The all-woman skate crew taking over the streets of NYC

The all-woman skate crew taking over the streets of NYC
Skate Kitchen — As a new film shares Skate Kitchen's story with the wider world, this supergroup is on a mission that feels much bigger than skateboarding.

When Nina Moran first got hooked on skateboarding, around the age of 12, she didn’t have any friends to pair up with. Instead she’d watch boys in her middle school practising every afternoon, dying to join in.

One day, holding her first real skateboard – a pink one her dad bought her – she finally approached them. The first thing they said was: “Yo, that skateboard sucks!”

So Nina just started skating by herself, studying those guys from a distance: seeing where they put their feet on the board, copying them until she got the hang of it. They refused to pay her any attention… until she nailed her first kickflip. All of a sudden, they were only too happy to become friends.

But as Nina got better than them, something changed. Their attitude towards her hardened. One day a boy told her, “There’s basically no point in girls skateboarding because a woman is never going to be as good as a man.”

Photo by Amy Lombard.

That’s when Nina realised she needed better company. Searching for ‘girl skateboarders NYC’ on YouTube, only one meaningful hit came up: Rachelle Vinberg, a 12-year-old skater uploading practice clips – grinding rails, clearing stairs, falling on concrete – that made her look unflappable. Nina scrolled down and clicked to leave a comment: “Thts fuckin sick ur better than me.”

Rachelle got started while visiting her 13-year-old cousin in Canada on vacation, having nothing else to do but watch him skate. She obsessed over it so much that he bought her a board with his own savings, just so she could join in. Once Rachelle got back to Long Island, where her family had only just moved, that board became her constant companion.

Though it took two years for Nina and Rachelle to meet up in real life at an all-girl skate jam, those initial exchanges online led to a lasting connection. “When you’re another girl that skates, you kinda have a common ground and an understanding – even if you haven’t said a word to each other,” says Nina. “It’s less scary. Like, ‘Oh, that’s my kin. I can relate.’”

Nina and Rachelle both felt the same way about going into skateparks. A woman with a board automatically generates attention, Rachelle explains, and that can be nerve-wracking. You’re judged before even trying. People assume that you must be bad, that it’s just an accessory – and so they constantly test you.

“Having been doing this for long enough now, we feel a responsibility to go up to girls who are intimidated and be welcoming,” says Rachelle. “If you were a 19-year-old guy with a skateboard, no one would ask for proof.”

“And since we started progressing together,” adds Nina, “people seeing us skate has shown other girls just beginning that they can do it themselves.”

From left: Ajani Russell, Jules Lorenzo, Kabrina Adams, Nina Moran, Dede Lovelace, Rachelle Vinberg. Photo by Amy Lombard.

That, in essence, is what Skate Kitchen is all about. It’s a collective that sprung up around those initial messages of support. Each new connection followed a familiar pattern: interested onlookers would be given a board, shown some moves and told they no longer had an excuse to sit on the sidelines.

Rachelle came up with the name as a riposte to all the misogynists who would comment “She should be in the kitchen making me a sandwich” on videos of female skaters. It felt like a tongue-in-cheek way to take ownership of their narrative while mocking those who belittle them.

Over time, Skate Kitchen’s seven core members evolved into a supergroup whose skills bleed into all sorts of creative outlets, from acting and modelling to DJing and design. They’re also killing it on social media, where their distinctive mix of styles and personalities has drawn a following around the world.

Nina, a 20-year-old who rocks a backwards cap and her own homemade tie-dye t-shirts, is a straight-talker with an aura of Californian chill. Kabrina ‘Moonbear’ Adams, 24, is the documentarian of the crew, often content to hang back and let her sense of flair speak for itself: nipple stickers, mismatched shoes, bright bandanas and a speaker dangling from a silver chain around her neck.

Brenn and Jules Lorenzo are 20-year-old twins who exude lighthearted warmth; they grew up in Florida, where their dad introduced them to skating at the age of 11. Ajani Russell is a bright mixed-media artist who’s been studying at CalArts, having first learned to skate three years ago when Nina built a board for her. Dede is a soft-spoken fashion student with blonde dreadlocks who picked up skating through a pop-up shop one summer.

Rachelle is the even-keeled nexus of the group. Although she can sometimes seem detached or distracted – skating is how she best connects with the world – the 20-year-old can lock into any given subject with firm conviction and focus. They’re all super smart and effortlessly cool – so much so that just being in their company can make you feel lame by default.

Today they’re squeezed around a table in London’s West End – at a bustling cinema with exposed piping, brick pillars and dangling overhead lights – as part of an extensive Q&A tour for Skate Kitchen, the movie. The general release is still months away, but one glance at the queue for its UK premiere – a flock of young skaters who look like they could be in the film themselves – suggests they’re on the cusp of reaching more people than anyone imagined.

Ajani Russell. Photo by Amy Lombard.

“I’ve been changed by this,” says Ajani, who’s wearing a black top emblazoned with the words ‘Your loss, babe.’ “I feel like, in New  York especially, girls being mean and talking each other down is a pretty common situation.” She gestures around the table, her eyes widening. “Meeting them? They’re like these spirits who are always there for me, making sure I’m okay. That’s allowed me to open up, to become more vulnerable and maybe even more adventurous too. Just interacting with strangers feels easier.”

The idea of a Skate Kitchen film took root one day in Brooklyn. Nina and Rachelle were riding the G train, chatting about everyday frustrations, when a well-dressed woman with long blonde hair followed them onto the subway platform. “I was listening to your conversation,” she said. “Would you be interested in making a film?”

The woman was Crystal Moselle, a director whose debut movie – 2015 documentary The Wolfpack – developed when she spotted six guys with shades walking down Fifth Avenue. They were brothers on a rare excursion, it turned out: long-haired film fanatics, aged between 11 and 18, who’d spent most of their lives locked up in their family’s nearby apartment. That chance encounter ended up having a profound effect on both their lives and on Crystal’s.

“There’s this instinctual feeling that comes up when I meet a certain person – I just know there’s something there,” the director says now. “With The Wolfpack, it was so strong. I was like, ‘Who are these guys? What’s happening?’ And when I met Nina and Rachelle on the train, I felt it again… so I just had to go with my gut and explore from there.”

Rather than make another observational documentary, playing catch-up with their story, Crystal wanted to collaborate on a fictionalised feature: capturing the essence of Skate Kitchen by using them as actors portraying versions of themselves.

The film follows a girl from Long Island called Camille (played by Rachelle) who finds acceptance among an all-female skate crew, sneaking out to hang with them despite her mother’s wishes, only to stoke tension when she falls for a guy in a rival skate group.

But the movie’s strength lies outside the narrative arc, in the parts culled from real life: the candid exchanges about tampons and texting boys, the freedom and camaraderie in pursuing skateboarding at its purest.

Growing up in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, Crystal experienced a different side to skate culture.

It was always a guy thing, the 37-year-old explains – something only absorbed vicariously through boyfriends, as an outsider looking in. She remembers her own teen years being fuelled by wild curiosity, the kind that often landed her in trouble.

“I did a lot of drugs when I was young; I went to a lot of raves,” she says now, stirring a chamomile tea with honey and almond milk, dressed all in black save for a pair of bright red sneakers. “But it wasn’t a rebellion. My mom kind of let me do whatever I wanted because we had a really great understanding between us.”

Crystal Moselle, director of Skate Kitchen. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Crystal moved to New York to study film at 18, before forging a career shooting commercial shorts and behind-the-scenes footage on photoshoots. It proved to be a great education, nurturing a certain rawness of style, and paid pretty well – but it wasn’t what she wanted to do. Bumping into The Wolfpack brothers, she says, felt like the right moment to break out on her own.

She’s since come to appreciate that time is precious, that nothing’s more fulfilling than getting to do what you love. It’s an attitude that Skate Kitchen admire Crystal for, citing her ability to make time for the small things in life. But having hung out so much together over the last two years, even sharing an apartment at times, Crystal feels just as inspired seeing them grow up and finding their way in life.

That the #MeToo movement gained traction not long after shooting, she admits, makes this a good time for a movie built from authentic female voices. “That scene when they’re on the train and talking about their experiences [of harassment] – those are actually my experiences that I haven’t talked about,” she says quietly.

Members of the Skate Kitchen on a break from skating along the riverside path, overlooking New York’s Hudson River, not far from where they usually skate at Pier 62 in Chelsea. Photo by Amy Lombard.

“But I think the fact that they took the conversation really seriously, bringing in their own perspectives, just goes to show that the zeitgeist of female skateboarding fits really well in the fabric of everything that’s happening in society right now. I’m so proud of the way they’ve developed their presence outside the film. This project is more than just Skate Kitchen. It’s like a bigger idea, for women, for men, for whoever.”

“It’s just the constant idea of female empowerment,” says Brenn, when asked what they hope to communicate. “Even in our group, there’s a lot of diversity in terms of ethnicity, so it just goes to show that you don’t have to look a certain way to do something or push outside of your comfort zone.”

“And it’s not just about male-dominated areas,” adds her sister Jules. “When you don’t see a lot of people who look like you on stage or in any particular area you’re attracted to, that can sometimes… I don’t know… be intimidating.

“You’re like, ‘Do I belong in this type of world?’ I’m not just talking about skateboarding here. I think a lot of people in our generation are coming out and breaking down barriers – both in terms of gender and race – and we’re moving forward as part of that.” 

Skate Kitchen is in UK cinemas 28 September.

This article appears in Huck 66 – The Attitude Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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