how-stussy-became-the-chanel-of-streetwear

How Stüssy Became the Chanel of Streetwear

Like young NBA stars who grew up watching Kobe and LeBron, the current generation of menswear designers grew up wearing Stüssy. And not just wearing it, but regarding the brand and its founder, Shawn Stüssy, with the kind of awe their non-fashion-obsessed friends might reserve for bands or movie directors. “Growing up, Shawn Stüssy was like a god to me,” says Aaron Levine, the designer who reinvented brands like Banana Republic, Club Monaco, and Abercrombie & Fitch. Growing up in Sweden, Our Legacy co-founder Jockum Hallin learned about skateboarding and streetwear from Stüssy. “A nice Stüssy T-shirt was just the coolest thing you could have,” he says.

“He started it all,” Kim Jones told Kate Moss for i-D in February of last year, shortly after he collaborated with Stüssy himself for his Resort 2018 Dior collection. “You know, James at Supreme or Nigo at A Bathing Ape, he was doing it even before them—they all look up to him and respect him.”

Stüssy celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, which makes it something like streetwear’s first heritage brand. After more than twenty years in the wilderness, over the past five years the product has caught back up to the mythology, and returned Stüssy to the position of cultural powerhouse. It once again makes some of the most covetable clothes in fashion—collaborating with everyone from Marc Jacobs to Comme des Garcons to Martine Rose, making Loro Piana suits with Matthew Williams, showing up on supermodels in magazine photoshoots.

Ralph Lauren was launched only 13 years prior to Stüssy, in 1967; Tommy Hilfiger started his business five years after, in 1985. But Stüssy has more in common with Chanel than with Ralph or Tommy. It’s a comparison that Shawn Stüssy explicitly toyed with when he designed the logo of two interlocking S’s, a visual pun on Chanel’s overlapping C’s. More substantially, Stüssy, like Chanel, also invented an entire vocabulary of clothing. “Pants and shirts,” as Shawn Stüssy put it matter-of-factly, in a BBC documentary from the early 90s. “And jackets and hats.” In other words, the first streetwear: easy to wear, affordable but well-made, graphic driven, designed to skate in or rap onstage in.

Most of all, though, it was the energy Stüssy built around his work that made it truly revolutionary—the brand had its Tribe, made up of subcultural icons like DJ Alex Baby, Gimme 5 founder Michael Kopelman, The Clash’s Mick Jones, and Big Audio Dynamite founder Don Letts. These weren’t influencers, exactly—they were friends, and the way they promoted Stüssy was simple: they wore it to whatever cool party they were going to, a method that remains irreplicable in our world of corporate skate teams and multi-million dollar brand spokesperson contracts. Most fashion houses now see celebrities or influencers as strategic vessels for their vision. But Stüssy was truly about how its Tribe members wore the clothes. It was about style (an attribute Chanel once made much of, too).

Images from Stüssy’s second collaboration with Our Legacy, released in April 2021. Courtesy of Stüssy.

Photographs courtesy of Stussy

But cool is fleeting, and after Shawn left the company in 1996, selling his stake to cofounder Frank Sinatra Jr. (no relation to the “My Way” guy), Stüssy foundered culturally. Its graphics remained touchstones, its Tribe jackets desirable. It even sold well. But it didn’t have the same cache. “Everyone would be like, ‘I love Stüssy, but I don’t really want to wear Stüssy,’ which is like, a unique and almost uncomfortable thing,” says Fraser Avey, Stüssy’s global brand director since 2015. “You’re like, Yo, the stuff we’re making is actually not good enough or right. The brand is almost stronger than the product.”

How Stüssy returned to relevance is not a story about the state of the fashion industry—rather, it’s about succeeding against the grain by ignoring the larger pulls of private equity, tricky wholesale relationships, and relentless collaborations. Stüssy is doing the things you always want a fashion company to do: think smaller, be more niche, and respect its heritage without wringing it dry. Jayne Goheen, along with Israel Gonzalez, the men’s design director, has made the clothing into some of the best American ready-to-wear on the market. Where the brand once churned out recreations of Shawn’s pieces, it now sticks rigorously to its design points—and looks equally at home alongside Marni, Ralph Lauren, and Brunello Cucinelli, with whom it shares digital shelf space on Mr Porter, and alongside peers like Noah or Off-White, its neighbors on Union’s site.

“Stüssy is a special brand,” says Avey. “It can be democratic in its pricing, but can still be special, and it should still draw on emotion. We tried to bring some of that energy back to the US, not necessarily changing the people that perceive Stüssy in the way that we saw it—not changing their opinion—but perhaps altering, just pruning it a bit. Taking a little bit more care of how we moved, and how we showed up.”

For a long time, Stussy did what you were supposed to do to get big, which was establish wholesale accounts with multi-brand retailers with huge footprints in malls and commercial hubs all over America. By 2014, it had annual revenues of $50 million. But, Avey says, “these places…were not necessarily the right channels for the future of what we wanted to do.” Which was: “be a good brand, or at least be good caretakers of a good brand.” So the simplest reasons for Stüssy’s turnaround are also the hardest to pull off: they stopped making bad clothes, and stopped selling in uncool stores. “We just walked away from bigger retailer relationships,” Avey says.

When Sinatra’s son, David, became CEO around 2014, he and Avey began to make subtle changes. “It wasn’t grandiose,” Avey says. “It was everyday decision-making that led to this.” They started making cleaner, more sophisticated clothes.

“We started, truthfully, designing better,” Avey says. And they started selling in Dover Street Market, the global temple to avant-garde fashion, which “just interpreted it differently, and then like retranslated it back out to the world differently.” Avey and his team have spent the past five or six years redesigning Stüssy stores “with a little bit more diligence and care.” This decision lost money, both Avey and Sinatra tell me—not always popular in a fashion environment that rewards quick-scaling, revenue-generating brands. Stüssy’s priorities, Avey says, are different: “There isn’t this ambition to grow. The ambition is to be good.”

Avey seems to care a lot, but then he’s worked at Stüssy for basically his whole adult life. He started working there around 2008, when he was employed at a snowboarding store in Vancouver that stocked Stüssy, which quickly turned into managing the North American stores and advising on product. Avey has a slacker’s hair and voice, but he hustles; when he talks about Stüssy, it sounds almost like he’s selling Bibles. His mission was pretty simple. “We wanted to make good clothing for our friends that they appreciated,” he says.

One key element of Stüssy’s late-period evolution, he says, is hiding in plain sight. “I feel like it’s all people-based, you know what I mean? There are so many radical people involved that are like, Jayne-level cool. They are just incredible at what they do.”

More from Our Legacy and Stüssy. Courtesy of Stüssy.

Courtesy of Our Legacy x Stüssy

Goheen is another disarmingly modest figure in the Stüssy universe. She’s a longtime art director in the worlds of fashion and streetwear, and long a cult figure on fashion’s hipper outskirts thanks to her personal style blog, Stop It Right Now. (She also styled actor Steven Yeun for his Oscars campaign this past year—but she’s modest about that, too.) When Goheen joined Avey’s Stüssy, she says she took the approach “of figuring out a new visual language and just being really strict about it.” She’s the kind of person who has such powerfully beautiful taste that she can say her goal is to make “classics with a twist” and really mean it. For Stüssy’s Spring/Summer 2020 season, for example, she took the face and flowing hair of Boticelli’s Venus, which had been a recurring motif in the Shawn era, and placed it off-center on a rayon button-up shirt and matching board shorts. (I bought it immediately; people usually ask me whether it’s Gucci or “crazy vintage streetwear.”)

Stüssy’s collection with No Vacancy Inn, including suits, from September 2020. Courtesy of Stüssy.

Courtesy of Stüssy

But if Stüssy has a secret weapon, it’s Tremaine Emory. Emory is one of those people who turns out to be behind every cool thing you’ve seen over the past decade: Marc Jacobs, Levi’s responsible cotton, Kanye West’s art taste. Naturally, he’s a part of the story here, too. After meeting Avey on a night out in London, he started as a consultant—sending in reference boards and suggesting collaborators. He moved slowly into the fold and is now something like a creative or art director. (This is generally how hiring at Stüssy works. As Sinatra told me, “We hire each other.”) It was Emory who dreamed up a recent collaboration with Our Legacy: “I was just like, ‘This feels like Stüssy, if it only did this type of clothing. We should do something with them.’” Emory came up with the idea to do a fragrance, too, with Comme des Garçon.

“From my part, it’s literally just like, does it feel soulful? Does it feel like a dyad to Stüssy?” Emory explains. “You don’t need any more clothing. You don’t need any more stuff, man. If we’re going to make stuff, it’s going to be a fun story or important story and it’s going to mean something.”

Emory, Gonzalez, and Goheen, members of what Avey describes as the New Tribe, are the kind of people who remind you that, before creative was a job title, it was an adjective—that you can work in fashion even if your ambition isn’t to make the biggest, most expensive luxury brand. Supreme, for example, is often talked about as a luxury brand, even if its prices hover around Stüssy’s. If Supreme thrives on grit and exclusivity, Stüssy is sweet and unabashedly mass, even if its products have gotten more bourgeois. They recently released a paisley silk scarf with the Japanese label Noma t.d.; it sold out in a day at Dover Street.

“We’re lucky to have a little piece of real estate in the clothing world that belongs to us because of when we started and what was original to Stüssy,” Sinatra Jr. said. “And we were like, we need to keep that, [and] we need to protect it. And you know, a lot of the decisions were just anti-commercial decisions. So we don’t need those sales. You don’t need to partner with that store, or we don’t need to make stuff for that customer.”

“And that comes back to the paranoia of wanting to keep doing it,” he continues. “We just want this to be great. And we want it to be meaningful to people because we want to stay in the brand. We want the brand to have the same value in 10 years.”

One important difference between Stüssy and Chanel is that the former’s eponymous founder is still living. Karl Lagerfeld gave Chanel new relevance by memeifying Coco’s greatest fashion inventions, but Stüssy is adamant about paying deference to Shawn’s ingenuity without exploiting it. Which, of course, raises the question: where is Shawn in all of this?

Shawn declined to speak to me for this story, writing in a characteristically poetic email:

“I think it best to keep my part of the story close to my chest and deliver it on my own terms…

no one is still around that was close to me during the first fifteen years…”

His collaboration with Kim Jones, one of Dior’s strongest collections since Jones took the helm, suggests he’s not done with making clothing. (It also may have inadvertently contributed to the recent fanaticism around the brand that still carries his name.)

But I wonder what he makes of the Stüssy reinvention. Six years ago, before several of the New Tribe members were in place, he criticized the brand for reissuing his original designs. More recently, on his Instagram, he has posted the mind-blowing graphics he invented—and knocked the current management for reworking them. He also appears to be going through his own archives in anticipation of…something (“maybe the time is getting close?”). In April, he began selling Stüssy pieces from his own archive on a site called ShawnVintage, with an Instagram account to match. Is he moving on, or asserting his godhead status?

You have to wonder if all the newly-appointed creative directors pulling their hair out over “reinterpreting the codes of the house” and “dipping back into the archives” could take a few pages from Stüssy’s book. Sinatra said he never worked with Shawn—he was just a kid when his dad was at the company—but that he and the team “really respect that original creativity,” he says. “My relationship with Shawn now is in respecting what he started.”

“I think most of the team would say, Oh, we’re still not good enough,” said Sinatra. “Shawn was innovating. Shawn was making new things we wanted. And we want to make new things along with the old things that were ours. We want to do pure, great quality, best versions of our stuff.”

Emory sees Shawn less as a legacy to contend with, more as a figure whose creativity set the stage for a whole generation of designers, who created a language that has influenced nearly every menswear designer working today. “He lit a match in a forest,” he says. “He walked out of the forest, and it’s still burning, you know?”

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