Interview: Jeff Staple On New York, Trends and More (Part 1)

Jeff Ng, or better know by Jeff Staple, founder of Staple Design, has been an influential figure in shaping street culture. From honing in on childhood influences as well as building a brand that encompassed the environment around him, Staple has pushed boundaries during his time managing Staple Design. AWM had the opportunity to talk all things from hip-hop to Shake Shack with him in a two part interview series.

Set the scene for us: How did you get into fashion and become one of the most influential figures in modern menswear? Where did this all begin for you?

It began a long, long time ago. I graduated High School in 1993 and that was in New Jersey. I left high school and went to New York University (NYU), I studied Journalism there. Throughout that time I was definitely a huge scholar and fan of hip-hop in general. The entire music and the culture, but not really the fashion aspect of it. In terms of a career I wasn’t trying to be a fashion designer or have a brand or anything like that. I was into fashion, I think in high school I was voted “best dressed” in my class twice. I was sort of into building looks for myself, heavily influenced in my own personal style by old R&B. In my very mundane, sort of wonder bread high school, I’d be dressing like Boyz II Men. I definitely stood out, which is why I think I won best dressed. As a career, fashion didn’t really hit. I was going to NYU for journalism and then I transferred from NYU to Parson’s School of Design, which is one of the most prestigious design institutions in the world. That was in 1995, and that was with me still not wanting to start a brand per se. I transferred to Parson’s for communications design, which is basically graphic design. I took an internship while I was there at a OG streetwear brand called PNB Nation. It doesn’t exist anymore, but back then it was really influential.

I should say that when I applied for the job I had no idea what street culture was or what PNB was or its place. The four founders were very scrappy and it was so early in the day that no one could say that this was a legendary brand. The word streetwear wasn’t even thrown around by the people in streetwear – it hadn’t been invented yet. It was a cousin of urban fashion, which is like Fubu, and Phat Farm, but it was also a cousin of skate, which was Quiksilver, DC or Zoo York. So there was this new thing and people scrapping and I was interning there and learning the ropes. That was probably my first exposure of me realizing that ‘oh fashion is interesting from a career or job standpoint’ and that was when it all started. That was around 1995 or 96.

Why did you adopt the moniker Jeff Staple as opposed to your name, Jeff Ng, as other brands have done with their founders or creative heads?

I didn’t adapt it, someone put it on me. I should probably explain the thinking behind naming the brand Staple Pigeon.

I was really influenced by hip-hop culture, but I didn’t really like hip-hop clothing so the brands that I mentioned like Fubu and Cross Colors, I didn’t rock them but I loved hip-hop music. So even if my favorite rapper was wearing Fubu, I still wasn’t inclined to go head-to-toe Fubu as well. There was something missing there. I wish I could share, but I don’t want to partake in the whole thing. And so, hip-hop in the 90s was really all about Diddy, Notorious B.I.G., Versace culture and yachts, spinning rims, popping bottles in clubs and mink coats. That was the pervasive thing that was going on in hip-hop, and to me it wasn’t really part of the foundation elements of hip-hop. It wasn’t emceeing, lyricism, DJing, b-boying or graffitiing, it was all this extra shit that wasn’t necessary and so when I was thinking the brand name, I was thinking that I wanted to make a brand that is inspired by hip-hop, and the roots of hip-hop like the most basic necessities that you can’t live without and that is what a staple is. So I named the brand Staple as almost an ‘F you’ or middle finger to the bling of hip-hop culture.

When I made my first ever order of Staple, which was a twelve t-shirt order that I hand printed at Parsons, the manager of the store that bought Staple was like ‘Yo what up Jeff Staple?’ and I said ‘That’s not my name, you know?’ and he’s like ‘Nah you are Jeff Staple’. I was totally cognizant of back then who Mark Echo was and I was thinking that I don’t want to be Mark Echo, I don’t want to be tied to a name so I said ‘please don’t call me Jeff Staple’. After that he said ‘Nah man that’s dope you’re gonna be Jeff Staple’ and I just thought ‘Fuck’. He just kept saying it and it caught on. I remember the second store that placed an order from Staple called me and he said ‘Can I speak to Jeff Staple?’ and I’m like ‘Here we go’. It’s really stuck hard, I’ve learned to live with it. Now people book flights for me under ‘Jeff Staple’ and make reservations for me under ‘Jeff Staple’ and I can’t get on the plane because my name’s not ‘Jeff Staple’. I’m considering changing it legally to make life easier haha.

How has New York, being the multicultural hub that it is, affected your designs?

New York is probably one of the most influential elements in the recipe of what Staple and Reed Space is all about. If it wasn’t for New York, everything that I do would be different. I don’t even know if I would have the business that I have if it wasn’t for New York, to be honest. That’s how important the spirit of New York has been in the business. In terms of the stature of the business, I think I owe that to the competitive nature of New York where everyone in New York is hustling 24/7 and when they say New York in the city that never sleeps, they’re not so much talking about stores open 24 hours a day, they are more so talking about the drive and the mentality of the people who live in it is non-stop. For you to survive in New York, it’s honestly, and I can say this almost scientifically now that I have visited and worked in so many different cities in the world, ten times harder than in any other city in the world. If you’ve honed your skills in New York, it’s like they say ‘if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere’, because honestly, everywhere else in the world is quite chill and laid back compared to New York City.

I’d say the only place in the world that is more stressful than New York City is Hong Kong. Hong Kong is very stressful and hectic, but I think the mono-race is something different in Hong Kong. The fact that there’s 30 different nationalities and races in every single subway train in New York City, it adds this level of tension, good tension, that cultures like Japan and Hong Kong don’t have because they’re mono-culture.

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Having now put out a multitude of collaborations as well as collections, do you have a favorite that comes to mind?

One of the ones I really like to talk about a lot is the collaboration we did last year with Shake Shack. Growing up Shake Shack was always my favorite burger and it really has become an institution not only in New York, but wherever it has expanded to. So everywhere it goes, it’s awesome. The head of marketing for Shake Shack was a shopper at Reed Space and was always a fan of what we did at Reed and finally on his 100th visit to Reed Space, he just inadvertently decided to ask the manager ‘hey would you guys be interested in collaborating with us?’. And it was so cool because I remember the day the manager of Reed Space told me that the head of Shake Shack just walked in and said he was interested in doing a collab and I was like ‘hell yeah’. You’ll notice with Staple that we rarely collaborate with other streetwear brands, which is very uncommon in the streetwear world. You’ll always see on Hypebeast that ‘Streetwear brand A collaborates Streetwear brand B on a t-shirt’ and that shit happens all the time. We never do them. There was only one time we collaborated with other streetwear brands and it was done as a charity auction. We always try to collaborate with brands outside of our industry or culture whether it’s footwear or electronics or food. That was one of my favorites just because it was so off the top strange.

[Laughs] Did you get free Shake Shack out of it?

I gained about 20 pounds working on that project because we were creating our own flavor of shake and just testing the different flavor variances, flavor profiles and all of that shit and every time you go to the headquarters, they would bring 20 burgers with them to the meeting so you gotta eat the burger, the fries. Even after it released, I felt like a need to go every day to all the Shake Shacks in New York City, and everyday the shake was selling out. It was like the only time that a milkshake sells out, but it was like everyday by like 4 or 5 p.m. they’d be sold out. Everyday that the collaboration was up, I’d be at Shake Shack. I definitely got Type 2 Diabetes from that project.

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Fashion today is a wide spectrum. Trends such as athleisure are currently encompassing much of the industry. Where do you feel Staple Pigeon fits on the spectrum?

We don’t really look at trends and categories like that. Next year is our twentieth anniversary and we didn’t get to twenty by following the latest trends, we got to twenty by following our DNA and by doing what we’re good at and what we’re known for and unfortunately even if that meant doing things against the trend, it is something where we made the decision to do that. I’ll give you an example, a couple of years ago there was a whole ‘Hood By Air/Zanerobe’ look. It was elongated, black and white, oversized graphics, and jogger pants. This was the pervasive look and it still sort of goes on, but everyone was doing the look two years ago. I remember in our design meetings, we were questioning internally whether Staple should do that look or not because our stores are asking for it, our customers are asking for it and our accounts are asking for it, and we were deciding whether we should do it or not, and it would have been easy money. The difference between doing it and not doing it was like $5 million easily.

We decided collectively as a group to not do it, it didn’t go with the brand DNA at Staple and nobody at Staple, whether it was my head of marketing, head of sales, head of design or me. None of us rock that look at all. We could have done it, it would have actually be pretty easy to do so from a production standpoint, but it wasn’t us.

We literally turned down upwards of $5 million and additional orders to tell accounts ‘we’re going to continue to do it our way, and if you want to take a break from ordering from us because you want to ride this trend, we understand, go for it, and when you feel like you want to bring Staple back in, we’ll be here, doing the same consistent thing we always do’.

In hindsight, I’m glad we made that decision because I see other brands who, once you start following that bandwagon, can’t hop off of it because you’re used to it. Once you’ve made $5 million off that bandwagon, the next bandwagon trend that comes along, you can’t hop off of it because you’re so used to taking that money from jumping onto a bandwagon. And athleisure is the next one. Athleisure more so nicely fits into our wheelhouse, we’ve always done sweats, we’ve always done technical hoodies and popovers, sweatshirt and tech fleece, and because of our DNA with sneaker culture, which is always the source of inspiration for us, the athleisure look goes right along with sneaker culture so we’ve been able to do things that reflect this particular trend, but we don’t follow the hottest trends just because it happens to be a money making opportunity.

This is part one of a two part interview series with Staple founder Jeff Staple. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow. 

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