Shawn Stussy Interview
Photography _ Jake Michaels
Writer _ James Oliver
Circa _ 2013 / THE NEW ORDER volume 09
Shawn Stussy is a name that really needs no introduction. Having pioneered what we know as street culture with his eponymous label, Stussy, in the early '80s, the brand and the man behind it remain household names, and will be for years to come. Starting out in a humble manner shaping surfboards for friends through the '70s, the iconic tag with which Shawn signed each board quickly caught on and soon he was making clothing and accessories. Influencing different generations and cultures, Shawn's first 'project' remains an inspiration for anyone out there with an interest in the 'street' movement. Stussy's influence is compounded by making it acceptable to combine various elements of fashion in a way that just wasn't done before, and combining high-end fashion with street style became the way forward.
Having ended his association with his namesake label in '96, some might say Shawn came full circle when he launched S/Double over a decade later. Shawn's passion has always been surfing and the core of the new label lies with this, going back to making surfboards in his studio in Venice, California, and accompanying this with expertly made garments. I spent an evening with Shawn, a true renaissance man, to talk about the early days before Internet, his DNA that is so infectious, what the culture has become, and of course, surfing.
When did you first pick up a surfboard?
When I was 13 years old, I lived near the beach and I went from body surfing to mat surfing to board surfing, it was just an evolution.
How has the sport influenced what you do over the years?
Pretty much in every way. It was for me the flashpoint for a counter culture existence. When I started surfing the Vietnam war was going on, the cultural revolution was in full effect, and not being your post war parents' generation was paramount. Surfing was the ultimate counter culture statement in the late '60s in California. All the older guys around me were surfers and they of course didn't want to go to Vietnam, so they traveled to Bali, or Afghanistan, or dressed up in women's clothing to avoid the draft.
How would you describe what you do?
I avoid describing it at all costs because as soon as a designer or creative person starts talking about why they do it they just sound ridiculous to me.
Was there a certain catalyst that led to you starting Stussy?
Probably ultimately it was not having a real job. The brand Stussy started innocently via the surfboards. I made surfboards with my name on them but I never humored the idea that it was a brand. Here is one point I have to make, the whole idea of a brand is skewed to me right now. You don't start a brand, you start a project, and if you do your project really good and you commit to it and you make the right decisions and you travel down the noble path, the goal is the brand, that's the prize. You don't start a brand, you start a project and if you do your project with passion and tenacity the prize is the brand. The destination is the brand, and you hope it is worth something in the end.
How did you approach the brand in the early days? What was the initial philosophy?
It was day to day survival, it was just life. I'm not the guy to talk about it, I don't even think that way. I rolled with the punches, this shit happened this week and then I make it through to the next week. I am not really able to put it into words, I just did my thing. It was an adventure.
How do you perceive the way Stussy developed? Both early on and since you have moved on?
It was an organic evolution, just trying to do the right thing day after day. I think in hindsight some of my best decisions were the ones I decided not to do rather than what I decided to do, because as soon as you say 'yes' to everyone you become their bitch. Saying 'no' is just as important as saying 'yes'. I don't know if I have seen the label develop much since I have left, I have seen it rest on past laurels and get as much blood from that rock as it can. I feel with my old company I left a really strong foundation and that house is standing on that strong foundation. So how good is your cornerstone is the way I look at it. It's cool, it survived. I don't really think about it because I have moved on and I have had a full life since.
After leaving the brand, how did you spend your time?
Raising my family, my three boys, building a few houses, landscaping and surfing. Doing as little as possible that I was made to do. The success for me was doing everything I wanted to do and not what I was made to do.
Why did you want to start S/Double?
Just to be engaged again. My three boys that I left my business to raise are now coming of age and as a full-circle guy it's time to re-engage with the world and see if I can capture the spirit that I had in the early '80s when it was all about the right reasons. Not really knowing if it can happen, but why not take the adventure and see?
Compared to Stussy, what is the philosophy of S/Double and how it defines you as a person?
It doesn't define me, Stussy never defined me, it was an adventure for that stage of my life. When I left the job, I was still the same person. I proved to myself that Stussy wasn't what I was, I'm the same guy that was at Stussy and the same guy that is doing S/Double. I'm not a bitch to my job, if you love what you do then it's not a job, it's just your life.
You have always had a diverse approach, how do you compare where you sourced inspiration from when you were young, to now with S/Double?
Completely the same, I am pulling from the same well of interests. At 18 or 80, if you are interested you're interested. I don't think you source inspiration, I think it's your DNA. It's like a project, you bring your point of view to the project. If it's building a house, designing a garden, or making clothes, it's the same thing to me. I don't see any difference creatively because it is life.
Moving forward, how do you want to develop the brand?
I am just figuring it out as I go, it's a different playing field as to when I started Stussy. The spirit inside me is still the same, it's like a whole new world. You just have to fit into the rules of the playing field at that time. The times aren't going to change for you, you have to adapt to the times.
Developing S/Double seems similar to how you developed Stussy.
Yeah, because I never thought I would be developing a brand, I was just doing a project and trying to be earnest and do it for the right reasons, and not for the riches and glory. That is the same way I am looking at it now, a different playing field, a different set of rules, a completely different world but doing it for all the same reasons. To be engaged and to do the right thing and like I said earlier, the prize is ending up with the brand and that brand may have value. I see no difference from 1980 to 2013 in the spirit I approach the project, the rules and the playing field are different, but the player is the same.
How do you think the Internet influences the culture and what's your perception of it?
It influences the culture hugely. I am just trying to figure out how I fit in, because you have to play the current game on the current playing field. The playing field now has a ridiculously huge Internet component to it, and how do you play that component and adapt to the new rules?
How have your tastes and approach changed as you have become older?
I don't want to write S/Double on t-shirts for the next 20 years. I would like to - as with Stussy - make the element of the design of the product paramount, versus embellishing it with trendy frosting. I want to build the cake and make the cake good, and the frosting is the sweetness you can adjust to sweeten up the situation.
How do you combine conceptual and functional design?
I have always grouped those together, to me clothing design is based on functionality before conceptuality. Form follows function.
Can you talk about the retail element of S/Double? You have the store here in Tokyo, what is the next step?
We'll see what happens. My emphasis is on product, because before you have product you don't have anything. So my entire concentration now is developing worthy product, and when I have worthy product I will deal with where to take it. To me the biggest sin would be to worry where to take the product before I have the product, so it is all based on making good shit and the rest will follow.