Powell-Peralta: An Oral History

George Powell and Stacy Peralta examine five decades in skateboarding, the Bones Brigade, and the future of their legendary brand.

Back in the late 70s—before skateboarding had a relevant place in pop culture, prior to labels like Supreme and Palace elevating skatewear, and it becoming the five billion dollar industry that marketers and large corporations are hungry to have a piece of today—Stanford-educated engineer George Powell partnered up with professional skater Stacy Peralta to form skateboard label Powell-Peralta, purely out of a shared love for the sport.

Powell oversaw skateboard design and manufacturing, while Peralta took care of marketing and advertising. Charged with creating and managing a Powell-Peralta-sponsored skateboard team, Peralta recruited a group of then-amateur, now-legendary skaters which included Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, Steve Caballero, and Tommy Guerrero. The team would be named the Bones Brigade.

Despite a series of ups and downs, Powell-Peralta would go on to pioneer several aspects of the skate industry that are now commonplace—limited edition one-off releases, collectible skateboard graphics, and skate videos to marvel at the skill behind the sport. At its peak, Powell-Peralta made $30 million a year. But as skateboarding reached new heights at the dawn of the 90s, the two co-founders went their separate ways over a series of disagreements on how to move the company forward. Powell would rename the company Powell Corporation, and Peralta would become the filmmaker behind Dogtown and Z-Boys, the award-winning documentary about his skate team, the Zephyrs, which led him to write the feature film Lords of Dogtown. They put their differences aside in 2006, and became partners in Skate One Corp., a distributor and manufacturer of a number of skate brands.

How did one brand help pave the way for the entire world of skateboarding? Powell and Peralta reflect on five decades in skateboarding, their trials and tribulations, and the future of the industry.

George Powell—[Skateboarding in the 60s] was fun, but peaceful and personal. My wife Christie and I would ride the Hobie skateboards we bought around my college campus in 1965, at twilight and on evenings when there were no students on the smooth covered sidewalks of the inner quadrangle. We’d go as fast and make as many turns as we could without sliding on the clay wheels that came with the boards. It was an experience done in secret, as only an occasional student going home late saw us cruising around the quad—no one else we knew on campus skated at that time.

Stacy Peralta—[During the 70s], modern skateboarding was being born. It was an era of daily change in regards to boards, wheels, and terrain. Everything was new and was being figured out, designed, redesigned, and retried—some ideas were great but others were terrible. It was a teenage revolution, and to be 20 years of age and one of the first kids on Earth to be a paid professional skateboarder was beyond a dream come true.

George—My son came home after skating one night and told me the wheels he’d been riding (the same ones my wife and I had ridden) were not as good as his friends’. I scoffed at first but dutifully went to the hobby shop, where I saw Cadillac Wheels [the first polyurethane wheels] for sale. I knew what polyurethane was, having designed a product using it earlier in my career. A light bulb went off in my head. I knew they’d grip well and solve the slides and falls we were having because of the slipperiness of the clay wheels. I bought a set and skating them immediately confirmed my suspicion that polyurethane would change skateboarding forever.

Powell and Peralta met skateboarding in a high-school parking lot in Pacific Palisades, California in the late 70s.

Stacy— I’d never seen George before, but when I first saw him, somehow I already knew him. It was cosmic. We became good friends instantly. George was the real thing when it came to product design and engineering. He wanted to be in skateboarding for the long haul, not for a quick buck. His dream was to build a stable company that made the best products year after year.

George—I started the company as a product designer and amateur skater because I loved skateboarding. I thought I could build better boards than were being made at the time. I realized I needed a well-known professional skater who was respected to help me promote the products. Stacy was the most famous skater of the time, and I had actually met him a couple of times skating with my son in our neighborhood. When he decided to leave Gordon & Smith’s [his sponsors at the time] team in order to enter the business side of skating, we met a few times to discuss his goals and mine. Even though we were a decade apart in age, we seemed to have a strong affinity for each other, the kind where you don’t know what it is exactly, but you seem intertwined in some way and share a common vision.

Powell cut down on his personal expenses to start the company, deciding to sell his house in Pacific Palisades to finance Powell-Peralta.

George—It looked crazy to my friends and parents, but I knew I was at the beginning of a new industry that would be needed to support a greatly improved sport. And to be able to get in on the ground floor was an opportunity worth betting your house on.

Stacy—I was a part of the legendary Zephyr Competition Team, arguably the greatest neighborhood skateboard team the world might never see again. But the team disbanded early on. It was a bone-crushing experience. I was out to recreate it and make it last.

Building a team of established skaters had been done by so many other skate companies, and I always felt that going that direction was boring, predictable and very unimaginative as there was nothing new, exciting, or risky about it. Building a team of completely unknown skaters was a serious risk, but it was a risk worth taking because if those chosen few turned out to be great, their impact as a team could be limitless. I got lucky in that I picked some of the greatest skaters who have ever been on Earth.

We talked on the phone because most of the members lived in other cities—they called frequently when they invented a new trick or skated a new sport or were testing new equipment. When Alan Gelfand invented the vertical ollie, I immediately booked him a flight to LA and set up photo sessions to get his trick in a magazine.

“Skateboarding is one of the very special things invented by young people that has proven to change youth culture, society, and the world.”

George—I had named the white, high-rebound wheels I developed to let skaters roll faster and farther, “Bones.” At that point, Stacy told me Ray “Bones” Rodriguez, one of the first skaters on the team, was ready for a pro model deck and had an idea for a graphic. Stacy produced a matchbook cover with Ray’s unintelligible scribble inside it. He told me Ray had sketched the idea: a skull with a sword in front of it. While the sketch provided no help, the description was all we needed for Court Johnson to begin to craft an incredible graphic out of his head that we were ultimately all in awe of. We never intended to set any precedents, just to make a great graphic design.

Stacy—There was a moment in the early 80s when we put all of our boards and all of our competitor’s boards up on a wall at the company; we noticed they were alike in that they had graphics placed directly in the middle of the board. At that moment we realized to use the board as an entire canvas, not just the center.

I got Craig [Stecyk] to conceive, shoot, and lay out the advertisements for my previous sponsors. I told George we had to hire him to take over our advertising. George was hesitant as Craig is such an unusual person, but he relented. It was a good move, as Craig knew the sport well; he’d been a skater and surfer, and had seen it develop from the 60s. He was an artist, photographer, and writer, with an unusual perspective—and he liked provoking controversy.

A decline of interest in skateboarding in the early 80s forced Powell-Peralta to make several cuts within the company.

George—The portrayal of skating in Skateboarder magazine during the late 70s became so extreme, focusing on backyard pool skating, that the average skater began to believe he was never going to be able to achieve success in skating unless he skated backyard pools. To do this he’d usually have to sneak into an empty one when its owners weren’t home. This was clearly not possible for most kids and discouraged many from continuing or beginning. Ironically, it was the magazine that promoted skateboarding that made it inaccessible for skaters to be cool skating, and so they quit.

Stacy—Skateboarding slowed down and almost went under in the early 80s. As a result we had quite a bit of time to reflect on all of the mistakes made in the 70s. One of the biggest was the idea that skateboarding should be an Olympic sport, and that it should be presented as a “safe sport.” In the early 80s, we jettisoned those ideas and started paying more attention to what skateboarding wanted to become: free and liberated, something performed on homemade backyard ramps, and done in the street on any available terrain—a staircase, handrail, curb, or banked wall. It didn’t want to be a caged sport with referees, coaches, and costumes, but something that could be “free-range.”

George—This is every entrepreneur’s worst nightmare: You have a product you’ve developed and customers love, but there aren’t enough customers to allow you to create it for them. You can’t make ends meet. All I could think was to hunker down and keep the very smallest skeleton crew going as best I could. Stacy, my wife, and I took even bigger cuts in pay—from small to subsistence—and we just barely made it from 1980 through to the first half of 1983.

Out of frustration at skate magazines for covering a select group of skaters, Peralta would go on to make the first skateboarding film The Bones Brigade Video Show. in 1983. The video, which starred the Bones Brigade members doing tricks, would become immensely popular and sell 30,000 copies, impacting the entire industry.

Stacy—I had no experience shooting, editing, directing or producing. As a young company with an amazing team, we felt we needed to make a video to show off their talents and the incredible moves they were inventing. We couldn’t afford to hire a production company, so I got the camera and editing gear and began the process of making it myself. I made tons of mistakes along the way but somehow ended up putting together something that worked and pleased a large number of skaters. The Bones Brigade videos offered something the magazines couldn’t, which was real-time viewing of skateboarding. Skaters all over the world—for the very first time— could watch how to do a specific maneuver in the comfort of their living room or bedroom. They could see the trick from start to finish; they could rewind, pause, replay. The impact was huge for the shared evolution of skateboarding and for the transmission of information.

Around 1983, the sport started to climb out of the decline.

George—After Skateboarder ceased publication, those few of us left began to promote skating on ramps and half-pipes skaters could build for themselves in their driveways or back yards. And in the fall of 1983, a new generation of skaters reemerged to rediscover skating as something they could create and own for themselves.

Stacy—It was a number of things: our videos had a huge impact; one of our distributors told us for every one of the videos we sold about 50 kids viewed them—the impact was worldwide. The backyard-ramp do-it-yourself revolution helped immensely as skaters started to make it happen themselves. Thrasher magazine and its kind of punk aesthetic helped in a huge way and then the street skating revolution brought performance skateboarding to every city in the world.

George—The dealers we still had started doubling and then tripling their orders that fall. A new generation of kids had gone back to school and reinvented skateboarding for themselves. We were thrilled to get the orders, but soon realized that it takes much more money than we had to fill them. We had grown 65 percent and business was great, but we had no credit or cash to buy the raw materials. My dad stepped in to save the day. He would loan me $100,000 at a time for working capital, we would make the products and sell them, then we’d pay him back and go a few months, and he’d loan it to us again. After that, we self-financed for a number of years as we grew beyond the break-even level and generated free capital.

The Bones Brigade developed a huge following, attracting large crowds at appearances, and starring in movies like The Search for Animal Chin, Encino Man, Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol, and Gleaming the Cube. Despite the newfound stardom, they manage to stay out of trouble and focused on skateboarding.

George—The Bones Brigade experienced the kind of adulation and a good degree of financial success that rock bands did, and survived to become good husbands and dads later in life. So you have to take your hat off to them, to their families, and to their mentor Stacy for helping to get them through this sea of temptation.

Stacy—We were one of the only companies—and certainly the most successful—in helping skaters build effective careers. We had a reputation for taking raw young talent and shaping them into the best skaters in the world with guidance, support, and opportunity.

I had been a professional skater. I had gone down that road of making a lot of money as a young kid, getting a taste of fame and adulation and having all of that temptation thrown at me. It’s a lot to take in and it can bend you out of shape in dramatic ways. If you’re lucky, you discover it’s all an illusion. The fame, adulation, and attention have no meaning and no relation to skateboarding itself. I tried to communicate this to the Bones Brigade through example, and I paid close attention to them, as I never wanted to see any of them get wrapped up in the nonsense. I wanted to make sure they were either saving or investing their money wisely and not burning through it.

Powell and Peralta would split ways in 1991 because they couldn’t agree about the company’s future.

Stacy—I could see the future of skateboard companies was not in a tried and true brand, but in multiple brands. I felt skateboarding was going to go the way of the music industry where labels have multiple brands like a punk, rock, jazz, or classical music division. I wanted to go that direction with our company, but George wasn’t comfortable with that approach as he felt it would cannibalize Powell-Peralta and require an investment to fund so many companies.

George—When Stacy left, Powell-Peralta suffered a deathblow. To survive, we separated the company up into a number of segment brands, allowing each to grow or fail by itself without being helped or harmed by its parent company. Our relationship became strained, leading up to Stacy’s decision to follow another career option.

Powell and Peralta put aside their differences in 2006, and decided to continue their friendship, as well as become business partners once again.

George—It was eating away at me that we’d parted unpleasantly, and being a bit older and hopefully wiser, I approached Stacy to try to repair the relationship. It is not easy to open old wounds and attempt to repair them when they are deep-seated with years of bitter memories that becloud the many wonderful memories. Over time, we made inroads in this direction and have worked together on a number of successful projects, including the celebration of the Bones Brigade in an autobiographical film and reintroducing the Bones Brigade decks from the 80s.

When Stacy and I teamed up once again, we agreed to reignite Powell-Peralta. Is Powell-Peralta relevant? The simple answer is yes, very much so. Powell-Peralta is one of the two oldest companies still popular in skating. It has an enormous following of skaters from six to 60.

Brands like McDonald’s, Band-Aid, and Sony have used skateboarding in ads in an attempt to attract younger consumers, while labels like Palace, Supreme, and Noah have added a luxury cachet to skatewear. Powell and Peralta reflect.

Stacy—I was at a gallery opening for artist/skater Steve Olson a year or two ago in Los Angeles. It was next door to Supreme—a store I had never seen or heard of before that day. I marveled at all of the people coming and going in and out of the store with these bags of incredibly fancy and expensive high-end high-priced skate merchandise—the sight was like having landed on another planet and getting a glimpse of skateboarding in some crazy future. I couldn’t believe a skateboard store could act or be like something you would find in Beverly Hills. I don’t know how I feel about it.

George—Not a month goes by that we don’t receive word that some investor group would like to buy our company. I often don’t even respond to say no thanks—I have seen the results of what happens to small creative companies when large public corporations or venture capitalists purchase an action sports company.

I am concerned by the influence very large organizations like the Olympics, Disney/ESPN, Nike, Monster, and Red Bull have, and probably will continue to have on skateboarding in their attempt to “celebrate and support it” by exploiting it. For large mainstream corporations, it is about promoting their brand by sponsoring skateboarding events. We do too, so it is hard for a little company like us not to look hypocritical when we call them out for not being genuinely interested in skateboarding.

Stacy—Skateboarding is happening in places like Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and all over Africa, regardless of cultural identity. Skaters in those countries are skating for the same freedom and rebellion that skateboarding imbues in each of us. I’m blown away by this and can’t believe that it’s all happened in one lifetime.

The Bones Brigade film was accepted into the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, which was a big huge honor. This gave us the opportunity as a team to be together again. We hadn’t been together in a few decades, but it was as if no time had passed. The experience of living together in the same house, making meals together, waking up together, staying up late talking and laughing is one of the greatest experiences of my life to date. We had a remarkable time at that festival. We laughed so much I got bellyaches. It made me realize the bonds of friendship we built back in the 80s are for life.

Powell and Peralta predict the future of skateboarding—and their company.

Stacy—Being in business with someone is as complex and as challenging as marriage. It’s very personal, exposing and trying. You make many crucial decisions together and apart, and under constant pressure with the knowledge your decisions are going to have long-term effects—either good or bad—for the company. It’s an experience that pulls and tests you, pushes all of your buttons, and one that demands the most from you. George and I went through that together, and while we were both growing up. Now we are friends who are also working in a business together. We laugh a lot and there is no shortage of conversation.

George—We are no longer just Powell-Peralta; we are now Skate One Corp., the manufacturer of Bones Bearings, Bones Wheels, Mini Logo, hoopla, Positiv, Golden Dragon skateboards, these wheels, Aera Trucks, RollerBones rollerskate wheels, and Powell-Peralta.

We both share a tremendous love for skateboarding, and believe that we can be helpful by nudging skateboarding in directions that will keep it from becoming static, uncreative, controlled by media money and those out to merely exploit it. Skateboarding is one of the very special things invented by young people that has proven to change youth culture, society, and indeed, the world. It is largely still uncontrolled at its core, and at the street level where it is real, and is making a positive difference in the lives of young men and women in dozens of countries around the world.

I have learned from my 40 years in skateboarding, that just when you think you can project the trajectory of the next few years, skaters grab a hold of it and change it, usually for the better. The new generation of skaters is taking back the direction of the sport from a group of aging pro skaters that have guided the sport for the past 25 years. It is being reinvented and diversifying in a healthy way now. As long as skaters skate for fun, and not for profit, they will get the most out of skateboarding, and will, of course, eventually find Animal Chin.

Stacy—Kids want to skate for the identity it provides, for the sense of belonging, for the freedom and rebellion, and the fact that it’s a sport that is out of parents’ hands; it’s not little league, it’s not sanctioned by schools or churches—it’s owned and defined by each and every kid who does it; and every kid who picks up a skateboard and decides to skate helps redefine what skateboarding is.

George—Years from now, our footnote in the history files will note we were one of the founding fathers of skateboarding, made innovative trend-setting products, pioneered the use of video on how to do and share advanced tricks, sponsored the best skaters of the era, created amazing culturally significant graphic designs, overcame all competition and setbacks, and never sold out.