It’s a hot September afternoon in New York and I’m sat in Staple brand’s Mid-Town office, nervously introducing myself to the designer / brand owner / entrepreneur / advisor to the worldwide conglomerates that is jeffstaple. We exchange small talk and I practically squirm as I watch him quietly go through every issue of Breaks Magazine on his laptop. He’s into it and after some pleasantries about the weather and how far I’ve walked that day, we crack on with the interview.
I was relieved to find that he was grounded, open, honest and extremely friendly. He was gracious enough to let me rummage around the office too, patiently answering my neeky questions about his vinyl toy collection or about the upcoming collabs that littered his desk.
An interview with jeff no doubt needs no introduction. You’re already reading Breaks Magazine so you’re already somewhat versed on street culture, and if street culture as we know it were a pyramid, jeff would sit right at the very top.
So, who is jeffstaple?
I’m jeffstaple and I’m the founder and creator of Staple Design and Reed Space
So Staple Started when you were in college?
Did you break into college to screen print t-shirts?
That is the facts. I was just printing t-shirts for fun, and that’s how it started, back in 97. 16 years ago or something.
How long was that going on before it morphed into, well at the moment you have the two sides of the business that sit side by side, the brand and the design agency. At what point did the agency start and what was the impetus for branding out from just doing t-shirts?
A premature version of a design agency is a freelancer. So you have a bunch of friends I’m sure that freelance, they go from client to client to client and try to make ends meet. That’s what a design agency is in its early days. So I was already doing that before I printed my first t-shirt. I already had design clients and I was already doing stuff.
No, as Jeff Ng. There was no Staple yet. I was already doing album covers and band logos and random shit, wedding invitations for friends and stuff. You know, stuff like that. They kinda grew hand in hand. The t-shirts I was printing them and not selling them, I was printing them and giving them away to my friends for a while. It probably took about 3 or 4 months to sell my first shirt, because I didn’t want to sell them, I just walked into a store and he bought them. He bought 12. That was the first sales transaction and that’s when business happened, I had to make an invoice, and I had to make a name.
He was like, “you gotta have a brand name”, so I went home and thought about it and I thought of Staple. I came in the next day and he was like “oh cool, that’s a dope name”, so you’re jeffstaple? “Nah My name isn’t jeffstaple, that’s the brand name” and he said, “nah but jeffstaple has a good ring”. I said I don’t wanna be called that, don’t do that. The dude was like, “I’m going to make it stick, watch”. And he did, he made it stick. Now airplane tickets are booked under jeffstaple and I can’t fly because they think it’s my government name. I didn’t want that to happen but I can’t really control what the public perceives.
So did it have the pigeon on when you were making these t-shirts?
No, they had the word mark, which is that [points to Staple logo on desk]. It’s still our corporate mark; it’s on our business cards and everything like that.
They kinda grew incrementally, we got more clients, Union was the second store that bought the shirts. I was getting a couple of customers and clients, so it was growing.
So one informs the other?
It did, for sure. People wanted me to do more logo work because they heard of the t-shirts, and I guess store didn’t really care about me doing graphics for other people they were more “cool t-shirt, we’ll take it”.
So was it easy to balance the two, or did it just make total sense because whether it was designing for clients or yourself it’s really the same thing?
No, it was very difficult to balance, in the beginning on my own. In fact I came really close to dropping one of them
Which one would have got the boot if you had to?
[Pauses] I couldn’t come to a conclusion, which is why I’m in the situation I am today, where I have 35 employees doing all sorts of different things. There’s good and bad to that I think, but I couldn’t decide, I really love doing both. They actually come from two different sides of the brain, Staple clothing is whatever I want, it’s my baby and if I feel some way that I want to inject that into the line then I don’t have to ask for permission.
Client work is the opposite, you have to do what the client wants and if you don’t you don’t get paid. So it’s a totally different mentality. I actually like both mentalities, I like being able to exercise design with someone else intent in mind, and obviously I get sick of being told what to do so I just flex on my own on my clothing line. But it’s great to have that balance.
Which ones more fulfilling? Or is that a stupid question?
Same! Really. I love solving problems for clients, I love that. We just did a hotel identity program for a new hotel opening up in New York and they asked us to do the logo, they asked us to name it, do all the branding, everything. We presented it, left the meeting and the guy texted me like “that was fucking awesome”, and that feels almost as good as when I see a kid walking down the street wearing Staple. We just went in there, he had no clue, we presented ideas and we hit it out the park – it was almost a standing ovation presentation. That’s very fulfilling.
With regards to the agency, is there any problem too small? Wejetset is a great example, its just Taj and it’s a small operation, then there’s people like Nike, and hotels which are obviously very large operations. Is there anything too small or too big that you wouldn’t do?
No, that’s the great thing about the design agency. There’s no such thing as ‘selling out’ in creative agency world. Like, fuck it. If Folgers coffee wants to do something or Tide detergent wants to do something its all good. If they want to do a t-shirt with us that’s different – that’d be wack. But, that’s the great thing about having a creative agency.
We’ve actually had clients that I didn’t think were a right fit for the clothing line, but I offered up the agency service and they were down to do it and vice versa. Sometimes they come in as a creative agency client, and I think the whole staple, staple pigeon, jeffstaple identity can add value to that. I pitch it almost as a separate thing, I might pitch them as the agency; “hey you guys should consider working with collaborators and artists like a, b and c”, and I’m unbiased enough to throw my hat into that along with other people that make sense. But if I don’t think I make sense, even if there’s money on the table I can sit there and be like, it’s not right, I’m not right for your brand.
I want to do what’s right for the brand, why would I want to force-feed myself down every throat? The project won’t look authentic, it fails, the client isn’t happy, my fans aren’t happy, I don’t get repeat work, its a loose loose loose for everyone.
So it’s pure integrity all the way down the line?
Absolutely, and I think that’s why we’ve been able to be so successful for 17/18 years, knock on wood, because clients know that jeff and what he does at Staple is not out for the cheque, he’s not just trying to get fame. I look at a brand if I want to work with them it means I really want to succeed in the best way possible, not because I want to get the spotlight
You’ve done a lot of collaborations over the years, which is your favorite? Are there any that really stood out? Not because of the brand it is but maybe because you’re particularly proud of? Or it’s unique?
There’s a couple that I’m really proud of, actually there’s a lot [laughs] – they’re all really good We did a project with Airwalk actually,
This was about four years ago, they approached me about doing a collaborative shoe and knew that it wasn’t the right move or the right fit. It was dead brand as well, but I re-pitched them on an idea of instead of doing one shoe, I said one shoe isn’t going to help you and its not going to help me, so what we should do is a longer-term program.
We did a three-year multi season deal that encompassed men’s and kids shoes as well. We worked with a national retailer, a value retailer called Pay Less Shoes and the product was exclusive for them and none of it was over $49.99. For a street culture designer to put their name on that type of product that was value, and their stores are not in New York or LA, they’re in strip malls, but they have 4,700 stores. To do that kind of a project at the time was pretty groundbreaking because the thing that I was risking was my reputation, and the reputation that I had built as a premium designer
Yeah because it was kinda the opposite of what people expected you to do
It was definitely breaking the mold, you know. This is pre-Givenchy for H&M, they hadn’t done that yet, so I was really sticking my neck out for the culture, and full disclosure I was obviously making money out of it, but I could have made the money somewhere else – it wasn’t about the money. It was really about how do I push the envelope and address the fact that a lot of the stuff we did up until then was like, 100 pieces for 10 doors, go on ebay get it for £2,500, and every time I release those things I would hear kids and young people on twitter saying “man you always give shit to Collette and Beams, what about me in Michigan? I can’t get shit”, and I hear that, and yeah it’s true. So it was really cool to do that and that was a three year long deal that was really successful.
What’s the reason for having two separate offices when you could easily have both things in the same building?
That’s a good question. This is the garment district, and we decided a couple of years ago to really take Staple seriously. I know that sounds weird, but for the first 15 years Staple clothing was kind of a hobby / pet project for me, it was an artistic communication experiment, it wasn’t a fashion brand. We had clothes and we were having seasons, but I was just doing it like an art project.
Were you doing cut and sew at this point?
Yeah we were doing cut n sew and everything, but I didn’t follow the rules of the fashion industry, you know what I mean? I just did whatever the fuck I wanted. That’s fun, and I think it’s good to set your brand foundation that way, but about 15 years in, I thought well what am I going to do with this? I built all this equity in this brand, do I really want to try and go for it and become the next great American fashion brand, not just a cool thing people talk about on Hypebeast?
So we decided to make that move, and everything that comes with it. So we got our manufacturing down tighter, we got our warehousing down tighter; we got our invoicing down tighter. When I say invoicing, I mean there would be times we’d ship people stuff and then 6 months later we’d be like, “hey did we send them a bill? Oh no lets do that” and they would pay, but we were doing shit off the cuff you know? People would order and we’d ship it a month later, but now when you order you get it two days later, we really streamlined everything.
Part of that move was to come to Mid Town because this is the garment district, and this is where a lot of the manufacturing offices are, a lot of the fulfillment offices are here, stylists and editors are often here and there’s a really slight and tangible thing about being in the Lower East Side and Downtown. Which is cool, but you try get an editor of a magazine or website down there and it’s like, “yeah I really wanna come check you guys out, I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff to do but next week I’ll do it”, and it just pushes it off but when you’re here, in their neighborhood, they can come on their coffee break now and check something out. It’s those little things that add up and I think being up here solidifies everything.
Reed Space is a brick and mortar store that’s in the LES so it didn’t make sense to move that operation into town, and I love it! I love having a kind of dual identity; downtown hipstery laid back shit, mid town a little more corporate, but obviously not that corporate, but its definitely, if you visit our LES office that’s very LES, on the grind, OG. This is, I would say, not corporate, but a little more established.
You’ve been in this game a lot longer than your contemporaries – how are you this far in and not a bit jaded? What keeps you excited about coming to work every day, and to keep working on the brand and keep working on the agency and Reed Space?
I just love what I do. I don’t have to ever sit there and reconcile why I do this or grapple with my feelings on how I keep motivated. I love this; I really love what I do. I’m up until 4/5am every day, still grinding at this and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m fortunate that I still love what I do.
I think it’s a testament to street culture that if you want to make a living doing street culture, you really have to fucking love it, because if you wanna just make a quick buck you should open a Laundromat or something. Or open a parking lot, just get a piece of land, paint white lines on it and charge people to park there. That’s how you make mad money. But if you want to be in street wear / street culture you better fucking love it.
Are you still a fan of this culture? Do you actively go out and buy the brands, and consume the product? Who in your mind is exciting right now, and is killing it?
There’s always someone and that’s why I have Reed Space, I get to see it first hand and support it. Fortunately we have a store that people want to be in, and still think it’s important to represent themselves in Reed Space which is awesome.
With the brand, where does it sit? Some of the pieces feel a very menswear, yet obviously its based in street culture. If you have to give an elevator pitch about the brand, where would you say it sat in the market place?
Its a tough question to answer because we try to be a little bit to everyone, I would say its flipped around. We mean something to a lit of different types of people. Young, old, coloured, different races, whatever music you listen to, we crossed this line.
To be honest business would be a lot easier if we were just urban, hip hop, skate only or rockabilly, we would just know our customer. But here we are, we have a brand that so many people are enamored by that if we went too far in one direction we’d alienate a whole other demographic of our customer. So we have to try be a little bit of everything to everyone. That’s why we have t-shirts and caps with big pigeons on, but then we have cut n sew pieces that have almost no branding on it.
Even our distribution, we’re in American Rag and Fred Segal – American lifestyle stores. We’re in Collette, United Arrows – great premium retailers. We’re in Size – amazing sneaker boutique, we’re in Urban Outfitters. We’re doing a collaboration this year with Hershel, which actually just dropped today, and next spring we’re doing a collaboration with Porter in Japan, there’s not too many brands that do a collab with Herschel AND Porter. It’s either low and accessible or premium.
We’re in this weird place, it’s hard to answer that question and it’s a double-edged sword for us. Whenever we have strategy meetings we always try and figure it out and we all leave the meeting saying we gotta keep trying to do something for everybody, which makes our line huge, it’s difficult but it’s fun at the same time.
What’s next? You’ve done so much over the years, what is next? Is there a next level of where you want to be? Or is it to keep it consistent and where it is now.
It’s hard to separate them really. I always say I want to be happy every day, and when I wake up be proud of what I’m doing. I’m actually really bad at long term forecasting, I’ve never written a business plan for Staple and Reed Space, and people ask where I’ll be in 5 years and I don’t’ even know what I’m going to do next Friday. But as long as I’m happy tomorrow, or even the next minute, I very much live in the present, so if I’m happy in the present and I can make sure the next minute is making me happy I’m going to keep doing that – whatever it is.
I really don’t know what it could be. Speaking from a semantics standpoint I can feel that, because the clothing line is getting very popular, there’s a lot of eyeballs on it, and I think there’s a bit gravitation towards street culture in pop culture. It used to be are you skate or hip-hop? Are you punk or urban? Now it’s all mushed together and for me street culture is the best thing that encapsulates all that mushing together of cultures. My opinion is that street culture is going to be bigger than all those other past things we’ve had before because street culture is Jay Z, Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake and Usher, whereas it used to be white kid, black kid, hip-hop kid, skate kid. Street culture is all of that. So I think street culture in 10 years is going to be huge. It will be pop culture.
A streetwear kid can wear Supra, a Diamond t-shirt, an LV belt and Balmain pants. High fashion and couture can’t do that. Skateboarders can’t do that, you get what I mean? A core skate kid won’t wear Balmain, a couture guy won’t wear supra, but the street kid can do all that and mix it and make it look fresh and all the editors wanna know how he’s mixing it all up you know? That’s the power of it.
Recently I’ve got book deals, movie deals, offers to host television shows, to be on a reality show, I’ve gotten all these offers recently, so I can see where I can use that visibility to further push the culture and not play myself, hopefully. The last thing I wanna do is be like the Paris Hilton of street culture. Make a sex tape or some shit and embarrass myself you know what I mean? I don’t wanna have three million followers tomorrow, but be the laughing stock of the culture, but I wouldn’t mind if I could have three million followers tomorrow and see if I could push the culture in a certain way.
I feel like that might be the next iteration of what could happen, using traditional media for street culture – for the good of street culture.