How the original streetwear brand made it big without compromising its roots, as told by the people who got it where it is today.
As told to Jian DeLeon (@JianDeLeon)
Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow...
In the first part of The Oral History of Stüssy, we found out how the company went from a surf brand informed by New Wave graphics and a punk mentality to a downtown New York shopping destination. Thanks to a global network of International Stüssy Tribe members, its influence and popularity spread far beyond the coastal Californian shores where it was initially conceived.
In the late '90s, Stüssy was in a tough spot, business-wise. American customers wanted something different, and voted with their wallets. However, in places like Europe and Japan, the burgeoning hip-hop streetwear movement was just popping off, and becoming the required uniform of modern counter-culture gear. Meanwhile, skate culture was the new thing, and larger companies like Nike hadn't even begun to pay attention yet. Read on to learn how Stüssy remained at the forefront of that movement, and how it helped kick-start the limited-edition sneaker craze.
Everyone is listed with his or her relationship to Stüssy first, followed by their current title.
Shawn Stüssy - Co-Founder of Stüssy; Founder of S/Double Studio
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
The Stüssy Skate Team
As the brand began to regain steam, Robbie Jeffers had the idea to start a skate team. At the time, Stüssy had fallen out of favor in the skate community, and Jeffers saw it as a way to give the brand a new relevancy in a market that had always played an integral part in the brand's legacy. While many of Stüssy's early fans were no strangers to skateboarding, the brand never explicitly had ties to the sport. In many ways, the Stüssy Skate Team did what the original tribe did: had relevant guys co-sign the brand. It was also an immediate precursor to another market that would be a boon to Stüssy's business—sneakers.
Robbie: Frank, to his amazing frugality, never wanted to sponsor anybody, and I understand because that meant he had to pay them or give them free clothes, and that's not Frank's M.O. at all.
Frank: We were trying to see what would resonate with a younger customer to see who we are at our core. Skate was a part of who we had always been. It wasn't our identity, we weren't a skate brand, but Robbie had all these ideas, and I could afford to the invest money to give it a shot.
Robbie: Around December of '99, I remember getting a hold of Richard Mulder. He was our first skater. He was on Chocolate and DVS. I think it officially started like the 1st of January. That's when the ball started rolling on the skate program.
Keith Hufnagel: Me and Scott Johnson used to skate together all the time and Richard Mulder hit up Scott and was like “you want to skate for Stüssy?” Scott then went to me and was like “you want to come meet the guys from Stüssy?” I was like "fuck yeah man!" I’ve always been into Stüssy since I was a kid. So I went down to Stüssy, linked up with them and they were down for the crew, so that’s kind of how it started.
Keith: I feel like they were more of like: "you’re a cool dude, you have great style, we skate and we want you to be a part of this crew." It wasn’t like "you’re a dude who’s winning every contest."
Robbie: In the first year I think it was Richard Mulder, Danny Montoya, Scott Johnson, Keith Hufnagel, and Chad Timtim. Later came Anthony Van Engelen, Justin Eldridge, Justin Reynolds for a time, and Danny Supa. Danny Supa was one of the early cats but then Zoo York offered him this huge thing, and I told him go and get paid. He was in it for a minute but not for long.
Frank: Ask Robbie how you can spend $120,000 on a skate tour to Tokyo and London. Never heard of before. I learned a lesson: don't give Robbie the credit card.
Robbie: To give Frank credit, he hooked us up. We went to Tokyo and had insane accommodations and food. There was no per diems—it was like whatever. We got to Tokyo and we went snowboarding in an indoor snow park. We had a tour bus filled with 15 people in Japan for 30 days and Frank paid for everything. I mean I had that when I did the Nike team, but it's a different story when you've got a Nike credit card versus Frank's personal card. In comparison, Frank was very generous with that.
Frank: Nike SB started with Robbie. You can thank him for that.
Robbie: Around June of 2001 I was on a yearly contract with Nike SB and I think I went until 2006 while doing Stüssy at the same time. So I was doing both.
Robbie: Another memorable thing is when I had to watch David, Frank's son. He was 13 or 12 at the time I don't remember, I was the dummy with the money. I remember he brought back this aerosol shotgun. He came walking around the corner, and I thought it was real. I told him his dad wasn't gonna let me buy that and he got on the phone and Frank said "you can buy it." He brought it home and Frank loved it so much he started shooting people with it in the lab.
Frank: I think David and Anthony Van Engelen had a war in the hotel. There were a lot of upset people.
Keith: I just remember it being one of the dudes that took you around. They had an itinerary, and they didn’t want to see anything going wrong. We were all skaters and kids. We like to have fun, mess around, and maybe even drink some alcohol, whatever. I just remember him very upset because we were a little bit wilder than his normal crew. We weren't what he expected us to be.
Nick: It was just like "these guys skate, they're sponsored by us, they're supported by us." I would say we "supported" more than "sponsored." Sponsor is like what Nike did for Tiger Woods, or what Quiksilver did for Kelly Slater.
Robbie: I think Frank closed the doors in 2005 or 2006.
Frank: We weren't prepared to become a skate brand. We weren't designing our products for the skate market only; we were designing our apparel more broadly. The skate industry was having its own challenges, and frankly, I would say that most of the guys who were on the skate team found better opportunities with companies that could help their careers more than us.
Robbie: Frank's an accountant by trade you know. If 1+1 equals 2 it's good. But how much is this really benefiting Stüssy? I think that's what it was, I think in his mind it just stopped being reflective of the brand.
Frank: We weren't a skate company. We weren't trying to be a skate company. There was no reason to recreate the skate team. Once the first team split up it was like the band broke up and they became solo artists.
As the collectible sneaker days grew, so did we. In America, a lot of people became sneakerheads. Sneakerheads became mainstream. - Frank Sinatra Jr.
Eddie: I personally wasn't a skater, but skate culture was a respected, hardcore science. These kids that were doing it just had natural flavor. They kind of gave all the stuff that we rock today an edge that it didn't normally have. Whenever you think of sneaker brands, these kids were really the driving force that gave them street credibility.
Nick: In really simple terms: skateboarding is the closest active sport to streetwear. Streetwear kids love skateboards. Surfing is a little bit removed, in order be a surfer you have to live along the coast. If you're thinking about urban kids, concrete is their game—that's where they hang.
Jules: I remember buying my first pair of Jordan 1s at Dr. Jay's on Orchard St. We would skate in 1s and IIIs. I still got the cap that came with the Jordan 1s.
Paul: Skateboarding and streetwear make sense. Skateboarding happens on the streets, so it makes sense that you'd have a look that's more in line with streetwear. Surfing happens on a beach. Snowboarding will never have a huge impact on streetwear because you wear snowboarding clothes on the mountain.
Alex: The different thing about London and the skate team is that people weren’t really influenced by surfing, and American people were skating because they couldn’t surf, but here hardly anyone has ever seen surfing or knew what it was, so we were influenced by skateboarding.
Paul: The thing about skateboarding that makes it a little bit darker and a bit more negative and fucked-up than other sports is this built-in aspect of failure—most athletes who skate don't make the trick.
Eddie: In 1999 or 2000, I took a trip to London to get this brand called Silas. I took a little crew with me and I got to meet Russell Waterman who did Silas, and he sold to me because we had a lot of mutual friends. Then I went to the Duffer St. George store and noticed they had Nike from America there. I was like "why are you guys merchandising Nike Bruins and Blazers with Duffer St. George?" And Marco Cairns told me they were buying kicks in America and bringing them back here to sell in their shops. At the time, you could only really get Nike from NikeTowns or mom and pop sneaker shops.
Frank: Michael Koppelman is pretty much our ongoing connection to Tokyo, along with Paul Mittleman. Michael and Fraser Cooke are good friends. Michael was into Nike, he wanted to do shoes. He and Fraser came up with the Huarache.
Eddie: The Nike marketing people in London were very well aware of what Stüssy was doing and how important it was to street culture. And Nike was starting to take an interest in street culture. So Michael established a relationship with the Nike people in London and convinced them to do it. Hence came the Huaraches. The Dunks came out a few years later, and people went apeshit.
Frank: In 2001, we did our first Dunk with Nike, with the ostrich and snakeskin swoosh. Until that time, there weren't a lot of collaborations taking place. The Dunk was a relic of the past, it really wasn't trending again, but I believe that I need to give credit to James Jebbia for this collab. He had this idea, and we ended up making it with Nike. I think we made 3,000-5,000 pairs, and they sold out in two days around the world, at just Stüssy stores. Lines out the door. It was very well-received.
Eddie: I don't think a lot of people selling it understood the culture that was brewing around it. That was probably the emergence of sneakerhead culture. People were collecting sneakers but there was never really a collaboration happening—I believe that might have been the first one. They did it in a beautiful, simple way. People weren't seeing colors like that from Nike. People were only seeing team-oriented colors. Who knows? Maybe after that, that's why you started seeing Air Force 1s inspired by Timberlands, or burgundy Air Force 1s, or whatever. It was a super important shoe. I think it's important that Nike still works with Stüssy.
Frank: Now, all of a sudden, we had a way of connecting Stüssy's international status with an American consumer who didn't understand that world. That's what was happening in Japan at the same time, that's kind of how BAPE got their start.
Eddie: Coming from the Bronx, I was going around to all those mom and pop shops, and I was buying all their deadstock—shit that they couldn't sell. They really didn't know what they had, and the clientele that I was selling to didn't know the stuff existed.
Frank: Streetwear had a seed planted in American fashion, which was sneaker culture. If you're gonna get into sneaker culture and the history of them, and why they're hip, then you're gonna do the same thing with the apparel.
Nick: Sneakers are just one item of clothing, and we don't make shoes. So what are they wearing with their sneaks? They want legitimate street brands, and we had people involved like Paul who understood that world, so we were willing to go along with it.
Eddie: James Bond had a store called KBond here in LA. Before Opening Ceremony and other boutiques came to LA and started doing their thing, KBond was doing that. It's just that it was a bit ahead of his time, but it showed me that James Bond had this vision, and Nike noticed that. KBond ended up closing so I offered him a partnership.
Frank: As the collectible sneaker days grew, so did we. In America, a lot of people became sneakerheads. Sneakerheads became mainstream.
Eddie: It was interesting because a lot of people were in that same mindset. Stash with Recon/Nort, ALIFE, we were all thinking the same way but never spoke to each other about it. It just goes to show that if something's brewing, you're not gonna be the only one on it.
Nick: There's always something driving the industry, and at that point it was sneakerheads.
Frank: This became a business. Undefeated grew out of that business. Eddie would go to Tokyo, buy up limited-edition sneakers, bring them to America, and people would stand in line to buy them. It was a whole new industry.
Eddie: When we opened Undefeated, we wanted to be the alternative to Foot Locker. Not to say that Foot Locker's not good, but we wanted to give kids an environment that they could relate to. That was our dream.
Frank: The first thing that happened was the Internet started to grow, and blogs started to be created for style trends. Hypebeast is the biggest example. So this happened, and all of a sudden we could reach customers who were passionate about a subset. We no longer had to print eight pages in Details magazine to get their attention. And those eight pages didn't have much impact anyway. We went through great photographers with great campaigns, but it really didn't have the impact you thought it would have.
Eddie: When Hypebeast came about, everybody got to see what was out there in the world. It's cool that it blew up, but it kind of made it a little more commercial. I don't think it affected the industry in a negative way, because business at Undefeated is excellent. Websites like Hypebeast are a perfect platform to make announcements, and if they put it up, it will definitely make a difference for your sales.
Hold Down the Crown!!
Many people would refer to Stüssy as the "godfather of streetwear," and ironically, that's a title many of street culture's originators came to resent. As people associated with the brand started to do their own thing, they had to work twice as hard to dissociate themselves from their former company. Eddie Cruz had Undefeated. James Jebbia had Supreme. Shawn Stüssy returned to his roots as a custom surfboard shaper and established S/Double Studio in 2009. But behind the scenes, it seems this world is a whole lot smaller than you might think. Stüssy's lasting influence and global legacy continues to impact street culture at large.
Frank: The difference between Stüssy and a lot of other companies is other companies feel like "it's all mine, I don't want anybody else to have a say or make money." That's not how we work.
Eddie: I believe Russell Simmons was inspired by Stüssy very much to do Phat Farm. He would come into the shop all the time and look around. He'd have designers come in and have a look… and then came Phat Farm.
Paul: I know Stüssy very much inspired Russell to do Phat Farm.
Eddie: I just wanted to be a sneaker shop. I wasn't thinking that way, but people really liked the name and logo, and it only made sense for James Bond and I to start making baseball caps and tees on our own, and Frank had the vision that we had potential to take it to another level. He would be the licensee, we would design it—and the rest is history.
Frank: Eddie and his partner James Bond wanted to make clothes, so we've been working together now for more than five or six years. And we've really gone painfully slow, it's James and Eddie's vision, we've just worked to find the right balance for Undefeated. And Undefeated is a different look than Stüssy, much more athletic.
Paul: You wouldn't have Supreme without Stüssy. You wouldn't have A Bathing Ape without Stüssy. You can quote me on both of those.
Eddie: James Jebbia I think always had a vision of like "You know what? Shawn Stüssy did it, and it's working." Hence, he came up with the name "Supreme" and the concept of what Supreme is today.
James: I don't want to cross the two though. I've always separated the two from the get-go. The two have nothing to do with each other.
Frank: To me, I thought Supreme was great. Supreme didn't start with this huge following. It was one store, it was very underground. It still is.
Paul: Part of the reason for James opening the Supreme store was that at that point, Stüssy wasn't doing as well. Stüssy was kind of flatlining at that point, if not even going down.
James: I started Supreme simply because I didn't know what was going on with Stüssy, or if I was going to keep doing that. I had to try to do something else.
Eddie: The thing with owning Union is you're basically at the mercy of the brands that you carry. It's a very high-maintenance business to run. Multi-brand shops have to go to all the trade shows, you have to politic, and you have to do all that.
Frank: James Jebbia is his own man. He did that 100% on his own, to his credit.
Paul: It wasn't ever meant to be a clothing brand. The only place to buy skateboards was like, Blades—and that was kind of goofy. James saw that there was nothing on Lafayette at that point. It wasn't interesting. You didn't cross Broadway at that point. James was kind of a pioneer.
It's one thing to be the coolest of the cool, but what's important is that you're staying in business and you're relevant, and I think [Stüssy has] done a good job with that. - James Jebbia
Eddie: It was really just supposed to be a skate shop, but done in a nice way. Normally, when you'd go to skate shops back in the day, they were very schlocky, but kinda cool. Interior wasn't really that important to skate shop owners, but James wanted to create a beautiful environment to house skate brands.
Frank: I'll be honest with you, I made some of his clothes at the beginning. I made his pants and things.
Paul: Frank definitely helped out James and did some production for him.
James: He did production on a pair of shorts for me, which was nice of him at the time.
Eddie: In fact, when we were doing Union, we were trying to do a little cut-and-sew, and Frank was nice enough to let us use his factories to make some pieces to sell in the stores so we could get a better mark-up on them.
Frank: I wanted to do James favors—he was my partner, but I didn't design it. I didn't do his marketing, I didn't do his ads. I didn't line up his team. It's his company. But the fact that I was willing to make things for him was just simple production. You don't have to give me credit. He did it all himself.
Eddie: At first there no brand it was just a store called "Supreme," but his marketing campaign was absolutely brilliant. They made these red box logo stickers and get street teams to just go blast them all over New York City, like all over Calvin Klein ads. Kate Moss would be doing a panty ad and all the Supreme stickers were covering part of her body. The statement was "She's Supreme, and so is this." Calvin Klein himself took notice and even came to the shop.
Paul: Supreme, honestly, became the world tribe perfected. All of what James had watched and learned from doing Stüssy, when he did his own brand, was everything he learned from that, but done perfectly. Supreme's in this strange way, never done wrong, because James was taught by the best. And Supreme from the day it opened just kind of popped off.
Frank: Shawn was never a greedy person. I'm not a greedy person. We don't need to win by virtue of other people not winning. I get much more satisfaction today out of seeing one of these guys—Eddie, HUF, whoever they may be—succeed, and accumulate the resources to become independent and do what they want to do. I get more satisfaction out of that than making another dollar and putting it in the bank.
Eddie: On the real if it wasn't for Frank Sinatra, a lot of people wouldn't be where they are today. He's open-minded. He wasn't always in the know, but he was a likable, smart businessman.
Frank: I wasn't happy when we were copied and diluted by other brands, but it was never like "for us to succeed, everyone else has to fail." And along the way, we made a lot of good friends who really wanted to be a part of what was going on.
Eddie: Basically Frank would let all of these new up-and-coming brands do collaborations. When you get to do a collaboration with an established brand like Stüssy, that basically tells the world that you're legit.
Frank: How much better is it to have partners around the world that are, on their own, creative, empowered entrepreneurs with a vision? That's symbiotic, that synergistic. Stüssy wants there to be more Supremes. We want there to be a critical mass of these brands, so that we can do a branded store with all those guys.
Nick: Streetwear is really responsible for all these collaborations going on right now. Way, way, way before these big brands were collaborating with each other—Target, H&M, all that. The streetwear brands were all like a community. Could you imagine Billabong collaborating with Quiksilver? Forget about it. They're in competition with each other, and there's no community.
Frank: Wouldn't you want your friends to do well? They're not a threat to me. When they succeed it's like my son succeeded. Eddie Cruz is my friend. Keith Hufnagel is a great guy and my friend. I always give them advice. I'd give them advice again, but it doesn't mean that I did what they did.
Eddie: It's not really about competition. Whenever I'd go to Tokyo I was noticing things like BAPE was working with Mad Hectic, and Mad Hectic was working with NEIGHBORHOOD, and WTaps was working with those guys. I think the Japanese invented the collaboration. I know Nike collaborated with Stüssy for those Dunks and Huaraches, but that was a major corporation working with a small brand, and it was cool to see small brands working with other small brands and supporting each other—and that started happening here. You'll see a Diamond x Black Scale thing, you'll see a Hall of Fame x HUF thing, and I think that's wonderful. The youth are saying "let's help each other come up."
Frank: We never sought out to call ourselves "streetwear." We didn't invent the name. In fact if you recall there was a company called Vision Street Wear that went broke in the '80s. Shawn was just making clothes that a kid or your dad would find appealing.
Eddie: Someone made that name up. I wish that they didn't.
Frank: Now, anything that isn't a "surf" or "skate" brand is a "streetwear" brand. Not necessarily true, but who needs to parse words? It's not really what you are, it's who you are. "It ain't where you're from / it's where you're at" is one of Shawn's favorite lines. Call us what you want. What I care about is that clothes get made and sold in places that you find attractive, appealing, and aspirational.
Jules: I kind of hate that term.
Nick: I think it's a good term. If you think about other youth cultures: you've got surf, skate, snow, and if you talk about streetwear… it's kind of like what you wear in the street, when you're not doing your sport.
Jules: "Streetwear" to me has got a bad connotation to it now. It's the really corny brands that are at MAGIC for a couple times then they’re gone.
Eddie: All that stuff was real. Eventually people started calling it something because it turned into something.
Frank: High-quality, timeless, authentic, you can explain why you bought it, what it references—that's streetwear!
Nick: Nowadays it's used a lot, so it can become confusing, but it did define a certain kid. And I think it still does. A kid who's into streetwear is usually into sneakers, hats, he may also be into accessories, bags, maybe he's into music, a DJ… all of those things really define a streetwear kid.
Frank: I think streetwear has definitely passed the point of being unique and underground. Like anything else, you have passionate customers who understand the genesis of streetwear and who the brands are that are really authentic, and they're willing to pay a premium for it. At its highest end, you might say that's kind of the Visvim customer now.
James: It's one thing to be the coolest of the cool, but what's important is that you're staying in business and you're relevant, and I think they've done a good job with that.
Nick: For me, I've always been more interested in clothing and design, and my points of reference are probably at a higher-end level.
Frank: Nick Bower's killing me because he's so strict and passionate in his interpretations. That's part of what Stüssy spends its money on. We spend our money making things that are so pure, that people don't quite want it, but they understand it.
James: There's ups and downs in every brand's history, but I think Stüssy has done a good job of staying the course.
Frank: The important thing for us is to continue reinvent who we are via new ideas and better products that are Stüssy: collaborations, categories, whatever that is. We don't wanna blow it and just sell out. We don't wanna just make products that sell in large numbers.
Nick: I think if we continue to do things right, not be pretentious, and always come out with fresh stuff, I think Stüssy will have no problem celebrating their 50th anniversary. I think Stüssy is an American icon now. As a brand, it's known worldwide by kids involved in the culture.
Frank: We're finally getting traction again. Customers understand us again. We have people that we can speak to with our products that understand the story and wanna buy it. The challenge is that this is not the same retail world that existed 20 years ago. Customers are more complicated, and they have many more ways to spend their money: electronics, software, and other products. You've got a more sophisticated customer with more options that understands more about what he wants and why.