Chris Miller – “There was no plan. There was just inspiration.”
I got into skateboarding when I was really young. I grew up around the ocean immersed in the Santa Monica skate and surf culture. I didn’t get into surfing until later. My older brother was a surfer, and I wanted to surf, but I was a too young to do it on my own. I skated the streets and alleyways of Santa Monica imagining I was surfing. When my parents divorced, I moved with my mom away from the ocean. We lived out in Claremont, and I didn’t really go to the beach until I was sixteen.
In Claremont I discovered the skatepark! First in Pomona and then the legendary Pipeline Skatepark in Upland. Pipeline was one of the best and biggest skateparks of all time. It had a thriving scene with local pros like the Alba brothers and other pros who passed through regularly.
As a kid, skating was just something I loved doing. I loved the freedom you get from the physical sensation of riding a skateboard. It’s the same feeling as surfing on a wave. There’s exhilaration from the speed and the glide. I loved that freedom even though I would probably never have defined it that way as a kid. As an adult, I understand that at the core, there’s a deeper sensation of freedom. Pipeline skatepark was a huge influence on me. I started competing and became a sponsored amateur skater. Eventually, I became a professional and within a few years, I became a top pro.
Being a pro skater took me down the path of designing skateboards, apparel and footwear. In 1990, I started my first company, Planet Earth. That lead to Rhythm Skateboards, Adio Footwear, Holden Outerwear and more. I’ve had an entire career that all started with learning to love a skateboard when I was six years old.
It’s been a very unique and fortunate path. I just followed my heart. I dropped out of high school and didn’t pursue education in an institution. While I followed my heart, you could say I also rebelled against the institution that was – in my mind – imprisoning me. I realize, as an adult, my experience in high school, my frustration with what I perceived to be authority, was what I chose to focus on. I chose to focus on the negativity of the high school experience.
At the time, it wasn’t cool to be a skate boarder, so I wasn’t a part of the mainstream. I felt very much like an outsider. That was as much my perception, as anybody imposing that on me. The traditional path that people want you to do, graduating high school, going to college, getting a great job, going though these life mile stones – that’s a great path. You’re more likely to have success by following that traditional path.
With my own kids, I didn’t tell them that I dropped out of high school until after they graduated. I encouraged them to go to school and get the most out of their experience. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, but with hindsight and experience, I better understand what our institutions are good at delivering and what they can’t. Get what you can, and seek other aspects of learning and growth elsewhere. Our education system isn’t good at teaching quality of life, and the understanding of wellness, spiritual and emotional health, or how we fit into the world.These deeper social aspects aren’t well understood by our institutions. In an effort to be PC, we avoid difficult social topics. This carries over to the corporate world as well.
One of the things that I think is severely under valued is corporate culture. At the end of day, business is a bunch of personal interactions that can either be oppressive or cooperative. There are many different styles of management, commerce and exchange, but it’s all fundamentally different forms of communication. When we de-personalize business, the culture can become heartless. I’m interested in how we can humanize and respect the deeper human spirit, while at the same time build financially healthy businesses.
When I got into skateboarding, it was not a big industry. Now it’s a very visible sport where some of the athletes make over a million dollars a year. It sounds funny to say, but I never chose it as a career path. Even when I started my first company, I still didn’t choose it as a career. I chose it because I felt the need to express myself. I was 20 years old and I had a vision for creating a brand and products that weren’t available on the market. My products were simply things I wanted to use.
Graphic art has always played a huge part in skateboard design, and I was an artist. I was really into illustration, painting, and a lot of other art forms. Skate graphics became my business. When I started Planet Earth, it was as much about expressing ideas as it was about making skateboards. I never envisioned it was going to be a successful business necessarily. It was a platform for ideas and art expression. “I’m going to make money off this,” wasn’t my drive. I did want to make a living and sustain myself, but I didn’t view it in the traditional sense of “here’s my business model, and I’m going to execute this business plan.” There was no plan. There was just inspiration.
The name, Planet Earth, came from asking questions. At the time, a lot of the brands in the skateboard world were narrow in their genre of art or style. I decided to ask,
“What are we doing?
We ride skateboards.
How does this fit in Planet Earth?”
It wasn’t necessarily meant to be this ecological brand or anything like that. It was meant to represent my graphic theme. The idea was more about looking at the world in its entirety – the good, the bad, and the in between – and graphically interpreting what we saw.
As we created art from our view of the world, we naturally moved toward making sustainable products. When we started manufacturing our clothing, we sourced sustainable material and labor well before it was trendy. At the time, it was really hard to do.
In 1998, I created a skate shoe brand called Adio. I ran Planet Earth and Adio until 2008, and came to a deep understanding of the footwear and apparel business. I now know what it takes to make a garment. I can pick up any garment and understand where it’s made, who touched it, and all the things that went into producing it. I learned a lot about fabrics like bamboo, which we initially perceived to be ecologically friendly because the crop is more sustainable. But after more research, we found out bamboo is actually not so friendly because there is so much more processing required to turn it into a fiber. I quickly learned it’s not a black and white world in terms of sustainability. I’m not an ecological activist, but I do have my beliefs that lean towards sustainability. My feelings are, try to do as much as you can or more for the environment.
I’ve always been a visual artist. I loved to draw and make art as a kid. That passion carried over into my career. I got my start doing skateboard graphics designing art for my own pro model board with G&S skateboards. Neil Blender, who is a incredible artist and pro skater, mentored and encouraged me to create my own art for my boards. Before him, it wasn’t common in the industry. I designed all of my graphics throughout my career. Even to this day, I design for my current board sponsor Welcome. My boards are more than just a branded product. They’re a form of expression. Now, at the stage of life I’m in, I realize that life is art. We all get to create our life, and it goes much deeper than the aesthetics. It transcends to our whole experience.
What do you want to create?
How do you want to show up in the world?
1st part of The Yoga Blog interview series with Chris Miller in Encinitas, CA.
Interviewed by Hung Tran and Dawn Morningstar
Photo credit: Chris Miller & Lauren Duke
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