For the past eight years, Primitive has been a mainstays of the Los Angeles skate and street scene. What started as a project by three friends—Paul Rodriguez, Andy Netkin and Jubal Jones—to curate their favorite products in one place, it grew to encompass a full in-house line inspired by its Southern California roots, and distributed around the globe. The shop became one of the most well-known stores in the Valley and must-visit destination for locals and tourists alike looking to get a taste of the famed Los Angeles skate culture, complete with a friendly staff, bumping tunes and a massive sneaker wall that was obviously curated by through-and-through heads who knew their stuff. Despite continued growth as a company and success as a brick-and-mortar, the owners recently made the decision to close their iconic shop in order to plug additional resources into growing the business from an e-commerce and wholesale standpoint. We were able to catch up with them recently to talk about the changing retail landscape, their thoughts on brick-and-mortar versus e-commerce, and how to stay relevant as a brand in 2016.
Skateboarding and sneakers are in Primitive’s DNA. In the “Nike SB Era,” this crossover was the most harmonious, yet now there’s an emphasis on technical runners and high-fashion alternatives. How do you adapt to this in your buying techniques without interrupting Primitive’s aesthetic?
Nike SB definitely blessed us when we opened in 2008. Everybody wanted SBs, and this was before Nike broadened their distribution. The Nike SB rep at the time, Shea Johnson, really helped us out by allocating amazing inventory to us for many months prior to our opening. Our Nike Sportswear rep did some of that too, so we ended up with a serious shoe wall. Paul being co-owner brought all of the right attention to us, and we became a destination boutique over night. Our mission was to curate an eclectic offering of cross-genre products. Paul rocks SB’s; Andy wears Vans and runners; Jubal usually wears Jordans. From day one, we wanted to offer it all. We wanted our retail store to be our own one-stop shop.
Back in 2008, runners weren’t nearly as in demand, so we only had a few Air Max and New Balance sprinkled throughout the assortment. We eventually acquired Asics and Adidas Originals accounts. Now with trends changing, we buy accordingly and runners take up more real estate on the shoe wall than they once did. We’ve always strived to offer an outfit for every need. You can find high quality custom fleece from Acapulco Gold, wovens from Stussy and HUF, Japanese style fashion from Fuct SSDD, and other rad products from less seen brands like 5 Boro, Goodworth, and Paterson. We do however stick to our guns. We buy the most relevant goods possible, but won’t bring in anything that we dislike.
Although you recently decided to close your brick-and-mortar location to focus on the wholesale and e-commerce, you’ve said that this isn’t the end of a Primitive shop forever. What are some of the ways you would use B&M versus e-commerce to contribute to your success?
We would give customers a reason to visit us. We recently dropped a shop exclusive tee and hoodie, and the hoodie came in junior sizes. It was the first time we offered apparel for the little duns. Our older customers with kids were stoked on that. We would do team signings where locals can hang out with Paul and the rest of the crew. Recently we hosted a private customer-appreciation gathering at the store where we invited our top supporters to hang out after-hours with the Primitive squad, grub on some Portos, and sip on some champagne. E-commerce is amazing, but B&M is personal. It’s pretty limitless when you think about all of the rad stuff you can do. Additionally, most of the brands we sell would have never opened us as an account if we didn’t have a physical store.
Creating a unique shopping experience has always been important for retailers, regardless of whether it’s online or off. What do you do to ensure Primitive stands out from the rest of the pack?
We have a very custom tailored brand list and product offering. There are certain items we must have, like Air Max Infrareds every time they release, or every Vans x WTAPS collaboration. That’s our approach to how we decide what to stock. Other than products, it’s about customer service. We’ve had to let go of a few employees for not understanding how important it is.
You physically go shopping when you want to get out of the house and stimulate the senses. You disconnect from your device and explore. Who doesn’t appreciate the instant gratification that comes with finding something, purchasing it, and walking away with it right there on the spot?
Are people missing out on anything by not being able to shop in a brick and mortar?
If you’re buying toilet paper and tampons in bulk, you aren’t missing anything. If you’re buying from our online store, you’re still successfully acquiring what you set out to purchase. You physically go shopping when you want to get out of the house and stimulate the senses. You disconnect from your device and explore. Who doesn’t appreciate the instant gratification that comes with finding something, purchasing it, and walking away with it right there on the spot? Not to sound cheesy, but shoe and apparel shopping is very physical. You want to touch them, feel the different textures and materials, grade the overall execution of the product, and decide how it jives on your person. That’s not easy to do on a computer.
As e-commerce continues to dominate consumer habits, and as your wholesale business grows, has your in-house brand surpassed Primitive’s brick-and-mortar sales? And if so, has that contributed to your decision to close down the shop?
Our in-house brand surpassed the amount of business we did in our store many years ago; we didn’t “need” our shop. We’re driven by what we love to do (and) as you know, retail has been in our DNA. Long before we opened a store, we grew up in skateshops, book stores, record shops, etc. Shopping at niche retailers has always given us a sense of involvement within the subcultures we identify with. We wanted to carry on the tradition and continue to offer the experience.
People say Fairfax, La Brea “isn’t what it use to be,” what’s the biggest change or challenge Primitive has faced in the streetwear landscape since you guys started out?
We have definitely seen a decline in graphic tee sales. It put pressure on us to come correct in other categories, like jackets, knits, wovens, custom goods in general, and even skateboards. Honestly though, we’re lucky that we’ve always been securely rooted in skate lifestyle and footwear culture. I never refer to us as a “streetwear” brand or boutique. I don’t even like that word! It’s kind of refreshing when a trend dies, because it means that whoever doesn’t have longevity is on their way out. It gives us a chance to let our authenticity shine even brighter.
We don’t think of ourselves as being on the outside looking in. Primitive is comprised of skateboarders, artists, designers, and even musicians who have always been fueled by creativity and individuality.
What was your favorite part of Primitive’s B&M?
Physically, our shoe wall for sure. I’m very proud of it. Emotionally, the feeling I would get when I walk in and see our own in-house products sitting next to all of my favorite brands. It’s a heavy feeling.
These days, a “brand” can be created overnight with a Tumblr page and access to screen-printing. DIY culture, in this sense, is more prominent than ever – but what drawbacks does this bring?
We don’t really have a problem with it; we say bring it on. Creating a Tumblr page is easy. The rest, not so much.
Primitive encompasses the lifestyle of a West Coast youth, and while youth culture is constantly evolving, how have you adapted to keep your audience engaged?
We’re loving 2016, because everybody has a voice. Even though it brings plenty of noise, the positive is that we’re seeing an explosion of unfiltered self-expression. Newer generations aren’t afraid to show the world their true colors, and we can certainly relate to that. However, we don’t think of ourselves as being on the outside looking in. Primitive is comprised of skateboarders, artists, designers, and even musicians who have always been fueled by creativity and individuality. Now more than ever, consumers can easily detect fabricated marketing ploys versus genuine brand identity. Everything moves so fast. Brands that don’t possess character simply do not last long. We take note of this by constantly putting our personality on display. Now that we’re an established company, we have the resources to make some pretty cool shit happen. Whether that be collaborating with high-impact partners, or figuring out ways to elevate our media and product to a higher quality, it’s all in effort to grow and evolve with the rest of the world.