Cyrill Gutsch: “New York confronted me about my real intentions.”

Cyrill Gutsch: “New York confronted me about my real intentions.”

Over the past decade, highly awarded designer and brand developer Cyrill Gutsch has become one of the world’s most influential activists for the oceans. In 2012, the German–born powerhouse founded 'Parley for the Oceans', with the mission to eliminate plastic from our seas. This work has seen him win the Fashion Awards' Special Recognition Award for Innovation and crowned Environmentalist of the Year by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association. Cyrill has also taken the fight to industry, collaborating with brands including Adidas, Stella McCartney and Corona to create far reaching initiatives. A New York resident since 2004, his work has vastly impacted the accountability of plastic use for brands globally. We caught up with Cyrill to discuss how New York has enabled him to flourish creatively, what he attributes to Parley for the Oceans’ success story and favorite places to spend time when in NYC.

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On first meeting the ocean  

I grew up in the Black Forest, Germany, very far away from the sea. I spent a lot of my youth in nature then switched to skateboarding and snowboarding from 10 to 18. I remember the first time I went to the ocean was in the South of France, I was eight years old and it was so special. Suddenly there was this place that was just bigger than my thoughts, bigger than me. And it was overwhelming. That moment I fell in love with the sea.

On being creative as a child

I had a snowboard brand very, very early on because I needed to make money to afford these sports, so I created a lot of these things myself and sold them. Using my creative skills and living from that was something I learned early on.

On what interested you about design 

I was always fascinated by how things are being done, to understand what you can make and how you also can combine traditional craftsmanship with digital. I liked to get a holistic feeling for what it was I was actually creating.

Top: The skyline of Munich, Germany, complete with its Hausbergen (“home mountains”). Middle: The skyline of Brooklyn, bordered by its own mountainous backdrop of Manhattan. Bottom: Cyrill Gutsch in New York. Portrait by Sacha Maric. 

On moving to Munich

The moment I could leave home, I moved to Munich and pretty much worked right away as a creative. Being of age and having a car and a computer was pretty much my total declaration of independence. Munich is a very tolerant city. They’re excited if you’re doing something different and that gave me a lot of opportunities. I was fortunate that I could skip the typical career and pretty much jumped into the role of an art director in rapid speed. When I was 22, I already worked as a creative director for brands like Levis.

The first time I went to the ocean was in the South of France, I was eight years old and it was so special. Suddenly there was this place that was just bigger than my thoughts, bigger than me.

On the lure of working in new places 

First of all, it was always fascinating for me to spend time in Europe, like Portugal and London. Then in 1996, I was about 25 and really wanted to see America. I went to New York and fell in love with the city. 

On moving to New York

In New York, you’re exposed to way more different cultures, way more influences. You meet people from around the world and when you do something, you have an impact on the whole world. New York is independent from a geographical definition. Its probably one of the few cities where you’re seen as a globalist. There is no limiter, there is no cap on what you do, what direction you take, how big you grow, how small you are. It’s totally undefined. It’s totally in your hands. And also you’re welcome. That allows you to liberate yourself from limitations that you experience in Europe. 

New York challenged me to the max and confronted me about my real intentions. What is it really that I want? What does it mean to be a designer? What does it mean to have these skills? I became acutely aware of how special a gift it is when you can live off your ideas and your skills. And when you can bring ideas to life, you can create a reality. It brought me to the point where I asked myself what’s my purpose?

Approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic waste end up in our oceans each year. To help reduce this overwhelming pollution, Parley for the Oceans has built a network of more than 260,000 volunteers across 30 countries to help clean up our coastal environments. Bottom image by Eric White. 

On finding the inspiration to do something different

The finance crisis in 2008 was a big indicator for me. It was a different form of a pandemic and it gave me a breather, where I felt like, ‘Okay. You know what? I’m leaving this form of personal economic model. I’m looking for something bigger.’

New York is independent from a geographical definition. Its probably one of the few cities where you’re seen as a globalist. There is no limiter, there is no cap on what you do, what direction you take, how big you grow, how small you are. It’s totally undefined.

On the lightbulb moment behind Parley for the Oceans 

2012 is when it started really. I was in Switzerland at Art Basel when I ran into Pamela Anderson whos a very outspoken PETA activist. She told me about a friend of hers, Captain Paul Watson from Sea Shepherd, who was arrested in Germany. Someone said, ‘Listen, Cyrill is German and he can probably help. He still knows people.’ I still had my network there – I knew the biggest publishing houses, the bigger TV networks, I had political contacts. Learning about Paul being arrested made me feel ashamed, I felt like, why would my home country take down such a legend, put him in prison. A man who dedicated all his life, since he was 13 to protecting the natural world and doing what we all should do. That moment, I had this feeling that Id neglected my own feeling of responsibility, my own needs or this urge to do something for the planet. In Pauls eyes the oceans would be dead by 2048, which was based on a study that was commissioned by the United Nations. It shocked me that the legacy of my generation could be leaving behind a dead sea. When I had the honour of meeting him, honestly, something triggered inside me. I felt like, I was part of this problem. As a creative, I’m done working for the industry. Non-stop making other people either richer or making them produce more products and seduce others to buy them. I remember Paul said to me, ‘It’s not only about you solving it, about you being the one that fixes it. It’s about doing the best you can in that moment, in every moment in time in your life. And standing up for these values and for these thoughts. That’s what the most impactful thing is.’ I remember I went to the bathroom and called my partner and said, ‘We should become an environmental organisation’. She didn’t hesitate and on June 16, 2012 we started Parley for the Oceans. 

Parley powers its wide-reaching engagement by rewriting the rules of awareness campaigns, from addressing world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly (top), to collaborating with global corporations such as adidas (middle) and engaging like-minded warriors including Frank Solomon of Sentinel Ocean Alliance (bottom). Images courtesy Cyrill Gutsch. 

On solving problems

As a designer, you’re trained to deliver a solution. You always have to take full responsibility for the outcome, for the product or whatever it is you do. The biggest contribution we can make as creatives is showing people who don’t dare to trust in their abilities that things can be changed. That you can actually be ambitious. You can actually question the standards. You have to rip up things and draft them from scratch in order to be even able to see the new. Purpose suddenly is the new luxury, that means I feel good when I actually cause something good for others, when I save lives and I protect nature.

It shocked me that the legacy of my generation could be leaving behind a dead sea… I felt likeI was part of this problem. As a creative, I’m done working for the industry.

On creativitys purpose 

The creative community can show the world that you can make decisions yourself and stand up and use your voice and your intelligence. And sometimes it’s better to be a generalist or to be naïve and just to follow what you feel and what your instinct is. It’s actually an invitation for a good creative to create something new.

On the power of collaboration 

Collaboration is the fastest and quickest form to learn from each other. If you do a project together, you can come from different religions or different countries, you can have different skin colours, you can have completely different tastes and styles. But still, a mutual mission unites you with others and allows you to truly connect. When we started Parley, we didn’t want to be telling people that we can fix their problems. We wanted to help them to fix their problems themselves. Our ambition is to change existing traditional companies that are harmful into champions, into a blueprint for others to follow. 

In 2015, Parley launched its partnership with Adidas with a concept shoe made from reclaimed marine plastic waste. Unveiled at the United Nations, the Ultra Boost prototype featured an upper made from filaments reclaimed and recycled from ocean waste and illegal deep-sea gillnets. A mere glimpse of the innovative design that followed. Images courtesy Parley and adidas. 

On the importance of design today

If you don’t have a very clearly defined identity that distinguishes you from others, and if you don’t end up developing a very clear design language, then you just fall through the cracks. This has a lot to do with design because we’re living in a totally visual world. Everything is now about design.

On the origins of your adidas x Parley partnership 

We felt like we had to find one global company to collaborate with that would show this is not something only the small tree hugger can do. We said to adidas that we have to make it more lucrative to protect the oceans than to destroy them and that this is actually something big corporations will do. People always argue that everything environmentally-friendly is too expensive so we said, ‘If you really understand your supply chain and your product, if you are finding a way to rephrase it all, there won’t be a fiscal loss. It will be actually a gain.’

We had to find one global company to collaborate with that would show this is not something only the small tree hugger can do. We said to adidas that we have to make it more lucrative to protect the oceans than to destroy them and that this is actually something big corporations will do.

On stepping out of a bubble

We humans love to be in the abstract and are so good at unseeing things inside our bubbles. A bubble can be a family, a network of friends or an organisation. Marwin Hoffmann from adidas said that working with Parley is challenging because all the time we keep demanding and it is stressful. But then, if you zoom out and lose that inside perspective, suddenly you understand that it makes total sense.

Since 2017, adidas and Parley have hosted Run For The Oceans, an annual community running campaign that has seen more than 3 million participants collectively raise US$2.5m to help fuel Parley’s environmental initiatives.

On Americas can doattitude

With Americans, if something has even a slight chance of success, they often just ram it into the ground, put a flag out there and say, ‘Now I’m doing this’. They have the courage to predict their success, even if it might be very unlikely that they really will have it. Tesla is a good example, as is Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. There are so many things where people felt like, ‘This will never happen,’ then suddenly it is, because people really believed in it. In Europe you would trust systems and heritage. In the US, the big difference is people trust individuals. I feel like this is a place where you have a realistic chance to bring your ideas to life.

On future projects

We’re launching Clean Waves, which is a creative fundraising platform. We are focusing on eyewear first, turning fish nets that we are intercepting into sunglasses and other eyewear pieces. The whole idea started when we were working with Corona and they helped us grow our global cleanup network into 30 countries. The brand is very premium, where all the proceeds go towards projects and when you buy some sunglasses the GPS coordinates will be on every frame so you know which region youre helping. 

On window or aisle seat

Window. I sleep better at the window and like to look outside of the airplane.

On Munich in one word

Patient.

On New York in one word

Thrilling.

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Nuggets in this interview

inspiration

Dover St Market, New York

“They have always been ahead of the trends, showcasing innovative brands, and they are not afraid to take risks.”

–Cyrill Gutsch

accommodation

Greenwich Hotel’s TriBeCa Penthouse, New York

“It’s beautiful, so simple — including elements from nature. The space immediately calms you...It’s a quiet gem in the heart of the city.”

–Cyrill Gutsch

inspiration

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York

“They have been fantastic partners and collaborators. We love their program, the curation, the education, the exhibitions.”

–Cyrill Gutsch

inspiration

Judd Foundation, New York

"His home in Soho is just fantastic...I love that and the fact that the foundation is preserving it.”

–Cyrill Gutsch

inspiration

MoMA Design Store, New York

“We launched our artist Ocean Plastic tote bags with MoMA Design Shop...love to discover new products and designs.”

–Cyrill Gutsch

food and drink

Sant Ambroeus, New York

“This is my office away from the office. My local go-to place from breakfast to dinner. A staple.”

–Cyrill Gutsch

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