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4 Important Branding Lessons from the Rise of Streetwear's Legendary OG Shawn Stussy

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4 Important Branding Lessons from the Rise of Streetwear's Legendary OG Shawn Stussy

eople describe surf and streetwear icon, Shawn Stüssy as a laid-back Californian, despite being known to the world as the pioneer for a huge fashion and lifestyle movement that’s had massive staying power and appeal over the years. Back in the ’70s as a teenager, one of Stüssy’s first jobs was making surfboards—and as it turned out, 1979 was a seriously memorable year for Stüssy, when he first scrawled his infamous signature scribble.

This “punky scribble” made its debut on surfboards and would later became an iconic symbol printed on T-shirts, hats and shorts. He eventually earned cult status, and became the cornerstone of what we’d argue is the O.G. of all streetwear brands today.  Just the fact that Stüssy’s hand-drawn signature is still a relevant logo in fashion, makes it a timeless and immediately recognizable brand. From the beginning, Stüssy has also been synonymous with killer screen prints, which often used overexposed and pixelated images, paired with ironic speech bubbles – also a huge staple of the brand’s graphic tees and ads.

So, how did Stüssy lay the foundation for today’s streetwear scene, culture and designers?

The Beginning of a Legend

In 1980, Shawn Stüssy was turning out surfboards that married performance shapes with a unique graphical style. His early designs combined elements from black graffiti handstyles, art from abstract artist Jan Frederick Stüssy (his uncle), as well as punk, new wave, and reggae music. Soon, he started screen-printing clothing with his designs, and selling them out of his car. “You start hearing the Sex Pistols and then The Clash … so by late ’79, it was a very much punk aesthetic that I discovered and got into,” Stüssy told Acclaim. “When I went to do it [build surfboards] on my own, I scribbled Stüssy, printed it bigger than most and put it on the very first board.”

Four years later, Stüssy joined forces with accountant Frank Sinatra Jr. (no relation to the famous crooner) to develop Stüssy’s apparel line furthur. Among its first signature pieces: Stüssy’s interpretation of a white painter’s caps, using his own graphics and color stories. One of his most memorable designs is a pair of linked S’s, a riff off of Chanel’s classic logo.

As he built his brand, Stüssy travelled the globe to Tokyo, Paris and London, started connecting with various people—DJs, club kids, skaters, creatives and more—who shared his penchant for similar fashion and music. These people included the likes of Michael Kopelman, Luca Benini and Hiroshi Fujiwara, which became part of the “International Stüssy Tribe” club that Stüssy founded. This crew helped spread the word about what Stüssy stood for—the aesthetic and culture of what’s now called streetwear. That look of punk and street subculture was represented through graphic tees, varsity jackets and baseball caps. In a 1992 interview Stüssy said:

“Everybody calls it surf wear, or urban streetwear, or surf street… I don’t name it, and I don’t name it on purpose.”
– Shawn Stüssy, Founder of Stüssy

Then in 1990, when the business was generating $17 million annually, Stüssy teamed up with his friend James Jebbia, then-owner of Union and future founder of streetwear brand Supreme, to open his brand’s first flagship store in a 900-square-foot space on Prince Street in New York City’s up-and-coming Soho neighborhood—the perfect location for its East Coast fan base of hip-hop musicians, street artists and skaters.

BRANDING LESSON 1: Develop a following. Start reaching out and creating a community of people who relate to your brand. That can take the form of participating in local town meetings, starting a Facebook group, holding fundraising events, or even creating pop-up shops. These people will become your brand ambassadors and help build the core of your business.

Stüssy’s Stand-Out Graphical Style

No doubt, Stüssy’s graphical style has made a huge impact on streetwear artwork, especially with the founder’s approach to combining underground cultural elements that ended up really resonating with the public. At a time when using graphic-heavy designs wasn’t trendy, Stüssy pulled influences from hip-hop, reggae, punk, graffiti, surfing and skating, to create a fashion movement that buyers craved, and couldn’t find elsewhere. That’s why Stüssy’s apparel was dubbed “a uniform for the young of the world.”

Streetwear designers today can credit Stüssy with a lot of firsts:

  • Nodding to high class fashion houses
  • Reinterpreting pop culture graphics
  • Flipping logos
  • Conflating high-and-low culture
  • Putting logos on caps
  • Sending out samples worldwide to become a true lifestyle brand.

Fashion chronologies also credit Stüssy with the late ’80s, early ’90s New York hip-hop look of Carhartt jackets, baggy jeans and Timberland boots. Record producer Dante Ross described Stüssy garb this way:

“We could wear it to a thugged-out party, to a trendy event or to go skate in, all depending on how we wore it.”
– Dante Ross, Record producer

Here are just a few highlights of Stüssy artwork, recognizable for its handstyle fonts and eye-catching graphics:

In Photo (Above): This Spaceman Dyed Tee is a current offering but includes the hallmark Stüssy logo, hand-style font and large graphic in grayscale.

In Photo (Above): In 2015, Stüssy collaborated with designer Kiko Kostadinov to destroy garments and create new ones. Their original effort included the idea to destroy the brand’s logo and rework it so much that it would be unrecognizable, but as you can see, the Stüssy logo is so solid that you can’t shake it.

In Photo (Above): Dutch artist Parra is well-known in streetwear circles and for his work at Patta. This collab graphic tee celebrates Stüssy’s long European presence and fans.

Even though Stüssy exited his company nearly 20 years ago, he still recognizes the power of his original design intent years later. “I go, ‘Wow, those five or six logos I did, they’re still the cornerstone of the business,” Stüssy told Acclaim. “Part of that makes me proud like, ‘Those things are still around!’ … For me it was momentary, like to do it this week but next week something else. So, the spirit was disposable imagery but things surface that you don’t have control over.”

BRANDING LESSON #2: Give your name some life! Creating a powerful cornerstone logo for your brand is important, but so is keeping up with the times in a world where design trends are constantly changing. Try experimenting with some cool design interpretations of your brand name from time to time. This will give your brand a fresh look in the eyes of your customer base and keep it from feeling stale.

The Evolution of Stüssy, Post-Stüssy

In January 1996 Shawn Stüssy left his company amicably to spend more time with his family: “It felt great because I put almost 20 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,” he told Acclaim.

However, 1996 was the company’s worst-performing year, as it lost business to urban-themed lines, that became popular within the Hip-Hop community, like FUBU, Mecca and Triple Five Soul. Sinatra took over the company and installed a new creative team. While the company was missing the actual “Stüssy,” it still had his name and 15 years of graphics on hand to use.

Sinatra Jr. focused on continuing to build Stüssy’s global business in Europe and Japan, where its largest customer base lives. The Stüssy brand and name truly grew into a worldwide movement, giving way to current streetwear designer luminaries like Vetements founder, Virgil Abloh, and Shayne Oliver, founder of Hood by Air. However, despite hitting $50 million in annual sales or more circa 2014, the Sinatra family has resisted selling the Stüssy corporation, lending the streetwear giant more authenticity as a family run business.

The brand turns 41 in 2021, and is as magnetic as ever. For older buyers, there’s a certain level of nostalgia with the Stüssy name and branding. Teenagers and consumers in their 20s know Stüssy’s history and feel the power and draw of the Stüssy logo. It represents a lifestyle that’s still relevant today, especially because the brand’s core values have also stayed the same.
The sheer number of thoughtful collaborations that Stüssy has engaged in over the years, whether with other brands like A Bathing Ape and Carhartt WIP, artists like Matthew M. WIlliams or Marvel, and musicians like A Tribe Called Quest, also adds to its relevance. The team also chooses to only collaborate with brands and people they have something in common with, whether it’s a human or soul connection, which adds to it’s authenticity.

BRANDING LESSON #3: Collaboration is key. That doesn’t mean just trying to find celebrities and big businesses to work with. Collaborating with local businesses, bands, non-profits and teams to create something unique can be just as powerful in promoting your business or fashion line.

Why Stüssy Succeeded

Famous streetwear collector Ross Wilson once said, “Without Shawn, there would be no streetwear. Shawn Stüssy is the reason I became immersed in this culture in the first place.”

Ultimately, what made his brand so popular was his ability to break from the mold, tap into various influences from modern culture and connect with a younger generation of buyers – who still to this day, rep his iconic signature.

Why? Because, streetwear today is very much all about what Stüssy began doing in the early 80s. His own thing. Punk music was about revolting against societal norms, while hip hop gave birth to a whole new form of musical and self-expression. By tapping into these into these evolving
musical cultures, he was able to elevate the everyday fashion of the average person into something special, unique and meaningful. Now it was cool to wear jeans, t-shirts and caps to every occasion and what youthful soul wouldn’t enjoy a permission slip to do that?

He also made it fun to buy his stuff. Because he decided to constantly do limited runs of these collections, each Stüssy release became special and desirable. People couldn’t wait to get their hands on his stuff and when they did, they now had something that made them stand out from the crowd.

Being attached to these musical movements turned Stüssy into the iconic brand it is today, because it was there from the beginning. Hip-Hop has especially continued to grow it’s influence on modern culture, and it’s brought streetwear along for the ride. So much so that, major apparel brands from Adidas to Champion and even fast food chains like McDonald’s, are looking to create unique, limited-run collaborative products to keep their image fresh in the minds of today’s youth.

Now more than ever, fashion is about standing out rather than fitting in, and streetwear has played an enormous role in that, thanks to Stüssy. His response to how he feels about being a streetwear pioneer kind of ties right into that mentality.

“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. … 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.”
– Shawn Stüssy, Founder of Stüssy

BRANDING LESSON #4: Create something special. Whether it’s a new design, apparel collection, a consultation or a simple print job, think about what you’re really passionate about and what your brand stands for. Then, give people a way to connect to those same passions and to your business in a way that’s unique and in a way that they can only get from you.

Feb 28, 2021