Lev Tanju - On founding Palace
For years, Palace has sat at the heart of skateboarding culture globally, now as two of the biggest names in fashion and motoring join forces for another collection, we dive deep into discovering more about Palace founder Lev Tanju’s career, why he started his own brand.
Lev Tanju’s success story is one of the staple tales of creativity, ambition and determination that bounces around the streetwear community to this day. It’s a journey of organic growth, grafting, and strategic planning that has helped turn Palace into the world-renowned brand that everyone knows and loves. It’s a story that hums in the hundred-metre-long queues outside of Palace stores around the world.
At the time when England’s skating community was only just beginning to carve its own path on the global stage, Tanju was busy making a name for himself. In 1998, the soon-to-be entrepreneur was jumping between different skate houses in London (known as palaces), and selling skateboards to pay his rent. In the early 2000s, Tanju was fast becoming one of the figureheads of the British subculture that would help sculpt fashion as we know it. And his future seismic brand Palace was taking shape.
For Tanju, the goal was to draw attention away from the US, which already had iconic brands like that of Supreme to compete with, and breathe more life into the English skating scene. He wanted to make a skate brand that both him and his friends could identify with; a brand that was “London” through and through. But it wasn’t simply a case of being on the radar that made Tanju stand out. It was his canny, calculated movements, his astute strategies, and his always-on attitude that helped land him in the right places at the right time — collaborating with designer Fergus Purcell on the iconic “Tri-Ferg” logo was one of those occasions.
The skating family around Tanju pins his success down to a number of things. Most notably, his understanding and determination to implement limitless possibilities — of the skating world, of what the brand Palace can be, and what can be done to make sure everything that you do is innovative. That’s the force behind how the brand managed to get footballer Cristiano Ronaldo to score a penalty wearing the Palace x Juventus shirt. Or how Tanju managed to secure a collection with designer Ralph Lauren whilst wearing a tracksuit to their meeting. They’re all examples of Tanju knowing what he wants, knowing how to get it, and not stopping until it’s firmly in his grasp.
As the designer, founder, and marketing marvel joins forces on a new collaboration with AMG, we sit down with Tanju to find out more about his journey, how he made his mark on the fashion world, and everything that he’s learnt along the way.
Back in 1998, when you started skating, how did you first start getting your name out there as both a skater and designer to watch?
When I first started, I didn’t see myself as a designer. I just wanted to do something for skate culture in England and London. I was just trying to do something to support my friends that were all really talented skateboarders and were skating for different companies. I felt like there was a different way to promote skateboarding and have a brand with a different optics on skateboarding — just show the world a different view of what I see as a skate company.
What was your initial view of it, then?
I felt like skateboarding was becoming really polished and everything was HD. It all looked quite similar to me. I felt like there wasn’t a brand from London that really looked like it was from London. There were a couple of brands, but it wasn’t the stuff that I was into. So, I wanted to do something different and to touch on my inspirations, the stuff that I loved growing up skating.
How would you describe those early days of your career when you were sleeping on friends’ sofas and selling skateboards to make money?
We all lived in a house called The Palace, which was right by Southbank [London]. We paid next-to-nothing in rent, it was a hole. I guess that was a big time for me. We skated every single day. I was working at Slam City Skates. It was an amazing time. We went to Southbank all day, everyday. I was filming clips on my camera phone — an old Motorola flip-phone. I started filming the guys, I liked the way it looked and it didn’t look like anything else. It was raw and fuzzy. It took me back to the days of skate videos when it wasn’t HD, you couldn’t see what everyone was wearing, it was a bit blurry, and it left a bit of imagination to how you registered the skateboarding in the clips because it was so raw. Making small stupid videos, I thought, ‘I really like doing this. I want to start a board company’. So, I did it.
Growing up, I was imitating professional skateboarders; wanting to dress like them and do the same tricks. I was always buying skate stuff, and around that time I was going into Dover Street Market. I was on the dole, and I’d take my whole cheque and buy a Comme Des Garçons shirt. I’ve always been drawn to clothing, I love it.
When was that realisation? When you were re-selling boards?
At that point, I was actually just doing it to survive. This is before I worked in skate shops. It’s really hard to get a job in the skating industry, especially in London. Everything was in California. There were hardly any independent skate brands. We kind of opened the doors… There are hundreds of skate companies now, and everyone knows that you can do it DIY and it works. I think that’s what, in essence, skating is about. There weren’t big opportunities out there. Now, it’s different. Everybody starts a board company, it’s quite expected. At the time, for me, there were a few brands that I really admired and it wasn’t feasible for me to do anything for them, so I did it myself. The board selling was out of me not having money, and I got my friends to get skate packages, so I was buying and selling boards to them, just to keep me at Southbank and to keep a little bit of money in my pocket to eat and pay my rent.
In light of that, who were your biggest inspirations for skating and designing?
Skating-wise, I’d say Chocolate and Alien Workshop, which are classic American skate companies. I was always watching their videos and was really inspired by how good their teams were — not so much the products, but I was always buying their boards. Clothing-wise, I’ve always liked Ralph Lauren, so I was buying baggy chinos and lumberjack shirts. That was a big inspiration. Then Silas, because it was coming out of London and affiliated with Slam City. When you went into Slam City Skates, there would be t-shirts and then a £300 weird jacket with a furry collar. I was wearing a lot of Silus because my business partner at the time was working for them. Working at Slam, you could get the clothing for free. That was a brand that I admired. And then I went really crazy into looking at all brands. Also, the luxury side of things, even back then, was inspiring, like Gucci loafers or the weird classic things they were making; Comme Des Garçons wallets — not really luxury, but not streetwear. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more into it.
When I first started, I didn’t see myself as a designer. I just wanted to do something for skate culture in England and London. I was just trying to do something to support my friends that were all really talented skateboarders.
You mentioned that you wanted to do something for your friends that was different to the things that were around… At what point did you know that Palace was what you wanted to create, and you had a clear vision for it?
At the start, I had all the boards drawn up and I wanted to do massive prints on t-shirts. When we were speaking to factories, I asked if they could make the graphic as big as possible on the back, and touch on surf culture graphics — really big branded stuff. I’d go skating in jogging bottoms and wear them everyday. But at that time, sportswear wasn’t really at the forefront of what everyone was wearing. So it kind of naturally progressed. We couldn’t make tracksuits straight away because we were so small. It slowly happened because you can’t just roll in. We’re independent and always have been, so we didn’t have loads of money to start sampling knitwear and things like that.
What is one thing that you have learnt during the years of becoming the founder of one of the biggest streetwear brands in the world?
Stay true to what you want to do and what you want to make. Sometimes I lose touch of that, and if I go back to it, that’s the most important thing with making stuff that I want to wear and not trying to produce stuff thinking about who would buy it. Even if it doesn’t sell or doesn’t work, at least I know that’s what I like, so just stay true to what you care about.