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.