Rookie’s Challenge

It can’t be easy being a skateboard company on the East Coast.

Some make it, some struggle, and some fall off. But the girls behind Rookie are simply changing their manufacturing structure in order to accommodate the times.

Founded in New York City in 1996 by Elska Sandor and Catharine Lyons, Rookie has experienced more than its fair share of ups and downs over the past six years. Widely regarded as being an East Coast female-skateboarder brand, Rookie is far more than that.

With the company’s office situated since the beginning in Manhattan’s popular shopping district on Canal Street, Rookie has long prided itself in having an entirely U.S.A.-based manufacturing for both boards and apparel. And while their hardgoods continue to be manufactured in the United States, the challenge of maintaining their softgoods production on American soil has influenced their new direction with softgoods manufacturing: sending it abroad.

“We started an apparel line from the start, which was pretty ballsy, and learned fast that it’s hard to do clothing,” explains Lyons, “but we also knew that it was going to be hard to survive just off of making decks. That’s why we started making pants and stuff.”

Softgoods production for Rookie has in the past all been pretty much in the New York area-in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Manhattan, and Queens. The idea was simple: keep manufacturing at home so that they could give it the attention to detail it needs. “(We wanted) to bring it closer so that everything can be near us, because everything can go wrong and will go wrong,” says Lyons.

Rookie-located near Ground Zero-has been negatively impacted since the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Today, Rookie plans on moving a vast majority of its softgoods production to Canada. The company’s spring line will be the first time that production is done outside of the New York area.

The factors that motivated their decision to move production outside of the U.S. were pretty clear. “We had an offer for someone to do our production for us and finance it,” says Lyons. “That in combination with our having difficulties doing affordable production in this area over the past year, we didn’t really have a choice.

“Someone said they’ll do it, and so we said we’ll do it. I hope to continue to do production in this area even if it’s specialty items we do small numbers of to sell to Japan-we can charge more money on them. In Japan, the customers or people there seem to be willing to spend more than compared to in the rest of the world,” says Lyons.

“In America, there’s definitely a gap between manufacturing for gigantic runs and sample runs. There’s not really much space, on the East Coast, for small- to medium-sized companies. Maybe in California it’s different. We haven’t been really successful in not having things at arms’ reach.”

Rookie has licensed out much of its softgoods manufacturing to a Canadian softgoods manufacturer and distributor that, according to Lyons, works with a number of U.S. companies. “Initially they were approached to do the manufacturing for Canada only-but then they offered to do production for what we might need for the U.S. compared to the rest of the world.

“We basically place orders with them and piggyback our orders with theirs. It works out well because we get better quantities and a price break. We can piggyback different countries and their orders together and get higher numbers or volume over there.”

But softgoods might not be all this company will be doing for Rookie. It might extend to decks as well. “They’re interested in distributing our hardgoods too,” says Lyons. “They haven’t distributed a skateboard brand yet, but reps are interested in the decks.

Asked whether Rookie will be doing any manufacturing directly with any Asian manufacturers, the answer is no-not directly. “Potentially we will (go) through this Canadian company, as they have factories they have relationships with over there, and they’d like forr them to do Rookie stuff, too.”Rookie’s Lyons describes its production process as it was prior to signing the deal with the Canadian company: “The problem with doing the production yourself is that we had to come up with everything: zippers, lining, pull tags, thread, materials, buttons-everything.

“And so if anything went wrong, like if we received the wrong zippers or buttons or whatever, it would delay the whole manufacturing process, and we would have to absorb that cost. We lost a lot of money doing that.”

As a result of such complications, the decision for Rookie to move to another manufacturer wasn’t particularly difficult. “We didn’t have a choice,” says Lyons. “It’s hard giving up any amount of control. Basically, now we’re a little bit at their mercy. When it comes down to anything, we have to agree with them (Canadian distributor) because they’re doing the manufacturing. I hope that in the future we’ll be able to do it ourselves, whether in the United States or Hong Kong or wherever.”

Lyons is optimistic that with moving production out of the U.S., the personality and identity of the brand won’t be affected. “While I don’t think so, it’s hard to say,” she says. “I hope that it makes us a little more professional. I hope people will find us as a more reliable vendor, and that the quality will be good, and that it’ll enable us to stay in business. That’s the goal: to stay in business.

“Working with these Canadian manufacturers has been good, in that we can trust with what they say,” says Lyons. “In the past some of them will lie to you. There certainly are some manufacturers out there that you can trust, but it’s been a long process in figuring out who they are and with whom to stay.”Lyons explains that manufacturing challenges exist for companies such as Rookie that are based and situated outside of California-the skateboard industry’s main campus. She says the most initial challenge is just getting credit: “With small companies, if you’re not doing large quantities it’s hard to get manufacturers to work with you or to give you credit.”

Admittedly, Rookie grew pretty fast in the beginning. “Probably faster than we expected,” says Lyons, “but we hit a wall. And the last wall was the biggest wall, after September 11. It wasn’t immediately after then, but it was about six to eight months later when we realized how damaging that time had been for us-where we considered throwing in the towel, but instead we decided to endure it.

“We’re trying really hard to move on from it,” she continues. “We got hit harder than we thought, and thought less about selling T-shirts and boards when shit was hitting the fan. What we didn’t realize is that we had to focus on it in order to stay in business.”

Asked if she felt Rookie has a divided interest with its clothing line and skateboard company, Lyons responds: “I wouldn’t call it divided. I think it’s all-inclusive. I think the clothing line supports the skateboard team, and the team supports the clothing. We wouldn’t be a company without clothing or decks-because they support each other. I think we try to be creative with our clothing to have more fun with our decks.”

Rookie is unconventional compared to the California-based skate companies in that foreign markets are more profitable for them than U.S. stores. “I think they always have been,” explains Lyons. “We appeal to different areas of the world in different ways. It’s the same in this country. We appeal to a more sophisticated market in urban areas, rather than suburban places or in the Midwest. Some really dig it, and some are stuck in a rut in terms of what appeals to them.”

As to how the future looks, Lyons smiles. “We’re always pretty optimistic, and I think its because we’ve got a pretty good sense of humor about things,” she says. “So it looks good, and hopefully it’ll be good as long as our stupid president doesn’t drag us into World War III.