lev tanju chats palace, the aspirational lifestyle brand made by skaters for skaters
Lev Tanju by Alasdair McLellan
Who would have thought that kid who used to rock up to London's Southbank skate spot to flog a bag full of pro skateboarders excess boards and merch, would end up running one of the world's most heralded and influential skate brands. That kid was Lev Tanju. Lev is the founder of the Palace skateboard company, which launched in 2009 with a capsule collection of tees and decks, immediately grabbing attention with their astute appropriation of a couple of classic fashion emblems. Now 31, he sits at the helm of a brand whose own symbolic tri-logo (a refresh of the impossible Penrose triangle), is rapidly becoming a modern sportswear icon, up there with the Nike tick, Adidas trefoil, Supreme box logo and the Stone Island compass. Try walking through London, without being confronted by one. Try wearing Palace outside of London, and not be asked over and over, "Where can I get Palace?"
Palace maintains crossover recognition with skate, fashion and streetwear crowds, which is not easy to pull off. To some, they print the best tees to catwalk through Barden's Boudoir in, to others they manufacture the best decks to skate, and to the rest they produce the sickest skate videos with one of the best teams of riders in the business. A team which now lists Chewy Cannon, Danny Brady, Oliver Todd, Benny Fairfax, Lucien Clarke as its gang of pro riders and an amateur team of youngers featuring Charlie Young, i-D cover star Blondey McCoy, Karim Bakhtaoui, Rory Milanes, Shawn Powers and Torey Goodall. Veteran skateboarders have requested to join the team, with Lev knocking them back to grow the team from the ground up. Ultimately, Palace is a brand made by skaters for skaters.
You never quite know where Lev is going to turn next, whether it's putting Omar Souleyman on a shirt or referencing seminal house record label, Rockin' House, it always works. Look out shortly for the label's first record release from a crucial Detroit legend. This is going to blow minds. And out of the back of all of this Palace has become an aspirational lifestyle brand, with Lev's idiosyncratic vision driving this. While it has its obvious roots in American skate culture and fashion heritage with inspiration ringing from pioneers like Steve Rocco and Ralph Lauren, it is a distinctly British vision, driven by the styles adorning the football terraces and Polo geezers. Unifying these are the Reebok trainer, the definitive lines of the Classic and Workout styles. With their second season of collaborations with Reebok Classics, Palace are about to drop their latest style, an updated riff on the Workout reinforced with a vulcanised sole for skating. Brimming with energy you can feel Lev's positivity in everything he produces, and when he throws a party you have not seen roadblocks quite like it, and for the next Lev has promised 1,500 cocktails, 4,000 beers and 250 bottles of champagne. Oh, hold tight London!
I'm not a shoe designer, but I know what I wanna wear, and skate in, and own and this is it.
So you're about to open the next pop-up shop and launch a new Reebok trainer…
We're doing a pop-off shop in a unit connected to the Ace Hotel on Shoreditch High Street, to display some of the new stuff we've done with Palace. Handmade jackets which are probably the best thing we've ever made, made in England, hand embroidered in Italy, new printing, and some new boards. We wanted to launch a shop in time for Christmas to show off our new product and preview our new line with Reebok on 27th December. Everyone has problems getting the stuff, so it's just cool to have a place you can buy it. There's nothing better than selling your own stuff in your own environment.
Why collaborate with Reebok again?
I just love 'em basically. The first season were shoes that we liked, and this time around I put a pitch to them to do something brand new, and put a vulcanised sole on their shoes for skaters. I wanted a shoe that was better to skate in, which is based on my favourite shoe ever, the Reebok Workout. It's gonna be a lot cheaper than the original range, so it's a more skateable shoe. This time we've not done a full line, just one shoe in four different colours. I always like working with Reebok, the shoes are really good because you can wear them to skate in or to the pub or whatever. We're the first people to ever put a vulcanised sole on a Reebok Classic and that's banging!
What's the fascination with timeless Reebok styles, the Classic and the Workout?
It's a classic old English heritage shoe. There's so much history around that shoe, and it's such a classic silhouette.
Reebok aren't the obvious shoe collaboration…
There are so many collaborations that wouldn't mean anything to us. But Reebok are so close to our hearts, we're a London brand and everyone we know wears Reebok all the time. We don't think about collaborations that much, the ideas just pop into our head, and if it happens, it's banging.
The video is hilarious!
I wanted to make something ridiculous and mad about the shoes. Me and Stuart Hammond wrote a script, and we worked with Hellicar and Lewis, and Dan Joyce who used to be in Dirty Sanchez and is a sick video producer now, and his flatmate Kye, who did all the 3D effects. Whatever I wanted, they could do it. So instead of filming skateboarding, I wanted to do something different. I don't know what the response is gonna be like, because it's kind of out there... I just wanted people to watch it and think these people have too much time on their hands!
What inspires the collaborations?
Anything. I'll be sat in my room and be like yeah let's do that. We're in a good position now, where we can talk to a massive brand like Reebok and they'll listen to our ideas, because they can see we can do cool shit. It's not a new thing that just popped into my head, I've always wanted to do Classics. Who wouldn't want to reinterpret their favourite shoe ever? I'm not a shoe designer, but I know what I wanna wear, and skate in, and own.
Have you hit this point now, where you can do everything you want to do?
Ever since we started I've been doing what I wanted to do, which is making skateboards. I've always felt like that, y'know I'm hanging out with my friends skateboarding, making clothes I wanna wear, and people like it, so it's wicked. Definitely doing what I want to do, 100%.
You have this really great vision of what Palace should be, and it's really unique…
I don't even know what it is. It wasn't planned out. It's all grown organically. And it's not all me, I work with a great team of designers, like Fergadelic, Will Bankhead and Ben Drury. It's how I see skateboarding. If I wanna wear it, and the team wanna wear it, that's all that matters. Without the team, there's nothing, and they're out skating in it, all day, every day. It's more than just taste, it's a vision. I know what I like, and I don't even care if other people like it.
Palace always feels distinctly British.
Yeah, but I don't feel like Palace is necessarily British. It is, but for me it feels American and European. I get inspiration from around the world. I guess if I was a weird cosmic hippy, I'd be making funny woven hats, it's just my personal taste. I learn a lot from what the guys on the team wear. The clothes are classic shapes. I'm not trying to break boundaries, it's just classic clothing, that's nice. Sportswear is a massive thing for us. We all love different stuff, we love certain skateboard graphics.
Palace is definitely crossing over, uniting the tribes, whether it's skaters or fashion or streetwear heads...
Yeah I love that. I love it. I love it. Palace is for everyone. It's a skate company, and we're friends and we're a family. That's the most important thing, making the best skateboards, going on skating trips. I spend more time on skateboard graphics than I do anything else, because I want them to suit the rider, and for them to be happy about it. It's quite a personal thing, it's a pro board with your name on it, so I want the shapes to match up and everything to be perfect. It's all about skateboarding but it crosses over, because everything does if it's honest, it's proper, it's good, and it's well done. But I guess people aren't used to seeing people wearing our T-shirts on everyone, which are essentially a skate company. But you know there's more to life than just being a skater. Like Rory (Milanes) he's a skater, but he's really into buying records and he's also a sick DJ.
Today Palace pops up everywhere. I've been on a train going to Barry Island running through a tiny Welsh village, and a kid has jumped on with a Palace deck.
That's banging. It should be like that. It's a brand now. Your gran and your auntie can wear Adidas. It's for everyone. We're not like them. We're an independent brand. There's something for everyone though. It's honest. You know there's not ten people sitting around designing a v-neck jumper, figuring out the best cut. We do what we want. The more people the better. It makes me happy, because at last people are buying into something that is actually about something. We're not some company who mass-produces clothes in shitty factories.. If you like that shit, fair enough, but if you want something nice it's good to look into other things. We don't make stuff limited on purpose, we just make it within our means. My heart is in skateboarding. That's what I love. It's made my life happy.
You put an incredible amount of heart, soul and pride into Palace, and you can really feel that.
Yeah. I don't think about anything else. I think about this 24/7. My brain is constantly ticking. That's my job. I love it. When I think about it, I realise it's given everyone a home, it getting everybody paid, and it's showing England, and London to the world. It's pushing English skateboarding out to the world. I'm lucky really.
Palace/Reebok Classic launches 28th November at the Palace Christmas Pop-Off Store, 100 Shoreditch High Street. Shoe launches globally on the 27th December.
Text Jeremy Abbott
Photography Alasdair McLellan