Editorial image from CUTiE magazine in Japan, 1990 All images courtesy Stüssy
In honour of the iconic streetwear brand’s 35th anniversary (and Stüssy now being available on MR PORTER), we look at its enduring legacy – the International Stüssy Tribe.
In the halcyon days before digital media, hype couldn’t be generated by posting, liking, linking or pinning. A logo had to travel organically, through word of mouth and real-world associations with like-minded people. The genius of Stüssy – the original, and some would say greatest streetwear brand – is that this kind of friend-of-a-friend referral system was built into its activities from the very beginning. In 1980, when SoCal-born Mr Shawn Stussy began to make graphic T-shirts featuring his handwritten logo, intending to promote his services as a surfboard shaper, he didn’t just create a brand, but a tribe.
The International Stüssy Tribe (IST) was something you wanted to be a part of in the late 1980s and early 1990s. To the masses, it was represented by the brand’s campaigns, which appeared in cult youth bibles of the era such as The Face and Thrasher and featured everything from Mr Stussy’s own collaged artwork to the b-boy-meets-Mr-Bruce-Weber photography of Messrs David Dobson and Ron Leighton. All such imagery was accompanied by slogans scrawled in Mr Stussy’s unmistakable handwriting, which, wonky and loopy, haphazardly combined upper and lowercase letters, as well as energetic and purely decorative strikethroughs and embellishments.
The messages were cryptic, but inspiring. “In this great future… You can’t forget your past,” assured Botticelli’s Venus de Milo, in a speech bubble, on a late 1980s ad. “Leave me alone… Get off my bone… Cause I’m doing my own!” said an anonymous street kid in 1991. It was an invitation to a way of life.
But the tribe was more than just a vague feeling, created for an advert. It was also a very real collective of individuals, each of whom were gifted with their own personalised IST varsity jacket (now a much coveted Stüssy product that is periodically re-released in both limited and retail versions), and all of whom reflected the creative ethos of the brand, informed by Mr Stussy’s respect for punk’s rebellion, reggae’s mellowness and the locals-only mentality that typifies surf culture in its essence. These were not just ambassadors (though they certainly made the brand look cool), but also friends and collaborators who would contribute creatively to the building of the brand.
The IST had members everywhere. Or at least, everywhere that mattered. A New York chapter included the likes of model Mr Lono Brazil, artist Mr Keith Haring, hip-hop producer and A&R man Mr Dante Ross (who famously signed De La Soul, Queen Latifah and Busta Rhymes), as well as future Stüssy creative director Mr Paul Mittleman. Further afield, the IST connected with Tokyo’s legendary tastemaker Mr Hiroshi Fujiwara (who went on to create cult brand GOODENOUGH and work on Nike’s much-coveted HTM sneakers) and, in Italy, Mr Luca Benini, the future founder of Slam Jam, who became Stüssy’s first European distributor in the mid 1990s.
From left: ad campaign by Mr Leighton, 1986; ad campaign by Mr Stussy, 1987
London was a particularly fertile tribal territory, uniting longtime Stüssy UK director Mr Michael Kopelman, serial UK style innovator Mr Barnzley Armitage, 23 Skidoo member and record label director Mr Alex Turnbull, film-maker Mr James Lebon and his photographer brother Mark, Walsall-born jungle musician and graffiti pioneer Goldie, plus former Clash member and Big Audio Dynamite front man Mr Mick Jones.
Speaking today, Mr Kopelman asserts that this early, grassroots movement was key in establishing a basis for Stüssy’s wider popularity, “The tribe happened before the growth of the brand,” he says. “It appeared as a form of mutual respect between like-minded people without any consideration or motive of commercial growth, which of course is authenticity. You had to know someone to be in on the look — you couldn’t just buy into it.” This is not merely hyperbole, Stüssy’s pioneering seek-and-find method of distribution meant that product was limited, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. In 1987 at original UK account M-Zone in Croydon, it wasn’t enough to just have the cash, you needed to find out what stock was coming in and when.
While Stüssy’s logo was the signature of one man, the communal nature of the IST and its ensuing energy put collaboration at the heart of the organisation and resulted in a series of fruitful partnerships with other brands – a marketing strategy that has become almost textbook for fashion companies high and low in this decade. In 1990, Mr Stussy’s familiar script could be spotted on a record by Mr Malcolm McLaren (whose work with Dame Vivienne Westwood could be seen as an early influence), then on 800 co-branded Carhartt jackets handed out to a select few influencers chosen by the then white-hot record label Tommy Boy (A&R director Mr Albee Ragusa was an integral part of the IST). The we’re-all-friends-here mentality of the tribe also made for some incredible events, such as the 1991 IST meeting in Tokyo (where surprise guests included names as diverse as punk choreographer Mr Michael Clark and performance artist Mr Leigh Bowery). This meeting also gave rise to a rarely discussed Stüssy tie-in record produced by Mr Turnbull, while VHS tapes of such events were played in stores, involving customers in what seemed like a global Stüssy party.
From left: the NYC crew, Messrs Jules Gayton, Mittleman, Ross, Kevin Williams and Jeremy Henderson, 1987; the London crew, Messrs Kopelman, Armitage, Turnbull, Lebon and Jones, 1989
Today, while the invite to this party has been extended, Stüssy remains a tribal brand. Mr Shawn Stussy himself left the brand in 1996, non-acrimoniously, to spend more time with his family, but Mr Frank Sinatra Jr, Mr Stussy’s original business partner who still runs Stüssy as an independent brand (despite many offers from investors), has stayed true to its founders’ vision through a continuing series of events, collaborations and products referencing the brand’s tribal history.
Key high points in the post-Shawn-Stussy era include a 2000 collaboration between Mr Kopelman and Mr Fraser Cooke (an IST member now charged with defining the direction of Nike’s elite product) to create a special edition of the Nike Air Huarache – this was the first partnership of its kind and has been much imitated since. Then there was a 2006 project that saw 40 artists reinterpret Mr Stussy’s classic World Tour T-shirt of 1989, and a new edition of the International Stüssy Tribe jacket in 2012, which sought to bring the next generation of creatives (such as campaign star A$AP Illz) into the Stüssy fold. As a result, the story keeps moving while respecting Stüssy’s history. And, though Stüssy is much easier to come by now than in the late 1980s, it retains its insider-y edge by producing one-offs and limited editions only available to those willing to do the legwork. Special Japan-only pieces with legendary athletic brand Champion are almost as tough to obtain as a Jungle Brothers jacket was back in the day — even with Google at our fingertips.
For the foreseeable future, says Stüssy’s global brand director Mr Fraser Avey, the emphasis for the brand will be not just on product but the life that comes with it. The International Stüssy Tribe lives on. “Stüssy has always been about real people and real culture experiences,” he says. “From the early days when Shawn created the IST through to today, the international community around the brand is a really special aspect that we would never want to lose.”
Stüssy’S GREATEST HITS
Before you swipe that logo sweatshirt (though of course we suggest you do), make sure to verse yourself in some of the seminal pieces and moments from Stüssy’s illustrious 35-year history.
The ball-cap has always been integral to Stüssy and the Big Ol’ S hat was the first of its kind, in that it featured the logo of a brand rather than a specific team. Owning one of these was a necessity in the early 1990s (with 10 colours on offer) and it’s still part of the range today.
The classic signifier of International Stüssy Tribe membership was added to the Stüssy line in 1987 as the Homeboy Jacket and has since been gifted and sold in a range of different editions.
WORLD TOUR T-SHIRT
Multinational trips need tour tees, and Stüssy’s celebration of its global travels debuted in 1989, homaging the high-end with its Chanel-like double S logo, and contrasting traditional fashion centres on the front (New York/ Los Angeles/ Tokyo/ London/ Paris) with the places where street culture was really taking off (Bronx/ Compton/ Santa Ana/ Brooklyn/ Venice).