The Oral History of Stüssy: Part 1

The Oral History of Stüssy: Part 1

In this great future, you can't forget your past...

You've heard the story a thousand times by now. In 1980, Shawn Stüssy was a talented surfboard shaper known for the punk rock/new wave-inspired art styles that he'd often put on his boards. To help promote his custom wave rippers, he started making graphic T-shirts emblazoned with his last name, written in a unique hand-lettered style. He spent his summers surfing, while winters were reserved for skiing on Mammoth Mountain.

That's how he met Certified Public Accountant Frank Sinatra Jr. (no, not that Sinatra family). What Sinatra saw in Stüssy wasn't instant dollar signs—it was authenticity, talent, and a truly unique character. Thus began a renegade partnership that would forever influence the way people thought about running a successful brand. After 32 years in the game, Stüssy has outlasted numerous trends while birthing an industry of clothing brands that focus on limited runs, basic wardrobe staples, and the self-aware mirroring of high-fashion labels and pop culture tropes. 

Named by Bobby Hundreds as The Greatest Streetwear Brand of All Time, Stüssy has reached a place where few that would question the brand's continued relevance and staying power. They stand as a perennial outfitter of cool guys in multiple subcultures from skaters to hip-hop, punk, club kids, and beyond. This is the story of the people who built the brand into what it is today—as told by the designers, influencers, and tribe members themselves (with the exception of Shawn Stüssy himself. Despite repeated attempts to contact the co-Founder of Stüssy—who is also the founder of S/Double Studio—he declined to comment for the article, saying that he believes the story can stand on its own. Maybe that's because Stüssy's unique business practices, products, and legacy were not the work of one person alone. With Stüssy being the self-made monster that it is, the story couldn't be told any other way. 

THE PLAYERS

Everyone is listed with his or her relationship to Stüssy first, followed by their current title.

Frank Sinatra Jr. - Co-Founder of Stüssy
James Jebbia - Founder of Union; Founder of Supreme
Paul Mittleman - Stüssy Creative Director (post-Shawn); adidas Creative Director
Eddie Cruz - Manager at Union; Owner of Stüssy Los Angeles Chapter and Founder of Undefeated
Nick Bower - Stüssy Designer
Jules Gayton - Original Stüssy Tribe Member; DJ
Robbie Jeffers - Stüssy Skateboarding Team Manager; Photographer
Keith Hufnagel - Stüssy Skateboarding Team Rider; Founder of HUF
Alex "Baby" Turnbull Original Stüssy Tribe Member; DJ

It ain't where ya from, it's where ya at...

Stüssy's roots begin in California, but it wasn't until their first store opened in 1990 in New York that people began to notice the brand's impact on style and youth culture. Back then, downtown New York was full of energy and artistic vibes. SoHo was far from a shopping destination, but retailer James Jebbia really saw an opportunity for the brand to grow here. This is how Stüssy evolved from West Coast surf company to a bona fide purveyor of downtown cool.

Frank Sinatra Jr.: Shawn had been shaping for Russell surfboards—called "The Brotherhood," and there was a group of guys involved with the The Brotherhood, one of whom was Paul Heussenstamm, sort of a Newport Beach surf icon. They were just common friends. I knew Shawn through all of them.

Robbie Jeffers: If the waves were bad you just got on your skateboard. There was always that common thread. In the summer Shawn shaped surf boards in Laguna, and it the winter he went to Mammoth and skied. That was his M.O. before the apparel brand began.

Frank: By 1980 it was clear Shawn already had a big reputation as both a surfboard shaper that had high-quality, innovative shapes. Shawn, almost like an engineer, had this sense of the various ways things need to merge together into a high-performance shape. He had several pro surfers that were loyal to him.

Nick Bower: Shawn's a surfer. When he's shaping boards, he's coming at it from two angles. One's an aesthetic angle, the other is: does this thing work?

Robbie: I've been surfing my whole life really, but I hated surf culture—like really I hated the way surfers were. I just can't stand bros. It just gets under my skin. I don't think Shawn liked it either, that's kinda why he did what he did.

FrankShawn was an artist, and he would paint these boards very uniquely. They were expensive to  begin with, and surfboards were at a phase where there was a lot of airbrush art going on. Shawn was doing punk, reggae, and new wave graphics—a lot of color. That's what caught people's eye—not just that the shapes were fantastic, but that he was doing really creative things with the art on surfboards. 

Robbie: He loved music like The Clash, hip-hop, punk rock, reggae, and all of the rad stuff that wasn't necessarily surf, but he integrated it in a way that was very pioneering. That's why I stayed around the warehouse taking the trash out.

Paul Mittleman: Reggae is kind of forever cool. You can't fault it. There's the surfer Bob Marley kind of reggae, and then in the mid-80s you had a bit more dancehall. You didn't really hate on reggae. It was kind of this weird, neutral music. Bob Marley is boring, but everyone really likes it. It's a very "cool-looking" music, if that makes sense.

Frank: I was a CPA for 10 years, and I was a CPA when I started the business. We all had two occupations. Shawn was shaping surfboards the same time as he was doing clothes—something had to pay the bills. Stüssy was the main thing that couldn't pay for the main thing! There was no venture capital, there was no outside funding. It was my money—and I didn't have a lot of it. We all wanted it to be our thing, we didn't want our brand strategy dictated by investors' demands, so we just did what we had to do—including working two jobs, until it got to the point where it could support us.

Nick: Prior to me coming to California, I wasn't really involved in the streetwear industry at all, I was involved more in the fashion industry. I studied at Central St. Martins in London, and my first job was at Valentino in Rome in 1982. That was a completely different world.

Frank: The first T-shirt designs were logo-driven. But instead of being block letters or a simple one-color screenprint of a script logo font, they would be some jazzy, new wave graphic or color combo in addition to it. It was artistic and different from what we were seeing. 

Paul: I think Shawn was a master of remixing elements and leaving points of reference. He had the opportunity to travel to New York, London, and Tokyo, and he picked up cultural references from music, clothing, or art books, and he was able to re-contextualize it and put it back into the world.

Frank: Our first line of clothes was workwear-inspired. The kind of work shirts you'd buy at a thrift shop and get a little shorter. Our apparel focus was basics at a time when surf was loud. Likewise, we introduced these unique logo T-shirts.

Paul: It's really a brand of the remix, not a brand of Americana. 

Frank: From 1980-1985, Stüssy was being drowned out by all the loud, over-the-top products being sold everywhere. By '86, customers were tired of dressing in all that flash. We found ourselves at the beginning of this streetwear trend when some of the more forward-looking customers started looking for clothes that they could wear at night—to the club—instead of a day at the beach. The type of fashion we were making became very popular. 

Paul: Carhartt, Timberlands, M-65s were just what hustlers would wear. It had a bit of a hard appeal and you could upsize it, sag the pants, and it became a look.

Eddie Cruz: Shawn based that whole brand on the culture that we were all living which was listening to hip-hop, going out to clubs, really being hardcore about the bands that we loved like The Clash, Big Audio Dynamite, Beastie Boys, and Run DMC.

Jules Gayton: Personally, I was into a lot of vintage stuff mixed with sort of Orchard Street stuff. I lived on Stanton Street between Ludlow and Essex, and Orchard Street at that time in the '80s was where they had all the hip-hop stuff: Lee Jeans, Cazals, and then a lot of the fake Gucci, fake Louis Vuitton. You know, the early hip-hop look.

Nick: Streetwear is closely tied with hip-hop and rap music, and for better or worse, you could say New York really is the birthplace of streetwear. Shawn was going to New York and met these guys, and that's what really flipped his take on things.

Alex "Baby" Turnbull: I found out through Shawn that Carhartt had been associated with hip-hop because the rappers were copying the drug dealers. If you’re out in New York late, you have to wear shit that’s warm and protective. So that was where all the Timberland and Carhartt came from. The drug dealers were the guys you didn’t want to fuck with—they were the bad boys.

 

Stüssy was the first brand that made me want to wear a hat with an "S" on it, and it just felt right. It was like the cherry on top of your kit. - Eddie Cruz

 

Paul: In reality, the majority of it was probably the drug side of it. That wasn't my scene, but I did grow up in New York and was quite aware people sold drugs. But if you worked the corner, you were gonna wear something that kept you warm. It was Timberlands, might have been Carhartt, M-65s, MA-1s, before Triple Fat Goose, that was winter stuff. If you're on the street flippin' rock—that's what crack dealers wore.

Alex:  Plus it was cheap. It was like 20 bucks for a jacket, and 20 bucks for a pair of trousers. It looked pretty cool. It was the brown zip-up with the corduroy collar.

Frank: That was the beginning of streetwear, the beginning of our adoption by hip-hop artists, and the international crowd. That was the beginning of the Stüssy "look" that you would acknowledge now.

Paul: Skate, surf, and punk style was ripped jeans, T-shirt, and Vans. Hip-hop was more aspirational. I think Stüssy played against both of those cultural references quite well.

Nick: Hiroshi Fujiwara was going to New York and meeting with these guys as well, and probably took that back with him to Japan. The Japanese youth culture as a whole is fascinated by American culture. So the American thing is always valid in Japan.

Frank: Shawn noticed that a lot of cool kids were wearing painter's hats. They'd go to the paint shop and wear those white painter's hats. He realized that they were a great vehicle for fashion. He started making painter's hats and baseball hats with the Stüssy logo, with Stüssy graphics and sensibilities of color. 

Eddie: It was the first brand to really make a baseball cap a real accessory. He would put his beautiful linking S's up there or on a bucket hat, which The Beastie Boys and guys like that were rocking. Stüssy was definitely one of the first, if not the first company to change that mentality. Growing up, I'd rock a Yankees or Mets hat. Stüssy was the first brand that made me want to wear a hat with an "S" on it, and it just felt right. It was like the cherry on top of your kit.

Frank: At the time that Shawn started this, nobody was making these hats for the fashion world. You had baseball hats for players and fans, team hats—that was it. Those hats grew to be 20% of our business in the late '80s.

Nick: Baseball caps were baseball caps. They were sports items. From my experience, Shawn really birthed really that whole thing of hats bearing the logos of brands being cool.

Eddie: Soon after that, you saw a lot of other brands doing in like Freshjive, FUCT, X-LARGE, and all that stuff. It just became part of the uniform.

Frank: The first real homerun was the "Big Ol' S." It was a 6-panel baseball hat with a snapback, all wool, with a big "S" on the front. It didn't say "Stüssy," just a big "S," but it had a Stüssy script on the back.

Eddie: John F. Kennedy Jr. would come to Union all the time and wear a Stüssy hat with his suit while biking around SoHo—I remember that. I remember Matt Dillon wearing a Stüssy hat with his trenchcoat. I think it made people feel like they were kind of in the know about what was going on in the world.

Frank: There was a lot of adoption by that community of icons of luxury. It was a status thing, and that was right up our alley in terms of Shawn's desire to make sophisticated apparel for the big cities of the world. We were giving them our version of it.

Paul: I think the Chanel parody was an obvious thing that Shawn tapped into that was a no-brainer. It was very much an uptown/downtown thing. There was definitely a call and response between Louis Vuitton and fake Louis Vuitton, or MCM and fake MCM. Chanel had more of one identifiable logo as opposed to a pattern.

Nick: I guess he also looked at it like "Yo, Coco Chanel hooked up two C's? My name's Shawn Stüssy, I'm gonna hook up two S's." Probably as simple as that. And as the company developed, it added a legitimacy to that.

Eddie: Shawn was a master at that. It was a time when you could get away with parodies as well. There was no Internet. You could take a Comme des Garcons logo and just kind of mess with it in your way, but bring it to the streets. You could go buy a Comme des Garcons coach's jacket with little holes under the armpit—which I know Shawn made in either the late '80s or early '90s—and on the back he wrote "Stüssy World Tribe International," instead of "Comme des Garcons New York City."

Nick: It wasn't that he wanted his gear to look like Chanel's. His gear was sort of Southern California and New York street gear, but he wanted that gloss that those brands have.

Frank: We weren't making fun of luxury brands. We were elevating ours and showing our appreciation for what these brands were as cultural status symbols. Our customers knew the luxury brands, what they represented, how expensive they were, and what items just didn't suit them. They were looking for graphic inspiration and cultural identity that highlighted what those brands symbolized.

Paul: Hip-hop's always looked to luxury, and Stüssy identified a clever way of remixing it.

Eddie: He knew the importance of high fashion, and it was cool because if you're a kid you can't afford that stuff, but he made it so you were still wearing a legitimate version that's respected in the streets.

Frank: The reality is that if I came too close to someone else's intellectual property, they sued me.

Eddie: James Jebbia and I have been friends since we were 18. We used to work at the same store together in SoHo. We worked at a company called Parachute, which was a high-fashion Canadian brand. Michael Jackson and guys like that were buying it.

James Jebbia: I've known Eddie for a long time. We're good friends.

Eddie: James quit the company we were working for, but I stayed with them until they went out of business because of my loyalty to the owner, Morgan Allard. He was really cool and he was a mentor to both James and I. He let us travel to Canada, Dubai, do fittings—he really taught us a lot. For two guys who didn't go to fashion school, we got our training in the trenches.

Paul: If you go back into that era of shopping in New York, there were just select menswear stores, and that's where you'd go to buy gear. Polo wasn't crazy then. There was no Supreme. There were no things made for that clientele.

Alex: You couldn’t find good gear anywhere.

Eddie: James opened up a store called Union in 1989, and it was mainly filled with a lot of nice British brands. It was cool because it was one of the first shops to put cool, younger-looking merchandise in an environment that played hip-hop. The first Union store was in SoHo on Spring and West Broadway.

James: We had a lot of cool young brands. It was a very English kind of store. It was a youthful and rebellious kind of shop.

Paul: It became one of those things where you'd roll by and bullshit with people, and Eddie was always at Union, so we just became friends.

Jules: That’s the New York vibe. You just walk around, skate around, and you got your fly clothes on,  your sneakers—whatever.

James: Eddie basically wanted a job, and came and worked for Union. I knew what he could do and he really helped with Union.

Eddie: Shawn and Frank are super loyal to their accounts, and they wanted to build it right, they wanted to do it smart.

James: My partner, Mary Ann Fusco and myself didn't get to carry Stüssy right away. It was a very tough brand and very tough to get. Every store wanted it and we couldn't get it. We were very inexperienced retailers.

Paul: I got back involved with Stüssy after James had opened Union and wanted to stock Stüssy. He had called them and they weren't interested. But I thought this dude was mad cool and he had a cool shop. I called Shawn up and introduced them the next time he was in New York. 

James: He brought Shawn in and Shawn was super cool. He liked the store and was like "no problem, we'll sell you the stuff." So we got to open up a Stüssy account, and that really helped our business because it was just the hottest thing in the world. It was great, great stuff, and every time we put it out it would just sell out.

Frank: He understood Stüssy and had customers that understood Stüssy, and he was a great merchant. So when we decided to open a store in New York in 1990 it was with James. So James and Shawn opened up the store on 104 Prince Street, the first Stüssy store ever.

James: The store was tiny and the thought between me and Mary Ann was "let's see about opening up a Stüssy store."

Eddie: He called Shawn and he said "hey, I have an idea, let's meet in LA." So him and Mary Ann visited LA in 1990 or 91, and they met at the Chateau Marmont.

James: Shawn is one of those guys who's always like "if you're out in LA, come out and see us." People say that all the time. But me and Mary Ann were like "let's go out to LA, meet Shawn, and see if he's down to do a shop."

Eddie: The cool thing was Massive Attack happened to be staying at the hotel.

James: It just so happened that Mushroom and 3D from Massive Attack were staying there at the same time, and they were into Stüssy as well. It was our first time in LA, it was also their first time in LA. I had just heard their first album and really liked it, but they weren't really popular at the time. I told them we were meeting Shawn Stüssy, and they were really impressed by that. It was very informal.

Frank: James knows New York very well. SoHo was an underground, evolving area. It was rough. Our rent at that store in 1990 was less than $5,000, but it was cool. When we went to New York, where you hung out was SoHo. To James' credit, he knew what was happening and where to be.

Paul: James opened up the Stüssy store, and then Eddie held it down at the Union store.

James: They were just around the corner from each other.

Frank: We were at Prince for 10 years, and they raised the rent to something like $30,000 or $40,000 when the lease was up, so it was time to move. So James moved the store to Wooster. It was a unique location—it was off the beaten path again, it was a testament to Stüssy's ability to attract customers, and James' ability to market the store, and it was a bigger location than we ever had.

James: It's funny that he can bring up the rent, but Frank really didn't have anything to do with the Stüssy store. It was between me and Shawn.

Frank: Head Porter, which is owned by Hiroshi Fujiwara, was an extremely unique Japanese brand without a lot of presence in America. That's what our collaborations are: we have a lot of friends around the world that have great things, and we want to be a part of helping them. It's great to partner with people like that because who your friends are, and who you hang with helps identify who you are, and putting Head Porter in our store was an honor.

Paul: Shortly thereafter they decided to open a Union and Stüssy in LA. Eddie went to do that, and James stayed in New York to run the Stüssy store and Union.

Eddie: I came out to LA in like '92. Shawn and James gave me this great opportunity. We wanted to take Stüssy and Union and combine them. We had a store here on La Brea called The Stüssy Union. On one side of the store was all of Stüssy, on the other side of the store was all the brands that we were carrying at Union. It was quite an eclectic mix. As Stüssy grew and the line got bigger, I moved Union out and separated the two so Stüssy could live on its own and Union could live on its own—and they both are still here today.

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.

Growing Pains

The downside to Stüssy's desire to maintain its integrity rather than sell out and go large was that it gradually found itself becoming outpaced in a market niche it helped create. Designers like Mossimo Giannulli were quick to cash in on trends, while Stüssy remained reticent—preferring to focus on doing business as it always had been, refusing to let the market dictate its product. To make matters worse, founder Shawn Stüssy left in the middle of the '90s, leaving the company to an unsure future.

Frank: The core Stüssy look was becoming diluted by of Mossimo and other brands doing similar things. We pretty much became irrelevant in America. That's what retailers were telling me "Stüssy is irrelevant."

Paul: I think what happened is they got too big for their own egos. I don't know how well Shawn and Frank were getting along. I wasn't involved at that point. I was doing my own thing. I was actually working for Russell Simmons doing Phat Farm, and that was going quite well.

Alex: I think that they had a different vision on what the company would be. Frank is a businessman, he’s a really cool guy, I really like I’m and have tons of a respect for him. He’s a businessman and Shawn’s a creator: there you have a fundamental dichotomy.

Nick: If shit didn't sell, Shawn was pretty notorious for saying "Oh well, if you don't want it, too bad. I'm not making anything else."

Frank: Shawn left at the end of '95. He felt like nobody appreciated what he saw as compelling fashion. Customers and retailers were telling him "I don't get it. I don't like it. I want you to do something else." And I don't think he felt like doing it. He just essentially said "Look, I'm getting out while the getting's good, because things are changing, and I don't wanna be here when it all collapses." 

James: Shawn was everything to the brand.

Paul: I think he had lost interest. I think he had money to not be bothered. I think, him being the prodigy of streetwear, to be the person who actually found criticism for the first time because the market shifted, he was like "you know what? I'm just gonna bounce."

Eddie: Stüssy probably lost their ambassador, but there were so many good relationships around the world: guys like James Jebbia, guys like me, guys like Jules Gayton, guys like Paul Mittleman, who were all still in the mix with Stüssy. I think that helped keep it legitimate. We lost Shawn, and it is nice to have that ambassador of a brand, but I believe all of us he inspired and taught stuck around.

 

We pretty much became irrelevant in America. That's what retailers were telling me, 'Stüssy is irrelevant.' - Frank Sinatra Jr.

 

Paul: I don't think when Shawn left he thought the company would keep on going. I think he thought the company would crumble.

James: What I thought was "wow, that's kind of how I make my living, and it might not be around." I knew I had to do something on my own because I wasn't just gonna wait around and have my livelihood in somebody else's hands.

Frank: It's quite a luxury to be able to say "I've had a good life. I want to retire." He had a place in Kauai, he was starting a new family, he was done with the rat race, because it had become a rat race. Was he going to reinvent himself and come into work even though he didn't feel like it, but do it for a buck? That's not who he was.

Paul: Trust me, Shawn didn't leave on good terms. If you had a brand with your last name on it, and you left because you didn't like the way it was going down, do you think he really left happy?

James: Shawn was quite bitter about the whole thing. When I say he's bitter about it—it's not that anybody did wrong, he just wanted to sell his share, left, and thinks everything is wack since he left.

Robbie: Stüssy fell off hard in '96 when Shawn exited the company. For whatever reason Stüssy just became non-existent. It didn't have that pizazz that it had.

Frank: As our brand was becoming more irrelevant in America, nobody asked for it anymore, the passion was gone in the American market for who we were, we were confused with Mossimo, who had gone public in '96, it just became a much harder thing to get people's attention.

Paul: On the flipside, and this is why I really respect Frank, he kept it together when Shawn bailed. There was a point when Shawn turned his back on the tribe, and the people that had stores, families, mortgages, and employees. At that point Frank was like "I'm keeping this place in business."

Nick: Where Frank was bravest was when Shawn left. A lot of guys would have run scared got a head salesman in here or gone out and found some merchandiser, but he didn't. He got Paul from New York, James, Eddie and all them to stay involved. He got me in later, and always wanted the brand to be driven from the designer first. Having worked at other brands, I can honestly say that it's unique in that sense.

Frank: We have a global legacy. We have a worldwide brand with customers, friends, and partners. All of whom really liked what we did and who we were. It's just the biggest market for us didn't care anymore. We had a lot to think about.

Paul: When I came back to Stüssy it was in a very strange spot. Let's call it the 'dark ages' for lack of a better term. There were hard times, but Frank persevered through those hard times and reignited the crew. 

Eddie: Shawn left a large history of logo assets that they're still using today. They're still relevant, and they're from one man's hand—Shawn Stüssy's. He was an old cut-and-paste guy, which is why a lot of his T-shirts back in the day looked beautiful.

Paul: As soon as I got that job, I went to Bloomingdale's and Macy's and got some current stuff that was happening in New York as samples: Nautica, Hilfiger, Polo. I said "this is the new world. This is what people want now." No one wants 8-ball jackets, no one wants Dickies, people in New York want Polo Sport.

Nick: One of the things Shawn did before he left was a line called "Stüssy Sport," which was his take on Ralph Lauren. If you remember Polo Sport, that shit was going off! Now, nobody touches it.

Frank: We retrenched in 1996. We essentially walked away from America, we weren't going to become what retailers in America wanted to be. We were going to stay who we were. Fortunately we had worldwide partnerships and great friends around the globe in cities that understood us better and customers that weren't going the American way. 

Paul: At that time the name wasn't in a good place. Japan and some parts of Europe still valued it. New York wasn't very interested nor was America.

Frank: By 1996 we had about 15-20 stores in Japan that had a very loyal Stüssy customer that understood who we were. So we put our focus on Japan and Europe, because they appreciated our branding, our authenticity, and our heritage.

Robbie: I remember Frank saying if it wasn't for Japan in the mid-'90s they would've had to close the doors so Stüssy Japan was a huge factor in maintaining its longevity.

Paul: Shawn's first relationships in Japan were from his surfboard shaping, not the clothing company. It's not a heritage American brand. And I think his reference to Carhartt wasn't because Carhartt was a workwear brand, it's that in the mid to late '80s rappers wore Carhartt, that was his introduction to it. It wasn't because construction workers were wearing Carhartt. It's not like what Americana is now. There was a very different filter activating it.

Robbie: From my perspective, Shawn got in tight with Hiroshi back in the day. He was the godfather of streetwear in Japan. Out of Hiroshi came BAPE, X-LARGE, and all these classic streetwear brands.

Frank: In the late '90s Tokyo streetwear came into its own. Great brands that were doing what Stüssy had been doing in Tokyo came into maturity with their own vision, their own unique look. We were part of that trend.

Paul: Hiroshi was the first person who saw Stüssy and thought it was interesting, and then thought he would do his own thing.

Continue to The Oral History of Stüssy: Part 2.

Stay Connected with
Complex Style
Tags: stussy, supreme, undefeated, huf, shawn-stussy, stussy-deluxe
blog comments powered by Disqus