Outsiders Store UK
Outsiders Store UK

An Outsiders™ Interview with Chris Gentile, founder of Pilgrim Surf & Supply

There’s more to surfing than just surfing. ‌

Splashing about in the ocean on a big ol’ board is obviously pretty crucial to the whole thing, but there’s a lot that a surfer has to contend with before they get to that perfect wave—whether that means poring over maps, trekking across the country in a beat-up old station wagon or just standing by the shore, patiently waiting.

It’s these situations which Pilgrim Surf & Supply makes clothes for. Rather than mindlessly spew up age-old day-glo surf cliches, the New York brand serves up a fresh blend of considered clothing designed for adventure. Whilst surf is literally its middle name—Pilgrim is by no means ‘just a surf brand’, and its functional designs, from lightweight smocks to zip-pocket climbing shorts, come in handy for seadogs and landlubbers alike.

Surfer, artist and designer Chris Gentile is the man behind it. I met him out on the waves of cyberspace to talk about early influences, avoiding nostalgia and how he learned to accept his love for the occasionally misunderstood artform of surfing.

Outsiders Store UK
Outsiders Store UK
Going back to the beginning, was making clothes something you were always into?

My grandmother was a master seamstress—she was a sample maker in New England where I grew up—and she taught me how to sew when I was young. She made all my clothes until I was too self conscious to wear ‘em—maybe when I was ten and I started to want to wear Levi’s and what everybody else had on. I’d be getting made fun of at school wearing these funny pants and shirts with weird prints on them—but looking back when we were opening Pilgrim I realised that was a part of me that I’d never really explored. 

I’ve always been interested in clothing and how it's made and the function of it. As a visual artist, my passion was making things, so getting into making clothing—being able to be in these factories and be a part of that process—was really important for me.

When did you start Pilgrim? What was the initial idea with it?

We opened in early 2012. My ambition was to make cut-and-sew clothing for our community of people. When you surf, you don’t wear clothes—so surf apparel is kind of a goofy idea. You’re not making clothes to surf in, you’re making clothes for when you’re on the adventure to go and surf. 

The idea of the name Pilgrim comes from this idea that surfers or people who are seeking adventure are kind of pilgrims. If you’re that climber who wants to tackle one face of a wall in a national park, you make the journey there for that reason, and there’s kind of a spiritual component to that. Pilgrims have to travel—pilgrims have to trek. 

The ambition was to create a collection of clothes that could support a person who was living in a city like New York or London or Tokyo—when you’re having to schlep and carry and haul things around with you all day long in shitty weather. You’re not driving around in a car, so the number of steps you have to take when you live in a city is intense. It was about making the clothes and accessories that can support that kind of city dwelling lifestyle—whilst still working for the outdoors, whether you’re surfing or climbing or gravel bike riding.

And at the same time we were also buying interesting brands from all over the world—brands that put a lot of energy into making clothes with integrity.

You were an artist before all this weren’t you? How did that fit in with Pilgrim?

I think being a visual artist, and coming from that gave me this courage to create things. When you’re in a studio and you’re grappling with these curiosities that you have—you’re formulating ideas and you’re trying to express yourself—there’s a lot of vulnerability in that and there’s a lot of mistakes that are made. And after a while, you get comfortable with that struggle—and you’re able to work through it. I think making clothes and having a brand is so incredibly challenging, and I think the visual arts side that I have inside me has given me this emotional stability to understand that things can get worked past, and these challenges aren’t things that can derail what we’re doing. 

It’s given me that acceptance of the struggle, and it’s given us a different way to produce our collection. I’m afraid of nostalgia—I feel like it’s almost a poison, it’s too easy and it fades quickly. It’s almost like a dopamine rush. So instead we tend to look at external things outside of the fashion industry to get our inspiration from. 

Is it hard to avoid nostalgia? Like you say, it’s an easy thing to slot into. How do you push things forward?

I think when you’re pushing forward, you’re taking risks. There are no risks in nostalgia—it’s already been accepted and acknowledged. That’s the nostalgia poison—somebody else already took the risk. If you’re trying to project a little into the future, you have to take risks and try things other people aren’t trying. Nothing we’re making is futuristic—a button-down shirt is a button-down shirt—we’re not reinventing the wheel, but it’s the subtleties and the small details which make things interesting or unique. It’s about finding your own language.

Does Pilgrim have a language? How would you describe it? It’s one of those things that sits between sportswear and outdoor gear and loads of other things.

I think Pilgrim is about bringing a high integrity in terms of the craftsmanship of a garment, to something that can be worn in a functional way. And yet it should still be an easy garment to wear—a piece of casualwear.

We’re sort of sitting in between the hyper-technical and the very loose and casual. Sometime’s casual can be precious—something you can’t get rough and tumble in. We want casualwear that you can go and work in a woodshop all day in. You can climb in our climbing pants—they’re really meant to be used, and people do use them in that way. I guess that’s our design language—to bridge these two things and sit in between. 

When you think about it, a technical piece of clothing is more relevant to someone who lives in a city like ours than it is to a person who lives a suburban life—they may live more in nature than we do, but we’re dealing with the elements more on a day-to-day basis. Things like our footwear or the way our pants move are important. We’re in a unique place where we have this design problem we’ve got to solve every season—it’s a really awesome challenge.

Outsiders Store UK
Outsiders Store UK
How does surfing influence all this? Your designs are a bit more subtle than what people usually think of as ‘surf-wear’.

80% of surfing is the journey to get to the waves—and the other 20% is the actual act of surfing. You’re taking a pilgrimage to the surf spots, whether you’re getting in a plane and travelling halfway around the world, or getting in your car and searching for a new place on your coastline. It’s that journey that I use as inspiration—and how it connects. 

Growing up surfing and skating on the East Coast of the United States in New England, we were always looking at California from afar. We idolised that world—it always had waves and it was always sunny—but then we had months of overcast cold days. So although I idolised that stuff, I didn’t live it—I grew up with J.Press and LL Bean and Sperry Topsiders. I was in coastal Rhode Island, and my mother and step-father owned a small restaurant near this marina, so I grew up on boats and doing all these things that were not all like surf culture—with all those loud neon graphics. I never really related to that bubblegum stuff. 

We had a surf community on the East Coast, but it was really removed from that scene, but it was a little grittier, and done by people who were way more committed, as you had to do it in water that was a lot colder, in conditions that were a lot less ideal. So when I think about surfing, I think about my interpretation through my lived experience. 

Were there any surf brands that you did relate to back then?

There were some brands that I did wear at that time that I did get excited about—these brands that when you wore them represented that you were a surfer. One of my all time favourites was this brand called Jimmy’z, which this guy Jimmy Gazner started. He was such a visionary—he made this really cool belt system, along with jackets and pants and berets and these incredible collage photographic prints. And then some of the people he sponsored were our heroes—people like Natas Kaupas and Tommy Guerero. 

I loved that brand because it wasn’t this Southern California white idealism—it was grittier—like the proletariat and the design world came together to make these clothes which were easy to skate in and had a really unique point of view. If I look back on all the brands back then, and what made me think about clothing for the first time—I’d say it was that brand. That was the first time I truly identified with something and what it represented. It was like it was made for me. 

Growing up on the East Coast was there almost a kick-back to the West Coast surfing thing?

With surfing I never really related to that neon scene in Southern California—but I loved surfing. I never really identified myself as a surfer. I wasn’t really anti-West Coast—we idolised what was going on—but I didn’t think much about pro surfing or the competitive side of it growing up—I was more interested in the experience and act of surfing. 

And then as I got a little older and I was in art school, there was a time in my life when I didn’t want anyone to know that I surfed. The image of the surfer—the Jeff Spicoli Fast Times burnout—was embarrassing. It was like you were this degenerate anti-intellectual burnt-out stoner moron, so I hid surfing from my faculty and my peers. 

I had this guy Dave Hickey—this brilliant writer and art critic who was a visiting artist in our graduate programme—come to my studio once, and I had my surf boards hidden in the corner behind some sheets of plywood, but the noses were kind of sticking out. And Dave, who wrote this super influential book called Air Guitar, came into this studio, and I was so nervous. The first thing he says is, “Hey look, I’m anti-academic—I hate what academia and what it does to artists, I’m not going to talk about your work, let’s talk about what you’re into.” So we start talking about music and other artists, and then he sees the boards sticking out, and he says, “What are you doing with those surfboards?” I’m like, “Oh no, here we go.”

You’d been rumbled.

Yeah, I’d been found out. So I told him I surf, and he said, “No shit—I lived in Venice, and I was part of the Light and Space scene. Did you know that Ed Ruscha surfed and Chris Burden and…” So he starts going down this list of brilliant artists who were surfers, and I had no idea. He was just cracking my head open. Then he said, “Where is surfing in your work?” I told him that I tried to hide it but he said, “Fuck that—this is your passion, this is something that most people don’t understand.” Having that experience opened me up to seeing surfing more as this spiritual pursuit—and maybe it is anti-intellectual as when you go surfing it has nothing to do with anything else—but it has a lot to do with your inner health.

So going back to your question, I feel like the act of surfing, the way that it feels, it’s impossible to describe with words or express in a piece of clothing, but it’s a source of inspiration that comes out of the obsession with it. And the biggest inspiration is how hard it is.

I loved that brand because it wasn’t this Southern California white idealism—it was grittier—like the proletariat and the design world came together to make these clothes which were easy to skate in and had a really unique point of view. If I look back on all the brands back then, and what made me think about clothing for the first time—I’d say it was that brand. That was the first time I truly identified with something and what it represented. It was like it was made for me. 

Outsiders Store UK
Outsiders Store UK
Outsiders Store UK
Outsiders Store UK
Outsiders Store UK
Outsiders Store UK
Every wave is different. And that’s when it brings it into this spiritual thing—literally riding this frequency of the earth… it's wild.
I’ve never surfed, but I get what you mean. I ride BMX, and although surfing might be harder technically—it’s still pretty difficult. I might think I’m alright at certain things—I do work on time, I walk down the street, I eat—it’s not that hard, but then I’ll be trying some move on a ledge for an hour and still won’t be able to pull it. It’s pretty humbling. Maybe it’s good to have a completely pointless battle with something.

100%. That’s the central piece to this whole conversation. Surfing is really about humility and struggle, and that’s the same as being an artist or a designer. When you take the risk, nine out of ten times, it’ll humble you, but then that one time that you make it, it’ll click and come together. It’s about taking risks and accepting failures—and how they don’t stop progress, but instead feed into the progress. When you fall or you don’t make it, you’re learning from it, it’s feeding you… unless you break an arm. 

Most people don’t have that endless pointless failure, do they? I don’t think everyone is going out of their way to find something so difficult and frustrating. Maybe we’re just hunting for that rare time when things do work out.

Totally—I think that’s what gives you the fuel to progress and keep moving forward. And hopefully that’s what our brand does—I want our brand to inspire people to try stuff. I hope through our brand and our store people can discover things or try something new.

I suppose with surfing—you’ve still got to go and really do it. With riding or skating or climbing there’s indoor places which can offer a sort of synthetic safe-play version, but apart from a few rare exceptions, you don’t really have that for surfing.

That’s what’s really going to keep it special. There are wave pools popping up, but they’re not the same. That’s why we’re pilgrims—it’s the hunt. When you have the moments come together, the weather is right and the swell is right, it’s blissful—but it’s fleeting, it doesn’t last. And that’s just like riding the wave—when it happens and you’re on it, you’re completely out of your head, you can’t think, “I’m going to take this turn a little slower.” You’re in the flow and you have an almost out-of-body experience—that sounds corny but it’s true. 

You have to let things go and be at the mercy of what’s happening underneath your feet. And that’s something that’s uniquely different about surfing compared to skating or riding a bike—with them, you have static, you have a ramp—but with surfing you’re riding this energy that’s moving, and you’ve only got a few seconds to harness it. And then it’s done. 

There’ll never be the same wave again.

Every wave is different. And that’s when it brings it into this spiritual thing—literally riding this frequency of the earth… it's wild. When you’re a kid you never articulate this stuff or think about it, but you still experience it. It does something to you, and it’s like a drug. Once you have that first down the line wave and you get that feeling on your feet, it’s really hard to shake it. 

It’s not a commodity—you can’t go and buy that feeling or reserve that tee time at the golf course—and that’s what makes it so attractive. So to then try and market a lifestyle or a brand around that is impossible—you can’t commodify a feeling.

Outsiders Store UK
Outsiders Store UK
Yeah, it’s maybe about being inspired by it, rather than milking it. Obviously there’s the surf element we’ve talked about with Pilgrim, but there’s clearly a lot of other influences that go into it too. And then with your shop, you sell different brands and art books and magazines. How important is it to have ‘the mix’—to not be just one thing?

It’s super important. I think it’s important for people not to have just one thing or hobby or whatever you call it. I have so many different passions, and what I like doing is taking these things and letting them touch—whether that’s an art book sitting next to a pair of sandals that were made in Malibu next to a hat made in Japan sitting next to a surfboard that was hand-crafted by a guy in Australia. 

Those may seem non-sequitur, but there’s intention and integrity in all those things and the way they’re crafted and articulated, and that’s what ties them all together. It might not be obvious, but it wouldn’t be that much fun to walk into a place and have it all be obvious. We’re not a hardware store. Maybe it’s like cooking—throwing a new ingredient into something that you’ve made 100 times and changing the dynamic completely. 

Definitely. You seem like a big thinker. You’ve contemplated this stuff a bit. Wrapping this up as we’ve talked for a while, do you have any words of wisdom to finish this with?

One thing I think about a lot is how people get hung up on ideas, thinking, “Oh, that was my idea.” or, “They stole my idea.” I think it’s a gross waste of energy and time to get hung up on something like that. I was really fortunate when I was young to have this experience building shipping crates for this artist Robert Rauschenberg. He lived near my mum when we moved down to South Florida during high school.

No way.

It was a very brief thing, it wasn’t like I was a studio assistant or anything, He was a really special human being—and he spat out a lot of pearls of wisdom. One of Bob’s statements that I like telling people is , “Ideas are not like real estate, you don’t get to have an idea and put a fence around it and call it yours.” I always thought that was really beautiful. A lot of people have ideas, and a lot of people have the same idea. It’s really about maintaining a high level of curiosity as you get older, and not assuming you know everything. I embrace that more and more the older I get—the more exposure I have to things, the more I realise how little I know.