German Nieves is a veteran skateboarder from New Jersey who’s also spent time working in the skate and fashion industries. After pursuing sponsored skateboarding through the 90s and early aughts, Germ earned an Associates degree in graphic design from the Art Institute of Philadelphia. He then scored a job doing brand marketing at 10 Deep where he oversaw their skate program, and later went on to work as a sales director at J. Crew. In 2014 German parted ways with the nine-to-five grind and launched his own brand, Paterson League. Deeply rooted in a heritage sports aesthetic and drawing influences from skateboarding, tennis, and fashion; Paterson League is one of the more interesting brands to emerge in recent years.
LELAND: What’s the idea behind Paterson League?
GERMAN: I named it after the place I grew up [Paterson, New Jersey]. The idea was to do a brand that’s sporty and has a tennis aesthetic. It’s basically a reflection of my style—my whole upbringing. It’s based on fashion, skateboarding, and tennis.
You started out making just a hat through a friend. Now you’ve expanded into shirts and boards as well, when and why did you expand Paterson into a full line?
Well, I got fired from my job. That gave me the opportunity to really focus on what I wanted to do. I started doing Paterson while I was working for J. Crew and I didn’t have the time to really go at it. Then, I had someone helping me out that really believed in the brand—another thing that made me really want to push Paterson as a full-time thing. I didn’t have a job, so I was thinking “What am I gonna do to pass the time?” Paterson ended up becoming that thing. A lot of long nights went into this.
Sometimes that’s how things happen. You’re put in a position and something manifests out of it. Talk a little bit about tennis and how you got into it?
The tennis thing started out through this dude Joe that I skate with. He invited me to go play with his roommate. I started really getting into it a few years ago. I think I took it a little more serious than they did. I’m not gonna say that I’m a great player, but it’s fun. It’s like skating—pretty hard to master and I like the whole aesthetic. Tennis was something that I was into when I was coming up with the brand and I think it will always be a major inspiration behind the look.
Do you follow pro tennis?
Yeah, I’ve been watching Wimbledon and the French Open. I like Roger Federer—my man is robotic, he’s pretty sick. Nick Kyrgios from Australia is pretty sick; he’s got a different approach to the game. A French player named Gael Monfils is pretty unreal to watch. Those are probably my favorite players. I’d also say Andre Agassi. The Agassi thing is crazy too, because I picked up his autobiography and read it in a couple of days. The guy’s story is incredible, and he’s an American player; so reading that made me even more psyched on tennis.
Speaking of inspiration, how did growing up in New Jersey and skating New York during the ’90s golden era influence you as far as style, fashion, design, and things like that?
I grew up coming to the city [New York] when I was super young. I went there even before I skated. I didn’t live too far. My grandma lived on Avenue D, on 12th and D by the swimming pool. When I started to come to the city to skate the Brooklyn Banks, it was like, Mike and Quim Cardona and Andy Bautista. I was thirteen or fourteen at the time. I would see Kyle James, Ivan Perez, Ryan Hickey, Harold Hunter, and all of the old school dudes. I was definitely influenced by those types of skaters. Those dudes were always dressed fresh and skated dope. It was a cool time to grow up in New York. For me that was the era, those were the golden years—the early 90s. That definitely inspired a lot of who I am today and the brand. That was when skaters were into getting fresh and skating in Fila’s and shit. It was that whole KIDS era, I was never a part of that shit; but it was there.
That’s still my favorite time period to this day. I saw a photo you posted on Instagram of Fetty Wap wearing Paterson League. How did that happen?
That happened through my cousin, Tiffany. A lot of my family grew up in Paterson. Fetty’s way younger than me, and my cousin knows a couple of his people. She was like, “You could get this on him. You should send a box to his DJ, because I know him.” So, I sent him a box just to see what would happen. I met Fetty before, he’s a cool dude—he’s a superstar now; but yeah I sent over a box and now there’s a couple of photos floating around of him and his crew wearing it. There’s an Instagram video of him and his boy in a Ferrari driving around wearing Paterson. It’s pretty cool man. The brand isn’t fully about the city, but the underlying connection is there.
Obviously hometown pride has a lot to do with it, but what are some things about Paterson, NJ that make it so unique that you would name your brand after it?
I wanted to give the audience a reflection of who I am and where I came from. Growing up in Paterson, that’s really who I am. That’s the place that influenced the skateboarding, the sports, the getting into fights as a kid, riding BMX and all of that—getting into freestyle bikes, corner store bullshit; it was really the influence of that place that started all of that for me. When I thought about it, I wanted to have a brand name that has this heritage sports feel to it. The name kind of reminded me of something like a Wilson tennis racket or Spalding basketball or Louisville slugger; it has that sporty vibe to it.
You’re in twenty shops domestically and have a few international accounts as well. Who’s picking it up? Is it more skate shops or streetwear boutiques?
I’m in Labor skate shop. That’s a shop that really speaks to the core skaters of New York. It’s kind of important for me to be in there because I feel like that will get the brand and it’s name recognition out there so that it speaks to those core skate kids. I have it in a few other stores—MIA in Florida is a big supporter. Chris Williams and I played tennis when I was out in Miami; he’s definitely got a way better game than me. I’m also in a couple of streetwear stores—one in Paris and one in Norway. They’re not really a skate shop and not really a streetwear boutique, but they definitely have a nice look to them. That’s kind of important to me too—how the brand is displayed in the store and how it’s merchandised.
Right now, you’re focused on hats, printables, and you’ve made boards. I know you’ve got a lot of style, but what types of pieces you see yourself making in the future?
I definitely want to bring in some new things—stuff that people aren’t doing, but are still very classic in menswear. Today I went to my boy’s shop and bought a Nike Court Challenge polo. It’s the one that Andre Agassi wore in the French Open. It’s pretty wild, but it’s definitely something that I’d wear. As far as in the future, I want to make classic menswear with a sporty look to it. I think you’ll see it once it’s there. I think that with every collection, people will be surprised by how I can make such a basic piece look so good. That’s kind of what we did with the first collection. It really surprised a lot of people how making a basic t-shirt, hoody, board, and hat worked that way. I just wanna continue to do that and bring a feel to the brand rather than a look. I want people to understand that they can really feel what the brand is inspired by; you can feel what the collection is about.
I feel like a lot of brands pump out a lot of products, but a lot of their ideas aren’t well executed. It makes total sense to me to have this simple cohesive thing...
Exactly, it has to be cohesive and it has to make sense. There has to be a reason why a hat is in a collection with that long sleeve T-shirt. It should be thought out without even thinking when you get dressed in the morning; you should just know what works.
How’s the response been so far? I know you make limited quantities and it’s been selling out, but do people really understand it?
For the most part, people are pretty excited about it. I don’t think they expected what it is, but that’s a big part of the reason why they’ve been hyped on it. There are a few people that understand it and get it, but the people that don’t understand it are still pretty interested in what I’m doing. That said, I’m still trying to develop what the brand’s lane is. I’m not just making stuff, it’s like I just had a child or something. I’m raising this thing. I’ve had a lot of people reorder stuff, the website does its thing; and I just do my marketing through Instagram for the most part. I feel like that’s sort of the best marketing for me at the moment. I’m not too computer savvy with making the website look extra special and that sort of thing, but my website is pretty clean. It’s just important for me to get the message across through the quality of the designs. I think that speaks for itself.
You made a really funny commercial and posted some awesome photos on Instagram. I really like the lookbook that you did with Lee Smith and that girl Caroline. Are you art directing all of these projects yourself?
Yeah, those are all of my ideas. I wanted to infuse this message of skating, tennis, and fun at the same time. I’m lucky enough to have the people that I’m working with help me shoot those and make them look a certain way. For that latest catalog, I wanted to get the message across in five photos. I wanted to portray the brand’s look in just a few images. I don’t think you need a whole lookbook of twenty photos with the logos on them to really get the message across. It’s a feel. If you see something and you feel it, it’s for you. That’s really how the brand works so far.
What’s been the most difficult part for you?
I would have to say getting into the stores that I really want to be in, and me selling the brand. I’m the only dude selling this to the shops. That’s really been the hardest part. For what I’ve made, it’s done pretty well. I have to thank my friends for being really supportive of the brand. My wife helps me out a lot. She gives me the time to do this stuff. It’s a lot of work, and I’m used to working for someone else. I have to remind myself of that every night before I go to sleep, “I have to wake up and work for my brand.” That’s really been a hard part, but you know; I have a goal that I’m trying to achieve—that’s the motivation.
Speaking of working for other people, you’ve worked for both J. Crew and 10 Deep. Both are really dope and clean brands, both are in very different lanes. What did you learn from each of those experiences and how does they play into Paterson?
I learned a lot from both of those experiences about wholesale, marketing, and retail. I really liked my time with 10 Deep, it definitely showed me a lot as far as how I can market and position Paterson. Working with J. Crew, I got to see what the customer base was like. I feel like I’m trying to infuse both of those styles into what my brand is. I’m using the same approach that I used working with those brands to make my brand what it is. I really like what 10 Deep and J. Crew do.
What do you envision Paterson becoming in the future? Do you see it being more core skate or more streetwear; do you see it becoming a store like The Hundreds or Supreme?
I feel like anything goes now—there’s no streetwear and there’s no skate—these titles don’t exist anymore. I’m just doing a brand based on the things that I’m influenced by. One season could be very skate inspired one could be very tennis inspired. Who knows what I’m gonna be into next year? I’m very into both skateboarding and tennis; so I don’t think I’ll be going off the page with this. I don’t really know how to define it. It’s a lifestyle brand, and I want to incorporate the things that I’m hyped on. There are some designs that might feel a little streetwear, but everything is streetwear nowadays. Eventually, it could be high fashion; it’s hard to say.
I want to touch on all of those genres. Like if these high-end fashion designers make a streetwear piece, it’s totally different from when Supreme makes it. I’m inspired by all of those things. I think that’s what’s really gonna define the brand, so I’m just taking it slow and seeing how the rest of the world reacts to it.