Johnny Schillereff & Elementality

Before Christmas I was invited down to the launch party of the Element flagship store in Covent Garden. Before I even knew I’d arrived I was sipping a beer and introducing myself to Johnny Schillereff, Founder of Element. We chatted briefly about the new store and the Road to Wolfeboro short film, but there was too much going on to get into a proper conversation. So, we put the interview on hold and Johnny returned to his Element family; the many skaters, photographers, artists, and friends which had gathered to see his newest endeavour.

You only need to look at the team roster with the likes of Mark Appleyard, Nyjah Huston and newest pro Madars Apse to see that Element’s roots are undeniably in skateboarding, but the brand has a stronger message that it has stuck by over its nearly 25 years of success and growth.

Looking around and speaking to other people at the launch, that ‘Elementality’ was easy to see. The whole brand ethos is about discovering opportunities to learn and grow, with the best inspiration often found in nature. When you reconnect with it, you’ll be able to explore and look at your surroundings with a different perspective. In the Road to Wolfeboro short film, Brian Gaberman talks about the big grand scene, which doesn’t need to be a photograph, choosing instead to take note of what’s on the sidelines, and that’s exactly what most skateboarders do. Skateboarding can help you see your surroundings differently from others, to see new ways to interact with whatever might be in front of you.

I sent Johnny these questions a few days after I met him. His words are deeply considered, he has a powerful vision for Element and channels his creative energy in a positive way to the benefit of the people around him. It’s all good.

You can watch The Road to Wolfeboro below this interview, or if you’re ever in Covent Garden go check out the new store; even if you think the clothing is not your deal, then just for the interior design. Who knows, you might just see something you like.

Tell me about the work that went into the new London store; the materials and reclaimed furniture. What was the idea behind all of this? Does everything Element build have this level of sustainability?

Working on the London store was a really exciting and creative experience. I was fired up to work on a new concept that reflected our ongoing brand evolution yet also allowed me to express my creative spirit.

Element has always represented the intersection of sustainability, the urban and natural worlds – both were what inspired me as an individual and ultimately became the symbol of the brand. I wanted to explore that intersection with our new store concept – that no matter how much we develop our man-made world, nature will prevail. Future is Nature. That was the symbolism for the tree growing through the middle of the store that connects all three levels.

As a creative individual, I’m very inspired by design – whether product, art or interiors – the fusion of street-culture, art, music, the natural word and skateboarding is what has always inspired me. I sought to highlight this in the interiors of the store. I also wanted to re-use, re-interpret, and revitalize previously used materials within this new retail concept.  Similar to the Branch, the Element campus in California, we use used materials and repurposed them as clothing fixtures and industrial decorative elements that complement the product. We also partnered with Art of Board, a longtime Element partner.  They recycle old boards and make them into tile pieces for interiors. We used these tiles throughout the interiors – from lining the cashwrap to the Element logo that crowns the space. I’m very happy with the result and we will be opening more concept stores in the upcoming year.

What’s next for Element? And you personally?

We are in a great place with Element – our team riders were crowned ‘Best Team of the Year’ and we are making great strides as a global organization. Over the last year we’ve appointed a global GM, Frank Voit, hired a new head of design, Rey Gautier, and appointed an overall new global leadership team. Harnessing and merging our global talent with no geographical restrictions, making for stronger global brand consistency, cohesion and unity. We are tightening up our production and creative process and prioritizing product categories such as hard-goods, jackets and backpacks. The hard work is paying off – our latest collection for Fall ’15 has been positively received.

As for me, I’ve been very busy with the long-term brand vision and mostly creative projects for the company. I’ve most recently been wearing both my art and graphic design hats. I’ve been dipping back into our reserves and reissuing some of my very first graphics for Element as part of our Reserve and Ninety-Two collection, coming soon. I’m also working on several new collaborations with artistic partners and friends of Element that is keeping me inspired and engaged creatively.

The whole Element crew seem like a strong family, a gathering of skaters, photographers, musicians and advocates; who did you want to be with you on the opening night and why?

It did feel like a family reunion and was a proud moment for me both personally and professionally. Along with some of my family and my wife (Kori, Founder of Eden) and two children (Lenox and Camp), I was surrounded by longtime friends and colleagues that have supported me throughout this journey. From our team riders including Nyjah Huston and newest pro Madar Apse, to advocates Ray Barbee, Thomas Campbell and Brian Gaberman, to our European team, we collectively celebrated our latest achievements. Seeing the young kids from the neighborhood gather in the store, watching videos and enjoying the environment, reinforced to me that Element continues to connect to our mission to progress the world of skateboarding and lifestyle that surrounds it.

Who are the ‘Element Advocates’? How did the whole idea behind this crew come together?

There are a few mantras that stand for Element’s philosophy – doing well by doing good, conscious by nature, and our women’s (Eden) tagline, Live Learn Grow. Our advocates epitomize these characteristics and bring these ideas to life and are all cut from Element cloth. They are accomplished and inspirational individuals that have creatively inspired me and push the brand forward. Early on, long before the phrase ‘collaborations’ became a familiar catchphrase, I wanted to form more permanent partnerships with creative individuals – whether artists, photographers or musicians – to represent the brand. They were artistic and like-minded people that I admired and with whom I wanted to work. I’d like to continue to evolve our Advocate program to include other creatives such as chefs, designers, writers, architects, and the like. Our advocates reflect where Element is at any given moment but is constantly evolving and infusing the brand with fresh vitality.

Wolfeboro seems like a place which holds a great deal of significance in your life, your spiritual home away from home if you like, what kind of influence does that place have on Element? How does this come through in the clothing line?

You are exactly right – Wolfeboro, New Hampshire is my spiritual home. I grew up in an urban environment so I always looked forward to our cabin on the lake, which has been in my family since 1926. A place where I could escape from the struggles in my youth, reflect, reconnect with nature, and be rejuvenated. That natural environment continues to have a big influence on me today – it is the actual name of jacket collection, and we just finished shooting a short film documentary, ‘The Road to Wolfeboro’ that chronicles our seasoned Advocate, Brian Gaberman, and his passion for dry plate film photography, a technique he explored.

As you say, and I totally agree, The Road to Wolfeboro film shows off Brian Gaberman’s incredible photographic techniques. What is your relationship with him? Where did it all start? Where is it going?

Brian and I have been friends for years – we rolled in the same circles and grew up on the East Coast. Like all partnerships Element has, it’s been an organic relationship. Gaberman is a talented individual and is a longstanding Advocate for Element. He is the official Element photographer and shoots all of our seasonal campaigns in addition to our ongoing projects with our team riders.

It was a joy to see Brian’s work in The Road to Wolfeboro, primarily because it was such a stylistic departure from his day to day work with us chronicling skaters. We wanted to support him in exploring his passion to create unique, one-of-a-kind, simpler imagery that is largely forgotten in today’s digital world.

As with all of our advocates, our shared passion for skateboarding and art inspires one another to explore new avenues of creativity, always pushing the boundary of what can be done and achieved…. naturally; the best kind of partnership…. never forced or sourced to be ‘on trend’. That is not how we roll.

Will you ever produce items that are super technical? You mentioned when we met that you don’t see Element being the same as Patagonia and Burton for example? What makes Element different?

We already are – we created our proprietary technology, named Authentech, that features a triple layer fabrication that repels water and insulates for warmth. We initially introduced Authentech in our Wolfeboro jacket collection and expanded it in a new line of fleece for Fall 2015. I want to create products that are stylish yet functional and durable for a range of environments – whether an urban landscape or a natural setting.

We won’t be Patagonia or North Face in the sense that we are not currently making survival outerwear or product for professional mountain climbers. In the end…. we are making product for urban dwellers who seek well-built, stylish and functional clothing that can also Endure the Elements.

You’re undoubtedly rooted in skateboarding, do you still get a chance to go skate?

Yes, and often (as long as I’m not injured from doing it). I love skateboarding and will do so until I am physically incapable – it’s my passion and at the core of everything I do. My skateboard is a vehicle to the underworlds of music, art and fashion. These days I’m spending most my hours exploring those avenues in my craft.

What do you think about the younger skaters on the Element team, do they inspire you to keep pushing your own skating?

They inspire me in many ways and continually keep my passion ignited. These days, I’m not bombing down handrails but the riders keep me youthful as I build skateboards and create art and product they love…. that is motivating and inspiring. We work closely with our team riders, constantly creating graphics that reflect their personalities, their passions, their worlds. This week we dropped our Icon Series, creating a series of icons that represented several of our riders – from a sword and heart for Chad Tim Tim to a serpent for Julian Davidson. They wear test and approve our product – giving feedback and are constant collaborators with us.

Skateboarding obviously goes hand in hand with a whole load of other art forms; photography, film, painting, to name a just a few. Do you think certain types of people will always be drawn to this creative lifestyle or is it the other way around – that skateboarding fosters this type of creativity in its many forms? A stepping stone if you like.

Agreed, skating is the only physical activity that I can think of that incorporates other subculture, self expression, fashion and art forms. You listen to music when skating, you can wear civilian clothes, there is artwork on your board. Skating has always represented a subversive mentality that defies convention. Yet I think they inform each other – while I think that creative types are naturally attracted to skating, I also think it does expose you to other art forms and cultures once you get on a board and participate.

Is there a certain type of person that you look for in the skate team? To me, it seems like you have a good balance of insanely technical skaters and more  creative skaters. Was that a conscious decision or a natural evolution of the team?

No, there isn’t a type – as evidenced by our current team of riders who represent a wide spectrum of talent, styles and personalities.  You have gregarious types like Evan Smith and Nyjah Huston to industry legends like Mark Appleyard, Barbee and insanely innovative skaters like Madar Apse, our newest pro. The one thing they all have in common to me is the feeling I had when I saw each one of them for the first time. Their innocent passion and simply…. ‘this guy rips, has amazing style and takes the high road’ – that feeling when you know you are experiencing something original….one of a kind and has the ‘Elementality.”

The Elemental Awareness Foundation has great vibes – could you tell me about the inception of that program? What inspired you to set it up?

Elemental Awareness is a cause close to my heart because it embodies the dream I had when I formed the company – to bring progress and positivity to skateboarding. EA, as we call it, was developed to allow kids to experience the wonder of nature through their love of skateboarding. We run year-round programming including our principal program, Element Skate Camps, which operate around the world. We offer ‘skate camperships’, or scholarships, to camp each year, offered to youth that wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to experience summer camp. At camp, the kids learn wilderness skills and foster a stewardship for the environment while enjoying a sense of community with their fellow campers. We also expanded our scope to offer day-camps to underserved communities with our Reservation Tour to Indian Reservations and urban areas that don’t have space for kids to play. Todd Larson, Michael Kershnar and myself founded the organization with a simple shared dream conversing at skate-camp more than 10 years ago. Todd is currently the head of EA and does a fabulous job. To date we’ve impacted over 200,000 kids through our community tours and skate camp programs. This fall we are offering our Camp Backpack Collection with a portion of sales benefiting Elemental Awareness.

Some people will say that bigger or global skate brands are ruining independent shops and brands’ chances of success, so to all those that may take that view, what would you say?

Independent shops and brands are integral to skateboarding – their entrepreneurial spirit and passion is pure and authentic. I think that it is always a delicate balance – I never want to grow so big that we forget our roots. To be honest, it is a fear that I always have, so with each new employee, I personally talk to them about our roots, origins, our story, our mission – so that we never forget our heritage or stray too far from our original vision. ‘If your don’t know your past, you’ll never know you future’ – Bob Marley. Although we have been around since 1992, we are still operate like a small company – what’s more important to me, is longevity. As we approach our 25th year in business, it is humbling that this dream materialised and continues to remain relevant and inspires the youth today in a positive light – that’s what matters.

Words: Will Sleigh

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