CHRIS MILLER: Skateboarding, Surfing, Yoga, and The Creative Life
The pursuits of surfing and skateboarding are creative by their very nature, it only makes sense that the subcultures that surround both activities would produce some of the most inspiring and imaginative people around.
As a kid coming up, Chris Miller blew me away with his super smooth, inventive, and ever stylish skateboarding. He exemplified the perfect combination of speed, flow, and natural grace. Later Miller would branch out beyond just the act of skateboarding, becoming an artist, and the man behind some of the most iconic brands in the industry.
A few years back Chris immersed himself in the practice of Yoga, as a restorative and balancing practice. Now he is once again helping build a brand, this time with a culture that exemplifies the love of the ocean, yoga, and a healthy lifestyle. The brand is called Vuori.
I recently caught up with Chris to talk skateboarding, surfing, Yoga, and Vuori clothing.
Tell us about your early days growing up. Where you grew up, what were some of your most memorable experiences, and what eventually attracted you to skateboarding?
I grew up mostly in southern California, Santa Monica and then Claremont, with a year in between in Tallahassee, Florida. My attraction to surfing and skateboarding started when I was a kid in Santa Monica. This was the Dogtown era, I guess after what was shown in the Stacy Peralta documentary film, Tony Alva and Jay Adams were the local heroes and legends. I was a bit too young to be in that scene, but I was certainly influenced by it and the surf/skate culture of the area.
I was kind of a latchkey kid, and would just spend my time after school skating around the streets, alleyways, and parking garages of Santa Monica. Basically the house rules were to be home by dark, so I filled my time pretending to surf in the streets – dropping into banks and driveways, and getting barreled by bushes hanging over the sidewalks.
Eventually this lead me and a friend to find our first backyard pool, which in hindsight, was literally a life-altering event for me. That first time in an empty pool, the whole experience of it: sneaking in and riding, the weightless feeling of going up the wall. The freedom I felt from it just put me on a trajectory of wanting more, seeking it, and progressing each time I could ride anything with a curve or transition. This is fundamentally what led me into a lifelong obsession and career as a pro skater.
When did you realize you were progressing and maintaining your skills on a skateboard to the level that you would be able to pursue it on a professional level? What are some of your personal achievements in the realm of skating that you feel most proud of?
Like I said, I was pretty obsessed from the start and progressing every time I got on a board. But really it wasn’t until after I was already a “pro” that I realized it could be a career of any sort. I say that because when I was a teenager, skating had basically died as an industry and there wasn’t much opportunity for prize money or paid sponsorships. It was just something I loved doing and was entrenched in the community of like-minded people, so I kept doing it.
All the while, my expectation was that I would eventually have to get a “real job” and do something financially viable. When I was a freshman in high school there were like four or five skaters in my school. It wasn’t even a thing to be a “skater”, just something a couple of us did. Then four years later, all of a sudden there were a ton of skaters, but they were all younger. It’s like it skipped a generation and then was booming again! I still didn’t think that it would last or be a career, but it just kept growing from there to now, where there are pros making seven figures.
In terms of my personal achievements or what I find most fulfilling, it’s really that I got to be involved in creating a culture or maybe rebirthing it anyway. I did win contests and had covers of skate magazines and all that sort of thing, too, but it’s cultural aspects that are most meaningful to me. I was one of the first few pros who did their own graphics. With the encouragement of Neil Blender, I created all of the art that would be printed on my pro model boards. This movement of creative skate culture that was sort of lead by Blender, paved the way for skaters to have careers that were more like musicians and artists rather than just athletes. It was about feeling, expression, and style more than just pure performance or competition results. I was part of this shift in skateboarding. More than pride or accomplishment, I just feel grateful for the timing and inspiration to follow that path and be part of something that was pretty pure.
You’ve had a very successful career in the skateboarding world (that is still moving forward as you age), which you also segued into the building of skateboard, apparel, and shoe brands. What pushed you to pursue starting your own brands and what were some of your keys to building successful brands?
The desire to start brands was the same desire I had to do my own graphics. It just progressed to be more than my personal graphics or functionality of a board or tee shirt, but an entire brand. That’s what inspired me to start Planet Earth in the early 90’s. By then, I was a well-known pro and I was very involved with my sponsors and creating products for them. Eventually that experience lead me to the idea of creating my own label, offering a different perspective on skateboarding, and sponsoring younger riders that I could help mentor and bring up. Planet Earth grew and was successful, and that success lead me to start Adio Footwear and a few other brands in the skate and snowboard space. Adio was the biggest business I’ve personally been involved with to date. At its peak we had over 100 employees and sponsored pros like Tony Hawk, Jamie Thomas and Shaun White. It was amazing and fun and super challenging too.
Eventually our parent company that had funded the whole project was sold, and I left shortly after to pursue other projects and interests. I learned so much during that period of time and I understand business and brands in a way that I don’t think I could have in school. I feel like the great companies are ones that have not only great products and a great brand, but an amazing culture. It takes passion to build a brand that resonates in a meaningful way, and it takes teamwork and great individuals working together to build a company that can last. You can have one without the others, but to be sustainable you need all three: products, brand, and culture.
You are known for having an ultra-smooth style on a skateboard. Being that you surf as well, do you feel a synergy between the two pursuits, and do you feel surfing helped bring about a more flowing style to your skateboarding?
Well, I skated before I surfed, but I do think that they influence each other and are complementary. My older brother was a hardcore surfer, and like I said, as a kid I was completely inspired by the surf/skate culture of Dogtown. It was always both and not just one. Even though I didn’t surf that much until I was an older teenager, I was always inspired by surfing. Now, I am certainly more inspired by the nature and experience of surfing, but from a performance point of view more so by skating. Unless I could surf like John John Florence, I’d say skating will always play that role for me!
You are now immersed in building a new brand called Vuori which focuses on men-specific surf and yoga gear. What was the impetus for starting the brand, what is the philosophy behind it, and what do you hope to offer people that other brands are not?
So with all this skating, surfing, and snowboarding I’ve been immersed in my whole life, I never did anything restorative for my body. No cross training, no running or yoga – I never even stretched. Then about six years ago I started going to yoga, and I was blown away. It just felt so good for my body and mind! I started going every evening and did almost 90 days in a row! I was going through some big life changes too, and I found that yoga was the only thing keeping me centered and well. I was also amazed at the ways that yoga helped my surfing and skating too. It shifted my breathing patterns and made me more aware and in tune with my body and movements, as well as my energy and focus. Yoga was a life changer for sure! When I first started practicing, I was wearing boardshorts and cotton tees. Being a product designer, I just couldn’t help but notice how poorly my clothing was performing! I started looking around for performance clothing that fit my aesthetic, and I couldn’t find much I liked. With surf brands, the fit and fabrics aren’t always the best, yoga brands were too feminine, and the big athletic brands just too “sporty” and not really what I want to wear. Joe Kudla and I met around that time, and he was already doing Vuori as a small tee shirt line and wanting to expand. He and I shared ideas and became good friends and then decided to join forces to create what Vuori is today.
Being located in Encinitas, California, you’re situated quite nicely as there’s a great surf scene with legendary spots like Swamis, and it’s practically the yoga capital of the west coast. How has that area helped influence Vuori and your own personal life?
Encinitas is basically the inspiration for Vuori. As you said, it’s pretty much the yoga capital of the west coast. It’s home to dozens of surf, skate, and snowboard pros. It’s also is a huge triathlete mecca and just generally has a healthy lifestyle culture. People are running, biking, swimming, surfing, paddling, and skating all over the place! With Vuori, we wanted to create high-quality clothes that we could wear all day or all weekend. Clothing that fit our Encinitas lifestyle, from yoga or a workout to the café for breakfast, or down to the beach for a swim or surf. Just super functional well-made clothes that look and feel great whatever the situation. We are also using some great sustainable fabrics, like recycled stretch poly and Sea Cell, which is made from seaweed and other natural fibers. The sea cell tees are incredibly soft and comfortable with some great natural performance benefits too.
Anyone who has invested some serious time into skateboarding knows how brutal it can be on the body. Can you tell us about the positive benefits a practice like yoga would have for people that have a passion for activities, that although very fulfilling, can have a negative impact on the body?
Skateboarding is harsh on the body for sure, but so are a lot of other sports. If you are a serious athlete and push your body in any sport or activity, you will eventually have injuries and strains. It just comes with the territory. What I have found with yoga is that it’s a great balancing activity. Not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. It offers me a method and vocabulary to better understand the mind-body connection. It enables me to do all the other stuff I love in a more fulfilling and sustainable way.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned from a life of skateboarding and do you think there will ever be a time when you no longer ride a skateboard?
I am sure there will eventually come a time that I don’t skate, but I hope it’s not for quite a while. I just enjoy it so much! The fact is that there just aren’t too many other things in life where I can experience the sensations I feel skating big concrete transitions, so I’ll do it as long as I can. Skateboarding has taught me so much, but it seems that the most fundamental life lesson is that progression never happens without experimentation, creativity, and determination. Every once in a while you learn something new skating where you get lucky and make it first try. But most of the time it starts with your mind and something you can imagine doing, then you try it and usually fall…not just a couple times but dozens and dozens of falls, sometimes painfully! But each fall is not a failure, it’s a lesson in what not to do. You can give up, or you change it up a bit and do something slightly different each time until you get it! So I guess it’s that good things don’t always come easy. Be patient, be determined, and be grateful when you finally do.
With Planet Earth you were a major driving force behind the art direction of the company, is it the same with Vuori?
Vuori is a true collaborative effort. I am certainly a big part of the vision and strategy along with Joe, but the execution and details that bring it to life are all about our team. Joe, Nikki, Rebecca, Mark, and Austin are an amazing crew and making Vuori what it is! I am very proud to be part of it!
As someone who has successfully followed his dreams, what advice would you have for people trying to manifest their own dreams into reality?
I suppose it depends on what you want to create, what dreams you want to manifest. I have learned that you will manifest what you put your energy and effort into. I have also learned that a lot of people don’t align their actions and words, then they’re surprised or frustrated that they aren’t getting what they want! I certainly don’t feel that I have it all figured out, but I love my life and I am grateful for everything that’s come my way. I appreciate quality over quantity and relationships and experiences over things. I feel very fulfilled by the process of creation and I pursue it again and again. My life is filled with creative manifestation, from the physical expression of skating and surfing or yoga, to personal art or working on brands, events and products like apparel and skateboards. Of course all of these things are made possible, or just simply more enjoyable, through relationships, collaboration, and sharing. So I guess I am saying if you have a dream, don’t be afraid of failure, get out there and go for it, make the effort, laugh, cry, share, and enjoy the people and experiences along the way!