Alex Olson's ability to skate anything in his path, at the kind of speed you should really be wearing a helmet to handle, saw him landing memorable video parts for Girl, Lakai, Nike and Supreme from the early-2000s onwards – but it was arguably his flair for fashion and his famously strong opinions that attracted a fanbase from outside the world of skateboarding.
After turning pro and getting involved in art and modelling, Alex was left feeling creatively unfulfilled, so started his own clothing brand, Bianca Chandon, and a skate company, Call Me 917. I had a chat with him about all that, as well as why he left Girl and Lakai, his thoughts on skating being added to the Olympics, and a whole lot more.
VICE: Where are you right now, Alex?
Alex Olson: I'm in New York.
You're originally from California, right?
Did you get into skating through your dad, Steve, who was a pro in the 1970s?
Actually, it was more through going to a new school. Skating was what people were doing in my grade, and what better way to introduce yourself than to say your dad's a pro skater? Also, there was another pro skater with the same name, and they all thought it was him.
The Steve Olson who skated for Shorty's? Amazing. How old were you when you got on Girl and Lakai?
I got on in 2005 – I was 19. But, being 19, I felt like I was kinda old at the time.
What do you remember about filming for Lakai's Fully Flared?
I was stoked, but I didn't like the way the older guys were acting and stuff – it kinda rubbed me the wrong way. Or maybe I wanted to go the other way... I don't know, I'm a contrarian by nature.
Who were you rubbing against at Lakai?
Mainly Ty Evans, the editor and filmer, and the owners, Rick Howard and Mike Carroll. At that time, skating was street-oriented – it wasn't pool, it wasn't full of ATV skating, like it is now; it was different. Not to toot my own horn but I was one of the few people at the time skating all-around – I skated transition and street. The level now is crazy, but at that time there weren't those kinds of kids.
Fully Flared took like five years to make. After you work on something for five years and it's not the way you want it, or how you saw it, how you envisioned it, things start to get tense. Skaters are probably somewhat insular, introverted people to begin with. It takes a certain kind of individual to pound themselves into the concrete and be fine with it, you know, and when things don't come out how you like, there probably will be issues.
Why did you eventually decide to leave Lakai?
What happened was, Gravis was going to start, and I was going to skate for them because Dylan Rieder – RIP – told me they were starting a skate programme. I was like, "Gravis?! Really, dude? Out of all the companies, you're going to skate for them?" Dylan said, "Yeah, but we have creative control to do what we want."
I told Rick and Mike that Gravis were going to pay me X amount of money more than they were paying me at Lakai. We're talking like $6,000 a month more. I was like, 'I can't really turn this down,' and they were like, "We'll think about it. We don't want you to leave, but we can't compete with that." Then they came back to me and said, "Maybe go skate for someone a bit more reputable and cooler, like Vans."
I was like, 'Okay, cool." My friend Robin worked for Vans and she said, "I'll read your contract," and then she said, "Let me give you a bid" – so it was, like, Nike, Vans and Gravis at the time. She persuaded me to go Vans – and also Mike and that wanted me to go rather than to go to the other two.
Right. When and why did you leave Girl?
After Pretty Sweet came out, in 2012, I had a different vision of how I saw skateboarding. Polar came out with their promo, and Palace had started... that was a point where I was like, 'This is refreshing – it's not big videos and cameras. No special effects or crazy camera angles.' Those two companies were doing their own thing on their own small scale. I was like: 'Wow – I want to be a part of that movement and that vision of skateboarding.'
Is that what you were going for when you started Bianca Chandon?
When I started Bianca, in 2014, it was trying to be something that was the opposite of skateboarding. Skateboarding brings people to fashion, fashion brings people to skateboarding. I was trying to do something different. I achieved that – that was the goal. But that was the main focus at the time.
Was it making boards for Bianca that made you think about starting Call Me 917?
Yeah, it was the success of Bianca and the fact it was in all these boutiques and that I was making one-off boards, but there was no team at the time. So I thought, 'Maybe I need to start a sister company that could be in skate shops and have a skate team.' Let it be this other thing, like how Ralph Lauren has Polo and Commes Des Garcons does Play.
How did you first get into fashion?
Through my dad and my mom. My dad more so, but my mom is into clothes and fashion too. My dad is heavily into his own style, and is very conscious about his sense of style and what he wears.
What's the hardest thing about running two brands? Being a team manager or coming up with ideas?
I don't really deal with the team. I hate having a company, I don't like it. It sucks. I'm over it. I'd leave everything at a second-hand store if I could, and you can buy them all [laughs]. I dunno – it's not fun, I don't enjoy coming into an office.
There's nice parts, obviously – the validation of your creation, that's always nice. But it's not the must fulfilling thing, I'll tell you that much. But it's one of those things – it's like a ying and yang. I wouldn't know if I hadn't explored it all, and went there and got to the other end and seen it for myself. I've achieved what I've wanted to achieve, if you know what I mean? It was never about money – it was about creating something and getting accolades for that work. But after you do that, you're like: 'What am I doing now?'
Do you have an in-house design team?
No, I just create everything by myself – but I have a team of people over in LA to help with stuff over there. But it's one of those things – it's challenging every season: you don't know what's going to sell or not. Fashion is a tough business, and it's not really a glamorous business either.
I'm thinking back on it, and I've had celebrities wear my designs, sometimes – maybe not the ones that you may want, but they have done it. But even though I've had those things that people strive for, when they happen, you're like, 'That's great. Okay, what's next?'
Yeah, it never stops. Who helps you run 917?
It's kinda like a group effort about who gets put on the team and who goes about doing what – there's no one person running 917. But there is a team manager and filmer and editor called Logan, who does all of that.
You've filmed a lot with Bill Strobeck, too. How did you first meet Bill?
I met Bill through Jason Dill when I was trying to get Alien Workshop boards, and we filmed together in New York. Bill was the reason why [Jason Dill's] Fucking Awesome became a brand, why Brian Anderson's brand 3D became a thing and why 917 became a thing. At the time, Bill was so excited about starting something different, and seeing these companies start was like a dream for him.
Bill films for Supreme now. What do you think about high fashion brands entering skateboarding?
What do I think about that? I don't think about it. I think it's fine. I think any skateboarder who gets mad about anything that's theirs, in a weird localism kind of way, is honestly stupid. It only makes skateboarding stronger, and people need to check their egos at the coat check.
What about skating being in the Olympics?
I think skateboarding being in the Olympics is a good thing. We should all be celebrating that, but we're too daft to recognise it as something that's been celebrated as counterculture. It's not the fucking hula-hoops – it's the full thing. That point of view – that it's a negative thing – just holds back everyone and holds back skateboarding from growing, in terms of financial growth for everyone.
Skateboarding in the Olympics is not going to create an interesting artistic form, but maybe it could become something interesting – I don't know. But to scoff at it, it doesn't push anything forward; it keeps us in a holding pattern. Also, I don't give a flying fuck – I'm not going to watch it! I don't watch Street League, I don't watch Tampa – it's just another contest. It's something that ultimately doesn't interest me anyway.
Solid perspective. Lastly, any advice for budding creatives?
Love yourself, be good and try creating new work – and don't beat yourself up if it's not the way you want it to be.