Kim Jones said to Kate Moss for i-D in February of last year, not long after he teamed up with Stüssy for his Resort 2018 Dior collection, "He started it all." They all look up to him and respect him, like James at Supreme or Nigo at A Bathing Ape. You know, he was doing it even before them."
Stüssy celebrated its 40th anniversary a couple years ago, making it one of the first heritage brands in streetwear. Over the past five years, Stüssy has seemingly been restored back to its former status as a cultural powerhouse. Once more, it creates some of the most coveted garments in the industry, working with designers like Martine Rose, Comme des Garcons, and Marc Jacobs, creating Loro Piana suits with Matthew Williams, and appearing on supermodels in magazine photo shoots.
The founder of Stüssy, Shawn Stüssy, is a native of Laguna Beach and served as a youth spokesman for the California surf culture. He began shaping surfboards when he was just 13 years old and entered the industry formally in 1979 when he started his own surfboard company. Every creation was stamped with the iconic, well-loved graffiti-inspired logo. He imitated his uncle, a painter by the name of Jan Frederick Stüssy, in order to write it. They had no idea that it would eventually rank among the most recognisable logos of all time and serve as the impetus for a bigger movement in the years to come.
In 1982, Shawn was planning to attend the Action Sports Retailer trade show with his surfboard business. Shawn had also brought black screen printed t-shirts with his personal artwork as advertising material. He reportedly only sold 24 boards but about a thousand of his t-shirts, according to streetwear legend. As a result, Shawn officially switched his brand's focus from surfboards to clothing in 1984, working with his friend Frank Sinatra Jr. (no, not that one).
Building Blocks of Streetwear
With ongoing success and expansion, Stüssy started to grow its empire in 1987, moving their headquarters to a larger studio in Irvine, California. Their clothing options quickly gained popularity among skaters, DJs, graffiti kids, artists, and surfers. Their aesthetic radiated a gritty quality that was ideal for the streets. Unaware of it, they were laying the groundwork for a brand-new genre of clothing called streetwear.
Their ties to hip hop developed organically as DJs and rappers from New York to London donned Stüssy clothing. According to Business of Fashion, their company was turning over $17 million annually in 1990. In 1991, Shawn kept the momentum going and opened his first store in New York on Prince Street alongside James Jebbia, who would go on to found streetwear juggernaut Supreme. They were some of the first businesses to open in the now prosperous SoHo neighbourhood.
A Worldwide Tribe
Even in its early years, Stüssy unintentionally rose to prominence as a major player on the global stage. Shawn earned a reputation as a world traveller by promoting Stüssy in major cultural centres like Tokyo, London, New York, and Paris. He would interact with various groups and like-minded people while on his travels, which inspired him to found the International Stüssy Tribe. Shawn personally sought out each member, and those chosen received a special varsity jacket bearing their name on the back and the word "staff" across the chest. Members of note include Goldie, the Jungle DJ, and Fragment's Hiroshi Fujiwara. The International Stüssy Tribe continued to exist in 2012 thanks to the custom varsity jackets that were given to 40 new members, among them A$AP Rocky.
Shawn Stüssy Leaving Stüssy
Since the commercialization of streetwear didn't fit his vision for Stüssy, Shawn left his position as CEO of the company in 1996. After he left, the company thrived and reinvented itself in 1999 by forming a skateboarding team with the aid of renowned photographer Robbie Jeffers. From that point on until the end of the 2010s, Stüssy remained a major force in the streetwear industry, expanding their fan base beyond the affluent and elite of fashion. The 40th anniversary celebrations of Stüssy in 2020, which included numerous notable collaborations, were largely responsible for the company's current direction. Varsity jackets by Dover Street Market, t-shirts by Rick Owens, and sneakers by Nike sparked a seemingly endless amount of interest and hype.
Without a doubt, Shawn will continue to be revered as the founder of contemporary streetwear.