On a leisurely stroll through Laguna Beach on a lazy Saturday, we walked into a quaint boutique called “The Soul Project.” Little did we know that this boutique had a huge story to tell. We were lucky enough to meet the owners and founders of the store, Don and Summer Meeks. The married couple, and co-founders of “The Soul Project,” sat down with us to talk about their passion for travel and life experiences and how they were able to transform their philosophy into an environmentally friendly company focusing on social responsibility, and great clothes of course!
Labeling Men: Tell us a little about the philosophy behind "The Soul Project."
Don Meeks: We believe in "Power of Place.” Our opening question/tagline is, "Have you ever stepped off the plane at a place you've never been before, taken in a deep breath and felt like you were home? On your second morning there, were you reading the local real estate guide, trying to figure out how you could make it work? Do the feelings in your heart linger after your tan has faded?" We think of it as finding a "Soul Place,” those magical places on the earth where people connect. So the philosophy behind our brand is to help people connect with their place. People do love to buy the t-shirt, but we think there is an even better way to do it, which is work with local artists. They have the place in their bones and they can interpret the way that will make sense. We're not for everybody, some people love to go downtown and buy a Laguna Beach lifeguard t-shirt, they went to Laguna and got that shirt, and are happy. Our audience are people of free independent travelers, the people who are going to seek out the secluded cove instead of going to the main beach, finding the off the beat taco shop instead of going to Taco Bell. Those are the people that really connect with the idea of "A Soul Place.”
The other important part in our venture is we also believe in giving something back. We have been very fortunate in our lives - look at where we live and who we get to be with - so we decided to set up "The Soul Project Foundation" to channel $1 of every item that we sell to a kids or an environmental charity, because kids and the environment, that’s the future of "A Soul Place." No matter how beautiful a place is, they always have challenges. Let’s do a dollar, the power of a dollar. We have talked to people who were like ''$1 could be 25% of your profit on a t-shirt,” and we were like, "Yeah, it definitely can be." It all depends. We support the Boys & Girls Club here in Laguna and Newport. Up in Big Sur it’s the Henry Miller Library, so it all depends on where we are and who the artist wants to work with. We print all of our t-shirts so that it’s an environmentally stable way of doing things, water based ink, non-toxic, non-polluting, it’s a great part of it. This is our flagship. My wife likes Havaianas, so we have that in here; her mom designs jewelry, so we got that. This water bar you see, we have friends who designed this company Mizu, we do our water bottles with them, where you fill up your water, get rid of the plastic bottles. It doesn't even have to be our bottle, just fill up!
L.M: How did you guys get started; you mentioned you and your wife created the line?
D.M: My wife, Summer, had started a line called "Laguna Soul," which was going to be yoga meets the beach. We had bought [the domain name] lagunasoul.com, and she was moving along with it. Never having done it before, [she] kept running into all of these insurmountable things; it seemed like everything was being forced, even getting our logo on some t-shirts. I had said “if I wasn't doing what I was doing full time, I'd be working with you on this.” Well, my job went under while I was on holiday; I was standing, talking to my boss and he was telling me that they discontinued my job and I was out. And Summer said, "Well now is your chance!" So we jumped in, talking about the idea of a "Soul Place," and I Googled the term and up came an article by a woman named Judith Rich, who wrote beautifully about what it meant to find a “Soul Place” (Click here to view the article). We both thought, "Somebody is thinking about it the same way that we are," and where are all the other “Soul Places?” Honolulu is clearly one, and the first place I ever stood up on a surfboard was in Encinitas. I went to GoDaddy.com and we bought 40 places, from Aspen to Encinitas to La Jolla and said, "This is our Soul Project".
Summer Meeks: It is environmentally friendly. Not only do we print and design locally, we try to keep manufacturing as much as possible in the USA, or have it be that we are using some sort of eco-friendly material. That’s not necessarily our whole brand; I would say 70 to 80 percent of the time.
L.M: Sustainability fits seamlessly into your collection; how did that come about?
D.M: We really started the brand to be mindful of special places in the world that we call "Soul Places," and we use the local artists for the graphic because of the way some of the artists’ pieces were specially made. This started it all, this piece [Click here to view it]. Because we replicated an oil painting, it required so many screens and because it cost us $18 in just screens, it would be really hard to make a business out of that, so we started doing some research in how we were going to do this and [started to] rethink our model. We were at a trade show and we stumbled upon the printer and said, "This really makes a lot of sense because we can have as many colors as we want in our design." It could be as intricate as we want and can reproduce it. So we should get one of these printers, print all of our own designs, and that will be good for us. While we are doing it, we were thinking, "This should be a possibility for other brands, for other people too,” so we made a business out of that as well. We really have two businesses that we run out here...
L.M: Very busy!
D.M: Yes, very busy, two businesses that we run out of here. The beautiful thing about the printer - about the ink - is that it is a water based pigment ink, that is all self-contained. So unlike other printers, we don't burn screens, we don't have anything to clean up, so there is no toxic waste. The ink is environmentally friendly, now that we are doing a kids line as well, they want you to be organic and not have any toxins in anything, we fulfill that as well. We are able to make these cool shirts and we are cost effective because we are really able to just print on demand and fulfill our E-Commerce orders as they come in. So it’s really worked out!
L.M: You were telling us [earlier] about the one-of-a-kind swimsuits and t-shirts with vintage materials; can you give us some more information on that collaboration?
D.M: We hope that this will become a launching pad for other brands and other artists that are trying - I know it’s hard - to get their start in the marketplace, to go to the LA showrooms and all that. We have been fortunate that there have been places that gave us a start and a way to showcase our products. Eric Diamond was one of our very first "Soul Place" artists. He started this company with Walter Hoffman of Hoffman Fabrics, and was granted access to the fabric vault and they went through and picked out their favorite materials and they started making these one of a kind shorts. So when they said, "We'd love for you to carry the shorts in your new store," we said, "Well, why don't we do a collaboration doing some pocket t's." That was something that we implemented and now we are in talks of doing some other projects as well.
L.M: What would you consider your “label,” in terms of the brand?
D.M: Do you have the “Free Independent Traveler?”
L.M: Not yet!
D.M: “The Intrepid Traveler!” The guy who always has his passport with him because he is ready to go at the drop of a hat.
L.M: We don't have him, but maybe soon!
D.M: The Adventurer, because that person is going from “Soul Place” to “Soul Place” to really connect with where their soul resonates. Here is another thing too: Summer's cousin, who was our very first artist, his name is "Sly Dog,” we were sitting around one night talking about how this is all going to go. And I said, "We should try and have some fun with this too," and he goes, "Yeah, it’s not fun unless it’s fun!" And we thought that was a really good way to think about it. There is a real light-hearted part to this too; the shirts are fun, goofy in art.
L.M: Last question! We would love to get dating advice from a married couple and business owners such as yourselves…
D.M: Go to yoga! Yes, go to yoga for sure. Do the things that you like to do or take up an activity, something that you are in because that is where you meet people that are like-minded. We did meet at a yoga class, connecting through passions!
L.M: Any funny dating stories you can share with us?
D.M: Yeah, it took her [Summer] six months to even look at me! She would turn the other direction...
L.M: So how did you finally do it?
D.M: Determination! I was not going to be denied! We met up at a spin class again and I said, "Let’s have coffee," and she gave me her number and I called her saying, "So, where do you want to have dinner tonight?" She was like, "Hold on, I thought this was just going to be coffee!” So we went for a walk on the beach and we were having a wonderful conversation and I said, "I think at this point in our lives, we should all have little laminated card that we wear around our neck, having our non-negotiable sign." And she said, “What is yours?” I said, “Dogs or cats?,” and she said, "Dogs.” I said, "Excellent, one thing down!" I asked, "Beach or mountains?," and she said, "Beach," and everything else is negotiable, those two are not!
L.M: Connections through passions and upfront honesty!
Find out more about “The Soul Project” and shop for their line at www.soulproject.com
Interview by Mischa Teichgraeber