Is it a vibe or is it a discipline? Designing streetwear requires understanding a far-reaching and often unexpected mix of cultural cues. For Jeff Staple, a pioneer in the space and multi-talented individual, synthesizing these observations is second nature. In this episode of Design Tangents, Josh Rubin and Evan Orensten talk to Staple about his journey of discovering design, disappointing—and eventually impressing—his parents, mastering product collaborations and more. We also hear some key lessons along the way, including a spot-on gumbo metaphor, how to maintain one’s integrity and why the 17-year-old is “the most powerful person in the universe.”
An original force behind the streetwear phenomenon, Staple went to school for journalism at NYU and then communications design at Parsons, and dropped out of both. Staple being “a double dropout” caused a rift within his family—he is the first child born in the US and the first to have graduated high school, and there was a lot of pressure on him to succeed in his scholarly and professional pursuits. He began tinkering with the idea of Staple the brand in the mid ’90s, launching it in 1997 when he was just 22 years old.
I still believe that when you take the time to explore and go out to these nooks and crannies and pockets of neighborhoods in different areas of the world, there’s still a vibe and spirit that can’t be translated through social media
Fueled by his multi-disciplined background, broad interests and a natural sense for identifying what younger generations within cities were doing, Staple has been at the helm of the brand for 25 years now. Over those decades, much has changed in the world—and with streetwear. When Staple started out, he was ensconced in the NYC skate and streetwear scene and he saw the early stages of sneaker reselling, as individuals traveled overseas to buy specific styles and sell them back home for a premium. From there, the rise of the internet and e-commerce was rapid, and he says that it’s certainly brought about a homogeneity within streetwear—and fashion in general. “If something pops off in Chengdu and it’s bubbling, literally in about six hours it’ll be bubbling in New York. Previously that might have taken three years. But I still believe that when you take the time to explore and go out to these nooks and crannies and pockets of neighborhoods in different areas of the world, there’s still a vibe and spirit that can’t be translated through social media. And you can create really interesting product that really touches only that subset or that city.”
Authenticity within his profession, literally and abstractly, is crucial—and it all boils down to his genuine enthusiasm for the streetwear scene and community. “I don’t want to grow up, I am still a 17-year-old kid in my head,” he says. “Therefore if I create something or do something or speak on something that feels corny to me, I can pretty damn well be sure it also sounds corny to the teenager. I keep the same barometer in my head.”
“I take a lot of care and pride in everything I do, but at the same time, strangely enough, I don’t take it that seriously. We’re not out here curing cancer, we’re making cool stuff for people. I also know all of this can end tomorrow… nobody stays on top forever,” he explains. “Always remember we’re on this Earth for such a short amount of time. Let’s be as good as we can, contribute as much as we can, don’t hurt anybody, don’t be a dick. It’s pretty simple.”
Listen now for Staple’s tales from his first job to his first silkscreened T-shirt; collaborating with Nike back when their only partnerships were with athletes; the energy of NYC in the ’90s; the growth of the internet, e-commerce and social media; foodie culture; travel; web3; his new book, Jeff Staple: Not Just Sneakers, and beyond.
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Design Tangents is presented by Genesis and produced and edited by SANDOW Design Group. Special thanks to the podcast production team: Rob Schulte, Hannah Viti, Wize Grazette and Samantha Sager and to Amber Lin for creating our show art. Discover more design podcasts from SURROUND at surroundpodcasts.com.