On a recent Monday afternoon, DNA Model Management’s new signing sped around the corner in New York’s Chinatown, playing La Roux in his Mercedes-Benz G-Class. Nigel Sylvester was on his way from lunch at the Coleman Skatepark, tucked under the Manhattan Bridge, where he said he often does the BMX tricks that feature in his POV travelogue video series, GOES, or on Instagram for its approximately 374,000 followers. Sylvester doesn’t compete, but he has a string of endorsement deals that involve wearing Nikes and riding Benzes, and he’s worked on luxury BMX bikes with Louis Vuitton and Fendi. This year, he participated in the Paris Fashion Week shows of SSS World Corp and Casablanca.
At DNA, he will now join a list including Naomi Campbell, Emily Ratajkowski, Adwoa Aboah, and, more recently, the skater Tyshawn Jones. In an email, the co-founder and CEO of DNA David Bonnouvrier called Sylvester “an irresistible proposition for any fashion or luxury brand looking to connect with young consumers.” Sylvester said it in a different way, laughing, over lunch: “If everyone in the sport did the exact same thing, it would be boring as hell.”
He tended to talk about BMX versus career arcs in music or fashion. “How do I integrate all the different things I’m into into my world,” he asked at one point, “and share that with people who are interested in BMX?”
Sylvester said a style-driven view of BMX was familiar to him growing up in Laurelton, Queens. “As a young kid, before you had a car, you had a bike,” he said. “Having a dope bike was a statement in the hood, like having a cool pair of sneakers or the latest jacket.” But he didn’t consider the sport a professional possibility until he started spending more time in Union Square, starting at age 15. “This whole world opened up to me,” he said of the runners he fell with. “The industry has opened up to me. His reputation grew to the point that Dave Mirra, the late BMX rider familiar to both active sports enthusiasts and game console owners in the early 2000s, signed him to a pro contract at age 18.
Fourteen years later, Sylvester is probably the BMX athlete people outside the sport know best, via social media or otherwise. He had seen Pharrell riding in NERD videos for “Provider” and “Lapdance” when he was a teenager. “Before me, there was [other] guys that were riding that said, you know what, I don’t care about contests, I only care about videos,” Sylvester said. He used to hear music that was close to his heart in other runners’ videos. “For me, I went a little further: how can I collaborate with these artists?” In 2013, he and Pharrell rode bikes on the VMAs red carpet.
As Sylvester’s extracurricular career blossomed, he grew accustomed to a lingering strain of criticism. In 2014, he posed for ESPN Magazine‘s Body Issue and said he had to clarify that he wasn’t paid for it. “Even look at some of the legendary action sports athletes,” Sylvester said, “a Tony Hawk, to Dave Mirra, they hated these guys for so long because they brought the sport to the masses. For viewers who already like the idea that Sylvester betrayed the sport, a modeling contract is ammunition. For Sylvester, it was an opportunity to expand his interests.
And he was quick to insist that riding remains the centerpiece of his career. “No one can take it away,” he said. “If what I believe in isn’t what the industry wants, cool, no problem. I’m going to keep doing what makes me feel good and what matters to me.