Behind the Brand: L/L Founder Jeff Duke.
Sometime around twenty I looked in mirror and hated the person I saw looking back at me.
I’d just completed my first year at a top university, got honour roll grades, had a successful little business, a nice truck, a fat bank account, a loving girlfriend and a closet full of colourful Tommy Hilfiger polos. On the outside I was modern societies wet dream. I was studying to be a stock broker; I wanted wealth, success and all the fancy things that come with it. I was supremely confident I’d be a millionaire by twenty five and I was on my way, ticking all the boxes.
On the inside… I was miserable and pretty severely depressed. There were days I’d make the conscious decision to just not get out of bed. I never seriously considered killing myself but I began to understand the thought process. But I was doing everything right, achieving everything expected of me and I was so confused why it wasn’t making me happy. Life just didn’t feel right.
I went on a trip to Hawai’i for Christmas with my girlfriend’s family and despite my phobia of the ocean I was determined to go for a surf. We stayed at the fanciest hotel on Waikiki beach and took a lesson on what I now know was a 12ft SUP. The sign actually said, “everyone gets up!” I dread to think what the instructors said behind my back about my flower Abercrombie board shorts. As cliche as it is, I stood up on that 12ft air craft carrier and fell a little bit in love with the ocean that day.
I was determined to ride something it didn’t take two people to carry so I went down the local surf shop to get a long board for the rest of the week. The dude in the shop informed me that I better rent it tonight if I wanted to surf tomorrow because, “if Pipe was on they might not open.” I was floored, it was Tuesday, this guy isn’t going to open his store mid-week so he can surf?! Everything in my life revolved around making money and as much of it as possible - it took me a bit to wrap my head around the fact people had different priorities. Looking back now that 5 minute exchange with that random guy had a pretty profound impact on my life.
When I returned to school I began to look ahead at where my life was going and realized that it wasn't what I wanted. I felt like I was riding a bike between railroad tracks, any effort to turn resulted in going down hard; it resulted in what I and those around me, perceived as failure. I was trapped in this picture perfect little hell. Like so many kids blindly completing degrees, I realized I was pushing forward on the expectations of others. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my twenties wearing a suit and being someones bitch, I wasn’t ready for the seriousness of the relationship I was in and I had a burning feeling there was so much more I could be doing with life.
It wasn't a split second decision, it took me months to work through how I was going to make a change and I considered absolutely everything. Most options revolved around the same shit just a change of degree or a change of school. As time went on, things got worse and I finally realized no small change was going to make the big difference I needed. So I left it all behind. I sold everything - and I mean everything. I pooled all my money in one account, I said goodbye to a couple close friends and the girl I loved. I deleted every social media account, I deleted my email and three days after my twenty first birthday I left with only a backpack on a one way ticket to Costa Rica.
I had no idea how long I’d be gone, my travel “plan” was indefinite. I suppose in my head I thought maybe a year on the outside, a few months at least. I had no idea I’d never really come home.
It wasn’t all peachy the minute I left. I got homesick and I was unbelievably lonely for the first time in my life. I didn’t think I could do it and I considered coming back more times than I’d like to admit. But something kept me out there, something wouldn’t let me cave. I began to meet people and with no plan I just went with the flow and travelled wherever my newest friends were going. I remember waking up in a dirty San Jose motel room after a few weeks with a two great friends I’d been travelling with. They’d left for the airport and I was alone again. The lonely and empty feeling in the pit of my stomach as I stood at a bus stop by myself looking at the route map and wondering where to go next; that’s something I’ll never forget. I didn’t “find myself” I don’t think you ever really do, that’s an never-ending journey. But I’ll tell you when you’re in a foreign country, no home, no cell phone, no friends, no customary comforts and you’ve been on your own for days you’re going to learn more about yourself than you ever have.
With social media today we leave a trail of who we are for people and ourselves to reference. We become a perception of our true selves. Shedding all that and forcing myself so far outside of my comfort zone I began to realize who I really was. Some of it wasn’t very good. Being anonymous in what feels like another world will take you to your darkest places. Having no responsibility or expectations will also make you realize what truly makes you happy.
As the money dwindled I was in California. I’d been to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Honduras. I’d come full circle with my struggles and I was happier than I’d ever been. There was no way I was going back. I applied for an Australian visa and I’d end up basing myself there for the next five years of my life with trips to Europe, America, visits home and repeated hops to Indonesia. I worked basic jobs and a lot of them. I’d quit regularly for a mini surf trips with mates or just get fired because, “the waves were good” is not an excuse to be 2 hours late everyday. Could have also been that I turned up hungover far too often (which I blame fully on the friends I met who have now become like family.) I somehow ended up getting sponsored to work for a company and kept the dream alive for a few more years.
Life wasn’t without it’s ups and downs but I was never anywhere near the place I was before I left. Travelling pulled me out of a pretty dark place, it gave me an incredible appreciation for the small things in life and it balanced me out. Surfing and travelling didn’t change my life though. They were just the mediums it took me to realize that there was more to life than what we’re conditioned to understand as success. I was working through being outside my comfort zone and learning to travel alone; but there was no doubt I was indescribably happier owning absolutely nothing doing what I love than having a fat bank account and a promising career I didn’t love. I had a couple surfboards and a camera, slept in a sunroom on a mattress stacked on palettes and drove the biggest piece of shit you’ve ever seen. I was happy.
I’m also an entrepreneur at heart though. Working for other people doesn’t often jive with my selfish pursuit of daily happiness and I began to want a little more. I didn’t want a schedule, I didn’t want to be told what to do and I wanted the freedom I felt with travel to be how I lived everyday of the rest of my life. Landscaping in Australia wasn’t going to get me that. So once again I packed my few belongings and left behind a lot of people and a life I loved. I reluctantly moved back home to Canada to start Lifestyle Over Luxury Co.
I didn’t know what it was then and it started only as a medium to inspire people to make the realizations I did over the last five years. It’s hard to turn something as abstract as an idea into a tangible business. L/L ended up becoming a clothing brand mainly because of my experience in retail in Australia and it's a nice combination of all my passions. I wanted to bring a sustainable option to the market that the average person could afford. I also wanted to make a tangible difference in the environment with every sale. Every traveller has a heightened appreciation for this incredible planet we live on and I think that’s where the desire to make a difference stemmed from. L/L, along with it’s partners, now cleans up an entire bag of trash off British Columbia beaches with every single item purchased. We make bamboo/organic cotton clothing that sells at competitive prices compared with traditional cotton. It took me over a year to set up and I started printing shirts in my parents basement. I couldn’t surf and I won’t lie I slipped back into some dark places adjusting to life back there; which was just a healthy reminder of how far I’ve come and how well I know how to manage my demons.
The goal was to run a business from a laptop anywhere I wanted to be, to achieve that elusive freedom you feel on your first trip. For the last three months I’ve been running the company from the back of a converted surf van and plan to do so for the foreseeable future. I drove from Toronto to Mexico and all the way up the US West Coast on highway 1, surfing every day there was waves. I have no plan for moving out of the van and I certainly won’t be leaving the coast again.
Lifestyle Over Luxury is an idea, right now we make clothes but that is not its identity. Watching L/L inspire people to look at life differently is when I feel it is truly succeeding. I wouldn’t say I’ve achieved that elusive freedom quite yet. In our world money does buy freedom and we don’t make any of that yet; but we are making a difference in peoples lives and the world. The only true metric of success is your daily happiness and right now that’s on point.