Mr Chris Gentile Of New York’s Pilgrim Surf + Supply
The American polymath – whose clothes are now available on MR PORTER – invites us for a tour of his Brooklyn store.
Surfing requires athleticism and stamina. Ask anyone who does it, however, and they’ll tell you that it’s not so much a sport as meditation – strenuous, but ultimately quieting to the mind. It’s just you and Mother Nature and it is this that creates the obsession that takes hold of most surfers. It goes beyond a want; it is a need. For some devotees, Mr Chris Gentile of Pilgrim Surf + Supply included, it is a whole way of life.
Mr Gentile is a skilled woodworker, a studied photographer and artist, and an apparel aficionado. To say nothing of his time as a creative director for Condé Nast’s photography studio. In 2012, he opened Pilgrim Surf + Supply in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which brought all those interests together under one roof. “The idea was to create a place where people could come discover new things, share ideas and just have a good experience around something they are passionate about,” he says. Much of what Mr Gentile is passionate about he traces back to his formative years, when he spent time in skate shops and record stores. “We all had those places that we went to as kids,” he says. “They had certain smells, certain sounds and certain visuals that made them special.”
The sunny corner space Pilgrim occupies on North 3rd Street and Wythe Avenue is simple and functional. The materials it’s fitted with are all natural and organic: 150-year-old hemlock flooring and southern yellow pine displays. This makes it sound precious, but it isn’t. A rack of colourful, hand-shaped surfboards is at the heart of the store. Out back, a haven from the traffic, is an inviting wooden oasis where they shape the boards, while the newly finished basement will soon become a gallery. There is a lot going on, but Mr Gentile is committed to creating a hub for his community, and not simply a shop that sells boards, clothes and the rest.
The store’s name comes from Pilgrim Avenue in Point Judith, Rhode Island, where a nine-year-old Mr Gentile caught his first wave, following in the footsteps of his equally wave-obsessed uncle. The experiences there, he says, sparked a lifelong obsession. “That first wave sealed the deal,” he says. “It was all I could think about. Just look at a surfboard. It’s such a beautiful object. The idea of riding this energy that has travelled thousands of miles to meet the coastline, and you’re just trying to get a little piece of it as it’s dying. There’s an existential thing that comes along with surfing.”
As Mr Gentile reached college, he found the public image of surfers disheartening. “My generation is the tail end of the Spicoli era,” he says, referencing stoner Jeff Spicoli, played by Mr Sean Penn, from the 1982 film Fast Times At Ridgemont High. “Surfers were thought of as lazy, degenerate dirtbags, who don’t do anything but hang out at the beach.” So, conscious of this, when he was studying art at the University of North Carolina, Mr Gentile tried to keep his surfing habit quiet. “I wanted people to take me seriously,” he says. “I wanted people to think I was smarter.”
During his studies, Mr Gentile was visited at his studio by art critic and writer Mr Dave Hickey. He caught a glimpse of a stack of surfboards that were tucked in a corner of Mr Gentile’s room, hidden behind some plywood. Mr Hickey said Mr Gentile’s passion for surfing should be part of his art, considering how important it was to him. He went on to explain the inherent connection between the two, as evidenced by the minimalist Light and Space movement and the Ferus Gallery of the late 1950s and 1960s, and told him about artists who either surfed or had a fondness for surf culture, such as Messrs Billy Al Bengston, John McCracken, Julian Schnabel, Ed Ruscha and Raymond Pettibon. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Mr Gentile. “That’s when I sincerely started thinking of surfing as a motivating force in my life instead of just an activity.”
Mr Gentile shows equal commitment to creating clothing. “We are trying to do things in a way that enables us to make the best decisions,” he says. “We don’t want to compromise the integrity of things.” The collection is comfortable and purposeful, made up of infinitely wearable staples, which have compelling details – a button here, an oversized silhouette there. It’s clothing that works just as well in the city as it does out in nature. A bright yellow anorak and a roomy pair of Paisley twill trousers would be the right choice for a walk to work in Williamsburg or a lazy morning at the beach upstate in Amagansett, where Mr Gentile happens to have another shop.
Mr Gentile finds the recent boom in the popularity of surfing, especially in New York, interesting. Not least because, while he himself has on the whole thrived, that success has sometimes come at a cost. “I’ve had relationships go south because of surfing,” he says. “I’ve upset my family because of surfing, pissed off friends because, if you’re not a surfer, it’s tough to understand why someone would cancel on you because the waves were good. But I make no excuses for surfing.”
For a surfer, the surf is paramount. “When the waves are good, you have to drop whatever you are doing and go,” says Mr Gentile. Quite the commitment.