Interview: Shawn Stussy

The man behind the iconic brand opens up about leaving it all behind

Words Photography by Michael Danischewski

Interviewing one of your heroes is nerve-racking. On my way to meet Shawn Stussy all I can say is that I was less than cool, calm, and collected. However, upon meeting the man to whom the worlds of surfwear and streetwear owe infinite amounts, I was relieved to find someone so humble. Being the founder of a deeply iconic brand might go to some people’s heads, but Stussy maintains a laidback Californian vibe as he prepares to take his latest venture, S/Double Studio, to new heights. Joining us for CARBON festival 2013, we spoke with Stussy about leaving his namesake label behind, Stüssy’s influence on Supreme, and what it feels like to be considered a pioneer.

Can you remember the first time that you scribbled that iconic Stüssy logo?

I can. It’s late 1979 and I’ve made surfboards since I was thirteen. Growing up through the ‘70s, that was my job, shaping surfboards for somebody else. It was a job at another company and that company was really ’60s-related. Up through the ‘70s it was still very much of a ‘60s visual in the surf world as far as the logos went: ovals and diamonds and so on. So it’s ‘77 and you start hearing the Sex Pistols and after that The Clash, so by late ‘78, ‘79, it’s very much a punk aesthetic that I discovered and got into. So when I went to do it on my own, I scribbled it down and that was how I wrote my name. It was very much a “Yeah, fuck you old guys!” It was like, “Yeah, I am not that!” And they’re really good guys and now I love the ‘70s but the things that I love now, I was rebelling against then. Those were the guys that were five years older than you, so to me the ’60s surf culture, after punk, seemed very dated and it was like my older sister’s generation. So that was it. I knew I was breaking out on my own – I scribbled “Stüssy”, printed it bigger than most, and put it on the very first board.

You left Stüssy in 1996. How did it feel to leave the brand? Any regrets?

No, none. 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. I met my wife and we got pregnant with our first boy. That’s when I looked around and went, “Wow. Do I want to do this for the next twenty years?” With the crew that I had? And the answer was no. A big part of that was my crew of people were not on the same page as me. They didn’t see the end of the rainbow like I did. I would come home from four-week trips – I’d be in Paris, Tokyo, and New York – and I’d come back to Laguna Beach and within a week it was like the wind was just out of my sails because, as a dreamer, I saw the next phase that wasn’t a skateboard or surfboard company. A.P.C. was just happening, and you’ve watched agnès b. all those years, COMME des GARÇONS, and Yohji, so I would come back with this vision of the next phase, of evolution, and it was what it was and nobody else wanted it to go any further. I don’t mean it disrespectfully but it was easy for everybody. They were all holding onto these coattails for all these years and it wasn’t like camaraderie, it wasn’t like I had this hooey of six people that were on the same page as me. It wasn’t like I was Marc Jacobs with this army of hipsters and we were all on the same page. I came home to an earnest crew of really nice people but they had an old view of the world and what we were doing. So it was easy to just kind of take my chips, get up from the table, and go have a life.

Has your approach to business changed since leaving Stüssy, in contrast to the way you’re approaching S/Double now?

No. The same person’s making the decisions, but the playing field has changed. You’re not out wholesaling and it’s a web-based business now. We’re old and information travels fast. There’s less sense of discovery and the hunt isn’t there. You can sit in your pyjamas in your home in front of the screen and never leave the house.

Was it hard to embrace that?

I don’t know. I’m of two minds about it. I’m not totally immersed into it yet. Yeah it’s different, but it’s the way it is now. Just like the way it was the first time was the way it was. So you can’t change it, you just have to fit in with the rules of the game at that time.

S/Double has a really genuine, homegrown feel about it. Is S/Double a return for you to your first loves?

Well yeah pretty much. That’s why the surfboard thing started. I just went, “I’m just going to make surfboards and see where that takes me.” Go back to being in 1980 again when it was just a guy doing what he loves to do. [Stüssy] was much more of an aggressive thing than [S/Double] is now. So I almost feel guilty, like the S/Double thing, to me it’s just a crutch project for a few friends. You can tell by the way that I approach it it’s not an aggressive, make-something-out-of-it thing, but I want it to be a success. The spirit is the same. If anything I’m backpedalling and trying to make it for the same reasons as I was in the early ‘80s.

There’s a really great interview with you for BBC Four from many years ago. In the interview they call Stüssy a “uniform for the young of the world”. How did it make you feel that people were talking about your brand in that way?

Oh I know the one, with Karl Lagerfeld and Ralph Lauren. That was Janet Street-Porter for BBC. That’s from like ‘86 or ‘88! I was sitting in the warehouse and stuff. Yeah, I don’t know. I never thought about it, you know? Obviously, you’re getting some props for what you do so that feels good. But it’s hard for me to have answers for things like that because I didn’t think about it. Obviously I was flattered and excited about it.

Was there a moment that you realised that Stüssy had become a globally recognised and loved brand?

Well, yeah, it was a slow coming. It was over years that that happened – it didn’t happen fast. You’re happy for that, but with that also came restrictions because now you are something and they want what they had last year. You know, you have to go down the food chain. The weakest link becomes – and again, this wasn’t a web-based world – the buyers, because the buyers are watching numbers from the season before. That kid on the street that shops at that store, I knew he wanted what I had, but how do you get it in the store? And the buyers were the weak link in the chain because they were watching numbers and they weren’t the leading edge of creativity. So if brown sold last season, they wanted more brown. It’s kind of like the Woody Allen movie where he was a comedian and he tries to do a serious movie and everybody would stop on the street and go “I remember you. Why aren’t you funny like you used to be? I remember when you were funny.” So that was what it felt like to me. Like, “Wait, two years ago we got that, we want more of that.” That gets frustrating because then people start wanting what they had before but the spirit was always moving and giving them the next thing.

So how do you feel about Stüssy as it is today?

I think that’s why this many years later it’s a double-edged sword for me how I feel about Stüssy currently because I go, “Wow, those five or six logos I did, they’re still the cornerstone of that business.” Part of that makes me proud like, “Shit, those things are still around!” Because when you’re doing them you don’t know, you don’t do them to stand the test of time. For me it was momentary, it was like do it this week and next week something else. So the spirit was disposable imagery, but things surface that you don’t have control over. So people go, “How do you feel about it now?” and I’m of two minds. Part of me is very proud that those innocent things are so iconic and stand the test of time but part of me then gets disenchanted because leaving that wealth of vibe there, how little’s been done with it since. I think “Wow, in those 15 or 16 years, what could it have become?” And then for me, it just etches in my mind that I did the right thing. Because that was one of the reasons I left, just because nobody got it. But it’s doing really good and they’re successful now.

But it’s not the direction you would have taken it?

No! I don’t want to be making that stuff now, not in a million years. But that’s cool.

Do you know what direction you would have taken Stüssy if you were still behind the wheel?

In hindsight, why couldn’t it be – not merchandise-wise but vibe-wise – why couldn’t it be a more of an A.P.C. situation? That’s too French, but it’s youthful, organised, and has a visual. Why couldn’t it be a COMME des GARÇONS? Why couldn’t it be a more proper clothing line? Age appropriate and stuff. I don’t want to be my age and making t-shirts and stuff. But I contradict myself because some of the things I will do now could fit into that category, but you know what I mean? Because my whole thing was I never did it to build it and let it just stay there – I was always moving forward. So what could it be now? There’s no comparison and any name I drop can be confusing. But you know what I mean, like a full package with stores around the world. Like Supreme, which does a great job now. Supreme does a great job in stores in cities of the world, no wholesale, in retail businesses.

Speaking of Supreme, let’s talk about its founder James Jebbia. You worked with him very closely for a while, opening the NYC store together. Tell me about this time. Did Stüssy have an influence on Supreme?

Well I don’t know. But I know James started Supreme when I was leaving, so maybe just for that fact – that that was the impetus of him starting. Because was worried like, “Wow I’m a shopkeeper and if Shawn leaves and Stüssy dries up what am I going to do?” So maybe only in that respect, in James wondering about the future and if he could control his own destiny, have it in his own line. Because he knew I carried my part of the torch and he always had a well to draw merchandise from so maybe only in that respect.

But James is more like a friend more than a business friend. We were buddies and we did the store together just because he had Union NYC with Mary Ann Fusco and they were really good clients, they bought stuff and they did really good with it in New York. We became more and more friends. I would come home from Europe after my travels, and we would go have dinner, and he got exactly what I was trying to tell you about Stüssy, like where it could go. So James and I were ‘Bam, bam, bam’, bouncing it back and forth having a ball and then I come home to my office and it was just like ‘Pshhhh’, like the wind just went out of the sails. For years I battled it – I’d come home and I’d still be selling it then I’d start to go “Really? I’m selling it to my own people?” But yeah, big respect, James has done a great job and done it the right way and it’s very valid right now, the business makeup the way it’s set up. He does a great job.

People all over the world look to you as an inspiration and pioneer. How do you respond to that?

I don’t respond to it. I don’t buy into it. I don’t get it. I don’t feel like that, not at all, not even close. I’m sorry I don’t have more, but the minute I start answering those questions I’ll sound like that idiot I always make fun of when I hear people try to answer those questions! You just do your thing and the chips just fall where they fall. But then do you feel good that you’ve had a little place in the world because of what you did? Yeah, that obviously makes you feel good. Better than “I fucked up and everybody thinks I’m a dildo.” So that’s good, but yeah, I just don’t think about it.

Do you have any projects lined up for the future and where do you see S/Double heading?

Well what I’m doing mostly, besides the surfboards, is building clothes in Japan for Japan.  On the 21st of April it’s our one-year anniversary of the Tokyo surf shop. When we made the deal to do the shop on the little napkin that we did the agreement on, it was no clothing, surfboards only. Well since then, my old Japanese partner, my current partner, has got the hooks set in me and so we’re starting to produce clothes in Japan for Japan. I have a Japanese licensee, that I design everything and they do the heavy lifting, they manufacture, and produce. [Points to his own shirt] This was from last season, which was our first season. So I’m just at the beginning of that. It’s at a distance, it’s for Japan, made in Japan, and all that’s attractive to me. It’s far enough away, you know what I mean? So we’ll see what happens. But I’m very much getting back into the clothes thing.

That’s exciting. I think a lot of people will be happy to hear that.

Well we’ll see. And I don’t know if it can get out of Japan – we’ll have to see because of the price.

Do you want it to get out of Japan?

Well right now, we’ll see where it goes. In a perfect world, I’d like to bring Japanese-made goods back to America, be the American designer making stuff in Japan and bringing it back. But it’s very cost prohibitive I’m finding out. It’s expensive and that’s why you don’t see a lot of Visvim and Neighborhood and WTAPS in America, maybe Australia too, because it’s cost prohibitive. So we’ll see. And I want to make everything in Japan. But I was hoping I could wholesale to 10 or 20 stores in America, kind of good stores, but I’m finding out that there’s just no room in the middle.

It’s good that there are still things for you to learn in this industry, despite how long you’ve been immersed in it.

Yeah there’s like a game going on and where do you fit into the game? Well I don’t want to do the heavy lifting in America. I don’t want to have 24 people that look at me every morning and go “What are we doing boss?” and be pulling the bank strings and the production and the schedule and who owes us money and who do we have to pay money to. I’m over that. I wanted to do the parts that I know I’m good at. But that contradicts, because then you need a partner and the partner can be weird too: that’s like a marriage. I like my life – that’s where I’m kind of screwed up. Like I’m okay and I really like my lifestyle, so I don’t want to screw that up with a job.

I think a lot of us feel like that!

You know what I’m saying? Like I work really hard to have my lifestyle and I’m a dreamer so obviously I want to go further. That’s why you see it happening slowly. It’s because here’s the little cliff and I’ve been rolling this ball towards it, like the big Greek guy pushing the world to the edge. Once it goes, it goes, and I look up and I’m how old? So that’s why I’m my own problem a lot of the time because I don’t have to do it, but I really want to do it, and those conflict.

Does it interfere with your family life?

Well, no, not now. But if it goes off the cliff it might. Does that make sense? And that’s why I say I’m my own worst enemy, because it could happen quickly. It could go and then you look up in two years and it’s all really good, you’re making a bunch of money, and then all of a sudden you look up and you’re 65. I’m not into that. I’d rather just grow my food and go surfing til I’m 65. I’m probably just as happy with that.

Photography by Michael Danischewski.