Surf to street – The Stussy story

Both Shawn Stussy and the company he created, Stussy, were anomalies of the fashion world.

Shawn never played by the rules. He refused to pay for advertising and eschewed targeting his clothes to any specific demographic. Still, his brand is one of the most successful in the history of streetwear, having endured for nearly 40 years.

 The iconic Stussy signature is one of the many secrets to the company’s longevity.
The iconic Stussy signature is one of the many secrets to the company’s longevity.

Although he did not advertise, a celebrity following and an international reputation built via his “tribe” did solidify the Stussy brand. The company was also popular with various cultural groups, most of whom were part of the anti-establishment movement. Surf, skate, hip-hop, and reggae are just a few of the subculture groups to embrace the Stussy brand and make it their own.

Told time and time again, the Stussy story is an amazing tale of one entrepreneur literally stumbling into one of the most iconic brands that still resonates today in the world of streetwear.

The History of Stussy    

Born in 1954 in Southern California, Shawn started surfing at the age of 10 just as the sport was gaining wide recognition in movies and music. By the time he turned 13, he was designing and shaping his own surfboards in the family garage.

After high school graduation, Shawn lived a free lifestyle, spending the winters living in a trailer and working as a ski instructor at Mammoth Mountain in California and summers making surfboards at Laguna Beach.

Aside from his interest in surfing and skiing, Shawn was further influenced by his love of punk rock music, which led him to wear orange-spiked hair and what he called an “anarchic, do it your own way” attitude that spilled over into his approach to fashion design as well as his business practices.

When he turned 24, he returned to Laguna Beach in 1980 to open his own surfboard business.

Shawn posted this comment on his Instagram account about the opening of his first shop:

“I opened the door to my own surfboard company… shit just kinda rolled from there, a kid trying to do the right thing, a dose of street hustle, a bit of graphic rebelliousness, serious survival skills, a major “will not fail” point of view, and the willingness to work my butt off…”

Shawn would blend innovative shapes with forward-thinking graphics, touching upon everything from roots to reggae to new wave and post-punk rock movements. His talent was in demand, and several pro surfers were loyal to him. Everything was signed off with the now iconic hand-drawn logo, which was a nod to OG graffiti hand styles and the signature of his uncle, abstract artist Jan Frederick Stussy.   

The Early Years

It was the use of the signature on surfboards that would lead him to put it on garments.

In a 1993 interview with WWD, Stussy recalled, “It was seen as ‘new wave,’ anarchic. I had the logo screen-printed on T-shirts and sweatshirts, but it had nothing to do with producing clothes. I was trying to promote the boards.”

During this early period of his career, Stussy shaped surfboards in his studio during the day and at night boxed his T-shirts for sale in area surf shops. He drifted further into the apparel business by simply being involved in finding clothing that he and his friends liked to wear.

 A Stussy’s T-shirt from the 1990s.
A Stussy’s T-shirt from the 1990s.

As he explained to The Orange County Register in a 1989 story, “We’ve always worn interesting clothes, but it’s not like I’m from a garment-family or anything like that.”

After T-shirts and sweatshirts, Stussy began producing Bermuda shorts, as he explained to fashion magazine WWD: “A couple of my buddies and I used to go to the Army-Navy surplus stores and buy size 40 khakis and cut them off way up at the knees. Everybody used to say, ‘Those are so fly!’ So we started making them. My mom made patterns off of them. We started taking orders.”

After being sold in area surf shops, demand began to grow for the clothing and he eventually found himself leaning more towards the apparel side of the equation – even though he only originally decided to sell streetwear as a way to supplement his income from the sale of his surfboards.

From the start, the company has limited its production to a level way below the demand for its products, a strategy that while limiting profits has always perpetuated an air of exclusivity about their apparel and accessories.

Another key factor that set Stussy apart in the early days was that it was one of the first brands to produce goods like caps and varsity jackets not exclusively designed for sports teams. The company’s groundbreaking reconfiguration of traditional style rules and limitless design boundaries laid the foundation for nearly every other street brand to follow.

Stussy builds its brand

Frank Sinatra Jr., a friend from Shawn’s teenage years who had become an accountant, saw the potential in Stussy’s newly found clothing line. Sinatra convinced Shawn that his business held much promise and offered to invest $5,000 to become his partner.   

Although Sinatra Jr. was not related to the famous Frank, Shawn and Junior did make beautiful music together. Shawn knew clothing while Frank Jr. possessed the business acumen to make the company profitable.

In 1983 they joined forces and in 1984 established Stussy Inc. with Stussy handling design and Sinatra shouldering the business responsibilities. It was on March 27, 1986, that the company registered the Stussy trademark with the patent office in the United States.

As the apparel side of the company began to grow, the surfboard business faded in importance and was ultimately turned over to a licensee for small-scale production.

Around 25 surfboards were produced each month, retailing at a much higher price than other quality boards to keep consistent with the exclusivity approach that the duo would adopt in making and marketing their apparel.

 Stussy makes a varied line of products, including jackets that bear the company’s logo.
Stussy makes a varied line of products, including jackets that bear the company’s logo.

Shawn did continue to shape boards in his spare time for himself and friends and was known to cancel work should the wave conditions prove too irresistible, but increasingly the ex-punk rocker, now turned designer, was busy developing a full line of young men’s clothing as well as moving beyond just the beach market.

He drew inspiration from sources around the world rather than the nearby surfing and skating scene, although his clothing was initially embraced by the skating and surfing markets. By the 1990s, the brand had experienced tremendous growth with a flagship store in New York City and business expansions into other markets in the US and in Europe.

The 1990s

1991 was a big year for Stussy. The company opened its first boutique in trendy SoHo, New York, with the help of James Jebbia, who would go on to find his own fame with the Supreme line of clothing.

The store’s opening was a big move that would further solidify Stussy’s development from a small and obscure surf company to a major player in the world of streetwear fashion. After the opening in SoHo, Stussy stores began popping up in the U.S. and around the world.

They say timing is everything and that was certainly the case with Stussy’s expansion in the early part of the decade.

People were growing tired of the excesses that dominated the fashion landscape in the 1980s, with its loud, flashy and over-the-top clothing, and they began adopting a more casual attitude to what they wore.

The trend toward casual clothing blended perfectly with Shawn’s approach – the contemporary twist on classic items, a style that would carry through the history of the company until today.

Early on in the new decade, the still-new Stussy brand was adopted by the blossoming hip-hop and disc jockey scenes. Stussy, just like so many other brands, had the good fortune to be hyped by the musicians who wore their clothing and also shared that passion with their fans, who would also drive up sales through their purchases.

This was a major development in the way Shawn designed his clothing, using the idea of “sampling” images and graphics from various sources and applying them to his gear while continuing to create new styles that were incorporated with a classic feel.

Another trend that Stussy used to its advantage was the way hip-hop artists mimicked the fashion style of drug dealers, who repped such brands as Carhartt and Timberland, while others wore high-end brands like Gucci and Chanel. Shawn knew this and found a happy medium between the two, drawing from high-end designs and merging them with these workwear styles.  

Riding a wave of success

There were a number of other factors that contributed to Stussy’s success beyond Shawn’s designs and being in the right spot at the right time.

The Stussy Tribe

As the brand continued to gain in popularity here and around the globe, Shawn traveled extensively to build the brand’s reputation and build alliances with others in the business. He built both working and friendly relations with Hiroshi Fujiwara, a Japanese musician, producer, and clothing designer, Michael Kopelman of clothing line Gimmie 5, Mick Jones of the bands The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite, and, of course, Jebbia.

 One way Shawn Stussy built his company was to create a “tribe” of like-minded individuals in the United States and around the globe.
One way Shawn Stussy built his company was to create a “tribe” of like-minded individuals in the United States and around the globe.

These relationships would become one of the most famous elements of Stüssy and led to “The International Stussy Tribe” – a collection of like-minded individuals with close connections to the brand. The Tribe would also become one of the brands most recognized designs, highlighted with words and bold graphics printed on the gear.

Members of the city chapters of the International Stüssy Tribe were each given custom embroidered jackets with their names printed on them. The Tribe movement spread to numerous cities including Paris, Tokyo, New York and others around the world.

In a television interview with the BBC, Stussy explained the concept behind the Tribe, calling it an “organic word that had a good Old World feel to it…that (also) kind of stuck and stood the test of time.”

Catering to the ladies

Another brilliant move that proved to be forward-thinking as well as lucrative was the company’s foray into streetwear for women. Shawn partnered in 1992 with Australian designers Felicity Rulikowski and Bernadette Wier to develop an initial 25-piece collection that featured body-hugging apparel with a retro 1970s flair.

 Early on in the days of streetwear, Stussy began catering to the ladies by offering women’s fashions.
Early on in the days of streetwear, Stussy began catering to the ladies by offering women’s fashions.

As with the menswear, the line called Stussy Sista Gear had limited distribution both internationally and in the United States, where the clothing was only available in the Stussy boutiques, starting in the spring of 1993.

Stussy Australia has the distinction of being the company’s first licensee and the brand began to produce a junior clothing line for women called Stussy Sista Gear in 1993. (The only other Stussy license was granted to Eyeking Co. in New York for eyewear.) The Stussy Sista idea proved successful, and in October 1998 the company registered the Stussy Sista trademark.

The first ever streetwear collaboration

Stussy was the first clothing company to conduct a collaboration with another brand, specifically with Casio and its watches.

In 1997, Stussy launched its first collab with the G-Shock DW-6900 watch. Stussy has continued to enjoy collaborating with Casio and the G-Shock brand, having released two more DW-6900 watches in 2005 and 2010, and a DW-5300 for Stussy’s 25th anniversary in 2008. Nearly 20 years after they first joined forces, Stüssy and G Shock released the DW-5600 in 2016.

Collaboration between companies is considered commonplace by today’s fashion standards but back then it was groundbreaking and set the trend for the many more streetwear collabs to follow.

Shawn steps down

After 20 years of building a worldwide brand that was arguably THE best streetwear clothier in the world, Shawn resigned from the company in 1996 to spend more time with his wife and family. He reportedly also retired after becoming disenfranchised by the way his styles were being viewed by buyers.

In a 2013 interview with Acclaim magazine, Shawn said he never had any regrets about stepping away from Stussy.  

“It felt great because I put almost twenty years of my life into it. I had gone full circle with it. I was surprised it ever got to the place it did – that was never the intention. All the decisions that I made for all those years weren’t for it to be big and to be a success. Obviously, you want to be successful at what you do, but it had turned into something that I was never looking for. With that came a lot of responsibility and twenty-hour work days and all the money in the world. But if you don’t have time to go spend it, what good does it do? So I’m a relatively simple person. I saved my money, paid for everything that I had.”

The Post-Shawn Years

Over the next three years, Sinatra made some changes to the way the business operated as the company began to see a downturn in the U.S. marketplace.

While Stussy stayed on track thanks to the involvement of many of the Tribe members, the arrival of other brands that were putting out similar products cut into Stussy’s U.S. market share. Most of Stussy’s operations were moved to Europe and Japan, the latter becoming a huge focus for the company at a time when Japanese streetwear was on the rise.  

In an effort to re-connect with youths who had helped build the brand, Stussy decided in 1999 to rebrand itself with the help of photographer Robbie Jeffers.

 Never behind the 8 ball, Stussy has cemented its legacy as one of the best streetwear brands on the market.
Never behind the 8 ball, Stussy has cemented its legacy as one of the best streetwear brands on the market.

Jeffers suggested starting a skateboarding team and by 2000, the brand had a roster of skaters that included Richard Mulder, Danny Montoya, Scott Johnson, Keith Hufnagel (who would go on to found HUF), and Chad Timtim.

While this move proved to be unsuccessful, it did signal that Stussy was willing to reinvent itself to remain among the top dogs in streetwear fashion.

Here is a short timeline of key developments in the company’s history over the past 10 years:

2010 – The 30th-anniversary collection of Stussy features limited-edition collaborative T-shirts with Supreme, Bounty Hunter, NEIGHBORHOOD, The HideOut, and PAM.

2012 — Stüssy releases a capsule collection of custom varsity jackets for 40 new members of the International Stüssy Tribe, including A$AP Rocky, Pigalle founder Stephane Ashpool, and artist Brent Rollins.

2017 — Stüssy opens a new flagship in Toronto and released clothing collabs with Vans, Bedwin & the Heartbreakers, and Hypnotize Hearts. They also put out a short film with Jared Sherbert and a photo editorial with Tyrone Lebon.

Today, Stussy products are found in a variety of outlets, with some sold in skate, surf, and snowboard shops, department and specialty stores and in their 20 U.S. and international chapters.

Many consider Stussy to be one of the greatest streetwear brands of all time. (Check out Complex magazine’s tribute with these 50 Stussy fun facts.)

This argument is certainly backed by the lasting impression Stussy has made on so many other brands, and especially with those who have worked for Stussy and then gone on to create their own brand of streetwear.

Eddie Crus started Undefeated, Jebbia has Supreme, Fujiwara launched GOODENOUGH, and even Shawn got back into the streetwear game in 2009 when he established the S/Double Studio brand of clothing and surfing gear.

Stussy is still mindful of its past. Many of its legendary logos and styles, that contributed to the growth of the company in the 1990s, are periodically commemorated today with product drops.  

In a time when so many brands burn out or fail to make the cut, Stussy continues to remain relevant. In the past few years, the company expanded beyond men’s clothing and now offers a complete line of women’s clothing. It also designs and sells such accessories as sunglasses, hats, and backpacks.

Stussy has managed to outlast numerous trends while giving rise to an industry of brands that focus on limited runs and feature casual styles that carry an iconic logo that has truly come to symbolize streetwear fashion.