“Well, I’ve always done it all for free. It’s just my way of giving back to the skate community.” More than an ounce of sarcasm flies out of Sal Barbier’s mouth with each sentence he utters-especially when it comes to the money he’s earned from having one of the most popular skate shoes of all time. But not when it comes to design: “I’m always very unhappy with everything in the world. So to make myself happy I have to design everything my way. I knew what I wanted and what I didn’t like, and I made exactly what I wanted.”
Those were Sal’s general thoughts about the making of his first pro shoe, which launched on Etnies in the fall of 1994. He had been on Etnies (the smallest of the skate-shoe companies at the time, behind the likes of Airwalk and Vans) since 1992 and skating the popular high-top Raps-preferably the red ones.
As skateboarding’s technical aspects were developing requiring more ankle movement, Sal and other Etnies teammates like Rodney Mullen and Eric Conner were unhappy with the height of the shoe, so they chopped the tops off-just as others were doing with Vans Cabs and Airwalk Enigmas. This led to one of the most popular skate shoes of all time, the Etnies Rap Lo, and then eventually to Sal’s 23, which was loosely based on the Rap, as it originally shared the same outsole.
What the Rap didn’t have was a rubber ollie pad and the quite noticeable “23” on the side of the heel-a feature originally seen on the Nike Air Jordan V four years prior. But Sal says Nike never had a problem with it: “They know I had the number before Jordan. That was my basketball number before. I like to think he got it from me.” Skateboarders either liked them or didn’t care about the “23” aspect of the shoe because it quickly became one of Etnies’ best sellers and by the end of ’95 became the grounds for a new shoe company based around Sal Barbier and his designs-à‡S.
Sal’s 23s lasted a few years as part of the à‡S line but eventually disappeared. Sal was running companies like Twenty-Three skateboards, and he remembers, “Shoe design kind of took a backseat to the other things I had going on at the time.” Around the millennium, shoes were taking on a more technical look until things got too atrocious and the skate community demanded simplicity once again. Designers listened, Sal renegotiated contracts with Etnies, and in 2002 after five years of extinction, the Sal 23 became a reality once again.
Like Michael Jordan, Sal is well retired from the game. While both continue to put out shoes with their names emblazoned on ’em, we had to ask Sal who is milking it more: him or Mike? “It’s not about milkin’ it. That’s the difference in mine-I designed mine from top to bottom. If a million people are gonna rip it off, then that’s why I should have it for a long time-because I see a lot of shoes that come directly from that. A lot of soles come from that, there’re just a lot of people making shoes exactly like that one, and that’s where they get it from. So it’s better that I get the money ’cause I don’t get it from anyone but me.” And that ain’t any sarcasm right there.-Eric Stricker