I’m finding it hard to write an intro for this piece, not because of my admiration for Rich, but because he’s such a hard guy to pin down to one thing. Like starting BMX footwear brand Lotek wasn’t enough, he also went on to found clothing brand Fremont, BMX company Stranger and work on countless other projects in between.
Before Lotek, and to a lesser extent, Orchid, came along BMX had no BMX specific shoe companies. Plenty of brands like Vans and Etnies had BMX programmes, but there were no specific BMX brands that just catered for the sport. We needed that, but setting up a shoe brand is expensive and as everyone in BMX knows, there isn’t much money in the industry.
When Rich started Lotek I was at a very impressionable age, I lived and breathed BMX and everything about it. The way I acted with Lotek and Fremont back then was how idiotic hype kids act around Supreme now. Except I was out on my bike having fun not taking photos of myself in a mirror for Instagram. The brand made a big impression on me and at that time the pinnacle of my footwear and clothing choices were wearing either Lotek or it’s sister clothing brand Fremont.
Rich is a pioneer on many levels, when everyone was filming on 3-chip VX cameras, Rich was looking to put out a video with the gloss and high production values of a skate video. Never one to follow trends, once everyone else clocked onto this, he did the opposite and put out a Fremont video he’d filmed on a Hi-8 camera.
Lotek is alive and stronger than ever, which is a tribute to Rich and the brand, considering that their sole target market is a sport largely populated by fickle trend following young men. Staying power in BMX isn’t always easy. I caught up with Rich recently to find out about how Lotek came about, and to ask him a lot of the questions that have been bugging me ever since I pulled on my first pair of Lotek Troops.
Lets go from the beginning – how long have you been riding and how long were you pro before starting Lotek?
I have been riding for 22 years and I’m not sure how long I would have been considered Pro as I did not really ride in contests. I think I was probably sponsored for 5 years or so before starting Lotek.
Who did you ride for?
I rode at at one point or another for Subrosa, Redline, Odyssey, Animal, and Mosh.
Do you still ride pro now?
No I had back surgery 4 years ago and my back is still pretty messed up. I can ride and whatnot but it’s not worth it health wise to make it any worse trying things I may get hurt on.
You’ve had plenty of career highlights, including getting a Ride UK cover – but was going out and properly doing the ‘pro’ thing ever a determined calculated move?
No it just sort of fell into place. I was working at a video store when I had my first photo in a magazine and at the time had also been filming a video part for the Blueprint video my friend Shad was making at the time. I had already been working shit jobs for years and given up on any little kid dreams of being sponsored and it randomly happened one day. At a certain point not long after I was able to quit my video store job and then I guess it becomes more of a career the moment you have to depend on it to eat. I’m not really big on high pressure situations so it was not the life for me.
“The motivation was the same as it is today, making simple shoes that ride well without heavy branding or marketing gimmicks”
How did Lotek start? What was the motivation behind it?
I had been asked to help a company setup a BMX program randomly and after I spoke with them on the phone it was clear we had different ideas of what that would take. They encouraged me to try and do the brand on my own and gave me the contact information to a shoe factory that had pretty low minimum orders. The motivation was the same as it is today, making simple shoes that ride well without heavy branding or marketing gimmicks.
The thing that always really struck me about Lotek, from it’s inception, is that it always had an awesome image. However when it debuted it was really clean cut, super fresh, and now it’s quite raw, edgy and rough round the edges. Why the change? And what inspired its branding?
I think the branding is sort of something that people create in there own minds. We hardly run ads and they have been pretty similar since we started although I will say the riders are the face of the brand and the ones from the beginning have grown up and new ones have come along that could also give that apearance. I put out the mix tape DVD at the end of the first year and it was pretty rough around the edges by most people standards.
In the same vein, I know that you were one of the first guys to start putting out videos, notably ‘Vancouver’, with the same high production values as skate videos, almost paving the way for other brands. Was this a conscious decision, to stand out?
Yeah it was before HD cameras were available so it seemed interesting still to try and see how high of a quality I could achieve. The whole thing was a one time experiment really that was cool at the time but seems commonplace now.
I feel like you got a lot of stick sometimes for ‘copying’ skateboarding – do you think this is fair? Do you think BMX should be looking to skateboarding, as it’s arguably more developed?
I think it’s pretty absurd but I imagine it was coming from kids that are gown up by now. I was born in 1979 I have the same influences culturally as anybody my age working in the skate industry or any other industry for that matter and to think that they have anything to do with either of our sports is rediculous.
You also got a lot of shit sometimes for Lotek’s quality (I should point out that I had Troops, Brooklyns and Coastal’s and they were all top notch). I feel like this beef was mis-guided and unfair, especially as you were the only one really pushing to progress BMX only footwear?
A few years ago we switched factories and the quality of the shoes that arrived were a lot worse then the production samples, but that’s all in the past at this point. All part of the learning curve.
In the early days, the Lotek team was insane, so many big hitters and there seemed to be a period a few years back when a lot of these dudes left for bigger money sponsors. Did you ever think that this might be over, and how important were those dudes to the brands early success?
It wasn’t really loosing the riders that changed things but the level of advertising those brands were doing in every magazine and website that took it’s toll. Lotek was never about having high profile riders, it’s more of a place that builds up younger riders. Once they reach a certain point somebody is bound to offer them a better check with money coming from a different industry. Those guys definitely helped out a lot and I could not thank them more for it but luckily I have been able enough to work with a lot of amazing riders of the years that seem to be down for what I’m are doing.
“When everything is HD I would rather be VHS as a natural cringing reaction to the monotony”
With the gloss and HD of Lotek at the time, why did you go the other way with Fremont’s videos? That mixtape filmed on VHS in San Francisco was the polar opposite of Vancouver!
When everything is HD I would rather be VHS as a natural cringing reaction to the monotony. It’s the same reason I was interested in making the Vancouver video at the time when everything was filmed on a VX.
What was the reason for starting Fremont, and where did it go? I loved that brand!
Thanks, it was a clothing and accessories project I was doing with a friends that were also the team riders. Lotek already has a simple purpose and goal but I still had a lot in my head I wanted to do so we just sort of went for it. Eventually there was not enough money to keep it going any longer though and the team guys were starting to get to that point where they were getting offers from other brands. It felt like a moment in time to me that would not be right to carry on without them.
It seems like Fremont’s aesthetic actually preceded what Stranger is now, like it was a natural progression?
Yeah it was a natural progression in every sense of the term. I do all this stuff alone so I can’t really separate myself from it.
You recently started Stranger – why that? And what does it offer that other BMX frame brands don’t?
It’s not about what other companies are doing. Which is why it’s existance is necessary.
With Lotek and Stranger now, you obviously have a lot on your plate, is it difficult to balance both brands? Does having two full time brands ever impair the other’s progression?
Yeah I work all day for the most part and do a lot of design work for different companies as well but I would not choose to have it any other way.
You’re potentially one of the busiest guys in BMX, what, after all these years, still motivates you to go out and create and run the successful brands?
Do you ever look back at old photos from magazines, like your full LRG and New Era get up in Dig Top 5′s or the bandana wearing in the Vult days and thinking ‘what the fuck’, and did these trends at the time inform Lotek aesthetics?
I was just fucking around for the photo, could’t really ever get into the process of shooting a serious portrait.
What was your favourite ever Lotek shoe?
The ones that are about to come out this February are the shoes I have been trying to make since 2004 so any of those really.
Words by Tom Kirkby
Photos by Janessa Caldwell-Garcia