Out of all the 155 interviews we have done until now, this next one is definitely one of our favorites – and that’s because we had the amazing opportunity to sit down with Jeff Staple.
During our trip to NY, Jeff took the time to let us in his office and sat down with us to talk about some of his projects, the beginnings of Staple, the sneaker that started it all for him, and even where the idea of the pigeon came from.
He’s a designer, owner of Staple Design Studio and Staple pigeon, founder of Reed Space, creative director of Extra Butter, host of his own podcast, Business of Hype, and the man responsible for many mind-blowing and iconic collaborations.
Check out some of the amazing stories we talked about in his interview below.
We really want to thank Jeff Staple for being so kind and taking the time to sit down with us for this interview, and the good people at his office for being so nice.
“What’s up, I’m Jeff Staple, we’re in New York City now, where I live most of the time. I’m the founder of Staple which is a clothing line called Staple Pigeon, and it’s also a design studio and creative agency called Staple Design Studio. I also founded a pioneering retail store called Reed Space, and then I became the creative director of another store called Extra Butter. I also have a podcast called Business Of Hype on Hypebeast Radio, and that’s pretty much it.”
He asked if I could make 12 and I said: “Yeah, I can make 12”. And I still had to break into school, make 12 shirts and bring them back. That was the first time that Staple was a business, a 12 shirt order.
So, how did you start your brand?
I started my brand a long time ago, in 1996. I was going to Parson School of Design, and I was a graphic designer, I wasn’t really into fashion design or anything, I was more interested in graphic design and branding, and really I just wanted to put my ideas and artwork on T-shirts, instead of on to paper. That was really how it started. We had a silkscreen class and I learned how to silkscreen on paper – but I wanted to transition to t-shirts – and actually some of my first silkscreens from school are up there. And it’s funny because the school didn’t actually allow printing on tees, they only allowed printing on paper, they banned t-shirt printing. So me and my friend, we would have to break in the silkscreen lab and use the machinery for t-shirts.
Everyday we would leave a window unlocked in the silkscreen room and after school, we would come back and climb in through the window with blank t-shirts and then run t-shirts all night long. We were making them just to give out to other students, there was no intention on like “let’s make a brand!”. No, it was just like “I made 12 shirts and I’m just going to give them out to my friends so they can wear my design”. And I thought that was way cooler than giving them 12 posters and they’ll have to put the poster up at their house and then, no one sees it anymore. I thought it was so much cooler for them to walk around with my design.
On March 1997, I was wearing one of my t-shirts and I walked into a store at Lafayette street and the manager said “That’s a cool t-shirt, where did you get that?”. And I said “I made it”, and he was like: “Oh wow, you should make more and we’ll sell them in our store”. And that was the first time I thought about that. He asked if I could make 12 and I said: “Yeah, I can make 12”. And I still had to break into school, make 12 shirts and bring them back. That was the first time that Staple was a business, a 12 shirt order. They sold out right away, and he said: “Ok, let me get 24 now”. So, I broke back into school and made 24 shirts.
Then another store in Soho, called Union, which is a legendary streetwear store now in L.A., they caught wind of the shirt and they were like “We want to order 12, but can you make a different design?”. So I made another design, made 12 for them, and then it was like 12, 24, 36, 48… it was just going back and forth and all this time I’m still breaking into school making t-shirts with my friend at night. So, that’s how the brand started. That’s how the clothing brand started, the other side was the graphic design business, which I’m a trained graphic designer, so I’m not trying to start a fashion brand, I’m trying to be a graphic designer.
So, because the shirts began to gain popularity in those stores – Union and Triple Five Soul – people started asking me to design their CD cover, club invitation, logo, asking me to help them with their design stuff. So a lot of people were asking me for this design works and I was getting money for it. So, while I’m only second year in college, I’m making money from selling t-shirts and from design work – and those two things really started to grow fast.
And I think I was fortunate with the people I got to work with because of two clients that I had since early on: one was a small magazine and they said: “Can you help us design the whole magazine?”. And that magazine is now The Fader magazine, which is today a legendary music and lifestyle magazine. And the second was a Hip-Hop record label called Rawkus, back then they were really small, and they asked me design some album covers. But Rawkus ended up signing artists like Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, Company Flow, No I.D., Dead Prez, you know? Eminem appeared on a B side of a Rawkus record. It was just some really underground shit and I was designing this stuff, and as they grew, people were asking who designed that. So that’s how I was able to grow my reputation as well. It was good timing and good circles to be a part of at the time.
How did you know it was the right time to start your own business?
My brand was still a hobby when I was selling to those shops in Soho, it wasn’t really a business, I was still just trying to be a graphic designer and full-time student. And also I had like a real job at an interior design company, and the night shift at a Kinko’s. So my day was: I would go to school all day, and then at three o clock, I would go to my job at the interior design company, work there till’ seven, then I would go to my night job at the photocopy place and work there till midnight or one. Then I would go home at like, two a.m., and only then I would work on Staple. So I never slept and I kinda never did homework either (laughs). I was basically just running 22 hours a day for like, a year of juggling all these things.
And it’s a great question because I was selling to all those stores in Soho, until one day a guy from Japan called me at my house, and he was like “I like Staple so much, can I order from you? I want a thousand shirts”. And don’t forget I was still breaking into school to make shirts at this point, so I was like “What!?”. And he said “Yeah, you know all the shirts you made? I want a thousand of each one.” Yeah, so I had all these things in my life, I had work which was real consistent money, I had two jobs, and a full-time school, I had graphic design clients, the clothing line of the Soho shops, so I decided to quit school. Because I thought, “I don’t have money, so the one thing I need more, is money”. And school was costing me money. So in 1997, I decided to pause school, keep my job, try to do this thousand shirts order and see what happens. I left on my second year at Parsons, which is one of the top design schools in the world, so it was a risk leaving but that was when business got more serious. And exactly nine months later I quit all my jobs too, to do only Staple.
And I almost literally killed myself working. I literally almost died. I used to skate back then, and one night I was skating home from my night job at two a.m., and I crashed so hard on Broadway and Spring. I was doing that thing where you hold on to the back of a car, and I just hit this huge bolt and fell so hard, I went flipping for like two blocks. Luckily I recovered from that accident but I said to myself: “Ok, this is killing me now, literally, so I should probably stop.” And I was afraid of quitting school and my job, and completely relying on Staple. It was scary, but I was forced to do it because of that accident. So now, I was Staple full time and it has been Staple full time since then. And I’ve never gone back to school or even had a full-time job.
but the only problem with teaching is the amount of time it takes versus the amount of people that I’m able to touch. For example, when I teach a class of 30 kids in my classroom, it takes me 3 hours to do a class; I’m only talking to 30 people. But with SkillShare, the same 3 hours I’m talking to 30.000 people. So, I’m always trying to be really efficient with my time, and make sure that when I take the time to share, that I’m sharing with the maximum amount of people.
Why did you feel the need to make The Business of Hype?
The reason was that, for years now I’ve been doing talks, like I did in São Paulo, I teach classes – and actually fast-forwarding many years I eventually became an honorary graduate of Parsons, so they did give me a diploma even though I didn’t finish school – and then I ended up teaching at Parsons and NYU. I also have this program that I do with a company called SkillShare which is like, online learning. So I’ve been doing all those things and trying to dial it up a bit, but the only problem with teaching is the amount of time it takes versus the amount of people that I’m able to touch. For example, when I teach a class of 30 kids in my classroom, it takes me 3 hours to do a class; I’m only talking to 30 people. But with SkillShare, the same 3 hours I’m talking to 30.000 people. So, I’m always trying to be really efficient with my time, and make sure that when I take the time to share, that I’m sharing with the maximum amount of people.
And the podcast was a natural evolution of that because it’s on Hypebeast, and it gets like 40 million unique visitors a month, so now when I do a class as a podcast it’s going to tens of millions of people. And hopefully, if it all goes well, the next evolution will be like a TV Show on Netflix. You know, I’m just interested in the largest possible platform, I just want to be able to shares the information with as many kids as possible you know? That’s really what it’s all about.
When I started the show, it was literally, me and the CEO of Hypebeast having dinner. And he was like “What are you into?”. And I said “I love listening to podcasts”. And he said “You should make one, you would be really good”. So I said “Ok! I might have an idea. I’d be cool if I mixed like Forbes magazine and business with Hypebeast culture”. Because the thing is that people always tell young people to quit their jobs and follow their dreams, and that’s it right? But ok, what does that mean? So I wanted to go to the next step and say “This is how they did it” and then teach young people about that. He said “Let’s do 3 episodes as a test and we’ll see how it goes”. And now we’re past 70! The first three were: number one was Hiroshi, two was Sarah from Collete, and number three was Aaron the founder of Complexcon (laughs). So Kevin came back to me after those three and said, “well, you can’t stop now, you gotta keep going.”
The great thing about Business Of Hype is that I’m able to talk to people that are in the same boat, and I think they talk to me differently then they would with a reporter because they can bounce the sympathy and the same war stories with me. That’s dope.
You had the chance to interview a lot of amazing people in Business of Hype. Was there any interview or something someone said that stood out to you?
I recently interviewed Alife and they told a really interesting story: they were the only store in the world that get the Nike Air Woven, and in order to memorialize that they got it, they had their friend Todd James Reas, who’s a pretty famous graffiti artist, to take out the sock liner and tag Alife x Reas, on the bottom and then put it back inside the shoe and sell them. So they said on the podcast that this was the first time they have said this publicly – and they released this shoe like 20 years ago. So if you bought an Air Woven from Alife in 2000 you should look under your footbed to see if you have a collab with Reas and Nike. And it was so awesome to hear that insight, and to hear that they did that because they were doing a collab with an artist before Nike had even thought to do it, you know? Nowadays if you did something like that you would do a whole marketing campaign around it. They just fucking did it and they were like “we’re not even telling anyone”. And imagine 20 years later and you’re like “Oh my God!”. This artist’s artwork sells for like tens of thousands of dollars, so you’ll have a signed Reas piece in your collection. So getting those little secret tidbits of information on the podcast is so dope.
I got another one. When I went to visit Jerry Lorenzo at his Fear Of God office in LA, he has a super clean office, like you can’t even wear shoes in his office, Japanese style. And traditionally in Japan, you take your shoes off when you go into the house, but when you go to the bathroom they have a pair of slippers for you to wear because the floor might be dirty. So when I asked Jerry “Can I use your bathroom?”. Instead of slippers, there were shoes for you to wear while you use the bathroom, but it was like, Sacai, Fear Of God, Travis Scott Jordans! They were all like grail that you use to piss with (laughs). I was like, you use Sacai’s to piss in, that’s next level (laughs).
When I went to visit Jerry Lorenzo at his Fear Of God office in LA, he has a super clean office, like you can’t even wear shoes in his office, Japanese style. And traditionally in Japan, you take your shoes off when you go into the house, but when you go to the bathroom they have a pair of slippers for you to wear because the floor might be dirty. So when I asked Jerry “Can I use your bathroom?”. Instead of slippers, there were shoes for you to wear while you use the bathroom, but it was like, Sacai, Fear Of God, Travis Scott Jordans! They were all like grail that you use to piss with (laughs). I was like, you use Sacai’s to piss in, that’s next level (laughs)
I walked in the classroom a bit late, and the whole class and the teacher immediately all look at me because I’m late right? And then they all looked down at my feet because nobody had ever seen a shoe that looked like this before. Even the teacher was like “Wow!”. So I snapped like 20, 30 necks at the same time. And after that, I was like “Wow! I just made this whole room collapse. That feeling is addictive”. So, from that point on I felt like I had to keep copping shoes to make sure I keep snapping necks (laughs)
When was the first time that you realized that you liked sneakers? Do you remember a sneaker that you saw and went “Wow!”?
This was the shoe that turned me into a sneakerhead. I already liked sneakers before that but this Air Jordan III was definitely the first time I saw a shoe and I was like “This is art, this is design, this is something so different”. It was something completely different because all shoes before that looked like Nike Air Force 1s, or Dunks, or Chuck Taylors. And that’s how I learned who was Tinker Hatfield and how he had designed the shoe with Michael Jordan.
I wore them to school, I was in the sixth grade when these came out – and I walked in the classroom a bit late, and the whole class and the teacher immediately all look at me because I’m late right? And then they all looked down at my feet because nobody had ever seen a shoe that looked like this before. Even the teacher was like “Wow!”. So I snapped like 20, 30 necks at the same time. And after that, I was like “Wow! I just made this whole room collapse. That feeling is addictive”. So, from that point on I felt like I had to keep copping shoes to make sure I keep snapping necks (laughs). And that feeling has sustained until this day, you know, I love walking into a room and just make everyone look at what I have on my feet. I don’t know why I’m addicted to that feeling, but I am.
And I remember even the care of these. On the original version of the shoe, for some reason, this white paint on the Nike Air logo kept chipping and coming off, and since I didn’t have that many shoes, I would wear these to play gym class and basketball with them, I was doing everything in these shoes, and they were getting destroyed. So, I remember coming home every night, and I would take white model paint and a toothpick, and I would dip the toothpick in the white paint and I would just graze the white back on. I was so obsessed on keeping them really pristine.
There was a point in about 2000, where I got rid of all my shoes. I had like 200 pairs of shoes and I got rid of all the old ones. I just brought them to a salvation army and got rid of them. I had decided that I was going to move to Japan, I even found the place, but in Japan, the whole house is so small, I couldn’t bring all my shoes, so kept like one or two pairs. And then… I fucking changed my mind and decided not to move to Japan. I tried to get everything back and I couldn’t, so I had to rebuild my collection and today I collect the retro versions.
I feel like, every sneakerhead has a moment where they eventually get rid of a huge amount of shoes, right.
Yeah, I agree. They all go through that. I built my back up now, I think a have like 4.000 pairs of shoes now (laughs). I built it all the way back up. I keep about 100 in my house, and then I keep the other 3.000 plus in an off-site storage facility, that’s the only way. And I’m never gonna get rid of them, I’m just going to keep amassing it because I feel that sneaker culture is now important enough, and one day I believe that a museum is going to need the collection one day. And particularly my collection is interesting because I don’t buy all the hype stuff: I only have the first Turtle Dove Yeezys, I only have the Presto Off-Whites and etc. I don’t buy all the hype shit. I feel like the stuff I buy and get in my collection is a unique timestamp in sneaker culture, versus like, everything that’s on Stock X or Goat.
And do you, try to use all of your sneakers? At least the ones in your house?
Even the hundred in my house, my rotation is like, 10 shoes I use regularly. But the other hundred in my house are like specialized for when it’s raining or it’s winter or snowing, or I have a business meeting they’re more specific use cases. But I also don’t want to have to get it from my outside storage, and I’m so busy that I can’t take the time to create an outfit and a whole look, so I’m usually triple black and whatever matches that.
I also like to run shoes for a while because I like to understand how they wear in you know? I recently been wearing the Huarache Adapt, and a guy at Nike that made that shoe DMed me and he said “I designed that shoe, and you are by far the person who has wore that shoe the most miles”. No one that bought that shoe is wearing it, and it sold out on sneakers app. They buy it and they go straight to Stock X or they keep it in their archive. And he said “You’re wearing them all the time, and all over the world! You’re my best test dummy to test how we can make it better.” So I like to wear and test shoes, I’m a designer of shoes as well and I need to know how to make improvements on them.
So now talking about collabs, how do you know when it’s the right time to collaborate with another brand, and how to make the process organic?
I try to keep the process of selecting a collaboration very organic, very real to me and by nature of it being a collaboration. There are two people involved, so not only does it have to be good for me, it has to be good for the other person as well. And timing is everything: sometimes both of us want to do something but timing doesn’t make sense for either one, so some collaborations take a long time to even get started. There are a lot of factors when a collaboration happens, and why it happens. I love hearing kids on social media saying like “Oh, you gotta make that happen right now!”. And it’s not that easy even though I know the people and I know how to make it happen and I’ve done it before, you can’t just snap a finger and make it happen. There’s got to be a whole process to it. So I do try to keep it quite organic, and recently I’ve been into the idea of non-obvious collabs, like stranger collaborations, that aren’t so typical and obvious you know, I’m into that right now (laughs).
So, this is something that we always wanted to know – why did you choose the pigeon as the logo of Staple?
Well, I was looking for some kind of animal for the logo. When I was growing up I really like the horse of Polo Ralph Lauren, the alligator of Lacoste, and then a little bit later the rhino of Echo. Brands that have animals are very memorable and easy to remember. And so I was looking for an animal, and then living in New York City, the pigeon is really representative of new yorkers to me, they’re everywhere and they always manage to survive and succeed even though it’s really shitty condition for them, and people call them rats because they live like a rat in the sense that they have a lot of hustle, they’re able to survive.
And when I was starting Staple, I really did feel like a pigeon, I was really just trying to survive in New York. And at the same time, they’re very confident, like they won’t get out of the way and they’ll shit on you and fly over you and stuff. It’s pretty awesome how their attitude is. So that’s why I adopted the pigeon, and I was only thinking from a New yorker point of view. But what was a nice happy coincidence was that pigeon sort of thrive in every urban city like Tokyo, London or São Paulo – wherever there is a city with lots of people, there are pigeons. So when I started to release the pigeon, people would think the pigeon was for their city, and when I went to Venice or Tokyo people would be like “I get what you mean by pigeons, we have so many pigeons here!”. And I was like “Oh no, this is for New York”.
That helped spread really fast. And I think that strangely enough it became more effective than the Polo horse because, how do you have a direct connection to a polo horse unless you’ve played polo? Right? I think how quickly the pigeon permeated pop culture was pretty fast and even though Staple is a 20-year-old brand, the pigeon only started in 2004, so it’s only been 15 years of the pigeon, and now I hear people all the time say that they can’t look at a pigeon and not think about me or Staple. Which is really dope. I think I helped to make the pigeon less like a “rat”. I’ve even people say that I did for the pigeon what Walt Disney did for the rat. So now the pigeon is like a cool thing to have.