Within the confines of what looked like a chop shop you'd see in a car theft movie, mostly sheltered from a very rare Los Angeles rainstorm, and in advance of a release party with Soulja Boy as the headliner, I sat down with Elijah Berle to talk about his new signature model from Vans. —Jeff Thorburn
How does it feel to have this whole big event for you?
It’s fucking weird, honestly. It’s cool. Today is the first day I’ve seen the shoes actually in a box. It’s a trip to see other people wearing them. It’s starting to seem more real. I’ve had sample pairs, but it wasn’t really a reality yet, because I had only seen a few pairs. Now I’m at a place where I look around and everyone is wearing them. It’s overwhelming but it’s cool.
Two years ago, when we spoke at the House of Vans in Toronto, you had some pro classic colourways that had just come out. At the time, I asked you if you thought a pro model was ever a possibility. What was the process from that point up to now, when you have a new, original pro model about to come out?
Well, in 2016 I filmed a video part for Vans without them really asking me to. I think they were just waiting for me to do or accomplish something like that to give me a shoe. I never expected it.
What’s that’s conversation like? How does it come up?
It was not like you think it would go. I talked to Jamie (Hart, Vans Team Manager) and he was kind of yanking my chain, telling me, “Yeah, there’s been talk around the office of you maybe getting the next signature model shoe.” I was like, “Jamie, you can’t just say that to me, am I getting a shoe or not?” He said, “I’m like 90% sure.” (laughs) I’m like, “Jamie, fuck! Come on, your killing me.” A few days go by and then he told me it was for sure. I would have rather if he’d just told me when it was a sure thing. But it was a crazy process. All those guys over there are so talented at what they do.
How does it start out? Were you working with Neal Shoemaker on it?
Yeah, Neal and Juss (Apivala) are pretty much the main dudes I was working with. I went in and there were a bunch of shoes on the wall. I just told them what I like about certain shoes and what I don’t like about certain shoes. I’ve always liked this style of extra toe bumper on there, because it really a clean, nice flick for flip tricks. I was interested in doing this new technology on the sole, just because it sounded cool to switch things up. When I felt how comfortable they were I was really excited about it. They skate really well.
Was there a lot of back and forth from the first samples to now?
The first samples that came in were fucking hideous. I didn’t even try them on. They were insane. They were just trying to push some—they were just trying to do something that they were ready to do. They wanted to make a different sole but they wanted you to be able to look at that shoe from across the room and notice how different it was. It was too much. After a bit of back and forth they ended up just using the same technology but making it a little more sleek, or less noticeable. It was crazy though, I just walked in there and was telling the dudes about what I like and don’t like, and he’s over there in his notebook—I thought he was taking notes—but then he says, “So something like this?” and he turned the little notebook around and he had drawn up a shoe.
How close did that look to what we are seeing now?
Pretty close. Small little details, I can’t really tell. It’s always been the same upper, but the only thing that has changed over time has been the outsole. From what those guys have told me, they’ve had some late nights at the office trying to deal with the process of making a completely new outsole. I’m really thankful to those guys for working so hard on it.
I’m sure it was a big change to veer from the established materials and formula.
It was a big change for me, for sure, because that was all I skated for ten years.
When I saw you in Toronto, you had some torn ligaments in your ankle. How’s your health now?
Shit, that sucked. That took forever to heal. Now it’s good. That was brutal though. That caused a few other injuries because my ankle was week. I tore a ligament in my foot, and then a ligament in my two, and the whole fucking thing was just falling apart. I had to get serious and get into the gym and physiotherapy a lot. It’s a little stiff now but it works.
Also at that time, I asked what you liked in skating at the time…
Did I say FA?
Yeah, you said AVE and Dill’s companies. Was that already an idea in the works?
Not in the works, but it was always kind of an idea, because I skated with those guys pretty much more than the Chocolate guys, because we all ride for Vans. Or Dill used to ride for Vans. Even when they were on Alien they wanted me on there, but I was just a little kid then, and had just gotten on my dream sponsor, and I’m talking to Rick Howard and Mike Carroll. I wasn’t about to turn around and tell them “I quit.” But then it started to make more sense over time, I was skating with those guys more. It was hard to do, but there’s no bad blood or anything.
Ultimately, in the end, was it you asking to ride for FA or them asking you?
Oh it was Dill all the way. AVE would kind of mention it discreetly, but then it was the guys on the team hitting me up more, like Tyshawn was hitting me up a lot, like “When you going to quit fucking around? Get on FA.” I grew up with Sage and Na-Kel too, so it just made sense.
Are you at all involved in the process of creating graphics for your boards?
I want to say yeah, but no. Dill’s such a mastermind genius that you don’t need to question the shit that he does. You know it’ll be good. I’ll have a small input, maybe mention something, and he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He’s going to do what he wants though, which is fine, because he’s got a good eye, so I trust him.
Do you have an interest in being more involved in designing boards and clothes?
I mean yeah, I love designing pretty much anything. It’s fun to be a part of. To think of a graphic from scratch though is really hard. It’s a lot easier if you have something laid out and then you can pinpoint what you want to change. But from scratch? I wouldn’t even know where to start.
He’s ripping through books and magazines and everything to come up with them.
Yeah, it’s insane.
Do you ever watch the process of seeing graphics come together?
I recently went over to his place in Ventura. He lives above this hair salon or something. It’s like a three-unit apartment building. When he first moved in he rented one of the apartments. Then he rented another one, and then eventually he said, “Fuck it, it’s just one more, I might as well rent the other one too.” So you pretty much walk up and he’ll be smoking cigs in the hallway, walking from apartment to apartment, and he’ll be like, “Follow me, come check this out,” and we’ll go from one room to the next that’ll have just newspaper clippings all over the wall, everywhere, and a pile of FA clothes in the corner just stacked to the ceiling. There’s Perrier bottles everywhere, hundreds of them everywhere. He’s out of his fucking mind but I love him.
Are you still surfing?
Yeah, but I’m trying to less these days. I want to stay focused on skating, and not let surfing take over, or get injured doing it.
Are you a follower of news and current events?
I try to be. I find it really interesting, and I get super drawn into things, wanting to know more and more, but I don’t always follow things closely. It’s pretty intense shit, what’s happening in the United States of America right now. If I really got into it, I think I would just be depressed all the time.
Do you see things outside, in the streets?
Yeah, the homelessness is insane right now. It’s literally blocks and blocks of people. At least they have tents, but it’s just tent to tent to tent. Taking over. It’s fucking insane. It’s all over too, not just in LA. It seems to be getting worse too, since I was a kid. I don’t remember seeing huge encampments like I do now.
Can you recommend something you’ve enjoyed watching, listening to, or reading recently?
I just watched Green Book and I thought it was a really amazing movie. It just showed there are still people with good heads on their shoulders. That movie was set in a tragic time for some Americans, and it’s a pretty tragic time now, but it’s nice to see that there are still good people out in the world, even in a time of complete fucked up chaos and insanity. There are still people that can give you hope.
Interview and photos by Jeff Thorburn