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Jon Julio

Picture rollerblading, and you might imagine a group of teenagers listening to Nirvana, sporting fanny packs, blading to the nearest 7-11. But not Jon Julio. He joined a group of rebels who created their own branch of blading — aggressive inline skating. Performing jumps, grinds, and stunts on the street and at skateparks, they took rollerblading to the extreme. It was a lifestyle and culture that matched skateboarding. And like skateboarding, aggressive inline skating exploded in the 90s. Competing in the X Games, being part of pop culture, and littering the streets, rollerblading saw attention like it never had before… and has never seen since. After its peak, inline skating began a quick decline as other sports like skateboarding and snowboarding took over. Rollerblading’s death was marked in 2005 when all rollerblading events were cut from the X Games.

Even after the fad dissipated, Julio worked on projects, products, and promotions to allow blading to spread its roots, just waiting for its chance to blossom again. And COVID-19 may have forced a new sprout. Looking for a way to be active, get outside, and see friends safely, many people dusted off their rollerblades and hit the streets. We had the chance to talk with Julio over a Zoom call, where he started talking about why he got into rollerblading in the first place:

 

Jon Julio: It’s my friends that I grew up with in school. I had maybe eight or nine friends who I was really close with and still am. We just kinda did everything together — sports, DJing, breakdancing. Then in the 90s, we started playing street hockey. I think one of the early things we saw was Airborne. They had Chris Edwards, who was one of the founders of skating. He was skating foot ramps, jumping stairs, doing rails, and transitions. We were just kind of like “Oh my god.” From hockey, we transitioned to that: jumping stairs, stair-riding, and eventually rails. Some of my friends stuck in there with me, but I got addicted. That was my thing for sure. I was like “This is what I want to do.” And what kept me going was finding there was actually a culture. There were people doing this sport all over the world.

 

Spectator Magazine: What was it like being a part of the blading community in its early years?

 

JJ: You know, in the mid 90s, I don’t think anyone was really ready for that big boom. I think people were just excited to do it, and there was just a blank canvas as far as how to skate and how to do tricks, so I was really excited about that. I mean, I knew about skateboarding — things were already happening with that. But with skates, there was just so much to discover still and I was so lucky to find it at the time because it was so young and fresh. 

 

SM: Do you have a favorite memory from then?

 

JJ: ‘96 was probably the turning point in my life. When I look back at it now, I’m like “Yo.” After winning the national championships, I went to Switzerland for a contest. My sponsor flew me there, and then I won that contest and then went to Spain. I won a big contest there, and then after that, you know, it kind of established me as somebody who is a sponsored skater. It got my foot in the door, basically.

 

SM: How’d you deal with recreational rollerblading taking off at the same time?

 

JJ: We were definitely trying to separate from that stigma of biker shorts and bright colors. We were trying to introduce a new, little more edgier style of street skating and just a new vision of skating, and I think it definitely happened. The market was really big and a lot of skates were being sold, but 99 percent of those companies were corporate companies that were either feeding the industry with their money and making sales or sponsoring skaters and events. So it was definitely different than it is now.  I think we were trying to create our own little world, you know. I can say for myself that I was trying to create my own energy within the brands that I was involved in or had ownership of. I think we wanted to contribute our own vision on how skating would be. I personally look up to skateboarding. I admire the culture and how it functions. In a lot of aspects, our industries are built the same when it comes to sponsoring skaters, the events, and the obstacles we ride. That goes for BMX as well. So in finding this identity, what I quickly learned is that it takes time to develop and be recognized as a person, as a culture, as a thing. So I don't know if we were trying to, but we organically created our own culture.

"So I don't know if we were trying to, but we organically created our own culture."

SM: Rollerblading and skateboarding seem so similar, but there was a lot of animosity towards bladers back then. Where do you think the hate came from and how has it impacted where rollerblading is today?

 

JJ: Yeah, I think it has changed a lot. This is from my point of view of course, but there was definitely a lot of money in blading for a short period of time — a lot of exposure. Skateboarding had been around for so long and had been doing similar amazing things. It had been around for 20 plus years and had gone through the ups and downs. And during this period of the early 90s, skateboarding was at a low. All of a sudden, blading comes about and brings in a lot of people back on wheels. So I think there might have been a bit of frustration there, with such a young sport with a similar build as far as marketplaces go. Pop culture also unpopularized rollerblading. Whether that’s in skateboarding or through media, people out there who were influential, whether it be ESPN or MTV, definitely influenced and ostracized blading. So I think the cultures clashed, and that's okay. That’s the natural progression of anything. But I think nowadays it's a little different. There’s a whole social media world now, a whole new culture out there, and a whole new generation. I mean at the end of the day, I think it's a passion to skate and we all love it.

"I mean at the end of the day, I think it's a passion to skate and we all love it."

I found skating and that was all I wanted to do. I’m very passionate about it. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with doing that. It gets ridiculous when you think about it. Just do what you want to do and have fun. Everything else just sounds crazy now. There are so many more important things in life to be angry about. 

 

SM: Looking back on the way the industry functioned, do you see ways that leaders in the industry like yourself have been able to learn from the mistakes of the past? Does part of you want to keep some of the “underground” elements of rollerblading from the past?

 

JJ: I don’t think keeping the underground element is very important — I think growth is very important. I don’t think it’s necessarily important to be underground or to keep that vibe. I think what we needed in the 90s were situations like this, with some of the brands that are out now like Dead Wheels or Too Easy — the independent brands that are working in the market and curating in their natural way. That's the most important part because we didn't have that in the 90s. We had Levi’s, or I don’t know, Slim Jim, marketing blading. It’s kind of weird to think about it now, but that's how it really was. Now we have a different place, a different drive, a different group of people in the forefronts. So if we get into situations where we start working with bigger brands, then at least it’s looking the right way. At least it's the right people involved and those decisions to take those different routes can be exposed to the corporate world or pop culture. At least it's the people at the forefront who can help navigate. One of the biggest things that sets Them Skates apart from other skate companies is their increase in royalties for their pro skaters. Professional rollerblader Danny Beer joined the team in 2018 and two years later, he got a pro model skate. The royalty for Them Skates is now $30/skate, a figure unheard of in the industry until now, and it has both professional and amateur skaters excited. 

 

SM: Was your decision to increase the royalties coming from you as a pro skater, since you never had those royalties while you were skating, or you as a businessman? Do you think you’ve set a new precedent in the industry?

 

JJ: It’s a combination of both. We’ll continue to keep pushing and hopefully expand the line. We also have a pretty good sized team. And from my personal direction with the brand, I want to do the best I can as we grow for everyone that’s involved. Financially supporting the pro skaters on our team to the best of our ability is a huge step and I want to keep doing that. We found out what we can do better. When I was a pro skater, royalties were nothing near what we are offering. I wasn’t into manufacturing. I wasn’t paying the factories the amount I’m paying now. I didn’t know how much everything was really costing and how much we were making. I didn’t know if I could increase cost on specifics.  Ultimately, I think it needs to happen for skaters to have something to look forward to. Pro skaters need to have longevity and to want to work for something so that they don’t get burnt out and continue to be excited about supporting their brand — that’s what I would have wanted. Growing up, I wondered why royalties were only a couple bucks per skate, even though really good ones cost like $300. Easy math, you know? It didn’t make any sense not to do it. We had Broscow and Sean Darst at ten to fifteen dollars. That worked and it didn’t hurt the brand. It created a platform where we could pay the guys something decent. We didn’t put much thought into it other than the fact that we knew that we could do it. I want to try to lead this direction for the other brands so they can do more for their skaters. And from rumors, it’s already happened. We just kind of do it our way and go against the grain. Just because someone’s been doing it for twenty years doesn’t mean it’s the right way.

 

SM: Them Skates has one of the hottest teams in rollerblading right now. How did you end up choosing the people you did?

 

JJ: Friendship. I have friends who just don’t want to go to work everyday. They work and they go home. They get their paycheck and that’s fine — you got to make a living. But I’m very lucky and very fortunate to be working in a field that I love and I'm very passionate about. I get to do what I love. I'm in the position where I get to write checks and I get to choose things that determine my day. I don’t want to do that without my friends. I want to do that with people that are like-minded with me, who are my friends and all appreciate the same things. That’s the go-to for this whole project. It's nice to finally be in that position.

 

SM: That's the easiest way to make sure people you work with share the same energy. It’s more authentic.

 

JJ: I mean yeah it’s like, if you have a normal job — and I don’t want to downplay anybody's job — you want to be excited, you want to go, and do something you’re stoked about. I enjoy working the most when doing it with my friends. 

 

SM: You’ve done so much for the sport, but what’s your ultimate vision for rollerblading? Are you trying to bring back the culture of the 90s or are you trying to create something new? What’s your end goal?

 

JJ: I think it’s always been about exposure to people, to see skating. When I was skating, there used to be these little tours that came in and that’s how I saw rollerblading. The Blading Cup is an event that I’ve been organizing with Jason Reyna, Miguel Ramos, and Tim Franken. It will be our tenth year next year, but that originally was just a demo planned in Santa Ana. I’m lucky to be working with downtown Santa Ana, which is where I live. And we’re able to host a really nice venue for everybody to enjoy because there’s a really cool downtown marketplace down here. So the whole culture of events in rollerblading is we do booths, we create an experience with all the brands, and that also involves food. It also has a beer garden, restaurants and bars, and really cool boutiques that people can visit as well. It’s a perfect place for an event. These types of events are important in my opinion because, for one, it’s almost impossible to work with cities like this. I’m just lucky that I got to meet the people I did and be able to generate, you know, thousands of people downtown. But at the end of the day, it’s just about exposing people to skating. From our point of view, we’re about to take some steps into this kind of world. And I'm stoked that the couple of brands that approached us to collaborate and to carry our products eventually chose us because it could have been somebody else, and that could have been Slim Jim. So I think that's a necessary step that we didn’t really have in the 90s or maybe it wasn’t really respected enough to those people who had all the big dollars. It was just to make that money and jump out and then forget about it. For me, I’ve never left. And again — I can just say this 100 times — I’m super fortunate that we were able to get a piece of this growth in the last two years, just taking it day by day, and being ready for whatever we can. The next wave will determine a lot, and we’re just happy to be part of whatever happens.

Jon Julio for Spectator Magazine, 2021

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