It was blue, with a graphic in the center, modeled after the Grant Theft Auto art, those colorful grids of sexy, violent imagery that adorn the covers of video games in that series. Only, on this shirt, believe it or not, things were done a bit differently. The central text read: “ITALIA: MEME CITY.” Around that text, where there might normally be pictures of muscle-bound dudes with guns, or large-chested women with guns, was a grid of famous Italian tourist destinations: the tower of Pisa, the Coliseum, and so on. And superimposed in front of each scene was one of those stick-figure reddit “meme” characters. I can’t remember the details — I was so flustered I didn’t even take a picture — but for the sake of this blog post, imagine the “Me Gusta Face” in front of the Spanish Steps and, like, the “Forever Alone Guy” on a gondola in Venice. The “Challenge Accepted Guy” in front of the leaning tower. Shit like that. (In fact, these made-up examples might make a great deal more sense than what was probably on the shirt. The meme-to-landmark assignments struck me as even more random.)
There are few souvenirs better than a bizarre, failed novelty shirt. They reaffirm the existence of national and cultural boundaries in a globalizing world. And, above all else, they remind us how dumb the makers and wearers of novelty t-shirts are.
I couldn’t bring myself to buy it, because I couldn’t imagine anyone getting why this was so funny. Ironically liking memes only works well on the Internet, when everyone knows you’re too savvy (or fancy yourself too savvy) for that. In real life, I’d look like a grown man who really likes reddit memes, which, guys, I’m totally not.
One of the most incredible things about the skateboarding industry is how well it has insulated itself from all traditional forms of media. It took me at least 15 minutes to convince myself — combing through forums, Instagram posts, tweets and the like — it was true: Alien Workshop (and Habitat) went out of business. For non-skaters, it’s difficult to draw a comparison; there aren’t professional sports franchises known for their graphic design sensibilities, 16mm montages and commitment to East Coast grittiness. In fact, one episode of “The Osbournes” is probably Alien’s biggest contribution to pop culture at-large in its 24 years in business.
So, it’s perhaps appropriate that MTV fits in, at least obliquely, to the best narrative I can put together to explain how Alien Workshop went out of business so suddenly — and without explanation.
Rob Dyrdek, Alien Workshop’s first rider, has aged out of skateboarding and done quite well for himself. He’s been a fixture on MTV since around 2008, graduating from “Rob & Big” — a “reality” show based on a skit in a DC video — to “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory,” the latter of which is in its sixth season. MTV must have paid him well, because in early 2012, he bought DNA Distribution, the company that owns Alien Workshop, from the snowboarding company Burton.
He held onto it for just about 20 months, before selling DNA for $1.5 million and some stock options to a Carlsbad-based firm called Pacific Vector Holdings, which is described in the press release as “a premier action sports retail and consumer brands company.” This is, if you can’t already tell, where things start to go wrong.
PVH owned some No Fear clothing outlets and Gatorz sunglasses, and, by October of last year, one of the most storied brands in skateboarding history. Dyrdek, in a prepared statement, said that “The DNA brands are in great hands.” The CEO of PVH, Robert Reynolds, called DNA ”a foundational piece of our brands division as we continue to execute on our growth strategy.”
Fortunately for us, dissecting Alien’s death, PVH was — for reasons I can’t pretend to fathom — a publicly traded company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. As such, it must file earnings statements, which it did, through most of 2013. From these, we can learn what that “growth strategy” was — and what happened to Alien because of it.
PVH’s last full report available on its website, for Q2 2013, shows that it was borrowing lots of money to acquire companies. In early 2013, it borrowed a few million to buy Ryderz Inc., which owns the No Fear stores. PVH was turning these into Prime Ride Shops, one of these pan-action-sports joints you get sort of used to seeing in Westfield Shopping Centres all over. In all likelihood, the company took out third-party loans to acquire DNA in similar fashion. Their cash holdings were just $800K in the middle of 2013.
But the CEO, Reynolds, was comfortable with that, at least according to prepared statements. A statement in early 2014 shows Reynolds triumphant, if cautious. He had reason to be proud: PVH’s revenue was up more than twentyfold over last year. But, of course, all the revenue was the result of leveraged buyouts. He was saddled with debt, and needed to restructure his portfolio (and debt) in order to survive. He acknowledged as much, though maybe he was overconfident.
In March, this would seem to be going according to plan, even if the plan had ugly logic. PVH announced it would close 14 of the Ryderz shops in its portfolio as part of a “turnaround effort.” Though PVH is, by definition, not a private equity firm, this is right out that playbook: Cut costs on the low performers, invest in the good stores, increase revenue, service debts — all sounds good. So long as your cash flow doesn’t get fucked up.
Which appears to be exactly what happened.
Recently, PVH announced it wasn’t able to file its 2013 earnings statements. Why? “The Corporation is currently not in a position to…file its 2013 Annual Financial Statements, primarily as a result of additional time required to secure financing and, subsequently, for its auditors to be compensated in order to complete the audit of the Corporation’s financial statements.” If I understand that correctly, that doesn’t sound good! That was May 1st.
By May 8th, the company released another statement saying basically nothing, other than that it wasn’t insolvent — we swear! — and that it’d get its financials out by June 13, with three press releases between.
The first of those came on May 15, last Thursday, and it didn’t have good news: the company was $7 million in debt, but had convinced its debtors to convert their debt to equity in stock, at $0.12 CAD per share. It would close four more Ryderz stores and PVH employees agreed to take a pay cut. Also, it’s looking to sell Gatorz sunglasses — and seeking a bridge loan of $300,000.
I’m not qualified to say what happened to Alien Workshop, because I don’t sit on the board of PVH, and PVH’s filings don’t mention DNA. All I know is that by Monday the company was toast. Well, at least according to Instagram, the Slap forums and Twitter. So if you want to talk shit about corporate money ruining skateboarding, maybe go ahead?
“Dean’s own business, gas and fast food, had become hateful to him … He was seeing beyond the surfaces of the land to its hidden truths. Some nights he sat up late on his front porch with a glass of Jack and listened to the trucks heading south on 220, carrying crates of live chickens to the slaughterhouses — always under cover of darkness, like a vast and shameful trafficking — and he thought how these same chickens might return from their destination as pieces of meat to the floodlit Bojangles’ up the hill from his house, and that meat would be drowned in the bubbling fryers by employees whose hatred of the job would leak into the cooked food, and that food would be served up and eaten by customers who would grow obese and end up in the hospital in Greensboro with diabetes or heart failure, a burden to the public, and later Dean would see them riding around the Mayodan Wal-Mart in electric carts because they were too heavy to walk the aisles of a Supercenter, just like hormone-fed chickens.”—George Packer, telling Dean Price’s Piedmont tragedy, in “The Unwinding.” Damn near the whole book is contained within this passage, both in content and paranoid, Pynchonian form. Only it’s not exactly paranoid, because it’s right. This is what happened to our country over the last four decades, and it’s told in a way that makes you truly grasp the human cost of this slow chipping away at our landscape and soul. I’m only halfway through it, and you better believe this will be required reading for 12th graders when I’m dictator.
Medium published the deepest dive into the Leland Yee scandal I’ve seen so far. And, aside from the fact that it appears to have been edited by someone who recently purchased a Zagat guide to San Francisco, it’s excellent. Yee seems to have spent five years surrounded by all sorts of federal agents playing a dizzying cast of characters — a play he stumbled into and turned into farce. At one point an FBI agent, posing as a developer, has Yee call another FBI agent, posing as health department official, to have Yee steer business toward a buddy of his. Kicker: the business doesn’t even exist; it’s yet another FBI front.
As with many corruption cases (and, if I recall correctly every terrorism case post-9/11) Yee’s wrongdoing happened in an alternative universe, only he didn’t know it. Schroedinger’s crime, or something.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Yee as the story drags on. He’s pathetic, on the one hand — arrested for shoplifting sun block in Hawaii! — but he’s also desperate and suffering from a severe case of dramatic irony, besides. On top of that — and not absolve Yee of obvious wrongdoing — it’s difficult not to see corruption cases like these as somewhat arbitrary. We are so inured to the role money plays in politics at the federal level that it seems our outrage over corruption on the local level is a form of overcompensation. (Qualifier here: yes, Yee offered to sell $2 million worth of weapons to a fake mob boss, but this started as a run-of-the-mill corruption case.)
But what about this, from Jonathan Chait’s column in New York this week, on David Camp’s honest tax reform effort. Camp, a Republican from Michigan, and chair of the House Ways and Means committee, released a plan that, among other things, would directly tax financial institutions in an effort to reduce moral hazard, and, obviously, generate tax revenue. It was promptly smothered by leadership. Observe:
“Hours after the Camp plan emerged on February 26, private-equity firms informed Republicans that fundraising commitments would be canceled indefinitely. Then they sent lobbyists to explain to various Republicans the vital role their special treatment plays in the proper functioning of the economy and the terrible things that would result from cancellation of this special treatment, not least to the GOP’s fund-raising operations. By mid-March, more than 50 House Republicans had signed a letter assailing the ‘arbitrary’ financial-transaction tax that ‘threatens our economic vitality by reducing access to credit, curbing economic growth, and worsening our nation’s unacceptably high unemployment rate.’”
There’s so much intermediation (from RNC, to leadership, to lawmaker) and the requests are so broad as to be indistinguishable from economic theory, but this is the entirely legal relationship we have between for-profit ventures and lawmakers in Washington.
Now, back to Yee:
"On Sept. 22, 2011, the agent posing as the Atlanta developer met Yee at a fundraising event in San Francisco and wrote him a $500 check — the maximum donation allowed under city law. Yee followed up with a voicemail, transcribed in the court filing: he ‘appreciate[d] the conversation and then hopefully, um, you know, there are things that uh, we can do to be of help uh, to you, and uh, but anyway just wanted to reach out and say thank you very, very much.’
Two days later, Yee called the developer twice. The first time, he said he wanted to discuss affordable housing development, particularly once he became mayor. In the second call, Yee said he couldn’t talk policy on the same call in which he asked for money. And then he asked the developer to raise $10,000 for his campaign.
The agent obliged. He got 10 undercover operatives to write $500 checks to Yee’s campaign. Then the agent wrote a $5,000 check — 10 times the legal limit. When Yee asked for even more money, the developer balked. He needed to know he’d get something in return.
Yee assured him that once he was mayor that would be no problem. ‘We control $6.8 billion, man, shit,’ he reportedly said, referring to the city’s annual budget.”
Had Yee, not Ed Lee, been elected mayor of San Francisco in 2011, he’d have a budget of $6.8 billion at his disposal. The federal budget for 2013 was $3.8 trillion. The money maps to favors one-to-one at a local level just because the numbers are smaller. The sort of favors you can do for someone as mayor of a city, even a large one, are necessarily discrete; the sorts of favors you can do on a federal level are sort of vague, and can be more easily masked by rhetoric. The quid and the quo get lost in a stultifying slurry of horseshit.
None of this is to excuse corruption on a local level, just to say that these indictments feel like close cousins of show trials to me. Official fictions — literally! — that distract from the amorphous corruption we take for granted. The sort that actually, you know, ruins our country.