Stussy Clothing and What it Means in Streetwear Culture and Fashion
The story of Shawn Stussy and his eponymous Stussy clothing brand is one of the greatest tales in streetwear history. However, the influence of the California born brand reaches far outside of streetwear fashion. With only a broad-tipped black marker in hand and an appreciation for music, art, and surf, Shawn Stussy begins crafting custom surfboards. Finding inspiration in the cool California surfer and new wave scenes, he discovers his unique style. Heavily influenced by his uncle, Jan Frederick Stüssy, an abstract painter, the Stussy logo is born. Soon after, Shawn Stussy’s graphic, grafitti style logo makes its way onto t-shirts, shorts and caps. The retailer is Shawn Stussy himself, and the store is the backseat and trunk of his car.
A lot has changed since then. However, the essence of the Stussy clothing brand remains very much the same. There was really no such thing as streetwear and urban uniforms consisted of pressed work shirts and trousers. For the most part, each coast had its own signature style. The East coast with its metropolitan take on business casual and the West coast with it cool, laid-back surfer style. Bridging cultures through an exploration of new age and hip hop music, multi-disciplinary artistry, and a global curiosity, a surfer kid from California becomes a founding father of streetwear. Let’s take a look back at the fascinating history of Shawn Stussy and his eponymous Stussy clothing brand.
Shawn Stussy, Founder of Stussy Clothing/Father of Streetwear
Shawn Stussy isn’t one of those artists adopting surf culture because it sounds cool, it’s always been his life. Born in 1954, his first view of the world is sand, surf and waves. In the years that follow, his love for surf culture only intensifies. Alongside his three siblings, Shawn discovers a love for art as he leans screen printing at his parents California print shop. By the age of 13 years old, Shawn Stussy masters another craft, making his own surfboards. Talented and eager to refine his skills, he easily finds after-school employment as surf shops around the city including Russell Surfboards in Newport Beach and Chuck Dent’s surf shop in Huntington Beach.
By 1980, the young artist has an idea. Combining his love for surf and his artistic skills from screen printing, Shawn Stussy opens shop creating custom surfboards. His designs are an instant hint prompting the young artist to pursue an even bigger idea. Realizing the importance of branding, he imprints his squiggly, graffiti logo on shorts, t shirt and caps. However, Shawn doesn’t wait for customers to come to him. Opening perhaps one of the first authentic streetwear pop-up shops, Shawn Stussy hits the streets of Laguna Beach, California in his car. His plan for the Stussy brand still isn’t focused on creating a streetwear brand. The designs are simply promotion for his custom surfboard business.
Frank Sinatra Jr and the Birth of Stussy, Inc.
By 1983 Shawn Stussy has a new understanding of surf culture as a business. At the request of long-time friend and surf buddy, Frank Sinatra Jr., Shawn Stussy considers launching a Stussy clothing line. In 1984, the Stussy, Inc. partnership is officially born. The products, a signature apparel line revolving around the Stussy name and logo. Now for the first time, 29 year-old Shawn Stussy can focus solely on maturing his creative vision. With the insights of Frank Sinatra Jr.,an accountant, the future of the Stussy clothing brand begins to move in a new direction.
Stussy Clothing Hits Europe
Shawn’s business decision proves to be a wise one. Now free to focus on branding, Shawn Stussy finds new ways to print his namesake. Inspired by indie kids wearing painter’s caps, Stussy introduces classics like the “Stussy No.4” and double “S” logo designs. Although the Stussy clothing and accessories business is booming, surfboard sales aren’t as impressive. Eventually, Shawn makes a surprising decision and begins outsourcing the production of his handcrafted boards. Soon after, the brand sets its sights globally. In 1988, the company officially introduces the Stussy clothing line in Europe. It’s an immediate success granting Shawn Stussy an exciting, new audience of fans.
The International Stussy Tribe is Born
During his time in Europe and international cities like Tokyo, Shawn Stussy begins to connect with a progressive group of rising creatives. His new group of friends consists of DJs, skaters, club kids and new age artists. Amongst his newfound network are names like Michael Kopelman, Hiroshi Fujiwara, and Luca Benini. United by a shared fascination with street culture the elusive “International Stüssy Tribe” is born. Known around the world for collectively sporting custom Stussy clothing and baseball caps, the brand further establishes its exclusive cult like appeal.
However, the concept of the tribe wasn’t limited to its official members. It’s is a figurative club built around the Shawn Stussy’s brand concept. With increasing connections in the hip hop and urban scene, youth everywhere began showing their allegiance by collecting Stussy apparel.
The First Stussy Clothing Store and Global Brand Expansion
The first Stussy store opens its doors in 1991 in New York. Located at 104 Prince Street in Manhattan’s artsy Soho neighborhood, the brand sets its roots in the emerging cultural hub. Joining Shawn Stussy in his new adventure is a now familiar name, Supreme clothing founder James Jebbia. Back then he was the owner of a different early stage streetwear concept, Union. The 900 square foot retail boutique was a success making it a breeding ground for New York’s awakening streetwear scene.
Though the brand finds immense success on the east Coast, Shawn doesn’t forget his deep California roots. Next, he opens a second shop,this time a 200 sq. foot space situated in Laguna Beach, California. At this point, Shawn Stussy is fully committed to the expansion of his business. In a matter of months, a Tokyo boutique is opened, followed by another west coast shop located on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles.
Founder, Shawn Stussy Leaves his Brand Behind
Looking at the numbers, Shawn Stussy and Frank Sinatra Jr had built one of the most profitable fashion brands of the era. The company’s annual revenue routinely approached upwards of $35 million and was showing no signs of slowing. However, money alone was not enough to keep the Stussy, inc. partnership alive. In January 1996, Shawn Stussy officially resigns as the company’s President. The reason (according to Frank Sinatra Jr.) had nothing to do with their business partnership. In an interview with the LA times Sinatra reinforces their relationship by stating,”This is not a hostile thing”.”Fashion is still very important to him. He still wants to be involved,” he continues. “He’s just tired of the day-to-day grind.” Fans and the media had no choice to but take Frank Sinatra Jr.’s word for it. Shawn Stussy provided no definitive comments on the split.
Frank Sinatra Jr. Takes Full Ownership of Stussy Clothing
It is by no means an abrupt exit. Shawn had already began cutting back on his daily work schedule and ultimately agrees to stay on-board as a brand consultant. Additionally, he decides to continue overseeing operations for the brand’s New York and Los Angeles shops. During this time of transition, Shawn Stussy introduces his last major contribution to the clothing brand, Stüssy Sport.
Between spending time with his wife and family in Hawaii and upholding his remaining responsibilities to the Stussy clothing brand, his schedule is still tight. Eventually, Shawn Stussy agrees to fully hand over the company to his co-founder. Frank Sinatra Jr. officially dissolves the partnership by buying out all of Shawn’s remaining shares in the company. The news was startling and everyone immediately began contemplating what type of future awaited the thriving, California bred Stussy clothing brand.
Stussy Clothing Today and Forever
To the surprise of many, Frank Sinatra Jr. is somewhat able to continue the brand’s upward trajectory. However, much of his solo success is contributed to the brand’s existing footprint in the streetwear market it helped create. Still, the company’s usual annual sales average of $35 million plummeted to $21 million. Using his understanding of numbers and experience as an accountant, Sinatra seeks out a path. David Sinatra, CEO and son of Frank Sinatra jr., recalls it as the “lowest point in Stüssy’s history”. First, the new President recruited a new creative team. Among the freshman is a new head designer, Nick Bower, an impressive graduate of Central Saint Martins whose first job was Valentino. Soon after, in 1997, a new creative director, Paul Mittleman, is appointed. With his new team in tow, Frank Sinatra Jr. focuses his sights abroad on the bustling streetwear scenes of Europe and Japan.
Today, the elusive International Stussy tribe lives on. Membership is still international and fans are as loyal as ever. Ironically, Shawn Stussy’s west coast born surf brand found its largest market well outside of California and the United States. As far as sales go, purchases outside the U.S. now make up 60% of the company’s total revenue. A telling reflection of the globalization of streetwear, Stussy is receiving a well earned visit from Karma-in recognition of the international community of streetwear followers it created.