It seems that the time of death has finally been called on the Alien Workshop. One of the most predominant brands of the last 20 years, a company who nurtured and supported some of the greatest talents of the generation, and one whose art direction and audiovisual output at one time was some of the most inspired and forward thinking in skateboarding. And now it is no more.
So what happened? How did such a well-respected and applauded company go out of business, who is to blame, and is there anything that could have been done to prevent it?
The first thing that many people seem to be jumping to blame for the companies dissolution has been the recent defection of team members, eight in less that 2 years, with the rumor being that Jake Johnson and Gilbert Crockett were close to leaving but were somehow coaxed back into the fold. To me this being the cause of Alien’s demise seems highly unlikely, rather I take the hemorrhaging of riders to be an indicator of deeper problems within the company, and a bunch of young men who are smart enough to realize that they don’t have a lot to fall back on, making lateral moves to preserve themselves from what obviously seemed like an inevitable and impending collapse.
We find a much more likely scenario when we look more to the changing of hands of the company and its distribution over the past six years when DNA was purchased by snowboard giant Burton. Chris Carter initially told the PR Newswire “Joe, Mike and I look forward to leveraging Burton’s strengths to reach the full potential for the DNA brands“, and his optimism seems to have been shared by Burton CEO Jake Burton who announced, “I am confident that we can provide a home where DNA and their team of skaters can build upon what they have already excelled at in the skate industry“. It would seem fair to assume at that point that there were no serious financial troubles with the brand and rather that this was a decision purely made out of the need to expand in answer to skateboarding’s ever-increasing popularity.
Que a massive downturn in he global economy and a tightening of belts over at Burton and we start to see the first sign of problems emerging. By 2012 there had been massive changes, the cutting of longterm team riders (from Burton Snowboards), as well as dropping and closing down other companies that the brand had acquired such as Gravis footwear and Forum Snowboards. Things were looking pretty grim for the Sovereign Sect. That was of course until long-term rider, street league founder and all round professional branded clown, Rob Dyrdek swooped in to save the day by buying DNA distribution back from Burton before its dissolution. The idea that the companies troubles were over however was not shared by many.
I for one would never call into question Dyrdek’s reasons behind wanting to keep Alien afloat, the company has sponsored him from its inception and the start of his own career as a professional skateboarder and his loyalty and love of the brand is clear. What I, and many others, did question was his ability to run things successfully. Concerns that were furthered by news of questionable financing partnerships and the headquarters moving away from Dayton Ohio where it originated.
The problem was that Alien had grown during the Burton years, and quickly, as had been the intention of the acquisition. Burton had poured their experience and resources into the company and expanded it to meet the needs of an ever-growing market. By 2009 they had one of the largest and most respected teams at the time, and with the release of Mindfeild cemented another chapter of top drawer videography and stylistic integrity. But as the credit crunch dragged on and the failing of global financial markets started to directly affect consumers, the bottom fell out and the business model collapsed.
When Dyrdek bought the company back the kind of massive downsizing and restructuring that would have been required to shrink the company back down to a size that would have fallen in line with its consumer base would have been an almost impossible task, and realistically if the option had been discounted by Burton it was unlikely to be achieved through a greater affinity with the roots of the brand, especially when the whole process involved aligning himself with third-party investors who knew nothing about skateboarding other than that they might be able to turn a profit from it. His marketing strategies and in working with places like Monster energy, 7Eleven, and in what must go down as one of the most bizarre skate collaborations ever, Celtic brand sea salt, he managed to do a lot to diminish the image of the company while trying to keep it afloat.
And so they limped on making various changes in an attempt to reinvigorate sales, putting Dill and AVE in a more directorial role where the team and image were concerned, collaborating with the estates of well-known mainstream artists like Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, moving headquarters from Dayton to California to be closer to the rest of the industry. Alas all efforts were doomed to fail, and as news broke that employees had been dismissed effective immediately and with no clear sign if a final paycheck could even be expected , the outpouring of pictorial eulogies on social media began in earnest. In the end with his business partners running out of money after being allowed to purchase a controlling stake in the company and pulling the plug, Rob reportedly ended up paying everyone out of his own pocket for a period of a little over three months just to keep the doors open for as long as he could, further cementing the irony that the only person who cared enough and had the resources to save the Alien Workshop, and someone who had been there since the beginning had grown so out of touch with reality that all he did was prolong the inevitable after debasing the company’s legacy.
While Habitat looks likely to find new distribution elsewhere and continue on, Alien appears to be dead. Perhaps it had been for a while and we were only seeing its bloated corpse re-animated by a combination of energy drinks and rampant ego, an unfitting end.