CANAL Talks “Mode,” Skating And Streetwear
Walking to the CANAL NY spot in Canal Street Market is like watching their Instagram clips in slow motion. Looped footage shows a skater grinding down a rail. Just when you think you’ll see it again, it cuts to a random shot of a woman holding a rat crossing the street with a bag of counterfeit goods, or a man pounding a burger in a bodega. The brand may have gained a following because of their elegant skate wheels sold in Chanel-like perfume boxes, but the overall vibe is really a tribute to the jarring oddities in a stroll (or ride) down the street that names their brand. Their promo videos are like a cross between cinema verité (true to life arthouse films) and what co-founder Johnny Ngan calls “DJ Khaled-esque humor”. The construction of their pieces and the minimal aesthetic of their brand is clean and even beautiful, but their functionality and the true-to-life aesthetic of their videos honor roughness and the mundane. It doesn’t seem so much a mixing of high and low culture, but rather, a challenge to the very categorization itself.
The recent premiere of their first full-length video Mode was Thursday, August 30. Showing at an all-white warehouse space on the Lower East Side, you know the party’s starting when hoards of skaters show up. They’re bedecked with CANAL’s denim bucket hats and white T-shirts, and probably white CANAL wheels (they’re skating too fast to see), artfully paired with gear from Dime or Palace. When the doors finally open, the crowd pours in and lines their boards against the wall. There’s bottles popping, cameras flashing, and mad body heat by the time the video starts—a fitting scene for a brand started by a group of guys that started skating together in high school. It’s a throwback to the boys’ club aesthetic often associated with skating’s origins, but with all genders and ages sharing in the aggressive cheers and shouts throughout the length of the video. Milk sat down with the main riders of the CANAL crew—founders Esteban Jefferson and Johnny Ngan, as well as Marcello Campanello, and Cyril Palmer—to talk New York influences, the importance of film for skate brands, bloody skate injuries, and just having fun.
How would you describe the label to someone who’s not familiar?
Johnny: Okay, so CANAL—it started in 2014. The original product that we designed was skateboard wheels, which we packaged and got into skate shops. And for people who don’t know what Canal is, it’s an apparel, accessories, and skateboard wheel company.
Esteban: Basically like, high end skateboarding—the wheels even come in a perfume box.
What’s CANAL in a soundbite?
Johnny: What it’s like to be a skateboarder living in New York—
Esteban: Right now.
Can you talk about the inspiration from the New York street scene that’s on your website?
Esteban: We grew up skating and hanging out around Canal Street, so that’s part of the inspiration. Johnny went to school for product design, and I went to school for art, so it’s kind of a fusion for those things—skating, and our other interests, like fashion.
So you’ve done some videos before. Where did the idea for this one come out?
Johnny: This is a project that we’ve actually been working on for a long time.
Esteban: Even before CANAL.
Johnny: Yeah, and when it came towards completion, we decided we’d dub it the CANAL Project. And we came up with a title—we’re calling it Mode.
Where does the name Mode come from?
Johnny: Mode? Well, it means fashion. And we felt like the word just captures the era that we’re in, like we’re constantly switching modes, and things are ever-shifting, and I think it just captures the feel of the video.
Esteban: It’s also just that calling a skate video “fashion” is funny to me.
Yeah. When I saw the name Mode I was thinking about the era we’re in—like the digital age, or whatever, so it’s interesting that it has that double meaning.
Esteban: It’s also like ‘beast mode’.
So going back to what you said about calling a skate video “fashion” being funny, can you talk a little more about that? There’s a kind of tongue-and-cheek vibe in your brand.
Johnny: Totally, totally. I think we like to make things that inspire us, things that we like personally, things that make us laugh. There’s a lot of hidden meanings behind the details of our clothing that we try to hide in there for people who like our brand. We try to throw in phrases and quotes that kind of have some sort of DJ Khaled-esque humor to it all.
Esteban: Yeah, like if you watch the video, all the music in it is like stuff that we’re listening to now. Some things are like current R&B, older R&B, and then there’s like trap songs.
Johnny: I think we take a really contemporary approach to, you know, interpreting skate culture.
I notice there’s a lot of jazz in some of your videos too. It reminds me of the Love Supreme video from a long time back.
Johnny: Mhm. I think jazz just goes great with skateboarding, and like a lot of people are using house, and I mean, skateboarding essentially is a series of dance moves, so it makes sense to have music that goes with it.
So where does the video fit into your brand as a whole?
Johnny: For us, it’s pretty second nature to have a video, because skateboarding companies traditionally use videos to promote their stuff. This just seemed like a natural progression.
Esteban: And even beyond that, this video was gonna come out either way. Everyone that’s on CANAL is in that video. We’ve all been friends for longer than CANAL’s existed.
How big is your crew? Who’s involved in the video?
Johnny: We’ve got a really big team. We’ve been skating with these guys forever and we’ve got younger guys who are just getting on board now that we’re starting to go skating with more. As time goes on, it’s become about even more than just skateboarding, like—it’s really just characters that we mesh well with, and like people we can travel with and go on adventures.
Esteban: I think there’s like six full parts from individuals, but then there’s like 30 more people that have clips in it—
Marcello: A whole lot of friends.
Esteban: A whole lot of friends. Like Marcello has a full part, and our friend Caleb Yuan has a full part, and there’s a lot of shared parts. Johnny has a part. Johnny’s also the executive producer, and I filmed and edited it. I’ve been working on this for forever.
Marcello: This is all Esteban’s project. He’s been filming since like the day I met him, and he’s always had a camera in his hand.
Esteban: We’ve known each other since we were like 15, and we’ve just been filming skate videos.
Are your earlier film videos more for fun rather than for the brand?
Marcello: Whether we’re making a video or not—
Johnny: We’d be skateboarding anyway. But we started filming more once we branded CANAL, and started putting stuff on Instagram.
Esteban: There are points where it’s starting to get more serious. Like there definitely were moments when Marcello pushed himself a lot to do something pretty scary. Or like, Caleb got hit by a car while filming a video. It was terrible.
Esteban: That was terrifying.
Yeah. What’s it like skating for fun versus on camera?
Marcello: It’s weird having a camera around. It changes everything. Sometimes, the second the camera comes out, you can’t do the trick. It’s like kryptonite, skating in front of the camera. Sometimes it works though. But then it’s all just for fun, whatever you do. It’s good because your part and the way you film kinda projects your style, and you get to see who you are as a skater.
So how would you describe your style? Or the style of the video?
Marcello: I think it really sticks to New York culture.
Esteban: It puts a different take on it. Like there aren’t any ‘90s rap songs. It’s all new music.
Johnny: It’s a contemporary piece, it’s commentary on what’s happening right now a little bit, and most people can’t watch a skate video from front to back. I feel like it’s a video that, whether you skate or not, you could probably enjoy it.
So you talked a little before about getting noticed by more general audiences on Instagram. What do you think about the popularization of skating in general, and how it’s reached a really wide audience?
Esteban: I think it’s great. I mean—there’s always good and bad. I am into things like The Skate Kitchen having an opportunity to skate on a big scale. That’s something that didn’t exist ten years ago.
Marcello: I think it’s cool when they use real skaters. Cyril just did a huge thing for Guess.
Esteban: Yeah. And two guys that skate for Palace walked the runway for Louis Vuitton recently, so that’s good.
Does that add something to what you said about fashion and skate being an unexpected—but is it maybe now an expected—kind of intersection?
Esteban: Yeah, definitely.
Johnny: A lot of things are pretty clear to us when it’s like drawn from skateboarding. When people chop off the ends of their pants and leave them frayed, or big puffy Balenciaga-style shoes—like that came from skateboarding.
Esteban: A lot of shoes people are wearing now are like skate shoes.
Marcello: A$AP Rocky.
Johnny: [Laughs] Yeah. Basically fashion took something from skateboarding’s past or like some era of skateboarding and chopped and screwed it into high end companies right now.
You mentioned before the sort of elevated feel of the brand. Not elevated, but—
Johnny: I like that phrase.
Esteban: I mean, there’s like a joke to it. A lot of it refers to Canal Street because there’s a lot of knock-offs of luxury brands, which is something we’re into, but we also want to make actually nice clothes.
How does that vibe show up in your new video?
Johnny: It’s like—what kind of ‘mode’ do you want to be in?
Esteban: Yeah, the video honestly is just about giving off more of a vibe of what we’re into in our day-to-day lives. I think it’s just a reflection of our style in general.
Johnny: On Instagram, we share a lot of our day-to-day sessions are like and what our vibe is like.
Esteban: And every time we’re out skating, these are the tricks that we’re saving, because they’re better than what we put on Instagram.
Johnny: What’s on Instagram is basically the moments in-between.
Marcello: Throwaway footage.
Johnny: It’s kind of like showing the B-roll first.
Oh, interesting. So kind of like having BTS first, and then putting out the feature afterwards?
Johnny: Yeah. I think it’s good for our marketing. A lot of people know what we’re up to, and just another way for us to engage our audience and share with them as much as we’re comfortable sharing.
Who do you envision your audience to be?
Johnny: That’s something we’ve been wondering about since the beginning.
Marcello: I think it’s kind of all across the board. There’s so many different people that rock with Canal.
Johnny: Yeah, it’s really diverse. A lot of boys, a lot of girls, different age groups…
Esteban: We have a pretty good following in Japan.
Johnny: Yeah, Asia, the UK…
Yeah, when I was in London, I think in Shoreditch—I saw your stuff there.
Johnny: They definitely relate to us.
Esteban: I was there recently. London and New York have so many similarities.
Can you talk about some of the main influences, or what really speaks to you right now?
Johnny: Johnny: It’s like an ecosystem. We all share with each other—just kind of curating what we’ve been into. Our guy Cyril keeps us updated on what’s hot on Soundcloud. Soundcloud is like the musical equivalent to Instagram, it seems.
Esteban: I feel like our music selection on Instagram was a big thing that started making us gain followers to begin with. Like I think a lot of the songs we use aren’t traditional skate songs. Like a lot of them are more pop than most skate music videos. I’m a painter, I look at art a lot, and we’re both into design, and fashion. Like Mode—I feel like that name comes from looking into French fashion.
Johnny: I’m definitely more eclectic, and I find myself making friends with very interesting people in my opinion—learning about what they’re into, and that kind of inevitably seeps into the way I think. That’s the source—meeting people.
So what’s up for you guys next? Any more big projects or lookbooks?
Johnny: We wanna ride jet skis. Celebrate—just take it all in.
Esteban: There’s a couple things. Our friend Mateo made a video that’ll come out in a month or two. It’s more jazzy.
Will that be featured on the website?
Esteban: Yeah, for sure.
Johnny: We’re going to have a lot more video projects that coincide with new merchandise, and we want to travel to certain places, get the crew out more, film more, capture more, have more to share. We just launched a Youtube channel.
What’s the relationship between the footage and the clothing, and where do you see yourself in the landscape of other skate and streetwear brands?
Johnny: I think the video content is storytelling, and the clothing is like the props. And if we tell the story right—I think the clothing is designed so that a lot of people can fit into that story.
Esteban: The video might help make clear what’s behind the clothes and why we design them the way they are.
Johnny: Yeah. The clothes are good quality, they’re comfortable, you know, they’re designed with skating in mind, but it’s not like skateboarding clothes.
Is your video mostly geared towards long-time followers, or newcomers?
Marcello: It goes hand and hand with it. Ever since the beginning of time of skating, there were always videos. You can’t have a company that claims to be a skateboarding company and only put out clips here and there. You have to put in the work. It’s not about high fashion and all that. We do sweat and we bleed and suffer, and we wanna show people what we actually do.
Esteban: I think it’s similar to Palace and Supreme’s models. They’ve made full-length videos, but you might not necessarily think of them as just a skateboarding company.
Lastly, how do you think working on the brand together has shaped the way you skate together? Life and stuff.
Esteban: I feel like we’re a lot more structured and focused now, more than we were a couple years ago.
Marcello: More motivated.
Johnny: We all feel like we’re working towards like a bigger picture, a big goal together.
Marcello: We all kinda want the same thing—we all want Canal to be on top.
Images courtesy of Zoe Kidwell
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