Searching for clues to skateboarding’s history in France can be as difficult as it is in America. What’s known, though, is that in the early 60s Joel De Rosnay was among the first to bring one of those funny things called “sidewalk surfs” from a surf trip to California. Since then, skateboarding has evolved through the same cycles of popularity as in fellow European countries.

Just like throughout the U.S., the 70s brought the concrete skatepark with various designs copied from parks in California. Unfortunately, entrepreneurs and skatepark builders took their inspiration from bad skateparks. Very few from this era remain intact. The oldest one–Erromardie–is in the Basque Country. Built in 1974, it still offers its mellow slopes to longboard addicts while both La Villette and Beton Hurlant in Paris were destroyed only a couple years after being built. A couple others near Bordeaux still lay unscathed, but look so obsolete in design for the younger generation that it’s a wonder they haven’t been destroyed. Aside from these dinosaurs, wooden structures, city-built or private, helped bridge the gap between then and now, just like in the U.S.

Skateboarding remained a tight operation from the early 80s until the early 90s. People like Nicolas Malinowski and the Bourges crew organized many events (summer camps and contests, including the legendary Cavernous Contest in 1984), and built one of the first giant indoor wooden bowls for a contest. At this period of time, Titus Dittmann in Münster, Germany was working hard to make his contest the worldwide rendezvous we now know. Other French notables included Pierre Andre Senizergues, Jean Marc Vaissette, Jose De Matos (French freestyle champion several times over and one the godfathers of skateboarding in France), Mannix, Bruno Rouland, and Christophe Betille, amongst many others who helped keep the faith alive in the early years.

Nowadays one can properly estimate up to 45,000 hardcore or frequent skateboarders in France, and up to 150,000 if you count the occasional ones. France is a major importer of American skateboard products, generating about eight-million dollars in annual retail sales.

Just like in any major country in the world, the growing number of skateboarders has changed the relationship with the police and the local authorities. While skateboarding in downtown Paris, Lyon, or Marseille (some of France’s biggest cities) can be a bust in some places, it’s usually accepted if you find the right spots. Some monuments and government buildings are off limits, but most other spots aren’t a problem. For instance, Paris’ La Fontaine des Innocents, between Chatelet-Les Halles and the Beaubourg Museum, is a really crowded square every single day, but you can find skateboarders using the marble benches anytime. Maybe the happy-go-lucky attitude of the French or the fact that people don’t consider skateboarding a delinquent activity (merely a child game, at the worst) are to credit for this, but we have never seen skateboards taken away or skateboarders put in jail for skateboarding. Skate harassment isn’t that big of a deal if you use your common sense. It’s funny to witness that in smaller towns, skateboarding is sometimes more accepted.

Serious skateboarding hardly ever appears on TV (except for a couple cable shows). But a survey published by L?équipe (France’s leading sports magazine) showed that more than fifteen percent of teenagers wanted to see more skateboarding on television, and that Tony Hawk is the fifth most well-known sports personality. Quite amazing in the country that won the soccer World Cup four years ago. Soccer is by far the most popular sport in France, but just like in England, being a skateboarder is way cooler than being a soccer player.

Distribution

Five main distributors share the French cake. V7 Distribution owned by former freestyle pro Jean Marc Vaissette has been in business since ’89. Well-known amongst the shops, V7 is consired the main distributor in the country. The reason why is pretty simple–being a skateboarder himself, Vaissette knew from the beginning what was happening, and headed straight for the best brands when others were wondering what would sell. V7 carries the main brands from U.S. distributors Dwindle, Giant, Sole Technology, Tum Yeto, Blitz, DNA, Skate One, Black Box, and many others. Vaissette says it’s impossible to carry everything, but his reputation among American companies is such that he remains France’s powerhouse distributor.

Michel Hoff of Hoff S.A. started his business with Powell Skateboards during the pre-Powell Peralta days in the early 80s. He now distributes Circa shoes and Expedition skateboards, various brands of trucks, and other accessories.

Newly formed LAPA Distribution, operated by Patrice “Grumb” Reboul, is the French extension of American distributor Podium–owner of DVS, Matix, and Clae.

TDG the French branch for German Titus Dittmann’s organization, is operated by Yann Fessier and distributes Deluxe brands along with DuFFS, Adio, Hawk, Airwalk, Genetic, and Santa Cruz.

Templar handles Osiris and Xtreme Video, and is owned and operated by Franck Bywalski and Valerie Martin, who make sure that top videos produced abroad find their way into French VCRs or DVD players.

When skateboarding picked up again in the late 80s, Hoff was the reigning king, being the lucky distributor for Powell Peralta products, with Templar chasing it with distribution rights to NHS and H-Street. “We had such a great time distributing Powell Peralta,” says Michel Hoff of the 80s. “It was close to a million-dollar distributorship per year at that time.”

Soon after that, the young and ambitious Vaissette took on new and emerging brands that would eclipse the 80s powerhouses and establish V7 as France’s main distributorship in the early 90s. Earlier in France’s skateboarding history, distribution was a problem and depended on bigger shops like Eric Gros’ Hawaii Surf (formerly known as Skateboarder’s House) and Philippe Cressent’s trendy and respected Chattanooga, both in Paris.

Lambda Distribution was born a year and a half-ago with the growth of the shoe and clothing market. “There were a couple companies from the U.S. that needed a good distribution network as well as somebody devoting their mind and soul to their cause,” says owner Laurent Polis. “So I founded Lambda with a friend.” With Lakai, I Path, Freshjive, November, and Matix in the catalog, Lambda scores some serious points as far as good brands go. “The problem, though, is that we understand the need for a skateboard-oriented distribution to evolve around skateboarding as a whole, and not solely around shoes and clothes. I’d be happier offering hardgoods to my customers.”

Retail

As recently as four years ago, skateboard retailers were mainly surf shops or clothing shops selling jeans in a very “American” ambiance. “Since ’98 we have seen more and more skateboarder-owned shops popping up,” explains V7′s Vaissette, “Hence, there’s a changing of the guard in many cities throughout France. Big surf shops and big clothing shops are not where it’s happening anymore. With the help of the big skateboard-clothing and skate-shoe boom, skate shops are making their mark in the (apparel) business.”

Apart from being the guardians of the temple, small skateboarder-operated shops surely benefited from the growing skateboard-shoe market. “Sixty to 70 percent of our business relies on shoes and clothes,” says Vaissette, “while hardgoods remain stagnant.”

Hoff Distribution is in a similar position. “The biggest part of my skateboarding business lays around Circa Shoes that I want to promote and push even more than this other brand shoes I distributed until recently,” says Michel Hoff. “I multiplied the numbers by five, and I’ll do the same with Circa.” But he’s not stopping there: “I’m closing a deal with Cartel Skateboards, a French deck company that needs a better distribution network. The boards are cheaper than the ones coming from America, and they have a good team of riders that deserve to make some hard cash on royalties.”

Beside that, Hoff is putting his own brand on the market. “With all the taxes, intermediaries and various ad costs, it’s a wonder French kids can afford to buy decks,” he says. “That’s why Prohibition Skateboards will fill the gap in between the American brands (the most expensive), French brands (a few Euros lower), and the cheap Asian decks. Mini Logo boards, but á la French.”

There are about 200 skate shops in France. Add to that an almost equal number of surf shops, sporting-goods shop, and clothing boutiques with a skateboarding goods corner and you have plenty of shops selling skateboards. Some of the most popular, though, are the ones opened “by skateboarders for skateboarders”–often started in a garage until the necessary funds have been gathered.

Are We Euro Now?

Now the main question is, “Will the new Euro currency and the definite step towards a unique European union help the skateboarding market?” Or to put it bluntly, “Are we going to see more Euro brands and Euro distributorships as opposed to the old-fashioned national distributor in a near future?”

According to Yann Fessier, French Director of TDG, it’s very likely to happen. “We’re opening a French bureau here in Anglet (near Biarritz) and another one in England because we feel that it’s up to us Europeans to take charge of business in Europe,” he says. “Seeing American companies opening offices here is not a bad thing, but why would they do it if we can do it for them?

“With the right bank connections, meaning a bank that has antennae all over Europe, and a good delivery company, sending goods from Germany to France or Germany to England isn’t that big of a deal anymore. Actually,” continues Fessier, “the hardest part in setting a Euro company up is dealing with the different rules and laws in each country. We found out, for instance, that starting TDG in France was harder than starting it in England. Surely, enough CEOs and people in general are more prepared now to act and behave as Europeans than the technocrats.”

But not everyone agrees with Fessier’s pan-European vision. “There’s so much more to distribution than buying huge amounts and selling them,” says V7′s Vaissette. “What makes Europe a rich part of the world is the diversity and complexity of its people. As hard as I try, I won’t know the German market better than a German distributor. And the same goes with England, Spain, and so on. I see the strength of Europe in what it is now. I already work on very good terms with fellow distributors all over Europe. We try to help each other in every way, and that’s a good start. Plus, I don’t think it’s any good to have one single distributor for Europe for an American brand. What’s if he screws up?”

So far, few French distributors have actually signed exclusive deals with U.S. companies. It usually stops at a good handshake, and business is on. But what happens when an American company opens operations in France? Lapa Distribution, operated by Patrice Reboul, opened for business earlier this year to take over distribution of DVS, Matix, and Clae in France. “The montage is really easy to understand: it’s a 100-percent extension of the American company,” says Reboul. “Everything from the color of the walls to the way we handle business is decided by (Podium Distribution CEO) Kevin Dunlap. Lapa takes orders from France and Belgium, then everything is shipped from Holland and France.”

Lapa is a small company of eight staffers and seventeen reps. “This kind of set up is the future, since we can cut out the distributor margin–since there’s no distributor anymore,” says Reboul.

Manufacturing

Skate shops often rely on custom-order shop decks for hardgoods margins. It’s one of the main differences between today’s market and the past. Nowadays a shop can order, vitter distribution network. The boards are cheaper than the ones coming from America, and they have a good team of riders that deserve to make some hard cash on royalties.”

Beside that, Hoff is putting his own brand on the market. “With all the taxes, intermediaries and various ad costs, it’s a wonder French kids can afford to buy decks,” he says. “That’s why Prohibition Skateboards will fill the gap in between the American brands (the most expensive), French brands (a few Euros lower), and the cheap Asian decks. Mini Logo boards, but á la French.”

There are about 200 skate shops in France. Add to that an almost equal number of surf shops, sporting-goods shop, and clothing boutiques with a skateboarding goods corner and you have plenty of shops selling skateboards. Some of the most popular, though, are the ones opened “by skateboarders for skateboarders”–often started in a garage until the necessary funds have been gathered.

Are We Euro Now?

Now the main question is, “Will the new Euro currency and the definite step towards a unique European union help the skateboarding market?” Or to put it bluntly, “Are we going to see more Euro brands and Euro distributorships as opposed to the old-fashioned national distributor in a near future?”

According to Yann Fessier, French Director of TDG, it’s very likely to happen. “We’re opening a French bureau here in Anglet (near Biarritz) and another one in England because we feel that it’s up to us Europeans to take charge of business in Europe,” he says. “Seeing American companies opening offices here is not a bad thing, but why would they do it if we can do it for them?

“With the right bank connections, meaning a bank that has antennae all over Europe, and a good delivery company, sending goods from Germany to France or Germany to England isn’t that big of a deal anymore. Actually,” continues Fessier, “the hardest part in setting a Euro company up is dealing with the different rules and laws in each country. We found out, for instance, that starting TDG in France was harder than starting it in England. Surely, enough CEOs and people in general are more prepared now to act and behave as Europeans than the technocrats.”

But not everyone agrees with Fessier’s pan-European vision. “There’s so much more to distribution than buying huge amounts and selling them,” says V7′s Vaissette. “What makes Europe a rich part of the world is the diversity and complexity of its people. As hard as I try, I won’t know the German market better than a German distributor. And the same goes with England, Spain, and so on. I see the strength of Europe in what it is now. I already work on very good terms with fellow distributors all over Europe. We try to help each other in every way, and that’s a good start. Plus, I don’t think it’s any good to have one single distributor for Europe for an American brand. What’s if he screws up?”

So far, few French distributors have actually signed exclusive deals with U.S. companies. It usually stops at a good handshake, and business is on. But what happens when an American company opens operations in France? Lapa Distribution, operated by Patrice Reboul, opened for business earlier this year to take over distribution of DVS, Matix, and Clae in France. “The montage is really easy to understand: it’s a 100-percent extension of the American company,” says Reboul. “Everything from the color of the walls to the way we handle business is decided by (Podium Distribution CEO) Kevin Dunlap. Lapa takes orders from France and Belgium, then everything is shipped from Holland and France.”

Lapa is a small company of eight staffers and seventeen reps. “This kind of set up is the future, since we can cut out the distributor margin–since there’s no distributor anymore,” says Reboul.

Manufacturing

Skate shops often rely on custom-order shop decks for hardgoods margins. It’s one of the main differences between today’s market and the past. Nowadays a shop can order, via a couple distributors in Europe, a good stock of boards (the more they order, the better the price). These are what we call “nude boards”–blanks that don’t have any logos’and the shops then have somebody screen their logos on. “It’s good for the shops, and I could have gone into this kind of business,” explains Vaissette. “But on the other hand, it goes against the whole idea behind professional skateboarding, and I can’t really support that.” Being a former professional skateboarder, Vaissette knows that pros drive skateboarding, progress it, and earn it recognition in the eyes of the public. “But on the other side, I understand that it’s good for shop to develop their margin while offering kids boards at a reasonable price.”

Aside from boards, a shop can “produce” complete lines of wheels and T-shirts, too. A prime example of shops venturing into that field is Street Machine, which has also developed an unique position in the world as it’s one of the very few shops that started in Europe (Denmark), opening a second store in France, then a third in the U.S. (San Diego). Many other French shops have expanded into a range of shop-label products, include Bordeaux’s Transfert, ET Alternative in Toulouse, and many more.

Domestic Labels

It’s important to point out that a deck goes for up to 85 dollars retail (about 90 Euros), while a complete setup can cost up to 200 dollars. A Razor scooter costs less than a 90 bucks. On the shoe side, prices range from a 100 to 145 dollars. That’s one of the main reasons why you’ll see lots of kids nursing beat-up boards. With such a situation, why not start a French company? This is a question Jérémie Daclin of Cliché, François Roland of Cartel, and Stephane Theng from Lordz asked and answered.

Surprisingly enough, while the 70s saw a few manufacturers like Barland, Lacadur or Banzai actually building things in France or having production units in Asia, it isn’t the case anymore. Today’s brands like Cliché, Cartel, or Lordz order boards and wheels from U.S. manufacturers to their own specifications, and screen print their designs and logos. While Daclin has set Cliché apart by taking an artsy and soulful approach to business, Roland’s Cartel has managed to offer a pricepoint board to the French masses while developing a good team as well. In the meantime, Theng’s Lordz Wheels has launched its own brand of boards, Square, as a “logo only” company.

“Making the logos and the graphics, and ordering the boards–all these first steps took me a couple months, but I really started selling boards in ’98,” explains Daclin, who launched Cliché in the fall of ’97 and developed the company into a popular maker of decks, wheels, accessories, and apparel in Europe. “I started as a mom-and-pop business without any government help because it would have taken too long. I didn’t pay myself for a year, so as a professional skateboarder I relied on my other sponsors to make a living. I started with 300 boards and a couple boxes of T-shirts, just to get it going. Six people work for Cliché: One stock guy, one in sales, one graphic designer, one team manager, Al Boglio?who used to be pro for Prime Skateboards back in the early 90s and who use to run a company in Australia, and myself.”

Cliché has done a really good job of infusing a bit of Euro feeling into a very American activity. “Cliché is a Euro company before everything else,” says Daclin. “I started the company by sponsoring riders from all over Europe. That’s how I built up my distribution network. It was missing in the market at the time, and I was fed up seeing good riders being turned down by American companies that have more important things to do than take care of Euro riders.”

With an outstanding video (by international standards) distributed by Giant Skateboard Distribution, Daclin is considering the opportunity to distribute Cliché goods in the U.S. “All we need, really, is somebody willing to start from the bottom,” he says. “We co