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Interview: Chelsea McMillan, founder of Sunshine State brand



Earlier this year, I got a request from my friend Chelsea McMillan, to like the page for her apparel brand, Sunshine State. I've known Chelsea since we were both in high school in Clearwater, but we didn't keep in touch that much through the years. I was so stoked to see what she's created: an apparel line that perfectly captured the essence of Florida's surf, skate, boat and beach culture in really stylish graphic tees and hats for men and women. I featured Sunshine State as an Item of the Week in the Shopping Planner back in July, shortly after I first saw her page.

When the line launched, it was only available online, but now you can buy Sunshine State at Ship Chic and Boater’s Republic in Tampa and the Carlton Ward Gallery in Hyde Park. The brand's also getting some love from celebrities. Collective Soul lead singer Ed Roland wore a Sunshine State shirt on stage during a concert in Miami.

I can vouch for the quality of the apparel. I ordered a shirt and it's super soft and fits well. A really nice touch is that you get stickers and window decals with your order, and a single, perfect seashell.

Before I caught up with Chelsea to talk about her line, I'd read her bio and learned that she'd been a producer on the Oprah Winfrey Show. I found out that her varied career, deep love for Florida and the help of family and friends are all behind the creation of Sunshine State.

It's so cool that you were a producer on the Oprah Winfrey Show. How did you make the leap from working in television to starting your own lifestyle brand?

I was raised on the beaches of Florida. After graduating from UF, I spent 5 years in Chicago producing for The Oprah Winfrey Show. Working in Chicago on such an amazing show was my dream job. I felt so lucky to be working for such an inspiring woman whose main goal was to help and empower others. I was there at a really unique period of time. Our producing team still met with Oprah in her office after every show we produced and the entire company felt like one big family. Every single person at Harpo worked so hard for the good of the show. I learned so much about so many things in such a short period of time.  I’m so grateful that I was able to have that kind of experience in my early twenties.

When the cold weather finally got to be too much for this Florida girl, I packed my bags and moved to California where I worked with Alyssa Milano and helped her launch her sports apparel line, Touch. From there I have had all kinds of cool jobs and experiences in a myriad of different fields. Basically, I’ve managed to jump from one cool opportunity to the next and each experience gave me insight into what I ultimately wanted to do. I’ve spent time in Atlanta helping Spanx founder and friend Sara Blakely on different projects. I worked for Pfizer for a while in Florida. I moved back to California to work on entertainment projects again and even did some stand up comedy for fun.

While I was working as an entertainment consultant for Pinterest, I was exposed to smaller passion projects and brands having huge success thanks to social media. When I started to “pin what I love” on my own Pinterest board - it was all about my appreciation of Florida’s beaches, islands, activities, nature and wildlife. There is an emotional connection that you get when looking at photos of the beaches in Florida. It truly is the Sunshine State of mind. I immediately feel happy and connect with memories of swimming in the Gulf and spending time on the beach with friends or just a good book. People always say, “do what you love” and I truly love the beaches of Florida.

At that time I was living in California and I realized there was a need for a modern apparel brand that represents the way I feel about my own home state. I immediately started thinking of names. Almost as a joke I asked a lawyer if Sunshine State was available in apparel and I was thrilled to find out that it actually was.

So I'd been planning to come home to Florida anyway, and when I got here I started the line out of the back of my father's office. I feel like I’m in real life business school riding the waves of all of the learning curves that come my way. The support of so many friends and relatives is what has helped me the most along the way.

All of these little skills I've acquired in my life have come in handy. I learned to fold a shirt like a champ while working at the Gap in high school!

I love that your designs range from '80s surf style to really modern, trendy looks. How did you come up with these designs? Were they your concepts and designs, or did you work with an artist? Are you always coming up with new designs?

It was a long process to find the right look for the brand. My goal was for people to feel a connection to the brand and what it represents, but it was also very important for me to create super comfortable apparel that Florida natives (as well as visitors) would actually wear. I love it when you find a piece of clothing that you don’t hesitate to put on in the morning because you know it is soft, comfortable and looks good. The printer I work with specializes in making sure that even the print feels softer than most.

I collaborated with a few different designers who helped bring my vision to life. I sketched ideas and made a ton of vision boards. A lot of the designs are retro inspired and have a bit of an edge to them. The Sunshine State logo is an “s” that also creates a sunset in a retro design. I also wanted to create some fun shirts with sayings that only people who have spent time in Florida could relate to. During the summer in high school we would have island parties almost every weekend. I knew one of the first designs would have to be a shirt that just said, “Island Party.” I love how a shirt or hat can set the mood and give off certain energy.

Sunshine State will also highlight different designs from Florida artists. My first featured artist is Van Eggers, who also happens to be my cool cousin. He is a super talented Cocoa Beach artist, skater and surfer. I asked him to come up with a Space Coaster design and he drew this amazing surfboard design with intricate planets and waves. 

Your blog and lookbook really captures the Florida lifestyle, so much so that you can almost feel the sand between your toes. Were you the art director for the shoot?

I was so lucky that musician and photographer Zach Ashton was able to help me with the photography and art direction. Zach is a Clearwater native who is normally traveling the world or living in Brazil, but he happened to be here working on his album and recovering from knee surgery when he offered to help. He is very passionate about everything he puts his name on and was able to help me take the vision to the next level.

You contribute some proceeds to the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Why did you choose that organization?

I’ve had the privilege of working with so many people and brands that actually make an impact in the cause they support. Spanx founder Sara Blakely (also a Clearwater native) is one of my very close friends. I’m so inspired by Sara’s dedication to giving back and supporting women’s causes. (I actually just helped her produce The Belly Art Project, a photo book  that 100% benefits Every Mother Counts.) When I decided to go for it and develop Sunshine State, I knew the brand had to have a positive impact and give back. As a former board member of the Florida Wildlife Corridor, I was able to really understand the problems Florida’s wildlife face with our state’s growing population. I’m a huge supporter of their goal to connect, protect, and restore corridors of conserved lands and waters essential for the survival of Florida’s diverse wildlife. Part of the proceeds from all sales will go to support the Florida Wildlife Corridor in their mission to help #KeepFloridaWild.

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[Last modified: Friday, December 9, 2016 2:28pm]


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