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.
A lot of brands have brands they tend to collaborate with on a regular rate. Examples range from Supreme and The North Face to Stussy and Patta. Staple Pigeon and Nike seem to have a connection like that, seemingly changing the sneaker industry with the release of your 2005 Dunk Low that caused pandemonium in New York. Can you describe this relationship and what it means to you as well as what impact you feel the two brands together have had on the industry?
Even besides the ‘Pigeon’ dunk, we’ve worked on over a dozen different shoes that have come out such as the ‘Navigation’ pack or the ‘Nordic’ pack and the ‘Laser’ pack. We’ve done a lot work for Nike that hasn’t taken the form of shoes so we’ve done a lot of behind the scenes design work. We’ve had a really great relationship and it’s incredible that I can even say this, but I feel like we have a mutual respect for each other as brands, which is weird because I’ve been buying Nike since I was in the fifth grade. It’s been like this iconic, not even company, more like a religion for me and for me to just sit down with Nike people and shoot this shit on an equal playing field is pretty remarkable to me. Nike will go through it’s different phases of what it needs to do to support itself as a $30 billion company, and so we haven’t done a collaboration with Nike in a really long time, but I think Nike, as a brand, has to be more strategic with whom it collaborates with and so you’ll see maybe in the heydays of the mid-2000s, there were a lot of artist collaborations that were coming out.
Nike collaborated with Stash, myself, Eric Haze and ESPO. The strategy has shifted to if you look at NikeLab it’s more Riccardo [Tisci], Hiroshi, and then on the Jordan side you have Drake and then they position these stories as larger, year long partnerships, rather than quick hit collaborations. I think the reason they had to do that was because of what everyone else was doing. In order to separate themselves from the litany of Hypebeast posts that features brand x with artist, they had to do something to differentiate themselves. That is something I completely respect and it’s interesting when I hear it from the perspective of the people working at Nike and the struggles they go through to try and really legitimize themselves in a certain way. It’s weird to say that because a lot of outsiders think that whatever you put a swoosh on, it’s going to be a hit, but that’s not the case. There are a lot of duds, and Nike makes a lot of styles. And for them to be strategic about how they keep getting home runs is not automatic. It’s not a layup, it has to be a really surgical procedure for a win to happen and it’s actually harder and harder for Nike to get these wins. I think it’s actually because of the competition, namely Adidas, but also other guys and I think it’s the best time to be a sneaker fan, head or fan, whatever you want to call it.
There was a time when the only thing you had on a shelf was Nike or Jordan, now, because of Adidas alone, wardrobes are changing dramatically, but also Converse, the OG runner guys like Saucony and Diadora, and FILA – everyone is making hot shit right now. Everyone is doing great shit. If you look at an average sneaker stores wall right now there is a great assortment for you to look at and there is not that cookie cutter where everyone is wearing the same logo on their feet.
What do you feel you did differently from a design or promotion/marketing standpoint that created the craze behind the 2005 Dunk Low?
I think there was a lot of different planets that had to align for it to happen. First and foremost there was the excitement that Nike SB was having at the time. It was a new thing; they had just re-launched SB, and so there was a lot of demand and hype attached to that. We were obviously, at that point, seven years old at the time so we were a rising brand too. We were getting our own notoriety, which is why Nike asked us to do it. It’s always funny when I hear commenters be like ‘if it wasn’t for the Pigeon dunk, Staple would be doing nothing’. Do you think Nike just throws darts on a board and decides whom to collaborate with? We must have been doing something for Nike to say ‘we should fuck with these people’. People tend to forget that. So we were doing our thing and SB was doing their thing. Reed Space was doing its thing as well. As a store, Reed Space was rising in popularity at that point. It was only four years old, Reed Space. The shoe itself, the design of it, I’d like to say was pretty darn good. It was iconic, it had a deep story, but it was also wearable. If people get the ESPO Air Force 2 that came out, it was also dope, it was also iconic, it was also an amazing concept and execution – the problem was that it wasn’t wearable.
That doesn’t last in the sort of the timelessness category. When you first get the chance to design a shoe, a lot of people get that ‘Nike ID’ look. Remember when Nike ID first came out and it looked like people were picking as many colors and fabrics as possible to put on one shoe because they had the opportunity to, it was like pandora’s box. Yeah you put 18 colors on a shoe and four fabrics, but how many times are you going to wear that monstrosity. A lot of the designers who officially collaborate with Nike suffer the same thing. They go HAM, and it’s like goddamn, you just threw the kitchen sink at your collaboration. They feel like there is a need to because conversely, on the other side, you see brands do collaborations with Nike where it’s just an all white shoe with a tonal embossing on the tongue. Was that designed on your cellphone? You literally made it all white, put a fucking stamp on it and said you were done. On the one side there’s laziness and no design and on the other side, you’ve gone too far so I think the ‘Pigeon’ dunk rides that perfect middle line of conceptual design, a great story, but is actually a shoe you can rock every day of the year if you wanted to, nobody does that, but you could. I think that’s the reason why it stood the test of time. It’s really amazing to me that people still talk about it to this day. It’s now eleven or twelve years old. It’s amazing.
From the outside looking in, you’ve inspired many and shaped what was a then-rising industry. What legacy do you want to leave behind with Staple in the industry?
Staple is bigger than fashion for me, personally. I own multiple business and Staple as a fashion brand is one of the business that I own and as a business, you want the business to as successful as possible, but you also want it to continue the brand DNA and you don’t want to let that go off course. The struggle is always maintain the growth of the business with maintaining the DNA. Every good CEO, entrepreneur or founder struggle is balancing that tug of war. So as a brand, I want it to be really successful and I want the brand to provide jobs for the people that work at Staple but also the fuel the fire of this positive social contagion that I’m trying to promote. Really the fashion brand ends up being one of the platforms that allows people to experience that positive social contagion. Whether it’s through a store that buys Staple, or a kid that walks into that store and buys Staple or a kid that walks into Reed Space and buys Stussy, those are different outlets. Maybe you’ve gone to see a talk I’ve done at a university or taken one of my Skillshare classes and you live in the fucking southern tip of New Zealand and you live as far away as possible from me. Any entry point you have into this world that I’m trying to create is fine with me, I don’t care which way you come in once you’re in the room. That’s really the end goal for me, and I don’t proclaim to be Yohji Yamamoto, trying to change the world with fashion.
I just went to see Issey Miyake’s exhibition in Tokyo and it’s riveting. What he did with fashion is riveting and I don’t even want to proclaim that I’m on that level, but I am trying to do something special, but different. I do realize that young people today don’t just exist in one world. If you want to affect mass amounts of people, it’s limiting to say you’re the best fashion designer or you’re the best architect or you’re the best shoe designers. It’s really the polymaths that are going to win because we’re just so inundated with so much substance that every kid coming up today, every 13-year-old, knows who Mark Parker, Tinker Hatfield, Zaha Hadid, George Condo, Kanye West, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Stella McCartney or any industries, greats. They know it all because it’s all at their fingertips. For you to say you’re the best woodcarver in the world, that’s nice, you should be proud of that, but if you really want to reach everyone, you have to exist on all platforms. Not that I can exist on all platforms, but I have created enough entry points, and I know this because when I meet fans randomly on the streets, it’s always something different.
I don’t do it in a highly strategic manner where I have a keynote presentation and every year we’re going to infiltrate this culture. Everything from clothing to graphics to consultation to marketing to retail to talks to Skillshare, has all been a snowball progression that has naturally occurred. Nothing has felt outside of that. It sounds strategic, and it sounds ingenious, but it’s actually not, it’s just fulfilled interest that I need to go after. I just find something that I’m interested in and pursue it relentlessly.
Building off of that, what brands do you enjoy wearing on a daily basis?
I wear really weird brands on my own when I’m not wearing Staple. One of my favorite brands right now is a Japanese brand called Snow Peak, which is like a hiking brand. I’ve been wearing their clothes for a long time now, and they are kind of hard to get in America, they only have like two stores in America, but I am wearing them a lot. It was cool because I actually just connected with them while I was in Tokyo recently. I was doing a one-to-one interview with Black Thought of the Roots and Black Thought posted a picture where I am wearing a Snow Peak jacket in the photo. I didn’t tag Snow Peak in it, but somehow they saw the photo, and then they rolled a comment on my feed on Instagram, but it was completely in Japanese and I don’t read Japanese so I had it translated and the comment was something like ‘it’s amazing to us that you’re wearing our brand because when we were growing up we were such massive fans of Staple and everything you were doing, and now you’re wearing our brand and it’s a dream come true’. So I was like ‘holy shit’. While I was reading this, I was in Tokyo, and I rarely ever do this, but I decided to DM Snow Peak over Instagram with my phone number to get in touch with them. Within the hour, they texted and they said ‘let’s meet up’ and we connected. That’s the power of the internet. Snow Peak is one of my favorite brands.
I really like simple brands, I like rag & bone and James Perse as well – just comfortable, brandless brands. You can’t really see a lot of logos or details with them and for me, because I am constantly designing and creating, it’s important that every time I look at myself in the mirror, I am looking at a blank slate. You will also notice that my look is unchanged and very boring. Over the past two decades, I’ve had the same hairstyle, the same style, the same look. It’s very consistent and I think that’s because I’m the type of person who doesn’t want to experiment on themselves because they are experimenting with my creations so I feel like I can’t experiment on myself. I have too much shit to do, I can’t wake up and think what era of fashion I’m going to be inspired by today. I’m rocking a shaved head because it’s the most efficient and every minute counts in my day, so I can’t lose time doing my hair or having a bad hair day or worrying about the rain.
What are some potential projects coming up for Staple in the future that you can give readers a clue about?
I like to keep most things under wraps. I will say that 2017 is our twentieth anniversary as a brand and so a lot things are going to happen in the twentieth anniversary year. I’m going to really use it as an opportunity to highlight where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. One of the things I really want to highlight is that we have a lot of young fans that are 15 or 16 years old so our brand is older than their whole lifespan so I think that to a lot of young people, who are really enamored by this culture and want to have their own brand and want to be like the next Ian Connor or Virgil Abloh, I want to exhibit to them the amount of time, effort and blood, sweat and tears that’s required to become anything close to a success in this industry. What you think of as an overnight success might have taken a decade or two in the making for you to finally notice it. Because of the internet and social media today, you might only see the accolades of the brand – you are only witnessing the finish line. You didn’t see the practice and the late night hours, all nighters and mistakes. No one Instagram’s that shit, no one Snapchat’s that shit. You just see a brand that’s in the windows of Selfridges or just won the CFDA. People are like ‘holy shit I’ve never heard of this brand last year and now they’ve won the CFDA? It’s an overnight success.” But you don’t know what they went through to get that, and I think for the twentieth anniversary of Staple I really want to go back and highlight, through various forms of medium, whether it’s collaborations, videos, events, what have you, I want to illustrate that we’ve been here for two decades and if you want to get to where we are, you need to be ready to put in the time. I’m going to use it as a learning lesson for the next generation.
This is part two of a two part interview series with Staple founder Jeff Staple. Read part one here.