The Oral History of Stüssy: Part 1

The Oral History of Stüssy: Part 1

World Tour

With their feet firmly planted in New York's burgeoning scene, Shawn was afforded the ability to travel the world to other cultural centers—London, Tokyo, Paris, and beyond. His jetsetting brought together influencers from each city—people with similar interests and taste, who just "got it" and gelled with his overall vibe. This was the beginning of what became known as The International Stüssy Tribe.

Frank: In the late '80s, we were making enough money that Shawn could go to the creative cities around the world were these subcultures were incubating—where club life, punk, and western culture were meeting. He'd go to London, he'd go to Tokyo, he'd hang out with like-minded people that had become business partners with us, and their friends. Hiroshi Fujiwara, Michael Koppelman from London, and Shawn were getting together at clubs and traveling together, and they all had a common feeling about culture, music, life, and clothing. And they all contributed to Shawn's thought process about fashion direction. What they wanted to wear next year, Shawn could go back and create. 

Paul: It was eons before someone thought "oh, let's have a street team," let alone a global street team. The people that were originally around the brand were quite influential within their own cities, and sometimes multiple cities.

Alex: It seems so commonplace and standard practice now, but at the time it was a real stroke of genius. However, with Shawn it wasn’t has cynical like “oh I going to get these cool people to wear my clothes and people will see it and want it.” It was much more innocent and organic like I really like these people, and I’ve got these clothes and it would be a nice thing for me to do for me to send them some stuff.

Jules: Me and Paul were friends. We would hang out all the time, so we just stayed in touch and he would hook me up and send me some things.

Alex: It was really funny actually. I met Paul in New York through Jules and a guy he was living with named Jeremy Henderson, who used to skate with us in London. He was an American guy and an amazing skater. He was like the older skate figure to guys like Mark Gonzales—a very interesting guy.

Paul: Shawn never actually touched a skateboard or a turntable. But the people around him did. All the elements were there before people realized they had common interests, and then those interests got elevated. You saw that in New York with the jazz scene, and in London with the punk scene.

 

It seems like there are these times and places in culture where the interests are kind of in the background, but then someone defines it and it becomes something after. - Paul Mittleman

 

Jules: I started DJing around '85 or '86 at this place called Area.

Alex: We were the first wave of professional and semi-professional skaters in London. We were all quite influential in the skate scene in London.

Jules: Shawn would give me a box of gear, and I would send him tapes. I would do a lot of mixtapes back then, so you know I would make cassette tapes of hip-hop and reggae and would send them to Shawn. So he would be getting a stream of music, and he would be giving us clothes.

Alex: I went with Jules up to Midtown they had a showroom in this little warehouse with a couple rails of clothes. I end up getting my first beach pants, T-shirts, and a gray long sleeve T-shirt with a high collar. I had never seen anything like that before.

Eddie: Shawn kept it real. He had friends worldwide, and Frank Sinatra Jr. had the foresight to let Shawn do what he had to do. As a team, Frank and Shawn at the time was just like the perfect combination. I don't think it would have made it if they didn't have each other.

Alex: Jules and I have been involved in hip-hop and DJing since ’83 so it’s kind of interesting to see now all the kids wearing brands because that’s where that came from and it’s funny to see things come full circle in a way.

Jules: I opened the Stussy shop in Hawaii. I have ties with Stussy. I met my wife at Paul’s office. I’ve done musical work for them. It goes pretty deep.

Robbie: James Jebbia was important in New York. Michael Koppelman was important in London. Hiroshi Fujiwara was important in Japan. It became this posse. They created this energy and synergy amongst these heads, these fashion and trend leaders. That's what made it so great.

Alex: We were in kind of a weird place where we were interested in kind of cool clothes, and had a sort of connection to the street in a way that a lot of people wouldn’t have had at that period.

Paul: It seems like there are these times and places in culture where the interests are kind of in the background, but then someone defines it and it becomes something after. It wasn't street culture 'til after when someone was like "let's call it street culture." When a culture gets adopted and identified as a movement, then it kind of gets a history.

Frank: We had already begun making varsity jackets for two or three years. No one else was really doing that. Shawn came to me with this idea that he wanted to make "International Stüssy Tribe" varsity jackets just for the tribe. There was all this adornment that turned the varsity jacket into a complicated fashion dialogue. The guys that were our friends around the world all got one, and they were one-offs—they had their names on them. That was a period when Stüssy was really starting to penetrate the international market, and our spokesmen were all these very hooked-up guys that were essential for evolving culture from our point-of-view. They were proud to wear them!

Alex: I remember coming back to London and I was DJing with a friend of mine who went on to become a big house DJ, and he was just like: “What the fuck is that jacket?! Where did you get that jacket?!”

Nick: Clothing always has a tribal and cultural aspect to it. It's always represented something.

Alex: It was a pretty tight knit group of people. It was interesting because Shawn paid for the first Tribe jackets himself, and that was really before people were doing that. I think it seems weird now because everybody’s trying to give away their stuff for people to wear. But back then nobody really did that.

Jules: The big changing point was 1990 at the big Stussy party in Japan. They had did the first International Stussy Tribe party in japan. They flew us all out there. There was the London Tribe. There was the New York tribe. And we all met up in Tokyo with Hiroshi and all the Japanese tribe and had this big party. Me, Alex and Hiroshi DJed. So that was where it turned international.

Paul: It was basically like: "let's make these jackets for people," the people were all our friends with common interests, but there was this other goal behind it being activated. Now, you pay people to wear your stuff. There was no monetary exchange, there was just a certain amount of jackets. It was never formal, it was kind of organic.

Alex: Stussy was pretty much the coolest brand at that point. Only like a few people knew what it was, and if you could look at a shirt and know it was a Stussy then you were down. It was that sort of small in that way. 

Jules: Alex was the best man at my wedding. His son is my godson. It's pretty tight. I'm friends with his family—I'm friends with his father. His brother was on the same skate team as us back in England.

Alex: I’ve got this cool Tommy Boy Carhartt jacket that Shawn designed. There was a guy Al B who was really tight with Paul. Him and Michael Koppelman were city guys and they both worked in the city. Al B went on to work as a A&R man at Tommy Boy and he was really tight with Paul and Im sure that’s how that came about. I remember going to New York and being given one of those Tommy Boys.

Jules: Def Jam did MA-1 jackets. I think those were limited and hard to get. I still got my Tommy Boy Carhartt, still got my Def Jam MA-1, still got my Major Force M-65 jacket, which was really rare. Hiroshi did those. It was a special thing.

Frank: When you look at all the classic luxury brands, they have some form of telling you the cities their stores are in. They're always these world class, energetic, iconic cities. That's essentially what we were saying in that T-shirt, is that we're worldwide, and we stand proud.

Paul: Stüssy decided to name the cities we had connections to in a very formal, Helvetica font—which was the World Tour T-shirt. If you just look at that shirt from front to back, it's almost the history of the company. It's playing two worlds against each other. I think the most important thing they did was that shirt. It was affordable, it was populist, and people just seemed to like it. It's a modern classic.

Alex: Michael Koppelman was really important. I met him and James Jebbia at the same time. Michael started doing Stussy in London. The guys who did Slam City originally did it and Michael took it over. He was the one that really built it and helped it grow. Not just Stussy—GoodEnough, Visvim, and BAPE. He was the person that was bringing them here, getting them out in Europe, and this was long before the Americans had heard of any of that stuff.

Frank: We wanted people who cared enough about what they wore to go out and discover us, and feel like they had found something unique, not available everywhere, that said something about who they were and how much they cared about what they wore. We weren't about advertising from the top down. We were about being discovered from the bottom up.

Alex: I think everybody that was interested all knew Michael and James Lebon. James was like the hype man for Stussy. He died three years ago and he was a very important figure.

Paul: There are a lot of really interesting people that inspired me throughout my career that aren't around anymore.

Alex: His funeral was like a International Stussy Tribe funeral. His wife wanted him to have this cardboard coffin. I started to decorate the coffin with stickers we had hoarded for years figuring out what we were going to do with them. There were Stussy stickers, GoodEnough, and all the stuff that he loved.

Paul: James was a dear friend. I was at his funeral.

Alex: I don’t think there are actual pictures of it. It just seemed too weird and everyone was so distraught, but it was like a Viking funeral and he had this thing that was decorated like a skate or surfboard.

Paul: Often people are like "Stüssy is the godfather of street culture." It was definitely the first brand, but I think it's very important to acknowledge that the elements were already there, and the brand did a wonderful job of making things that people within that culture were interested in wearing. There was already a void, and no one else filled it. It didn't create the void, if that makes sense.

Frank: We very much have always been concerned about over-saturating retail. We've always found that a lot of stores are merchants. They just wanna buy what's selling today, sell it while it's hot, then move onto the next thing.

Eddie: Basically, you didn't want buyers coming in and buying your whole lot, and that's where the integrity came in. James Jebbia and I respected that. So it was like one or two hats per customer, kind of like the way Supreme is run today. Shawn and Frank were really conscious of it. Japan was a really important part of Stüssy's success because that really caught on over there.

Frank: Part of the reason Stüssy has the worldwide friendships that we have to this day is because they know we care more about our friends and identity than we do about making a quick buck.

Alex: It was ahead of its time but it was done in the intention of being quite pure. Shawn, if you know him at all, is kind of like that. 

Paul: If you look at a lot of the people involved in that first tribe, a lot of them went on to carve the niche for what would become streetwear and street culture.

Frank: SlamJam, Luca Benini in Italy, was one of our very first distributors in Europe. And from that success, he started distributing Visvim and Carhartt Europe. He's got a huge company now. I introduced him to some brands that he ended up distributing, and to this day SlamJam is almost iconic as that cool distributor in Europe of very successful brands, and now he has his own shoe line, BePositive.

Alex: They were just cool people. and in the end that’s what it’s about. If you’re an asshole then you’re not cool. If you’ve got on all the fly shit but you’re a dick, you’re not cool.

Frank: Stüssy's more than what you think. Whether it's Luca Benini or the things Michael Koppelman is doing in London.

Alex: We were all about surrounding ourselves with creative people. Like Hiroshi, the guys from Comme, guys from Japan and stuff like that. It wasn’t cliquey or exclusive, but they were just a cool bunch of guys and who knew somebody that knew somebody else. It’s a similar mindset and values; quite old school in a way. In a loose way we all have the same principles and ideas, but everybody respected each other, what they were into, etc. It was that interesting network that was tribal but very loose.

Frank: In '93 or '94, all kinds of things were happening. From a trend point of view, you started having  punk, rave, grunge, all these alternate looks beginning to rise up amongst subculture in America. So the streetwear phenomenon, the hip-hop phenomenon, was getting replaced by all these other things. Stüssy was unwilling to do those things. It's always been a balancing act. The problem for brands is that it's really hard to turn your back on the money or fight the pressure. It was either "buy it from me" or "buy it from somebody else." And for us, that "somebody else" was Mossimo. He essentially went around in the early '90s and told everybody "I'm just like Stüssy!" And he sold things that were very similar to ours to all the retailers that we wouldn't sell to.

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