions of the time. In skateboard circles, the collections were mostly shunned for their outlandishness.
Ultimately, Alva Clothing’s mainstream success also proved its downfall. Allegedly, the brand had difficulties keeping up with the sheer volume of orders coming in from across the globe.
In hindsight, Tony Alva has mixed feelings about his clothing line. “If you want to know the truth, I thought it was a mistake. But you have to make mistakes in order to make progress and to see what works and what doesn’t. To take a skateboard company and a brand that represents hardcore attitude towards skateboarding and try and go into some big clothing company, I would never do that again.”
It was part of the evolution of skate fashion where it was influenced by punk rock and art and New Wave.
The financial fallout from Alva Clothing also marked the death of Alva Skateboards, a high price to pay for Alva at the time. Then again, his company had set a new benchmark for how high a personality-based brand could go in skateboarding.
After Alva Skates went out of business, T.A. focused on skateboarding and the emerging punk rock movement.
“All that fashion stuff to me seemed like a bit of a waste of time. Cause I figured I would rather be skating, I’d rather be surfing. I’d rather be doing like things I thought were more hardcore.”
Alva fondly remembers the changes effected by punk rock in skateboarding as a golden era. “I think the best time for me was the late ‘70s and into the early ‘80s. There was a transition that happened then. The surfer, street, low-rider style went to a full-on hardcore rock’n roll punk rock style. Music has always been a big influence when it comes to fashion. Because it goes hand-in-hand with attitude,” said Tony Alva.
But as fate would have it, the rise of punk rock in skateboarding also coincided with the downfall of skateboarding’s second wave of mass popularity. Skate parks, the focus of 1970s skateboarding, shut down by the hundreds and skateboard participation contracted to grass roots levels.
All that fashion stuff to me seemed like a bit of a waste of time. Cause I figured I would rather be skating, I’d rather be surfing.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Although Tony Alva brought back Alva Skates in 1982 with young prodigy Christian Hosoi as their next-generation team rider, the punk rock years marked a dark time for skateboarding’s first rock star. With punk rock came parties and booze and drugs, and over the years, Alva watched some of his closest friends and peers in skateboarding and music lose the battle against their inner demons.
In 2007, T.A. came out on top, found spirituality and became clean. That year, he founded the band G.F.P.(General Fucking Principle) with seasoned punk rock musicians Tom Paul Davis from DFL, Greg Hetson from Circle Jerks and Bad Religion, and Amery Smith from Suicidal Tendencies.
“I’m one of the few guys in the skateboarding and punk rock world that is, first of all, still here. And second of all, still alive. And third, I’m sober. That in itself is miraculous and it’s from having a higher power in your life and a connection with God. God’s got your back,” said Tony Alva.
The credit goes to God, because God gave me the grace to walk through a lot of gnarly things in my life and still be here.
At age 61, Alva enjoys skateboarding and surfing, and working on the perfect hybrid surfboard shape with his company, Alva Surfcraft. In the fashion department, the style icon nowadays likes to “keep it clean, not too soiled. The dreadlocks and the beard don’t necessarily enhance your fashion credibility when you’re wearing dirty clothes.”
“My closet is a mixture of action sports meets rock’n roll, nice khakis, flannels. I’m a jacket junkie so I have too many jackets, about 20 jackets.” Asked about his his favorite brands and designers, Alva listed “vintage pieces from the ‘70s and ‘80s, like Paul Smith or jackets by Yves Saint Laurent, old vintage Lacoste jackets, Marni sunglasses.”
One of the skateboarders forever engraved into skateboarding’s Mount Rushmore, Tony Alva continues to travel the globe as one of skateboarding and punk rock’s international ambassadors.
“The credit goes to God, because God gave me the grace to walk through a lot of gnarly things in my life and still be here. Now I can help others by telling my story. Whether it be surfing, skateboarding, music, fashion, art – you name it. I have a connection to all those things because of the fact that I have lived long enough to enjoy it.”
Skateboarding is Not a Fashion
For the full story on Tony Alva and the rest of the Z-Boys, read the first official book on skateboarding apparel, Skateboarding is not a Fashion, published by Gingko Press and available here on Amazon.