During Berlin Fashion Week, we sat down with Element founder Johnny Schillereff to learn more about the brand’s roots and future.
Let’s start off with the Element story: can you tell us about the beginnings of Element, back in 1992?
The abbreviated version is that I grew up as a kid that loved all things art and creativity. I was a huge hip-hop music fan and being from the East Coast, mostly – more so my dad was in the military and we moved all over the place – but we settled into the East Coast and I began to take skateboarding seriously around seventh grade.
The way we were learning to skate on the East Coast was very different from what was happening out in California with a lot more urban terrain and sort of creative skateboarding, pushing through the streets, skating anything in sight: sort of the birth of what street skating is today. And definitely the birth of multicultural skateboarding, meets music, meets art – the East Coast/NYC scene had a lot to do with that.
So as I was getting better at skateboarding and got sponsored, I became very judgmental with all the product I was getting. I got a lot of free stuff from a number of significant California brands, but I just wasn’t stoked. Most of the time I didn’t like the art or the fit or the way it functioned. So I started customizing my own stuff, drawing on my boards and tees and doing my own thing until the sponsors I had at the time started buying my art. So not only was I a rider but I was also contributing to the brands I rode for as an artist.
Eventually decided to just do it myself and without being too longwinded, Element was started about trying to make a difference. I grew up in New York where there was always a lot of negativity going on around me. I grew up in a broken home and a lot of bad things were happening in my life at the time. So when I was starting Element I really wanted to stand for something positive and make a positive difference. It was important to bring positive change to the community. That was the DNA of how Element started.
How did things progress from there to where Element is today?
The thing that’s happened that’s been great is we’ve really been able to stick to our brand DNA. We haven’t really deviated from back then to today. Obviously the company has gotten larger and we have a broader reach, but really we’ve streamlined what the company stands for. I think Element is more Element today than it even was then. We’ve been able to have the resources to improve the brand and focus on stuff I’ve always wanted to focus on, like skate camps, non-profits and good strong product, great team riders, great artists and all that. We’ve been really lucky.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the iconic tree logo?
Someone told me a story a long time ago that when there’s a massive forest fire or crazy natural disaster, the one thing that’s always left standing and is most strong is a tree. I love nature and the outdoors and the fact that skateboards are made from trees. And then the word Element starts with an “E,” so there’s actually an “E” inside the tree that a lot of people don’t know about. Then I added wind, water, fire and earth, which is the definition of element and everything that surrounds a tree. At first the logo was just going to be the “E,” but it looked like shit, so I added everything else to make it look more like a tree. That’s how all that started.
How do each of the elements – wind, water, earth and fire – relate to the company?
The name of the brand is Element and the definition of element is: wind, water, earth and fire, the four substances that compose the physical universe. When I was working through the possibilities of the name and looking through the dictionary I saw the definition for element and I realized the word stands for everything. It literally is everything, the air we breath, etc. It trumps all names of all things. I could be like “your company is made from my company – your company is made from an element.” That is sort of how it happened. It’s funny but it was a tag we used a lot back in the day. It was originally a hip-hop term that we turned into more of a skateboard thing.
Element has experienced substantial growth over the past 20+ years – what would you say are some of the most valuable factor’s to the company’s success?
False sense of reality. Distorted view of the world. (Laughs) Ambition. Honestly, a ton of ambition. I want to give credit to the people I work with. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by a ton of people that are a fuckload smarter than me. I try to listen and not have an ego about that. That’s been huge, just having really smart people.
The other thing is I always try to be a classic brand. I don’t want to be trendy. I like to think that the things I like stand the test of time. I love old cars, white tee shirts, grey T-shirts, black beanies. We have always worked diligently to keep the brand classic and do things that have elements of the product (no pun intended) that withstand the test of time. When you do that you don’t become a super trendy brand.
The other reason I think we’ve been successful over time is that we’ve always tried to do the right thing. I think anyone, any band, any person, or any project who tries to do something that’s right and not hurting anyone around them. Ultimately when you are going after the greater good you’re going to have the power of energy behind you. I think that’s a reason we’ve stayed around for so long. We’ve never paid attention to all the riff-raff.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned through all your experiences with Element?
Stay true to who you are. Never get caught up in all the bullshit of all the materialism -I’ve even been through it myself. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but stepping back and taking away all the ostentatious bullshit and trophies and awards that come with trying to be successful in anything. Strip all that away and just care about your brand and its realness and your own personal realness. Thats one thing I’m still not that good at but I’m definitely getting better at it.
How do you feel about the direction of skateboarding today?
I love it. I think skateboarding is always going in a good direction because it doesn’t give a shit about anything except for skateboarding.
And how about in terms of creative and artistic direction?
It’s the same as it’s always been. I have a love/hate relationship with it. There’s tons of riff-raff and bullshit, but that’s part of skateboarding, just being rebellious. There’s rebels with a cause and rebels without a cause. If I were to complain about something within skateboarding I would say I’m not a big fan of the materialism. I think that’s odd. The richest skateboarder is poor in the world of real money. So to run around and claim money in skateboarding is ridiculous.
Chris Rock used to always say there’s money and then there’s real money. And anyone who thinks they’ve got money doesn’t have any fucking money. So dudes rolling up on skatespots in crazy $100K cars and thinking that’s above anything else is absurd when you think of, say, oil money, like, come on. Every rich skater is poor and and every poor skater is rich because of skateboarding.
You have flagship stores all over the world. How is physical retail important to Element in today’s increasingly digital age?
Physical is really important. The world of digital social media is important but physical substance of tangible paper, all the way from print media, to books, and vinyl and actual store environments where you can touch, feel and smell is critical to your brand. I think we need more of that so people can understand what they’re dealing with.
I think a lot of the time kids don’t understand or can’t sink their teeth into what they really love because they’re just grasping at digital space. You need to hear that record scratch or breathe, that bum piss in the Brooklyn Banks. You know, you need that shit.
In regards to the way you approach design, how have things changed from the mid-’90s to today?
The design philosophies are very firm. Within Element’s context it’s about how much can you take out of something to make it even more beautiful. I always say “make it breathe” when I’m working with my designers. I want more space, less noise. Less is more. I’ve always loved simplicity and space in design.
What are some of your favorite pieces from the current F/W14 collection?
I’d say the Wolfeboro Mens Jacket Collection that we do within Element. I’m very proud of that. I think that’s one of the best representations of all the Element design philosophy. It’s about classiness, timelessness, East Coast roots, a simple color palette and it’s functional but not overly embellished with shit you don’t use. The motto for that line is “made for simple living.”
Our skateboards are always awesome. Element makes a lot of stuff but at the end of the day we make one of the world’s greatest pieces of wood. And Nyjah Huston can do tricks that nobody else can do, that will go down in skateboard history, and he did that shit on an Element board.
Can you tell us a bit about the recent Todd Francis project?
Todd came out with an amazing new book that embodies his work from the last, I’ll say 100 years (he’ll get a kick out that). The good news is the other half of the work he has done is with the Deluxe family, who have an amazing legacy in skateboarding. Todd’s been gracious enough to work with them and Element through most of his career. He did a board series with us to represent that body of work. If you look at his art, it’s about how much irony is in the world and how so much of it pulls back to nature. It’s a celebration of Todd’s cynicism within art and nature.
And how about the Element footwear collection?
I feel shoes are really important to style. If you’re a skateboard company it can be very difficult to launch footwear into the market. A lot of people have done it unsuccessfully. I think we’ve worked with basic design principles and taken a lot of the “less is more” design philosophy and really just been not afraid to make shoes. It’s been about “how can we make a shoe that complements our brand?” Which is why we can make a boot with the Emerald stuff and not get caught up in the performance shoe idea that a lot of skate brands get stuck on. We’re more than a skateboard company so we approached our footwear with that in mind.
Is there anything else you’d like to share? Or any final thoughts?
I always like to end any conversation about Element to say the company is not built on product or making money, or even about skateboarding. It was about starting a brand and having the opportunity to make a positive difference in the world and to do something that elevates the wonderful world that I was introduced to. The world of skateboarding, music, art, culture, friendships and travel. I was very blessed to be halfway decent at skateboarding and that opened all these doors to be able to do Element.
I want to make it loud and clear that Element is about positive change for the youth. It’s not only about skateboarding but about being able to look at beautiful art and understand the cynicism and sarcasm behind things like Todd’s work, or enjoy music like hip hop. Element has been a vehicle for all these different cultures to interact with each other, from having Stevie Williams on the team back in the day to Jake Rupp to Tosh Townend to Chris Markovich to Mark Appleyard and Natas Kaupas. To have been responsible for shaping something like that is why Element exists. Product and skateboarding is a byproduct of the brand philosophy. That’s the most important part.
- Photography: Pete Williams for Highsnobiety.com