Vans Syndicate launched its latest collaboration last week, a project with the Berlin skateshop Civilist. The founders and owners of the store, Alex Flach and Andreas Hesse have lived in Berlin their whole lives, and have been a part of a city that has never stopped changing — they lived through the post WWII West Berlin occupation by the Allies, the tearing down of the wall, and now are store owners in one of the greatest cities in the world. Hesse took the time to speak with us about the history of skateboarding in Berlin, the design of their new sneaker, and what it's like to be a Berliner. Read it below.
“My business partner in Civilist, Alex [Flach], and I, we were both born and raised in West Berlin, which, as the Americans called it, was 'An Island of Democracy.' As propaganda-y as that term was, we did have more liberty. We could go to the U.S., we could fly out to England, to wherever we wanted to go, which if you lived in East Berlin, you weren’t able to do. So as people who lived in West Berlin, we had a strange political status, because we were a small population that technically lived in East Germany, but who could travel and see the western world. West Berlin was a walled in city, and because of it we developed an identity as Berliners. We didn’t feel like Germans. We were Berliners.
“New Yorkers always say, ‘Oh, I’m from New York.’ They never say, ‘I’m from the United States.’ That’s basically how we felt. It was and still is special living here, and to be a Berliner. The biggest advantage as West Berliners, for sure, was we didn’t have to participate in the military services to the German army. In West Berlin, when the wall was up, there were occupations by the U.S., the French, and the British armies so no German army was able to be there. So West Berlin residents didn’t have to take part in the mandatory military service that other Germans were required to do.
“When Alex and I opened the store the name we chose referred to that special political situation—West Berliners were called ‘Civilist,’ the German word for civilian. And that’s where the name of our shop comes from, from the idea of us not being involved in the military.
“We grew up in the US-occupied part of West Berlin, and the soldiers called themselves the Berlin Brigade. At the time, wherever the U.S. was stationed, they had this patch with the sword, and the city that they were stationed in was written above, so in our case, the patch read Berlin.
“Los Angeles has the Dodgers logo, and in New York, the Yankees’ ‘NY’ is kind of the way that people say, ‘I love this city or I come from this city.’ And we in Berlin didn’t have anything like this. So after ’94, when the last units of the U.S. armies left Berlin. many people went and bought these patches from the U.S. soldiers and then they would resell them to guys at flea markets. And then skateboarders and bike messengers started to put these on their clothes and their backpacks to identify themselves as Berliners. Over the last 15 years, the symbol got broader and recently it’s started to die out, so we wanted to reintroduce the Berlin Brigade patch and show people where it came from again, which we did with the event for the Civilist Syndicate launch. For the launch of the shoe we did a takeover in the store with a lot of memorabilia from this time, including a lot of the original patches, images of occupied Berlin, and skateboarding during that time. We also did a series of videos to go with it. And that’s where the patch comes from on the bag that comes with these shoes, the Berlin Brigade patch.
“While the [Berlin] Wall was still up, we had access to western products, including skateboards, which was something East Berliners didn’t have access to. But there were like two or three guys who had permission to move between the eastern part and the western part, and there was a guy who lived in East Berlin who was the son of one of the ambassadors from Norway, so he could come over to West Berlin. He would come over to our skate shop and pick up all of our used skateboards and bring them back to the eastern part of the city during that time.
“Twenty years ago, when the wall came down, overnight the city became twice as big. Skateboarding-wise, we moved over to the east part of the city from the western part and we met all those eastern skateboarders who had been getting our boards. And they’d show us everything. It was awesome.
“I started Lowdown Magazine back in the day so I knew a bit about sneaker collaborations, and I had heard that working with companies was a difficult process. Collaborators often complain about saying goodbye to all of their ideas, which I was kind of prepared to do. But working with the Vans Syndicate guys was incredibly cool. They were so supportive of everything we came up with. In designing the sneaker collaboration with Vans, we went back and forth with [Syndicate designer] Rian Pozebon on the phone and email, discussing every detail about it and he has done so many great sneakers for Syndicate that it was great to work with him.
“The basic outline of the collaboration is a tribute to Berliners and the Berlin identity, but the shoe is just as much a tribute to the Syndicate line. We’re huge fans of the Syndicate sneakers and the people that they have collaborated with, and when we launched the store, we launched with a variety of Syndicate backstock that we sourced from all over Europe. So one of the ideas with the Civilist shoe was to work archivally—we took a piece from this one shoe, another part over here that was a good idea, a great leather, etc., and we wanted to put it all into a classic silhouette.
“We didn’t go with the Era, which is one of our favorite shoes, because we wanted more of a surprise. We were drawn to the Chukka, and we thought it fit with the military idea, as the Chukka boot was basically an army shoe from the British in the ’20s or so. The Chukka Low, which this is, definitely doesn’t look like a Chukka boot anymore, but it’s still referring to it. So we started with the Chukka Low, but we wanted to make it fit for Berlin.
“The city of Berlin has four months of awesome weather, and 8 months where it is terribly cold and rainy. For the rainy months we made the tongue gusseted so water didn’t get in there. For the nicer, warmer months, we took the Dry-Lex material from the Gabe Morford Syndicate shoe, which is an absorbant material that you can wear barefoot in the warm months. And then there are a bunch of other subtle nods on the shoe—the eyelets are copper to match the copper fixtures in our store, things like that. The whole idea was to keep things subtle and discreet. No bright names, no bright colors, the shoe is special because of the fabrics. One specific detail is that the Civilist tag on the tongue of the shoe is in felt. The world for felt in German is another word for corruption, so use of that tag is a play on words. The West Berlin government was very corrupt back in the day.
“The Syndicate collaboration was a great project because working with these guys is really no bullshit. And it’s not just about the shoe, it’s more about the full story, and the moment—the store buildout, the patches, working with Syndicate…all of these things together tell the story, and gave us the opportunity to talk about skateboarding in Berlin and what it is like living in this city that is always changing.
“I think in most projects people make the shoe the one focus and view the shoe as the shoe, but with Syndicate the focus is actually on the broader story, telling about the great time of skateboarding that was the ’90s. When Syndicate does a project, the shoe is the most obvious visual piece, but the line is always backed by stories that look back at skateboarding in the ’90s. There are these very rich stories that provide the starting point for the projects, but the shoes come out on their own, and each has its own identity.
“Civilist will have the product exclusively for now, but we’ve talked to Supreme L.A., Slam City (London), and Star Cow (Paris) about taking a small run of the shoes. This will line up with the history of the shoe, the Berlin Brigade divisions from France, England, and the U.S., and we’re close with each of those shops, so it makes sense. This has been such an honor to do the shoe and to work with Vans and with Syndicate.“