The Past, Present, and Future of HUF With Chief Creative Officer Hanni El Khatib

In celebration of HUF's 20th anniversary, Hanni El Khatib discusses the early days of the brand, some of its biggest collabs, its future, more.

HUF 20th Anniversary
Retail Store

Image via HUF

HUF 20th Anniversary

Some brands are formed in spreadsheets, while others evolve out of necessity. Founded in 2002 in San Francisco, California, HUF Worldwide began as a brick-and-mortar shop founded by pro skateboarder Keith Hufnagel, who passed away in 2020, and a lean crew that possessed a knack for curation. Two decades later HUF emerges as a global brand that has not only collaborated with household names like Nike, adidas, Budweiser, Stüssy, and Thrasher, it’s maintained its status as a platform for friends and family, bringing attention to artists Remio, Haroshi, Haze, and Hufnagel’s childhood friend Gino Iannucci’s brand Poets. 

Since its inception, HUF’s taken a run-and-gun approach, figuring out manufacturing in their early days by barging local clothing factories, leveraging relationships, and keeping it a family operation. As current Chief Creative Officer Hanni El Khatib was around for the brand’s ascent, mentioning that simply making technical items such as denim or varsity jackets were milestones, as well as gaining the recognition of global brands they aspired to. 

“We quickly became an upper-echelon boutique and in the early 2000s, a place where you copped rare shit,” says El Khatib. “Brands saw that and the next thing you know you’re flown to adidas headquarters in Nuremberg to work on and design shoes along with other shop and brand owners. That was surreal—just a bunch of friends and like minds in another country learning how to make cool shit.”

While many know the brand for its iconic Plantlife Socks, HUF’s presence goes beyond streetwear—rooted in skateboarding and community for 20 years, using their brick-and-mortar shops as social spaces rather than solely retail. For the brand, its 20-year anniversary is a testament to Hufnagel’s perseverance, longstanding friendships, and legacy.

In a still nascent streetwear scene, the original HUF shop became a conduit for burgeoning brands in the emerging space such as Neighborhood, Original Fake, and even Supreme, along with limited runs of HUF products. Without social media or the omnipresence of high-speed internet in the US, connectivity was still real-time. Transitioning from a shop to a brand brought challenges Hufnagel solved through his relationships and a desire to make things, sometimes only on impulse. Everyone has ideas. Hufnagel had the network and drive to realize them, and the innocent ingenuity to figure out how. “Fuck It” wasn’t just a quippy slogan. It was a mindset.

Born in New York and traveling the world since he was a teen, Hufnagel was always seen as a connector—someone who brought a unique eye and energy everywhere he went. Along with the Japanese fashion he was seeing in the late ’90s, Hufnagel had an eye for talent and knew who to bring into the mix. El Khatib originally met Hufnagel through skating and later assumed a role with the brand working on their early graphics and in his words, “acting as a sounding board and filter for Hufnagel’s ideas.” Most importantly, El Khatib, like many of the original HUF crew, met Hufnagel organically, skating the Thrasher park in San Francisco and forming a friendship. Even during his hiatus from working with the brand, the two often texted images, inspiration, and snaps—Hufnagel’s dry wit and terse barbs were a trademark.

As the original storefront in San Francisco transitioned into a brand, El Khatib and Benny Gold were influential in shaping the brand’s visual identity. With 20 years coming to a close, El Khatib took us through his journey with HUF, the brand’s 20-year anniversary, and its future, below.

How’d you originally get involved with HUF?

I met Keith around the time he was opening the first store. Some of my friends worked at the shop at the time. I was hanging around and got introduced to Keith. I was designing for The Gap at the time and he found out I had a design background and asked me to work on some graphics for HUF. At the time he had a big web of artists working with him including Benny Gold. Keith would just ask his friends to help out. He was really interested in what everyone was working on and what they were doing creatively. When he decided that he really wanted to build out the apparel and start a line I pretty much took that on. I was like, “Dude, I’m down. I’ll quit my job. As long as you’re OK with me freelancing for other people so I can make extra money, I’m super down.” I was really burned out on corporate design and wanted to work on something I really loved and felt passionate about. Skateboarding was always that thing for me and having an opportunity to work in that field made me super down. Technically, I was the creative director for six or seven years then we all moved to LA and he got some investors to start the footwear program around 2010. I had some opportunities in music, got signed to a label, and was able to tour, but I felt like I couldn’t do both. 

What led to you coming back and becoming Chief Creative Officer?

Keith and I would talk regularly. He’d send me things he was working on to get my opinion. He could always put something in front of me to get my take. Around 2017, I started consulting for HUF on a project-by-project basis. I don’t want to get too deep into his personal life but for context, around 2020 he fell really ill again and we were talking quite a bit. He asked me if I would ever come back to work at the brand full time. Here I am, in the middle of a pandemic, one of my best friends is super sick and he put that out there. I felt like it was a no-brainer to come back. I have such a connection and history with the brand. Some of the things I created when I first worked there are still around. I helped create the brand’s visual language, the logos, even the Plantlife socks. I had been jonesing to design again and started talking to the old homies who worked there and I made the decision to come back. 

A lot of brands in the streetwear space want everything to feel like it’s coming from the brand rather than the people who make up the brand. It felt like Keith acted much more as a curator and everyone he brought into the brand was there for their creativity and contributions. Is that fair?

That’s just it. Coming from a retail background, Keith was a selector for the original shop. Straight up, he offered the best brands in the shop at the time. He had impeccable taste. Art, design, apparel, he knew what he liked and had a strong voice. He was always the one connecting the dots with people and then allowing them the freedom to explore things under the umbrella of his company. It never felt like his way or no way. He gave me a long leash to go out and just make shit and he was down for it. Also, I knew and worked with him for almost 20 years so I could anticipate where he’s at. I knew his taste and shared it in many ways. Before I showed him anything, I knew if he would think it was cool or not. We just had a rapport like that. Even when I wasn’t working with HUF, he’d send me pictures of things he saw when traveling or just images of things he was hyped on to get my opinion. It was very fluid. When I came back to the brand, I took a deep look into what we were doing, why we were doing it, and why we aren’t doing things. I ran it all through the filter of the conversations Keith and I had. That really informs what I’m doing now.

How did you approach celebrating HUF’s 20-year milestone?

At this stage in the brand, there are people who come from streetwear or skateboarding—mostly older heads—who know the brand’s lineage, but there’s also a new crop of people who have no idea where it came from. For me, this 20-year marker was a time to celebrate our history and almost re-educate people about HUF. You may know us for this thing, but do you know we’ve made tons of shoes with Nike? That we had four collaborations with Vans? That the original store in San Francisco carried so many brands in their early days before they blew up? That we carried Supreme back in the day? That’s where we come from. Sure, you might see us at the mall or know us for weed socks, but there’s a huge chunk of history that will be forgotten if we don’t tell our story. We’re proud of the company and we’re proud of the people behind the company. We’re still around, still relevant, and doing cool things that make us part of the conversation.

From the early days of the brand, HUF’s always been really ambitious with product and collabs. There was always an emphasis on quality that wasn’t common in the space. How did you go about developing and sourcing some of those pieces back in the day?

Those early days were a blur of experimentation. Someone would have an idea, maybe it was denim for example, and we’d go, “OK, none of us know how to do that but we can figure it out.” That’s still how we approach things. The most memorable things back then aren’t one project per se, but how we went about figuring shit out. I’m looking at this varsity jacket we made back in 2004 right now. It was made by a factory in San Francisco. How did we find it? We opened up a Japanese magazine. None of us could translate the text, but we saw a piece that looked like it was a feature on factories that make varsity jackets. Then, Keith’s looking through and goes, “Holy shit, this one factory is in San Francisco.” Next thing you know, we pull up to the fucking place old school style. No call, no appointment. Just, “Hey, we want to make some jackets,” and they were like, “Alright, sweet.” And that’s how we made our first jacket and that jacket is still holding up today—amazing quality. When we wanted to make sweatshirts with an all-over print, we had to figure that out. You have to find one you like, source the fabrics, make phone calls, and the next thing you know you’re taking a trip to Canada to a factory and building a relationship. We were going straight to the source. If I had shortcuts or some type of road map, I wouldn’t be the same designer I am today. You learn a lot that way.

HUF x Nike SB Dunk Low 'New York City' FD8775 100 (Heel)

What was your experience working with Nike SB in the early days of the brand?

In the early 2000s, collabing with Nike gave your shop some teeth. The first Nike shoe I got to work on was the HUF Blazer. It was a simple shoe, but we wanted to push the boundaries of what we could do. SBs at the time were typically super puffy and padded so we removed that and added a really thin vulcanized sole. We dialed back the branding and even removed the Swoosh. There was a lot of back-and-forth on that. Even adding that heel bumper, which was inspired by the classic Chuck Taylor, was challenging. But ultimately, I argued that with Nike acquiring Converse, they had the license to do it. I feel like brands like HUF were almost the experimental guinea pig of what collaborations have turned into today. We were lucky to be there.

Something that separates HUF from other brands in the space is that the collaborations you choose aren’t just about leveling up. It feels that it’s just as important to showcase friends and young talent as it is to work with partners who are completely outside of skateboarding or streetwear. Can you talk about that a bit?

When I started working for the brand again, I wanted to bring back that energy we had in the beginning, the true essence of what collaboration means. Let’s take working with Marvel, for example. If we’re going to go down that path we need to look at why we’re doing it. The artists and people here are fans of the comics. They have a true love for the art and the characters. We have to think about that because if we don’t, that’s just faking it. You can see through that. Back in the day, we’d be tossing around ideas and it would be like, “We should do this. Do you think that company would work with us?” or “I’ve always wanted to make this. Let’s try to make it happen.”

If the conversation starts that way, you know it’s coming from the right place. Take the Poets collab, for example. Gino [Iannucci] was a close and personal friend of Keith and had a deep history with him. Working with his brand [Poets] made sense. It’s a part of the puzzle and history of the brand in a sense. Keith was a very loyal person and we want to carry that tradition on. That ties into the special projects for the 20-year anniversary. It’s about celebrating the people who grew with the brand. Haroshi is a great example. That relationship began because Keith was stoked on his art and we’re still working with him. That’s really special. Twenty years is a marker and a time to celebrate our history. We’re here to tell that story and let people know we’re more than weed socks. Our history is important, but at the same time, let’s not forget to move forward because nostalgia isn’t us. We’re not a brand run by some nebulous cloud from afar. It’s real people that have real connections to this company and still work here. So, as much as we’re happy to still be here, you have to pass the baton to the new generation and not be the old guy with their head in the clouds. Everyone here is about building new relationships and finding new ways to push it forward like we did ourselves back in the day. At the same time, sure, there’s a lot of history and nostalgia. But we’re just as focused on the future of the brand and what’s next.


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