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Sole Technology skates toward a green future
Pierre André Senizergues can make skateboards do anything. When he was in his 20s, he steered them from the Paris suburbs to Venice Beach and turned them into the key to an apartment he could afford when he started winning skate competitions. In his 30s, he used them as the foundation of a multimillion-dollar Orange County-based footwear, apparel and accessories empire. And in his 40s, he made them the literal building blocks for a line of museum-quality furniture and even a springboard to being an executive producer of Leonardo DiCaprio's "The 11th Hour" documentary about global warming.
Today, 20 years after selling his first pair of skateboarder shoes and a decade after his first foray into the eco-movement, the 45-year-old Frenchman wants to use the business that boarding built to help spark the next wave of global greening.
"If I can have a company that can work on the green model," he says, kicking back on a couch crafted from discarded skate decks in the Lake Forest offices of Sole Technology Inc., "it might inspire other companies and we'll have a green revolution -- like the Industrial Revolution, but only with everyone trying to reduce their carbon footprint."
Senizergues (pronounced sen-ee-ZEHR-guh) is an affable sparkplug of a man with a skater's low center of gravity. He's almost always wearing a black knit cap and a broad smile, and on a recent spring day, he's in a pair of raw denim jeans and a white T-shirt. In the sun-filled "inspiration room" next to his office (which is guarded by a man-sized, free-standing tiki bearing the logo of his Etnies skate brand), he's talking enthusiastically in a thick French accent about making the company carbon-neutral by 2020.
That's no mean feat considering that all those skate kicks, hoodies and T-shirts spewed about 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2007. But he's moving his personal green revolution forward with the same combination of thinking outside the box and seizing every opportunity that helped turn the skater into an action-sports magnate/eco- warrior.
Senizergues -- who's won a dozen French skating championships, nine European Cup titles, five European championships and two World Cup events -- started his business by relaunching Etnies, a French skate shoe brand, from a 300-square-foot office in the shadow of Disneyland.
Today, he's Sole Technology's owner, president and chief executive, with a stable of brands that includes éS, Emerica, ThirtyTwo and Altamont Apparel. Though he won't divulge exact sales, he says recent reports of $200 million in annual sales are in the ballpark.
He began making the enterprise greener in 1999, when his business was shifting from survival mode to steady growth. He had visited the coal-powered factory in China where his shoes were made and noticed that "the sky was so gray all the time," he says. "In France and in California, it's gray sometimes, but then it will clear and be blue. When I asked why it was so gray they told me: 'Pollution.' "
The glimmer of a solution began to take shape on a 2002 visit to the Colorado ranch of actress-activist Daryl Hannah, where a caretaker was driving a car that ran on vegetable oil.
"It not only used up the oil," he says, "but it also cut down the consumption of petroleum and reduced the possibility of war [over that petroleum] at the same time."
He realized then how global problems are, and he's been involved in a host of eco-friendly ventures, projects and investments ever since. In 2002, he broke ground on a 74,610-square-foot, 4-acre research and design building that took advantage of eco-sensitive materials such as recycled limestone and reclaimed wood shavings. He says the 616 solar panels on the roof generate 275,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity (enough to power 60 homes) and eliminate 97 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
In 2007, he hired an environmental affairs manager -- and was the first action-sports label to do so, he says. In 2008, he began to shift production to a site in China that uses hydroelectric power -- a move that ultimately will reduce the carbon output of the company's factories by 20%.
When he noticed discarded skateboard blanks, he decided to repurpose them into a line of tables, chairs and bookcases in a midcentury-modern-meets-skate-park line of home furnishings called Skate Study House.
All his eco moving and shaking caught the attention of well-known actor-activist DiCaprio, and soon Senizergues was an executive producer of "The 11th Hour." DiCaprio's 2007 alarm-sounding global-warming eco-documentary painted a picture so dire it made former Vice President Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" seem like a feel-good film.
Its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2007 sparked Senizergues' most recent project -- C-PAS (for Collection Pierre André Senizergues), a high-end line of men's tuxedos, suits, dress shirts and outerwear made from recycled materials.
"I couldn't wear just any tuxedo to Cannes," he says. "So I took some cashmere scraps, and some old cassette tapes and an old T-shirt and went to this tailor in Los Angeles and had him make me one. At first he said, 'It can't be done!' But he did it."
Now, two years later, C-PAS is a full 30-piece collection that includes tuxedos, bow ties and sweaters -- all handmade in the U.S. Bomber jackets ($450) and bow ties ($155) are made from repurposed parachutes, blazers are crafted from woolen Army blankets ($2,400) and a shimmery, coarse-woven fabric that looks like sharkskin burlap but in reality is woven from recycled audiocassette tape ($3,160). C-PAS will also offer custom-tailored suits that give customers the option of using a favorite T-shirt to line the jackets.
The high-end men's collection, which launched online at www.collectionpas.com this month and will roll out at Colette in Paris in June, is hardly aimed at the price point or sales outlet frequented by skate rats.
"What I'm trying to do with this is reach the influencers. I realized that when my furniture was [at Colette], Karl Lagerfeld bought some of it; whether it's skateboarding, movies, furniture, architecture or fashion, if you can move that 10% that are the influencers, you can move everybody else."
And since fashion is nothing without recycled ideas, if you happen to see something that looks like a shimmering Chanel jacket woven from castoff cassette tapes on the runway next season, remember there's a good chance it got there by skateboard.