Don and Summer Meek's Soul Project hopes to connect people and places
Do you have a place, maybe more than one, that speaks to you on a deeper level? A place that you connect with and where you always feel like you’re home, whether you live there or not?
According to Laguna’s Don and Summer Meek, that’s your soul place, and they want to help you celebrate and preserve it.
How? Through the Soul Project. No, it’s not a movement or a charity, but it is pretty grass-roots. Soul Project is the couple’s new apparel company, started last year with the goal of “giving apparel passion, purpose, and fun.” They do it by working with artists who live in each of the places they celebrate. The artists create designs that speak to the soul of the places – so far, Laguna Beach, Dana Point and Newport Beach, but others are on the way.
But the Meeks are also dedicated to improving the soul of these places. To do that, they donate a dollar from every purchase to a local environmental or children’s nonprofit. Places such as local Surfrider Foundation chapters and Boys & Girls Clubs. “We figure we have a pretty bright future if we have happy kids and a healthy environment,” says Don.
So far, in addition to soulproject.com and swell.com, you can find their apparel at Laguna Surf & Sport; The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel; and Seed People’s Market in Costa Mesa. We caught up with the husband-and-wife team to find out how their business model feeds the soul while helping to protect the environment and benefit the future generation.
You both had different careers before starting this line. Was it a long-held dream?
DON: I never in a million years thought I’d be in this business. I had a 30-year career in the media business, starting in television advertising and ending up as the chief revenue officer for Tribune Company, the big media organization that owns the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. In between, I started the US Open of Surfing and was head of the company that owned Surfer and Surfing magazines, so I thought I’d be in the media business forever.
SUMMER: For me, yes. This has been my childhood dream. I grew up with a designer mom and I started working in her office after school from the time I was really little. First I worked at the Sawdust Festival getting food orders for all the vendors and then I worked in her office. I watched what she did and to me it was something magical. It was something I always wanted to be part of.
Why did you go in a different direction?
SUMMER: My mother is the most incredible designer but did lack some of the business sense, and I was determined to learn the business part of it. So my background is in business administration. But that didn’t feel very rewarding to me. So I’ve had a lifelong yoga practice and I taught Pilates for a few years. That’s what feeds me.
And you had an apparel line, called Laguna Soul, which you started in 2008, right?
DON: Yes, Summer started that. Her vision was to create a line where yoga met the beach. But we kept running into these wonderful challenges – $50,000 challenges.
So why start Soul Project?
DON: We took a week-long holiday in Hanalei Bay in Kauai, which is a very special place for both of us. On the last Saturday that we were there I got the call that my job was going away. My 30-year media career came to an end. When we came home we started talking about the power of place, the power of Laguna and how it resonates with people. Hanalei is the same sort of place. I remember saying it’s like a soul place.
How do you define a soul place?
DON: Have you ever stepped off a plane in a place you’ve never been before, taken a deep breath and felt like you were home? For us, Hanalei felt like that. We felt like we were on to something, so we started thinking about where other soul places might be. That day we bought 40 different URLs, everything from Santa Cruz soul.com to Venice to Paris to Montauk soul.com. Summer said this is our soul project, and we had our name.
Your business model includes a philanthropic purpose. Why?
SUMMER: We wanted to do something to support our family, but we also wanted to do something that gives back. We started with that concept.
DON: One of the things that hit us was that you can go to downtown Laguna and buy a T-shirt that says Laguna Lifeguard on it, but you’re not a Laguna Beach lifeguard and it doesn’t benefit the Laguna Beach lifeguards. In fact, it doesn’t benefit anybody but the retailer that sold it. And no matter how great a soul place is, every place on the planet has challenges. And we see those challenges in terms of kids and the environment.
What do you mean by that?
DON: We figure we have a pretty bright future if we have happy kids and a healthy environment. So to the extent that we can do something to support the future of our soul places, that would be a good thing.
How will you do that?
DON: We call it socially conscious capitalism. We think brands such as Tom’s and Patagonia have really set the bar for how that works. We hit on a slightly different but very simple idea: a dollar from everything we sell, coming out of our share of the proceeds, goes to the Soul Project Foundation. And rather than create a new cause or effort, we decided to support existing local organizations in our soul places. By doing that, we have no administration costs because they flow straight through.
Do you find the dollar concept avoids confusion?
DON: Exactly. It’s not a percentage of a percentage that nobody knows how much it is. It’s a buck. If we sell a million shirts, we donate a million dollars. Simple.
How do you get designs that are informed about the nature of each place?
DON: We work with local artists in each of these places to develop the graphics. Because who better to develop those graphics than the artists that live in the soul places themselves?
How do you choose the artists for Laguna Beach, your first soul place?
DON: It’s been a very serendipitous, wonderful journey. Summer’s cousin, Steven Chew, who goes by the name of Sli Dawg, is a very well-known surfer and free-spirited traveler who is also a very gifted artist. So we asked him to be our artist in residence and come up with our first design. We also worked with local surf and fashion photographer Geoffrey Ragatz. Finally, we found a new artist, Elliott Whalen. Our plan is to work with three artists in each place and get three works from each of them.
How did you choose the various soul places?
DON: These are places that are iconic, that really capture the imagination. Paris is certainly one of them. Venice, California, and Venice, Italy, are both places that capture people’s imagination.
Have you been to all your soul places?
DON: No. We’ve never been to Montauk, for instance. But Montauk elicits the kind of response in me – from everything I’ve heard or read about it – that tells me that it’s a strong soul place.
Are you a beach or surf brand?
DON: We’re more a brand for the intrepid traveler that falls in love with a place and wants to have a piece of that place when they leave.
What charitable organizations do you give to?
DON: We chose the Laguna Beach Boys & Girls Club, the South Orange County Chapter of Surfrider Foundation, the Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association and the R.H. Dana Exceptional Needs Facility for special needs children. In north county San Diego it’s the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy that not only does environmental work but also does educational programs.
Charitable organizations have taken quite a hit over the past few years thanks to the economy. Did that factor into your decision to help them?
SUMMER: Yes. When we were starting the foundation and I was going to workshops on how to start a nonprofit foundation, I saw that some existing ones were feeling disillusioned because the more nonprofits there were, the less funds each would get. So for us, it felt like the right thing to do to give to established nonprofits that are already doing good work.
Starting an apparel line is risky business. How do you handle the doubt?
DON: The trick is to not freak out. I remember, one day Summer was having one of those moments of doubt and we went to lunch and somebody we didn’t know was wearing one of our T-shirts. It was so reaffirming to see that. I don’t know if the big [apparel companies] get used to that but we aren’t used to it yet. So it’s still pretty fun.
What’s the demographic for your customer?
DON: I would argue it’s not really an age or income demographic. It’s more of a psychographic profile. And first and foremost, I think our clients understand what it means to have a soul place, and chances are, they have two or three of their own.
Do some people not get it?
SUMMER: We’ve met people who don’t understand what we’re talking about. One lady said her soul place was her kitchen. But actually, I guess that could be true. But in general, I think people want to be switched on. They want to connect. When people find a community where they feel connected it can be very transformational.
But it’s the designs and unique artwork that usually attract them, I assume.
DON: Yes, the attention span of the consumer in retail is pretty short and ours is a brand that requires a little bit of thought and moment of reflection to really understand. But the good news is that there really is a story behind it. And we’ve been gratified to see that the people who take a minute to consider it have become very loyal to us. A lot of people can’t wait to weigh in on where the next soul place should be. People really love their soul places.
So people can give you their suggestions on soulproject.com?
SUMMER: Yes. You can tell us where your soul place is and what’s special about your soul place. What are the fun activities to do there? Where do you like to eat? What are some things to do there that visitors wouldn’t otherwise know about?
DON: We’re hopeful that as we grow and evolve that this will become a resource for our community to share the places that they love and give others an insider’s view. Because one of the things that I’ve always strived to do when I’ve travelled is to not be a tourist. To blend in and become part of the landscape. And I would venture a guess that that’s probably an ethic that is consistent in the people who will love our brand. If we can give an insider’s view of where the prettiest beach is or the best place to get a cup of coffee in the morning is, then that’s what people want to know. They want to travel like a native. That’s the journey we’re on.