listening to canal
Johnny Ngan, a co-founder of the Canal skatewear, wheels, and gear label – launched in 2006 by Johnny and his fellow co-founder Esteban Jefferson while still in high school – sends me his location. Though the area they're skating is for the moment empty of people, it rests squarely in one of the busiest, densely-populated, and heavily-surveilled areas in the city. Following the route set for me by Google Maps, I make it to the fenced-off Brooklyn Banks, an infamous skate spot and hangout under the Brooklyn Bridge that the city officially closed off to the public to much controversy in 2010. Still, I find a hole in a chain-link fence to enter through, walk past unused basketball courts and down one of the iconic, sloping red-brick walls, and find the Canal crew assembled in the classic skate video pose lined up and watching whoever's going for a trick before they get ready to go for it themselves. Looming above us is 1 Police Plaza, HQ for the NYPD, as I monopolize Johnny's time to get a better sense of Canal, its designs, and place in the culture. The air is stupidly humid and filled with skate sounds. Trash aggregates in corners like early autumn leaves.
Did going to college and studying design give you practical skills?
Yeah, definitely. After the first intro class for Adobe Illustrator, I pretty much taught myself the rest of the program. College gave me the tools to create. I get the most joy out of creating things that people are going to use or enjoy. To be honest though, I’m somewhat of a dropout. But that’s another story.
Do you design everything from the clothes to the gear?
Esti and I work together on everything. Though some concepts may originate from one of us, we have a collaborative process. We go back and forth on everything till we’re both happy.
How do you pick your designs?
It’s all a conversation within a certain timeline. Esti and I, we have a great working chemistry. Neither of us are stubborn for the sake of being stubborn. That’s how we can keep making things without excessive bureaucracy or filibustering.
How often do the two of you come together to create new designs or items?
We actually have a secret Instagram that we both post to called Canal Mood Board. It’s a private account – we don’t follow anybody on it. The only people who follow it are me, Esti, and some of our manufacturers. Some of the people who manufacture for us, then, will see what we’re up to and it’s just like a scrapbook of things that we like, things that we have our eye on.
We think about what kind of world we want to sit in. How could we create a product that’s on par with our contemporaries for the season and keep us in that conversation? It already blows my mind that people would hashtag us along with a brand like Palace.
It is nuts. Are you trying to put out product on a seasonal basis?
We started off that way, but lately, we’ve been cooking up a new model. I can’t really say right now, but we’re definitely planning something that’s a little more frequent.
How did you learn to work with distributors and manage all the logistics involved?
The game is definitely getting the right manufacturers. Getting in touch and starting a working relationship with them and having the money to work with them. Our manufacturers, we just kind of got to know them through word of mouth.
Labor Skateshop, actually, put us in touch with our first urethane manufacturer. We were just kids hanging out at the shop at the time and we overheard the concept. They’re located on Canal Street—it’s perfect. When we launched Canal wheels, people might have thought that Canal was Labor’s in-shop wheel. That’s where it started and we went from there.
So the wheels were being sold at Labor?
Yeah, that was the first place that carried them. That was a huge launch point, for sure. Right away, off of Labor’s post on Instagram, we had like 400 followers. Oh yeah, we have some new projects that we’re working on too. We’re launching something we’re calling Canal Marketplace where we’re curating product from other brands and local goods as well as selling our own one-offs that we’ve made. Things that may or may not go into production, vintage pieces that we source out. It’s our attempt to be more interactive and create a community around Canal. It goes back to the idea of curation.
Do you find that you’re wearing mostly Canal, then?
Ha, you caught me wearing Canal today for this interview, but do I wear Canal all the time? I don’t think there’s a “you need to wear Canal” thing. It’s more of like if it complements your look. Which gets me hyped.
Do you try to make enough, quantity-wise, that you have enough just for the web store or do you really want to see it in shops?
This is the strategy that we’re working on now. We’re still growing, so every wave that we go through, every cycle – it’s a new normal. Normal’s always changing as far as quantity’s concerned. What was large last season may be normal this season.
Is there a favorite or particular design that you really think got Canal noticed?
Obviously, the wheels [Johnny later tells me the idea for them came to him in a dream]. The little sport packs, people really took to those. It’s just so practical. You just put your shit into it and go skate. I always wanted one from that company Only NY, but they were always sold of them so we made our own! They’re just so good for skating. The hoodies were really popular too. Hopefully, people are hyped for what’s next: Unique pieces we’ve crafted from scratch.
You’ve mentioned Only NY, Labor, Palace—what are the places you look toward?
We got a lot of inspiration from Dime Mtl, actually. We’re big fans of them. They rip, their product’s clean, they never overdo it with the graphics or anything. It’s simple, very wearable. It’s approachable.
Canal is simple, current, and modern. I want people to interpret it for themselves.
What’s a big product you’d like to make? What about a skate deck?
We’re working on some collaborations right now, and I would say that you’re probably not gonna see Canal make skate decks. Just from a purist skater perspective, I don’t think that’s our lane. But we have some collaborations in the works where you might see some decks. Nothing directly branded Canal, though we may be collaborating with a company that does decks. If we ever did some decks it would be a limited release. I don’t think a deck company’s our lane.
What about a woman’s line?
Absolutely. We were actually just talking the other day about some more feminine pieces, things that could be unisex or gender-neutral that are designed specifically for female skaters. We’ve been sending stuff to girls and we’re really hyped to see them wear it. Definitely supportive of a more diverse crowd in skating.
Are there any female crews you skate with or are affiliated with?
How small is the skate world?
There are a lot of little tribes in New York. We’ll see each other at a meetup place like the Banks or Tompkins, but everyone goes and does their business elsewhere with their crew.
How big was the imperative to start your own brand rather than work with one that was already established?
When we started I don’t think that was the perspective we took. We weren’t like “Hey, how cool would it be to have a product at Labor?” I’m still like “Wow, people are wearing it? Cool.”
Were there any products or designs that you regretted or think didn’t work out the way you wanted?
That’s just the nature of creating products. I’ve been learning a little bit more about business and how the stock market works. The idea is to spread your risk because, inevitably, some things don’t sell as well as others and, if you’re not experimenting, you’re not gonna get those big hits every so often. The good products balance out the things that didn’t perform as well. Which isn’t to say that it’s definitively bad, just that it didn’t reach its audience or whatever.
That’s what’s really good about having our team. Our team is basically who we want to make happy. So, when we make product, it gets tested by us first and goes through a few cycles of criticism before it gets to mass production. They’re pretty honest about what works and what doesn’t.
And you’ve known these guys since back in the day?
I’ve known Esteban since ’05 or ’06. We’re all pretty old friends. I went to High School of Art and Design on 52nd and 2nd Avenue. High school was a really defining experience. I grew up in Queens, and had I not gone there I don’t think I would have met all the people I met. It was a school that you had to apply for, so everybody who went there are from all different parts of the city. I got close to the people who skated. Some kid would live in the Bronx and some kid would live in Brooklyn, and that whole first year was like, “Come to my part and let me show you what I skate.” That just opened my mind up to a diverse world of things.
I grew up in Fresh Meadows, then in Whitestone, but when I wanted to get my own place Astoria seemed perfect. So I’ve been living there for six or seven years now. In Queens, some people never leave their neighborhood. I think about that a lot. Still, I’m down at Astoria skate park a lot. I’d say I’m a local. But I come out to the city too, and explore and street skate.
Would you like to do this as a full-time gig?
This is my life right now. Esteban is going to graduate school at Columbia while putting in work for Canal. Our stock manager Mateo, he does this part-time. But for sure, we put a lot into it and we’ve definitely had that talk about how this really could be something.
I’ve met so many people because of Canal and I love that. Connecting with people who do all kinds of things. I love meeting people who do businesses of their own. We can always exchange notes and relate on certain hardships. I don’t think it’s a kind of zero-sum world where only one person can prosper.
What trajectory are you aiming for?
It’s a lot of timing. It’s who you know. And I’ve been, more or less, skating with these guys for 10 years. There’s new blood that comes into Canal all the time, but I’ve been skating with a lot of these dudes for a while and I think I wouldn’t be in this position if I switched it up.
One thing leads to another. Some people do blow up overnight, or so it appears. All I can say from first-hand experience is that if every day we can resonate with some fans and make some sales, that’s progress.
We’re also trying to get our paper together and do more trips. It does something for sure to get out there and see kids and visit their local spots and skate park and just make it real for them.