palace: britain's kings of skatewear
Meet the brand’s irresistible founder, owner and everything-but-a-designer, Lev Tanju.
"Lev's irresistible, isn't he?" says illustrator Fergus Purcell, who designed Palace's triangle logo. "I just hit it off with him straight away when I met him. We shared magic mushrooms and things like that over the years, and then one day he said he was starting up his brand, and that he wanted to call it Palace, and would I do a graphic for them? It was as simple as that." Six years on, Palace Skateboards is everywhere. Yesterday I was lounging by a hotel pool in the Hollywood Hills - procrastinating instead of writing this - and who should stroll by but Palace skater Lucien Clarke. The brand turns up in the most unexpected places: on Jonah Hill's hat, on Drake's soccer kit, in the Tate Britain. In 2013, Lev was asked to design some skateboards for the museum, and he duly dreamt up a triptych of decks, taking unlikely inspiration from John Martin's epic 19th-century paintings of the apocalypse. Now Palace has created one of i-D's anniversary covers using graphic and cartoon Palace stickers, like a school notebook.
Lev Tanju was 26 when he started his company. His dad's Turkish, his mom's English, and he grew up around Croydon in the suburbs of London. "I was skating at Southbank every day, I didn't have a job and I was on the dole," he recalls. "A lot of my friends were really good skaters, and I've said this so many times, but I felt that they weren't getting looked after and that they were better than the people promoting them, so I just decided to make some skateboards and see if any of them were up for riding for the company. Only a couple were at the start, because they were obviously dubious because it was me doing it, do you know what I mean? I had no experience in anything."
Today Palace is flourishing, both as a skate team and as a sought-after brand. But how has this happened? How can you create a stupidly popular clothing brand - a favorite of fashion editors, millionaire rappers, and teenage skaters alike - without any designers or experience? Here's how:
The first thing is Lev himself. He's a tall dude with a massive presence. Booming and confident with a thick South London twang, he fills every room and he's fun to be around; so everybody wants to work with him. He has a lot of sophisticated - one might say palatial - swagger. Look at his label's Instagram; a video of D Double E smoking a spliff on a Venetian gondola here, a portrait of a skateboard and a bottle of Barolo, Italy's greatest wine, there. Actually - and he might not appreciate this - Lev has always reminded me of Tintin's worst adversary, multi-millionaire drug lord Roberto Rastapopoulos, who lounges around in designer loafers and a monocle, always dressed to the nines and smoking a cigar. The second thing is that he's working with really good people. Most ideas come from Lev and his homie Nugget (Gabriel Pluckrose), most visuals from Fergus Purcell and Ben Drury. It's more like a collective of mates than a fashion house. "We go out and look at things that we want to wear," he says, "and we just sit down and bring it all together. There are no designers, really, none of us have had any training in it. We just have good people that make it for us. It's done in good factories. It takes a long time, and it would be a lot easier if I was a pattern cutter or something stupid like that, but I'm not."
There's no marketing department, and no PR. Rather, Palace is produced and distributed by the same people who want to wear it, for them and their mates. Everything revolves around good taste: "That's what's important to me. It's quite selfish, but I like being able to wear stuff that I've made."
The third thing is that it's real. "It's an honest thing," says Lev, "so why wouldn't you be into it?" That's so important in skateboarding, and in streetwear, both of which have a mad obsession with authenticity. Lev started out making boards and videos, and still is today. Palace is a skate brand first and foremost, with a team of six professionals - Benny Fairfax, Blondey McCoy, Chewy Cannon, Danny Brady, Lucien Clarke, Olly Todd - that it sorts out with decks and clobber, and sends off on trips around the world. For years and years they've been filming a full-length skate video, featuring only footage shot in London, and when it drops this year, it will be a very proud moment for British skating.
Now I've never bought any Palace. I've tried, but the things I want are always sold out. When it launched its online shop this spring the site promptly exploded. Nothing is ever in stock, it disappears so quickly; buying a triangle T-shirt is like trying to catch a snow leopard. So the fourth thing that makes Palace popular is that it's rare, and desirable, and you want it all the more. Even Lev is missing a lot: "We just make it, and it's gone… I don't have shit that I well want."
The fifth thing is how it's jumped across into the mainstream without losing its cool. A lot of this comes down to choosing collaborations carefully - customizing Reebok Classics or vintage England soccer shirts - and making them really good. Lev really likes classic sportswear and somehow he's brought together the worlds of skateboarding and soccer, which were once way, way apart.
As Fergus recalls: "I grew up [during a] time in the 80s when there was a big divide -you were a soccer type of bloke or you weren't, and I wasn't. I kind of wasn't allowed into that party and I was like, 'Fuck you!' But I love how, generationally, things gradually shift and then they're completely on someone's menu that they wouldn't have been ten years ago."
Lev has an understanding and love of fashion. "I used to wear funny shoes and nice shirts," he says, "a lot of Comme des Garçons with the funny-colored collars. Don't know why. People thought it was funny because I used to take my dole and go straight to Dover Street, and just buy a really lairy shirt and wear that for a couple of weeks. It was quite stupid, but I just liked nice stuff really." Nowadays his label is stocked in Dover Street Market, and he even collaborated on a collection for the store's 10th anniversary.
What next then? Well, this spring Palace opened its own flagship shop in London, selling all sorts of unexpected products like penny loafers made in Portugal and knitwear made in Scotland. "A bit lairy, but like, your dad could wear it," concludes Lev. "We're just trying to make things that are good, and better than all the things I can see out there that are boring."
Text Dean Kissick
Photography Alasdair McLellan
Styling Max Clark
Hair Matt Mulhall at Streeters London
Make-up Hiromi Ueda at Julian Watson Agency using Sisley Skincare and Cosmetics
Photography assistance Lex Kembery, James Robjant, Matthew Healy
Styling assistance Bojana Kozarevic, Kristofj Von Strass
Hair assistance Lewis Pallett. Make-up assistance Mizzie Logan, Yuko Murakami
Production Lucy Johnson at Art Partner
Retouching Output Ltd.
Blondey wears sovereign ring Palace. Signet ring model's own.