Johnny Schillereff and Element believe skateboarding can change kids' lives

Johnny Schillereff and Element believe skateboarding can change kids' lives

Started From The Bottom#1 — First up in our new series Started From The Bottom – where we grill industry insiders on how they reached the top of their game – is Element Skateboards founder Johnny Schilleref.

When New York-based skateboarder Johnny Schillereff founded apparel brand Underworld Element in 1992, the creative powerhouse found a way to channel all his ideas and frustrations into one, positive-minded place.

Like any project, let alone one that has charged for over twenty-two years, Element has had its ups and downs but Johnny has grabbed every challenge with both hands and elevated the brand to iconic heights.

Where did the journey begin?
I’m from the East Coast, mainly from New York, but I grew up all over the East because my dad was in the military. I actually lived in Germany for five years. I lived in Oregon, Kentucky, Ohio, New Hampshire. I lived everywhere. But when I got a little older, like high school, I settled in New York, so that’s where my roots feel like they’re mostly at. Along with New Hampshire, which is where the whole Wolfboro [Element collection] thing comes from. I grew up there and started skating a ton.

Did your upbringing contribute to your entrepreneurialism?
Absolutely. I moved around a ton and I had to get acclimated to a different high school, a different environment, constantly. And you have two choices in a situation like that. You can become extremely displaced and maybe screwed up or you can adjust and become more outgoing and make sure you’re not always the new kid. So I took that other path where I just enjoyed meeting new people and looked forward to where we were going next and became probably pretty worldly because we lived in places like Germany, and travelled all over Europe. I had a foundation of multicultural backgrounds.

What made you want to set down firm roots and create a legacy?
Whenever I talk to my wife about it I say that I’m a ‘destined nomadic’. No matter what I do, no matter how complacent I become, I have this nomadic way of wanting to be. I always want to change. Change my room, change my house, change my business. But it’s not complete change, it’s evolution. I need constant movement and progress. I can’t sit still. Everything’s always got to go, go, go and be better. And maybe that’s because as a kid I was always striving to find a better place to be. I grew up with a pretty jacked-up background and every time we moved I hoped things would get better.

Why was skateboarding important to you?
Skateboarding saved my life, 100 per cent. I know a lot of skateboarders say it. It’s like a classically overused term. But I was probably destined to be a fuck-up, the odds were stacked against me, moving around a lot, dysfunctional family, not the best influences. And then I got into skateboarding and even though it took me to some sketchy environments it took me to those environments to focus on skateboarding. If you take two people and put them in exactly the same environment; one with nothing to do, and one with a skateboard in their hand, the one with nothing to do is going to find a crack house and the one with a skateboard is going to find the curb next to the crack house. It definitely saved my life for sure. It took me out of the house.

And was part of founding Element about wanting to share that experience with other people?
Absolutely. It was about really having this opportunity in front of me to harness all the creative outlets that I had developed over the years. I wanted to do something cool and positive that had an impact on kids’ lives and stood for something. I became obsessed with reading books about positive stuff – probably to offset the negative stuff that was going on in my life. I started listening to tons of reggae and positive hip hop. The content of Tribal Quest and Jungle Brothers and all this Rastafari was really cool to me. For a long time I was probably a poser, not practicing half of what I was trying to understand, but it gave me this platform to be like, ‘If I start anything, whether it’s a rap group or a brand or whatever, I’m not doing it unless it’s my thing. If it’s a house, I’ll build it from organic materials. If I’m a rapper, I’ll do conscious lyrics.’ It didn’t matter what I was gonna do, it was going to be built on the same fundamentals. Because I happened to be a skater and an artist with a ton of connections, I started a skateboard brand.

How do you sum up the philosophy of the brand now?
I think there’s been a lot of editing over the years because you look at things differently as you grow up. I think now I look at life in a lot more of a realistic way, which is good because I can take all of this crazy knowledge and learnings over these years and I can finally apply it. I’m editing everything I’ve learned in life into much more obtainable and realistic goals. You’ve got to have balance in your life. I don’t do anything I don’t like. You always have two choices. Be honest with yourself, be honest with the people around you, and take the high road. The philosophy of the brand is just to do the right thing.

Kids dream of having their own brand. A million start, a million go out of business. Why has Element stood the test of time?
I don’t know! Will you please tell me so I don’t fuck it up? I’m really lucky. First off, just saying that, thank you, it’s such an honour and a compliment. It’s crazy. I said this to my wife the other day: The only test of time is time. You’ll never know if anything will stand the test of time because the only way to test it, is time! So until you’re fucking dead, and even after that, you’ll never know. Do you think Van Gogh knows his shit stood the test of time?! No. So fuck it. Time’s not over yet.

What keeps it fresh for you?
I love it. I go to work everyday with something in my head that either makes me so pissed off that I have to fix it, or I am so excited about doing it that I’ve got to make it happen. And it just keeps me super charged up. I love creativity. I love being inspired and talking to people. I love learning. Every time we blow it, it’s like what an amazing education today has been. I think it’s just being ambitious and always wanting to do better. And the people. I love the people so much. It’s about so many people and there’s a constant effort to keep the group happy. I look at it as its own ecosystem. And it’s always about protecting the ecosystem. It’s not about any one individual it’s about all sorts of shit – a universe of kids on skateboards and protecting that.

Did you ever want to do anything else?
There have been times. But I’ve just been so lucky with Element I’ve never really had the choice. It’s like, ‘You’ve done me good, I gotta stick by your side.’ I do listen to a ton of hip hop and I believe in the G Code and Street Code beyond. It’s about knowing what’s right and how to do things right. So I just try to run the business and my life like that.

What advice would you give to a young upstart trying to launch their own project?
I’d just say, don’t give up. No matter how people tell you can’t do it, you still gotta do it. But I think the biggest thing is hard work. People are scared of hard work. At the end of the day it’s about putting in hours and rolling up your sleeves and busting your ass. So many people are afraid of that. And the gift of the gab means nothing. It’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting on the grind. And those are the people that win. You look at every successful leader and it’s not about the gift of gab. That gets you so far. Then you gotta work. And you can’t expect other people to do the work for you. The person who’s giving the orders better fucking know how to work, otherwise they’ll never be a fucking good boss. It’s gotta be hands-on. Also, be smart enough to hire people who are better and smarter than you but always try to be better than them, because that’s how things progress. Then you’ve got a healthy ecosystem. I always want to be the dumbest person in the room. Because that’s how you learn.

What inspires the brand?

I’m just inspired by life. I could talk about cars all day and shoes and music. I love all cars. I love the idea of building something from materials that’s a functioning, utilitarian device. No matter how much time passes, it manages to stay in the same form. How do you create something manmade that no matter how much technology progresses, the world still embraces the original creation? There’s hardly anything that does that.

Do you think people are getting less susceptible to hype?
Yeah I think so. But unfortunately I would say due to the popularity of things that are super fucking wack, you can’t underestimate that either. I think most people want to support a greater cause. But I do get disappointed by things I see sometimes, like, ‘How did we let that happen? How is that fucking popular and not that?’ But I mean I’m fascinated by cheesy shit. It’s there for a reason.

What’s the future of the brand?
I think the future of the brand is about continually improving. Just constant evolution of refining something that’s already refined. You just gotta keep refining it so, like that classic car, you don’t add, you subtract to evolve. The most beautiful thing is simplicity. The future of the brand is about growing the brand organically so you add things it naturally needs, and you subtract everything that isn’t necessary. You streamline its functionality. The future of the brand is continual evolution through complete discipline. As for my future? I just want to keep being grateful for all that I have – to not over think it and not relish in it too hard because it can all be taken away so fast.

You can find out more about Element on their website.