Skateboarding Pro Built a Global Clothing Brand

Before he was 20, Keith Hufnagel had achieved a skateboarding fantasy: getting paid to skate via sponsorship deals and prize money from competitions.

Years of working as a pro, including overseas travel and endless photo shoots, persuaded him he needed a second career. In 2002, Mr. Hufnagel and his wife at the time, Anne Freeman, pooled their savings of $30,000, created a clothing brand, HUF, and opened a store in San Francisco, featuring hard-to-find fashion items he had spotted while wandering the globe.

“We didn’t have a business plan or anything,” he said in a 2019 interview with the online retailer Goat. “We just made it happen.” HUF Worldwide Inc. now has its own stores in New York, Los Angeles and Japan, and the brand is also sold by other retailers.

Since 2017, TSI Holdings Co. of Japan has owned HUF.

Mr. Hufnagel, who had been under treatment for brain cancer, died Sept. 24 at his home in Los Angeles County. He was 46.

He showcased street fashions that appealed to people who would never dream of hopping on a skateboard or leaping over a fire hydrant. “We always take care of the skateboarders,” he told the Guardian in 2011, “but you have to think of the bigger picture because now you are selling to the world.”

Keith Thomas Hufnagel was born Jan. 21, 1974, in New York, and grew up in the Peter Cooper Village area of Manhattan. His mother was a nurse, and his father worked at a life-insurance company. Young Keith had his first skateboard at 4 and began getting serious about the sport in his teens.

Keith Hufnagel tried ice hockey and BMX bicycle stunt riding but always came back to the board, even after chipping two front teeth in one skateboard spill.



Plazas in front of Manhattan banks—equipped with concrete benches, abstract sculptures and other obstacles to skate around or over—became his habitat, the natural meeting place and school for skaters. When he saw older skaters vault over objects while maintaining control of their boards with their feet—a trick known as an ollie—“I’m like, I want to do that,” he said in a video interview, “and I was just a little rat who was barely ollieing.”

In the 1980s, he told the Guardian, skateboarding wasn’t fashionable in New York. He concealed his board when passing through neighborhoods “where kids would steal your board and punk you out.”

He tried ice hockey and BMX bicycle stunt riding but always came back to the board, even after chipping two front teeth in one skateboard spill. By his late teens, he was traveling to Europe for competitions.

After graduating from high school, he briefly attended San Francisco State University, then dropped out to focus on skating. Known for his powerful ollies, he joined an elite group of skateboarders who make a living from the sport. His peers included fellow New York skaters Keenan Milton and Gino Iannucci.

His survivors include his wife, Mariellen Hufnagel, their children, his mother and a brother.

HUF clothing sells for premium prices. A Space Godzilla tie-dye T-shirt is listed on the website at $48, and reflective pants can cost as much as $120. Yet Mr. Hafnagel admired the resourcefulness of thrifty skaters who kept their shoes intact with glue.

“Shoes are not cheap and when you’re getting it for $120,” he said, “and you’re going through it in a week, your parents are not stoked.”

Write to James R. Hagerty at [email protected]

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