Wayne Berkowitz, Founder & Producer of superfuture – Exclusive Interview
Australian-born Wayne Berkowitz created superfuture in September 1999 (more officially in 1998) during a government stint in Tokyo. Although sufu had its humble beginnings as a resource for visiting relatives, the site has grown to include comprehensive city maps, shopping guides, hotel and bar recommendations, and — for our interest — an extremely active collection of forums, namely “superdenim“.
If there was ever a list compiled for the “most influential people in raw denim”, one would be stunned to not find Berkowitz included. Though he doesn’t tout himself as a denim head or pundit, per se, Berkowitz’s indirect contribution through superdenim has brought together over 50,000 denim enthusiasts and in turn amassed a monstrous amount of (raw) denim facts, knowledge and insights.
Bearing this in mind, we reached out to Berkowitz and were fortunate to have him answer some of our questions on his 13-year old digital baby, the raw denim world, and what’s to come in the (super)future.
RD: As our conventional first Q, what is the significance of raw denim to you?
WB: ok. disclosure number 1. my only claim to denim fame is that i happen to be the producer and head astronaut of spaceship superfuture. i don’t even vaguely pretend to call myself a denim expert and have nowhere near the levels of denim knowledge of many of the revered users of supertalk. that said, for as long as i can remember denim is still pretty much all i wear.
RD: superfuture just celebrated its 13th year anniversary (congratulations!) and has grown in leaps and bounds since its initial launch back in September 1999. What’s the story behind the site and company? How did the founding team come together and what keeps you all going?
WB: thanks! leaps and bounds? more like spurts and setbacks. we have periods when it booms then times when it flatlines. growth is never constant. google analytics sometimes looks like a stock market chart – usually due to search engines dumping us every time we upgrade versions of the site or have major crashes. it tends to recover over time.
despite this the uniques [visitors] have actually stayed pretty constant over the past few years. anyway it’s never been a popularity contest from our perspective. i’d prefer quality posts over quantity any day.
the remarkable thing is that it is still going at all. can you name 5 websites you were viewing in 1999 and still are? i can’t. there was a nightmare period [one of many] around the end of 2010 when our tech manager at the time sold all his computers, started a yoga school in the french countryside, and left us with no one running the website. supertalk was so broken and unfixable that a crash and burn around that time would have wiped the forums off the internet.
at that point i made the rather radical decision to rebuild the entire site from ground up which is what we did for most of 2011 and is the current version 5 iteration. pleased to report that this time around it’s working the way it’s supposed to .
the team is surprisingly small and we are all spread around the planet and manage things over skype and email. on the editorial and management side it’s really just 3 of us. simon used to work with me in our office in tokyo when we first started before he moved to new york where the business side of superfuture is based. andreas is our superblogger and based in amsterdam.
the ones who deserve much of the credit for keeping everything in check on supertalk are the moderators. haptronic has only recently stepped back from around a decade managing and the rest of the team is now splitting many tasks. i’ve always let the mods run things with pretty much total autonomy and the community polices itself to a large degree via the rep system.
perhaps what keeps us all going is that we don’t all work in an office together.
RD: While still on the general topic of superfuture and its development, how have you managed to push and expand the site while still keeping the brand relatively tight across numerous content channels?
WB: that’s always been the most challenging aspect of superfuture – from a technical, content and branding standpoint. it’s really several websites in one. if we were just running a travel site or a message board alone it would be far easier. though individually each are incredibly complexed.
on supertalk other than setting the forum topics we are not pushing any editorial agenda on users. massive public content was always going to outweigh anything we contributed anyway so our editorial efforts would always prove to be redundant.
instead the aim has always been to provide a well designed, tight framework and let users dictate the content direction. on the other hand we concentrate our editorial on other sections of the site where our focus is more on curated content related to travel and retail [which is what superfuture is originally known for].
strong branding is something that has always been an important component of superfuture. the use of helvetica neue fontsets, lowercase, our maps, and visual cues have remained constant and though we have gone through many design revisions i think our aesthetic still remains fresh.
RD: Among all of the sections on superfuture, one of the most well known (especially among our readers) is the ‘supertalk’ sub-forum, ‘superdenim’. How did this sub-forum come to be and how do you feel it’s affected the raw and selvedge denim landscape overall?
WB: basically the superdenim forum was a result of the mods deciding to separate some of the threads from the crowded supershopper sub-forum in late 2006. there were lot of resource rich denim threads with some extremely knowledgable posters. my entire personal contribution to this monumental forum has been the 2 word forum text description: ‘denim addicts’.
superdenim is 100% user generated organic content. superfuture just gave it the airspace and paid for the bandwidth. we never consciously set out andplanned to create a major denim forum. in fact personally it was probably the one forum that i had the least interest in. weird huh?
RD: As forum management can be very challenging from a technical standpoint, I’m sure supertalk has had its fair share of obstacles. Are there any plans to improve and/or alter the user experience?
WB: forum management can test ones sanity. forums rely on highly specialized forum software which isn’t always sensational, and we have had to switch 3 times. i really hope we never have to do that again. in the past we tried to customize, tweak and hack forum software to add our own features but learnt our lessons the hard way.
from now on we only work within the confines of available software. but we have to be confident that the forum software makers stay as up to date with the internet as users expect. still, we have a lot of options available at our disposal to improve user experience that we will be working on in future updates.
the great thing about our current forum software is that is very scalable and has great support so i’m more optimistic now than i have been for most of the past decade. our previous supertalk was a clunky pterodactyl.
RD: Given the impact of superfuture (namely superdenim) in the raw denim space, do you feel there are any shared values or attributes at hand? For instance, raw denim is revered for its utter simplicity and superfuture has always maintained a very minimal look and feel.
WB: i come from an industrial design background. i have an eye for details and cannot sleep properly when a graphic is 1 pixel out of alignment. i also spent 16 years in japan where you are required to do everything at 150% beyond what normal humans are expected to be doing and in half the amount of time.
at one point japan turned me into a superhuman designer machine and i know a lot of this DNA rubbed off on the superfuture concept – whether in the way we max out our maps or the minimal and simple design of the website that is actually twice as hard to create as a messy ugly one.
similarly, i think aspects of obsessive otaku culture are apparent in superfuture and the superdenim forums in particular – that is, taking one idea, exploring it, dissecting it, surgically examining, and constantly refining it.
superdenim is definitely a forum for denim otaku as are threads about footwear, anime and so on. i’ve always thought of it as the process of educating yourself to death. i just watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi on a plane last week which is the perfect example of how japanese take their craft, skills and quality to super extremes. a great documentary for all fellow otakus!
RD: What are your favourite raw denim and non-raw denim labels? Are there any brands you’re currently finding influential and which would consider the “top emerging” over the last year?
WB: given that i now live in relatively hot climates – i’m in bangkok and sydney most of the year – i tend to be in pretty lightweight denim – if at all. i used to be an A.P.C. whore through most of the early 2000s and went through an astronomically expensive dior homme phase around 2005. though these days i look like a slob and live in my jet fuel stretch chitch ksubis.
i did wear my SEXDBXSF, a jeans collaboration we did with self edge back in 2006, into the ground though [was that really 2006? it feels like yesterday].
RD: superfuture also has quite a good presence in the offline denim world; from various meet ups to collaborative projects, such as the 2006 SEXDBXSFXSF denim (Self Edge x Dry Bones x Superfuture x Styleforum). In terms of the latter, what is the creation process like? Are there any “must-haves” on your end when it comes to producing denim?
WB: we leave that it to denim experts and the supertalk members. we’re just happy to be involved and support such high quality collaborative projects.
RD: What do you think the (super)future holds for the raw denim industry? Is superdenim still seeing as much user activity as it did the mid-2000′s?
WB: i’m not really intimately connected with the denim industry so not possible for me to comment with any authority. as far as the superdenim forum is concerned, it’s really remained fairly stable as a proportion of total supertalk traffic.
RD: What’s on the docket for superfuture in 2013 and beyond?
WB: hopefully no need for a major supertalk upgrade for many years to come. we will certainly keep improving it incrementally. we are still working on getting some of the old features like rep comments back up. there is definitely a case to be made for a long overdue overhauling of the supermarket sub-forum.
as for the rest of the site, we will keep moving into apps. iOS6 passbook opens up all sorts of new possibilities, and at some point in the future the supermarket sub-forum of supertalk and supertravel might become more integrated. we had attempted this in the past but is was just too ambitious at the time.
our core business is still travel, maps and shopping related editorial and this alone is an area that is constantly evolving and will keep us on our toes and no doubt stressed out for years to come.