The power of collaborating with Nike SB for a shoe—especially a Dunk—has become a superpower for independent skate shops across the world. The cultural currency of having a shoe with Nike becomes a calling card that validates a shop and gets the eyes of the skate community and sneaker culture on it.
Twenty years into owning and operating KCDC Skate Shop in Brooklyn, NY, founder Amy Ellington landed that coveted collab, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of SB. More than its colorway, the collaboration—offered in unisex sizing—represents Ellington’s longstanding desire to offer skate shoes designed specifically for women and non-traditional skateboarders. Regardless of how many years it took to get the collaboration, the reasons why KCDC has established itself as a pillar of New York’s skate scene are what drives Ellington to not only grow skateboarding but do it by creating connectivity between people in an inclusive space driven by the youth shaping it.
As the longest-operating female-owned shop in the United States, Ellington’s journey has been anything but easy or ordinary. With a background in modeling, acting, club promotion, music, and community activism as well as skateboarding, Ellington has used her network and business acumen to survive a financial crisis, and the threat of big businesses in Williamsburg that forced several relocations and eventual downsizing of the shop. She’s proved that what you lack in physical space you can overcome exponentially with vision and the ability to put the right pieces together. More than a shop, KCDC has become a place that’s very much akin to the DIY collectives that thrive in punk rock, albeit with a retail component. They host LGBTQ-led events, address difficult issues within skateboarding, support voter registration, along with video premieres and meet-ups that celebrate skateboarding’s core.
That party continues with the release of the KCDC x Nike SB Dunk High on April 29.
What first got you interested in skateboarding?
My brother was super into The Ramones. He started taking me to see them when I was really young—10 or 11 years old. There was a college radio station out of Stony Brook College that played punk music at night. That got me interested in more bands and then I started going to our local record stores and I met some other skater kids that were into the same music. It was really fun because we were building this community without cell phones or the internet. If we wanted to go to CBGB or The Ritz or Irving Plaza, we’d get together and figure it out. Nine times out of 10 we’d go to Washington Square Park before the show.
One time we were skating in the park and a modeling agent scouted me—I think I was like 15 or 16. That's how I started modeling but my career went super quick because I didn't have a lot of family support. Making money was great and I was able to graduate high school a year early, so I moved to Paris. At that time the modeling industry wasn’t that… we’ll say “great” and a lot of not-so-great things happened to me. I had a horrible experience with a photographer in Paris and as I was leaving I see a bunch of skateboarders in front of the Eiffel Tower. After that incident, I honestly didn't know where to go, so I went there. Some skateboarders took me in and I moved back to New York. I consider skateboarding to have saved my life, that's for sure.
In 2002, Williamsburg was obviously different from most of New York but it wasn’t just that there wasn’t a Whole Foods or an Apple store, the waterfront was barren. No one younger wanted to live there, it was always the Lower East Side. Choosing that location for the shop was a bold choice.
My friend Todd Ashley had Fast Ashleys which was this photo studio that rented muscle cars for photoshoots. He introduced me to his landlord and that’s how we got the first location of KCDC on North 10th Street. We needed a space big enough to have a shop, build a mini ramp, and do art shows and parties. In retrospect, the store part was kind of an afterthought. We had to pay rent, so I had to get business savvy quickly. I put myself through college a few years later—to learn how to do the books or whatever. It took me seven years but I did it. It was a tough time, we started with very little investment, and basically had a handshake deal with our landlord. As things started to progress in Williamsburg, there was more need for space and big businesses were coming in.
We chose Brooklyn because it was cheap then and we could get a lot of space. And then me being me, I started doing bigger and bigger events which drew more police attention. I knew Andy Kessler prior to starting the shop. When we opened he was pivotal for me in learning how to get shit done—talking to the parks department, going to community board meetings. I was very hot-headed and passionate. He taught me how to hold my tongue and be more professional. I learned how to sit in a police station and get yelled at for 15 minutes about how “all the graffiti and all the problems in the neighborhood were because of skateboarders,” in order to get a permit for an event. Andy showed me how to think bigger picture.
Why did you move from the original location on North 10th?
Our landlord offered us an even bigger space on North 11th and that was where we were for the majority of the recession—that’s when shit got real. We did the first-ever Nike SB party for the P-Rod shoe and that’s when I met Sandy Bodecker. I hate the statement, “I chose to ramp it up,” [laughs] but we really did. We were doing bigger events with bigger sponsors outside of skateboarding. The recession sucked but it forced me to be more resourceful. I saw it all as an opportunity but my business partner saw it in the opposite way. He got really beaten down. It was just time to buy him out. I made him an offer and 30 days later we got an eviction notice. Pretty much overnight I had to figure out how to get 11 years' worth of shit out of a 5,000-square-foot space.
And that space is where they put in the Vice mega office, right?
Yeah, that was crazy but I got it all out. It was a great time to call on people who cared about the shop. We donated the mini ramp and we just continued on. We were a business that brought other businesses to Williamsburg but the bottom line was that the rents were going up and people were looking at Williamsburg as the new SoHo. Having a 5,000-square-foot space that didn’t bring in 5,000-square-feet of money meant I had to reconfigure everything. I was so stressed out about the idea of moving to a smaller space. I wanted to bring everything from the old location but we couldn’t and someone told me, “Don’t worry about the space—you’re KCDC. Find a space you can afford and continue to do what you do.”
In the early-2000s, skate events were mostly male-dominated. You go to a video premiere, there’s a bunch of cheap beer and people recreating what they saw on Jackass or whatever but your events were much more diverse and inclusive. What you’re doing with KCDC now feels like an extension of that, just more mature in a way.
I was still modeling when we started the shop, so I’d bring a bunch of models to the events or other people from club life I met along the way. We offered an atmosphere that was fun and I hate to overuse the word “inclusive,” but it really was. Everybody was welcome and felt welcome. Also, the way I curated the early art shows, every single thing we’ve done involved women. I just saw people working hard and I wanted to involve them. I never looked around at what other people were doing in skateboarding because there wasn’t much competition. It was more like, “Fuck it! What can [we] do that would be fun?”
That was having a mechanical bull in the middle of the floor of a party. I was in Karen Black and the photographer for Karen Black worked with the Coney Island Sideshow, so we brought them in. I mean, the Tattooed Man was Santa at one of our Christmas parties. I was friends with go-go and burlesque dancers, so I had them come to the events. Guys were dancing with girls, girls were dancing with girls, and guys were dancing with guys. It was great to see these girls having fun and being creative, so it made sense to bring them together with these skateboarders that I also saw as really fun and creative.
What’s your advice to younger skaters and the new generation of people brands are tapping into now?
Skateboarding to me has always been the leader no matter what. I hope skateboarders are getting [rewarded] for that now. A couple of years ago it was really tough because kids from our skate team would come to the shop and say, “I was at the skate park and this girl came up and offered me 50 bucks to be in this commercial.” I’d be like, “What? Give me that girl’s number.” I’d call them because I knew they were trying to get over and let them know it wasn’t going to happen. I was able to protect a lot of kids but now the rates are different—everything is different. I feel like as long as it’s reciprocal it’s OK. The kids now are so educated and aware. I don’t feel like they’re being exploited, if anything they get to be in their power. When I was modeling that felt unattainable.
At this point in my career, I’m mentoring girls who want to start brands and meet-ups and all they need is to talk to me for 15 minutes. They have it all set, it’s just fear. I just tell them to go and do it. What I went through being a girl in the industry, I went through a lot but I didn’t care. Now, they seem to care more.
That brings me to your collaboration with Nike SB. Can you tell me about the KCDC Dunk?
Every time a shoe was shown to me in a sales meeting I’d ask what size they went down to. It would always be a men’s eight. I’d ask, “Wait a second, most girls can’t wear an eight, so you’re excluding girls without saying you’re excluding girls.”
It’s very surreal at this point in the game because I have been pushing for this for so long and now it’s finally happening. I’ve always been the one pushing. My employees actually are in those communities that want change. It makes me happy that I stayed with skateboarding—it’s amazing to see the industry pivot in the way it has.
We made the shoe pink because of the negative connotations associated with pink. When I was first in the industry and asking for smaller sizes and products to support female skateboarders, it was like, “We'll just make it pink. Girls love pastels!” It was so infuriating. I thought it would be funny to do a pink shoe. I like when guys wear pink. It’s tough. That’s what’s cool about KCDC, we’re soft but hard at the same time.
I designed it to have really high-quality materials so it can live in the fashion world too. The footbed has art from one of my employees, Jacob Campbell. I wanted to include the KCDC family in the design of the shoe. I met Natalie Thomas through her organization Late Skate which was really ahead of its time, as far as meet-ups went. We became friends and she works with me as my assistant and has a fashion background. She helped design the shoe as well.
We’re female-fronted, so the colorway says a lot about who we are and what we’ve been through. We wanted to take the color back and put a spin on it. The shoe is skateable, it’s super comfortable, and most importantly, we made it unisex so everyone can wear it.