THE STUSSY HISTORY
From humble beginnings on the West Coast of California, Stussy has built itself a legacy
like no other. We take a look at the history of this influential and iconic label.
Stussy celebrated it’s 35th anniversary back in 2015. In todays culture, that is some achievement. The brands roots are well documented; its founder Shawn Stussy began creating custom, hand made surfboards out of his garage in the early 80s, blending innovative shapes with forward thinking graphics touching on everything from roots reggae to new wave and post punk. His skill was in demand, and several pro surfers were loyal to him. Everything was signed off with the now iconic hand drawn logo; a nod to OG graffiti handstyles and the signature of his uncle, abstract artist Jan Frederick Stussy.
Stussy was an expert at taking disparate reference points and bringing them together through one unique lens. Stussys first forays into clothing offered the complete anti-thesis to the loud and brash traditional surf wear available at the time. As Robbie Jeffers, Stussy Team Manager, states in an interview with Complex, ‘I hated surf culture and the way surfers were. I just can’t stand bros. I don’t think Shawn liked it either, that’s kinda why he did what he did’. As the 80s drew to a close, discerning consumers were looking for gear that could easily transition from the street or beach in the day to the club or the bars at night. Stussy were there at the perfect time to ride this collective change in consciousness.
The list of firsts that can be accredited to Stussy reads like a ‘how to’ for emerging brands in todays online culture. Referencing high fashion houses, flipping logos, reworking pop culture graphics, straddling the fine line between high and low, sending clothing to tastemakers across the world, offering an all encompassing lifestyle element, a carefully curated list of stockists…the list could go on and on. Stussy were amongst the first to put logos on baseball caps, and they attributed to 20% of the business in the late 80s. Although far less documented, Stussy even join Supreme on the list of brands sued by French fashion house Louis Vuitton. Things that seem second nature now were pioneered by the California brand.
The customary late 80s/early 90s New York hip-hop look of Carhartt jackets, baggy jeans and Timberland Boots can be credited as one of the defining influences of Stussy, and in turn became a pillar in the birth of what has become known as streetwear. In the early years, Shawn Stussy would travel to cities across the world including London, Paris and New York, to meet and network with the creative people and tastemakers of those cities. This would come to be known as the International Stussy Tribe, and included high profile individuals including Hiroshi Fujiwara, Michael Kopelman and James Lebon.
It was New York that really set Stussy on a new trajectory. James Jebbia opened Union in 1989 on Spring Street in New York. The shop was one of the first of its kind. It stepped away from the baggy hip-hop look of the time, but still embraced the street attitude, played hip-hop music and offered a curated selection of younger, boundary-pushing labels. Stocking Stussy at the time wasn’t easy, and Jebbia’s desire to sell it at Union wasn’t enough to convince Stussy to agree until Paul Mittleman gave the co-sign and brought Shawn to the store to see it for himself. He agreed, and Jebbia would go on to open the first Stussy store in New York in 1991, and started Supreme a few blocks over whilst still working there. In '92, both Stussy and Union expanded over to the West Coast and were housed together in a store on La Brea avenue called ‘The Stussy Union’. One half of the store was filled with Stussy and the other half filled with Union’s tight brand selection. It was a unique concept at the time, and before long both had outgrown the space and opened up in separate stores next door to each other, where they remain today.
The Tribe was another important factor in the spread of Stussy on the international stage. Shawn would send clothing out to individual creatives and tastemakers in various cities across the world. Stussy had been making varsity jackets for a few years before Shawn had the idea to make special, one off ‘International Stussy Tribe’ versions, customised with each individuals name. In todays culture, this might be viewed through cynical, marketing eyes but it was all organic. There was a genuine connection between people with similar interests and style cues, people were proud to wear these jackets and these people became the ‘unofficial, official’ spokesmen for the brand. As Paul Mittleman attests, ‘a lot of the people that formed the tribe went on to carve the niche for what would become streetwear and street culture’. However organic it was, it was still a stroke of genius from a brand building point of view. Frank Sinatra Jr, Stussy co-founder explains ‘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 for what they wore. We weren’t advertising from the top down, we were about being discovered from the bottom up’.
As the 90s rolled on, more and more labels were springing up that were willing to cash in on whatever was hot, whilst Stussy stood firm in not allowing the market to dictate its product. People began to get confused with Mossimo, a label with a strikingly similar hand drawn logo and a distribution strategy at the opposite end of the spectrum to Stussys; selling its products to any store that would take them. The American market was becoming diluted; unwilling to bow to external pressures and becoming disenchanted with a lack of enthusiasm from his team for his desire to push the brand forward, Shawn left at the end of 1995.
Frank Sinatra Jr persevered, and kept the brand legitimate with the help of other members of the tribe and the people around them in the New York scene. The rise of the Ura-Harajuku movement in Tokyo, spearheaded by a key member of the tribe, Hiroshi Fujiwara, gave Stussy a whole new lease of life in Japan. They appreciated the authenticity and the heritage. After the turn of the millennium, the rise of sneaker culture and the increasing frequency of brand collaborations also gave Stussy new outlets and customers. Collaborations with Nike, including the first Huarache LE in 2000 and 2002’s Blazer Mid pack are among some of the most highly sought after shoes still to this day.
In todays market, the prerogative is to remain ‘brand first, revenue second’, according to Fraser Avey, Stussy’s brand director. New faces have been handed the reins, including Ryan Willms, former editor-in-chief of Inventory Magazine, who has helped facilitate projects with Central St Martins graduate Kiko Kostadinov amongst a host of other collaborations, and kept the Stussy brand on the backs of the next generation of creative young people.
Stussy’s legacy is monumental. The fact that the original hand drawn logo alone has stood the test of time and still looks as current as it ever did puts it in a league reserved for very few of the worlds most influential and instantly recognisable brands. Stussy were there at the very beginning, and have laid the foundations for an entire industry that wasn’t in existence a mere twenty years ago. With all the visual inspirations of the past, and a forward thinking creative outlook utilising the worlds most exciting young creatives, the brand is an institution that will always be held in the highest esteem. On top of all of that, it’s still independent.