This story is taken from Issue 18 of Highsnobiety magazine. You can buy the new issue here.
London-based Lucien Clarke has balanced a pro skateboarding career with high fashion modeling, something unthinkable only a decade ago. Following his most recent appearance on Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton runway, we caught up with the Palace team member to explore his history, style, and the impact of today’s creative culture on skateboarding.
Professional skateboarder Lucien Clarke is emblematic of a wider paradigm shift. On the skate side, the Kingston, Jamaica-born 31-year-old rides for London tearaways Palace Skateboards. But his endeavors in fashion are what mark him out as symbolic of a greater cultural change. Art, music, film, and fashion are becoming younger, more diverse, less traditional. This changing environment encourages cross-pollination, with guys like Clarke coming to embody how freely these worlds now commingle.
This shift positions creators with a background in skateboarding to become involved in mediums previously deemed inaccessible. For Clarke, that has meant more than just having a signature skateboard or sneaker. He’s worked with esteemed photographers David Sims, Alasdair McLellan, and Juergen Teller, and modeled in Gucci and Ralph Lauren. He’s walked Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton runway twice. And all while pursuing his own work in photography and video direction.
“I’d like to think skateboarding and fashion is one entity. I’ve never seen it as separate worlds. It depends how deep you go into it.”
“I think a lot of contributing young fashion designers and street culture trends are known to hugely inspire the luxury fashion empires. For example, the black and Islamic community,” says Clarke. “I’d like to think skateboarding and fashion is one entity. I’ve never seen it as separate worlds. It depends how deep you go into it.”
While skateboarding had several peaks throughout the ’80s and ’90s, there’s a common refrain that it’s difficult for a pro to receive a reliable salary or aggregate earnings equal to their influence. Another narrowing factor is pruning the sponsorships you accept based not only on their dollar value, but how they might skew your public standing. In the ’90s, the idea of creatives like Spike Jonze, Harmony Korine, Mark Gonzales, and Ed Templeton having the profile and influence they do now would have seemed unimaginable, even if Jason Lee did rise to minor Hollywood prominence for a spell. Like peers such as Bianca Chandon and Call Me 917 founder Alex Olson, Palace teammate Blondey McCoy, and pro skater/actor/rapper Na-Kel Smith, Clarke’s presence as a respected skateboarder in fashion and art contrasts an era in which the desire to explore other mediums — fashion in particular — was not only corny, but could end a career.
Clarke’s generation has entered a different era, where supplementing your income is no longer about amassing corporate sponsorships or being featured in a video game. Nor is it just about branding yourself a creative and exploring visual art. Clarke’s trajectory has no lane and is more connected to where his curiosity and impulses take him.
There is no difference in approach whether he’s walking the runway or skating a ledge in an Abloh-designed Louis Vuitton vest. Similarly, whether shooting fashion editorials for style magazines or wearing Palace’s streetwear, everything is seamless, regardless of tone or mood. Like Clarke’s skateboarding, there’s a definite objective and focus, but it never feels restrained or planned. He remains casual and lighthearted, and even when assuming a stoic pose while modeling, there’s an honesty in his eyes that cuts through any pretension. Failing that, he’s quick to throw out a self-aware quip — a hallmark of the Palace clique.
“I think it’s important people are reflecting the times and standing on the right side of history, whatever job they’re in.”
Clarke’s path into skateboarding was as organic as his forays into other modes of expression. Having lived in Kingston, New York City, and London before the age of 12, he learned to digest information and new dynamics innately.
“That age was a golden time for me,” he says. “I had experienced living in three completely different environments with diverse styles and cultures. The three cities have had a massive impact on this Earth in their own right — a tug of war in every aspect, with skateboarding, music, fashion, arts… it’s incomparable. They all shaped me to be the man I am today.”
Clarke found himself in London at the perfect moment to discover skateboarding. The city’s skateboarding scene developed through the ’90s and was thriving as the century closed. Unlike the backyard pools, ramps, and schoolyards synonymous with the early days of skateboarding in Southern California, modern street skating found its identity in urban plazas, partly due to their construction, but primarily due to their locations. From Justin Herman Plaza (commonly known as Embarcadero) in San Francisco to LOVE Park in Philadelphia, exposure in magazines and skate videos framed each as a skateboarding epicenter, a proving ground that bred progression and regional identity. London’s major skateboarding hub is a covered area along the Thames beneath the brutalism of the Southbank Centre.
“When I first started skating, none of my mates were into that shit at all,” Clarke explains. “I’d just go the Albert Memorial [in Kensington Gardens] with my stepdad every single day in my sandals until someone was like, ‘You need some actual supportive skate shoes, brudda.’ After a little while, people told me there were much better spots to skate closer to mine, like Vicky benches and Southbank. That’s where I really started meeting all the close dear friends I know today.”
Both Embarcadero and LOVE Park have been given unsightly facelifts and rendered mostly unskateable (although the former was featured in Supreme’s 2018 film BLESSED), but Southbank has remained a staple spot thanks to a grassroots preservation foundation and hefty donations from Supreme and Palace. Key to these plazas throughout the ’90s and early ’00s wasn’t just that they provided a focal point for their local scene, but how they unintentionally influenced skateboarding style.
A colder climate than Southern California meant it wasn’t uncommon to see San Francisco skateboarders in hoodies or windbreakers, ushering in the ’90s baggy look that was in part influenced by local rave culture. Philadelphia contributed everything from the no-bullshit blue-collar look to rasta-influenced styles, puffy shoes, and track pants. And in ’90s New York, despite its plazas lacking as many usable obstacles — the Astor Place Cube was essentially a traffic island lined with metal-edged curbs and a few cuts to launch off — the city’s skateboarders weren’t afraid to shun skate labels, opting for Hilfiger, Nautica, and Polo Sport, mirroring the hip-hop look penetrating downtown Manhattan.
But don’t get it twisted. No matter what you wore, skating these spots came down to your attitude and skill — clothes alone wouldn’t get you a pass.
“Nick Jensen, Channon King, Greg Finch, and this kid called Fighty were the lot that really showed me love from the very beginning, showing me around, hooking me up with product — I’d have to learn and land tricks to get anything though,” Clarke says of his green days in London’s skate spots. “London was very cliquey back then. Same tricks being landed at the same spot would get you shot,” he jokes, before backpedaling a little. “Definitely a fistfight.”
Clarke’s fluidity and quiet determination secured not only product from his peers, but eventually sponsorship from a local skate shop and British brands Science and Unabomber. His next leap was to Element, which not only gave him a paycheck, but also the chance to travel to Sweden, Portugal, Greece, and other destinations around Europe. Finally, fellow London skateboarder Lev Tanju approached him to ride for a new company he had just founded called Palace. It was a brand built to represent their skate crew, the Palace Wayward Boys Choir (PWBC), which Clarke and several other London riders belonged to, although at the time it had only a few T-shirts to its name.
To those in the know, Palace’s launch in 2009 recalled the weight and impact of Supreme, but the brand lacked a presence in the United States until New York-based distributor Theories of Atlantis started bringing its product across the Atlantic alongside fellow European labels Polar and Magenta. This initial exposure was significant. Unlike other European brands before them, including Flip, Cliché, and Blueprint, being curated together presented a larger swath of “exotic” skateboard gear, leaving a bigger impression.
Through its off-kilter marketing, including irreverent YouTube videos, surreal product descriptions, and intermittent yet potent skate edits, Palace crafted a distinct and unmistakably British voice, one that spoke louder with every new product and collaboration. Clarke established himself as a prominent face of the brand, not only through his skateboarding and modeling of new drops, but notably by taking the final part of the brand’s first video, 2017’s Palasonic, in which he skates through London for seven minutes — more than double the length of the average part. Palace and its riders offered a relatable mix of high and low culture that resonated, particularly on the US East Coast. Clarke knew immediately that Palace’s impact was pivotal.
“Skateboarding has always been seen as a bit neeky to the outside world until Palace showed up — no thanks to Avril Lavigne,” he says. “I used to get the piss taken out of me for being a black skateboarder, but little did they know, being a black skater is the coolest shit ever.”
Despite its ubiquitous presence in pop culture, skateboarding has rarely been in a position to drive trends beyond its boundaries — or at least capitalize on them. Because skateboarding’s larger industry has been so formed and consumed by one state, California, it has been slow to evolve and expand in line with creative culture as a whole. Clarke, however, doesn’t see skateboarding as the preserve of one state.
“California has always loved the Brits: Tom Penny, Geoff Rowley, Carl Shipman, Mark Baines, Curtis McCann, Benny Fairfax,” says Clarke. “They were the best in the world in my eyes, so I never thought California owned skateboarding. The industry did.”
Part of the industry’s lag is down to its unwillingness to be defined as a sport or anything other than a pure idea that cannot be commodified. For decades, native skateboarding fashion was taken predominantly from Southern California surf culture. Utilitarian offerings, including Vans, Dickies, Ben Davis, or anything from a military surplus store, were the go-tos that shaped the aesthetic. In the ’80s, Vision Street Wear became one of the first brands to somewhat urbanize skate fashion, although it still relied on pattern-heavy designs, bright colors, and other ’80s tropes. Despite the brand’s follies, including all-over-print berets, Vision Street Wear did crack the mainstream, offering proof that skateboard style was viable as fashion.
Clarke’s style is indicative of the diversifying strides made in the modern era as much as it represents the dominance of London street culture, particularly the English football casuals look associated with the Palace family. Prior to Clarke and the PWBC, few Americans were sporting running pants with garish rings and patterned outerwear, even in New York City. While the rise of football-influenced gear has grown, it’s the juxtaposition that’s so powerful; think Clarke’s patchwork of high fashion, core skatewear, and athletic gear loaded with ’90s fashion signifiers such as neon anoraks and mirrored sports sunglasses.
Many of the heritage hardgood companies that dominated the skate landscape for decades apparently lacked the desire to deviate or modernize, so leaner, more tuned-in brands like Palace, Fucking Awesome, Dime, Bronze 56k, and Alltimers have been better able to resonate with those who actually ride skateboards while simultaneously selling capsules at Dover Street Market. Part of that is down to their proximity to present day street culture, but more important are the threads shared by each brand’s creative minds.
“It’s all very intertwined in a very subliminal way... There is so much going on around us. You gotta just step back and be still and watch.”
There’s a chance that if you grew up in car-dominated Southern California, even Los Angeles, you weren’t exposed to the same stimuli, personalities, and breadth of creativity you’ll find in the more walkable cities of London, New York City, or even Montreal. This isn’t to create any hierarchy of aesthetics, but rather about the unlikely influences that differentiate local cultures. Part of that is a city life that flattens the boundaries between paintings in a gallery and a tag on a wall, classic film noir and ’80s B-movies. Living in a densely populated, diverse, and creative city, all manner of influences seep beneath the skin. Brands like Palace and skateboarders such as Clarke are agnostic of genre or discipline — see the Ralph Lauren collab. Everything is worth exploring.
“It’s all very different but the same, if that makes any sense — which it doesn’t,” Clarke says of his interest in everything from modeling and photography to skateboarding. “It’s all very intertwined in a very subliminal way. I have a different eye for things. I got that from skateboarding and years of being in the street and seeing things most people don’t [when they] are on their regular route to work. There is so much going on around us. You gotta just step back and be still and watch.”
When asked what role humor plays in his perspective, Clarke replies, “You can take things seriously and have fun doing it. I live by that.” This is congruent with Palace. The brand exudes the humor and wit of the riders who represent it, exemplified by founder Tanju’s sardonic approach to what a skateboarding company can be. Palace can at once collaborate with an institution as august as the Tate Britain on a line of decks inspired by John Martin artworks, while at the same time taking inspiration from watching the Food Network when writing product descriptions.
Palace’s success has enabled its riders to not only find new lanes in fashion and artistic expression, but monetize them — something much of the skateboard industry hasn’t been able to understand, let alone do. Instead, skateboarding has traditionally provided the source materials for fashion houses and larger brands to co-opt without context. If you look at the impression left on fashion by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, all starting from a London storefront in the mid ’70s and blown up when punk hit in 1977, it’s shocking to think it’s taken skateboarding this long to have its own influence on art, fashion, and pop culture. As Clarke explains, the difference today is that the definition of art is much wider.
“I think people still connect with the arts and its many forms, [but] it’s just evolved globally like everything else, from its traditional still-life paintings into more broad and different ideas towards expression and aestheticism,” he says. “This including fashion and politics. In my opinion, the artist Ai Weiwei’s recreated photograph of a dead Syrian refugee was as much about expression and political statement as Virgil Abloh’s first Louis Vuitton runway, which included the most black, Asian, and ethnic models to have ever walked for a high fashion brand. I think it’s important people are reflecting the times and standing on the right side of history, whatever job they’re in.”
His response speaks to the sentiment that fashion has more cachet than ever and its presentation alone has become political. Abloh’s inclusion of skateboarders Clarke and Blondey McCoy on the runway alongside musicians Kid Cudi, Playboi Carti, Dev Hynes, and other modern creatives is not only an act of disruption, but a milestone in fashion’s evolution.
As for the future, Clarke has more skateboarding and more Palace videos to come. Included in this issue of Highsnobiety is a Clarke-shot original photography zine, which he describes as “a mirrored image of me, my travels, and thoughts from the past two months.” Like everything he does, it’s laid-back, distinct, and inspired by his constantly changing surroundings and the tight-knit group of characters he keeps around him. And although he’s reluctant to share too many details, he assures us there’s “a lot more coming — not just zines.”
When pressed further on this, asked if there’s anything he’s yet to accomplish, Clarke teases slyly, “Me and Virgil got summin’ cooking.”
Highsnobiety magazine Issue 18 is available now from our online store and at select premium stockists and boutiques worldwide.