This is probably one of the most difficult things I've ever been asked to write. I don't think I've wanted to be able to express something as clear and concise as this message since writing my senior year thesis paper at Temple University. In retrospect, that's exactly where my understanding of the late Keith Hufnagel's impact and influence beyond the world of skateboarding—into a fashion realm via sneakers and streetwear—was established.
Hufnagel passed away on Sept. 24 after fighting brain cancer for two and a half years. He was 46. He was a skater-turned-entrepreneur, he had his own stores, his own brand, and his own collaborative sneakers with Nike.
In the early 2000s, any Nike SBs I wanted I had dibs on at Nocturnal Skate shop in Philadelphia. Pre social media, when you got to feel the real-life impression sneakers made to others. I had a nice little rotation from working in sneaker shops. But when I pulled out this tie-dye hi-top Dunk with cracked leather, it wasn't long before I'd catch other students breaking their neck peeping those particular shoes. Sneaker culture wasn't a regular thing at that point. Clearly Huf was already seeing the potential in it.
Here’s what you need to understand about this significance of all this. I was a professional skater. I saw Keith Hufnagel as the powerful East Coast professional skateboarder who'd established himself via video projects like Eastern Exposure and Real skateboard's Non-Fiction. So this new entity as "Huf," which was a retail extension built off of his name, was interesting. I used to think, "How does this gentleman, that skates for DVS, also have his own Nike Dunk SB and Air Max 1?" I couldn't see how anyone paying the bills would let that fly.
What I realized was only someone as internationally known and respected as Keith could obtain clearance for something like that from both his sponsor, where he had signature skate shoes inspired by Air Forces, Vandals, and Air Maxes, while simultaneously joining forces with the Swoosh, making shoes in their skateboard and lifestyle departments.
At the time, I worked at a really nice progressive boutique in Philadelphia called Ubiq. There were early indications to me that creatives and buyers behind the store had their eyes on what "Huf" was doing. My close friend John Igei was an employee at one of the Huf stores and occasionally would send me their shop tees. I used to bug the shit out of him then. Clearly the Illmatic flip was my favorite.
The floor sales team at Ubiq in 2004 or 2005 didn't really know release dates or shit like that back then. Boxes would come in and we'd put them on the shelf. This was around the time period that Huf’s grey Air Max 1 showed up, and later the brown and gold Air Max 90. At that point, it felt like all systems were on go in terms of Huf’s footwear upward mobility. These were coveted footwear acquisitions for sneakerheads that I could tell didn't know dick about Keith's career on a board. As a skater, I knew this was a rare level of success that only Keith Hufnagel could achieve. This was by his foresight into something most skaters at the time couldn't or wouldn't embrace.
Then came the Hufquakes, a series of shoes I remember reselling myself for a lot of money. The most interesting part was seeing this design exercise where Huf got to apply the DNA of this particular makeup to a variety of different silhouettes: Air Maxes, Dunks, Air Forces.
I've always loved Vans Chukka boots. That was another one I had to put the bird call in to acquire, the black python collaborative Vans. It was clear then that access and opportunity at big brands were of no shortage under Huf’s collaborative footwear umbrella.
As rad as all of this lifestyle sneaker success was, Keith Hufnagel's ability to always circle back and remain true to his friends, skateboarders, and the skateboarding business were always the most impressive to me in regards to his impact on sneakers. Mighty Healthy double pack collaborations with his childhood friend Ray Mate. UXA x Huf DVS collaborative skate shoes. And when it was time to do Huf footwear official, from the product to the team was kept to such a tight, core framework, it was mind-blowing.
He could have went yard ball and did the whole sneakerhead thing, but he didn't. When it came to his own shoes and ideas to bring to his shoe sponsor, you could see he did what he was personally psyched on, regardless of how far ahead of the curve or outside the box of traditional skate sneakers it was.
But when it came to the Huf skateboard sneaker program, you could see the focus was on what the vast majority of skateboarders wanted. What would benefit the team of rippers he choose. What they would want to skate in. That was crystal clear. It wasn't about him. It was about the talented individuals that would be out in the streets skating on behalf of the future of his brand. All of this is exactly why it's so heartbreaking to lose someone this special.
If you own a pair of Mr. Hufnagel's signature sneakers, or one of his collaborative shop shoes, understand that you own something from someone with unprecedented connectivity to so many different cultures. Fashion heads couldn't do what he so authentically did, with such style and grace. Most skaters couldn't have crossed over like he did, either. Huf is and always will be the blueprint.
The last time I spoke with Keith was over text in late June. I had sent him the Brooklyn Banks hat I had recently done. He'd defined the many possibilities of skating that spot, so I felt an obligation to get him one.
Thank you Complex for allowing me to share this. From the very bottom of my soul, my heart and prayers go out to the entire family of Keith Hufnagel, HUF Worldwide, and the skateboarding community as a whole.