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.
Frank: Shawn 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.