The Stüssy Skate Team
As the brand began to regain steam, Robbie Jeffers had the idea to start a skate team. At the time, Stüssy had fallen out of favor in the skate community, and Jeffers saw it as a way to give the brand a new relevancy in a market that had always played an integral part in the brand's legacy. While many of Stüssy's early fans were no strangers to skateboarding, the brand never explicitly had ties to the sport. In many ways, the Stüssy Skate Team did what the original tribe did: had relevant guys co-sign the brand. It was also an immediate precursor to another market that would be a boon to Stüssy's business—sneakers.
Robbie: Frank, to his amazing frugality, never wanted to sponsor anybody, and I understand because that meant he had to pay them or give them free clothes, and that's not Frank's M.O. at all.
Frank: We were trying to see what would resonate with a younger customer to see who we are at our core. Skate was a part of who we had always been. It wasn't our identity, we weren't a skate brand, but Robbie had all these ideas, and I could afford to the invest money to give it a shot.
Robbie: Around December of '99, I remember getting a hold of Richard Mulder. He was our first skater. He was on Chocolate and DVS. I think it officially started like the 1st of January. That's when the ball started rolling on the skate program.
Keith Hufnagel: Me and Scott Johnson used to skate together all the time and Richard Mulder hit up Scott and was like “you want to skate for Stüssy?” Scott then went to me and was like “you want to come meet the guys from Stüssy?” I was like "fuck yeah man!" I’ve always been into Stüssy since I was a kid. So I went down to Stüssy, linked up with them and they were down for the crew, so that’s kind of how it started.
Keith: I feel like they were more of like: "you’re a cool dude, you have great style, we skate and we want you to be a part of this crew." It wasn’t like "you’re a dude who’s winning every contest."
Robbie: In the first year I think it was Richard Mulder, Danny Montoya, Scott Johnson, Keith Hufnagel, and Chad Timtim. Later came Anthony Van Engelen, Justin Eldridge, Justin Reynolds for a time, and Danny Supa. Danny Supa was one of the early cats but then Zoo York offered him this huge thing, and I told him go and get paid. He was in it for a minute but not for long.
Frank: Ask Robbie how you can spend $120,000 on a skate tour to Tokyo and London. Never heard of before. I learned a lesson: don't give Robbie the credit card.
Robbie: To give Frank credit, he hooked us up. We went to Tokyo and had insane accommodations and food. There was no per diems—it was like whatever. We got to Tokyo and we went snowboarding in an indoor snow park. We had a tour bus filled with 15 people in Japan for 30 days and Frank paid for everything. I mean I had that when I did the Nike team, but it's a different story when you've got a Nike credit card versus Frank's personal card. In comparison, Frank was very generous with that.
Frank: Nike SB started with Robbie. You can thank him for that.
Robbie: Around June of 2001 I was on a yearly contract with Nike SB and I think I went until 2006 while doing Stüssy at the same time. So I was doing both.
Robbie: Another memorable thing is when I had to watch David, Frank's son. He was 13 or 12 at the time I don't remember, I was the dummy with the money. I remember he brought back this aerosol shotgun. He came walking around the corner, and I thought it was real. I told him his dad wasn't gonna let me buy that and he got on the phone and Frank said "you can buy it." He brought it home and Frank loved it so much he started shooting people with it in the lab.
Frank: I think David and Anthony Van Engelen had a war in the hotel. There were a lot of upset people.
Keith: I just remember it being one of the dudes that took you around. They had an itinerary, and they didn’t want to see anything going wrong. We were all skaters and kids. We like to have fun, mess around, and maybe even drink some alcohol, whatever. I just remember him very upset because we were a little bit wilder than his normal crew. We weren't what he expected us to be.
Nick: It was just like "these guys skate, they're sponsored by us, they're supported by us." I would say we "supported" more than "sponsored." Sponsor is like what Nike did for Tiger Woods, or what Quiksilver did for Kelly Slater.
Robbie: I think Frank closed the doors in 2005 or 2006.
Frank: We weren't prepared to become a skate brand. We weren't designing our products for the skate market only; we were designing our apparel more broadly. The skate industry was having its own challenges, and frankly, I would say that most of the guys who were on the skate team found better opportunities with companies that could help their careers more than us.
Robbie: Frank's an accountant by trade you know. If 1+1 equals 2 it's good. But how much is this really benefiting Stüssy? I think that's what it was, I think in his mind it just stopped being reflective of the brand.
Frank: We weren't a skate company. We weren't trying to be a skate company. There was no reason to recreate the skate team. Once the first team split up it was like the band broke up and they became solo artists.
As the collectible sneaker days grew, so did we. In America, a lot of people became sneakerheads. Sneakerheads became mainstream. - Frank Sinatra Jr.
Eddie: I personally wasn't a skater, but skate culture was a respected, hardcore science. These kids that were doing it just had natural flavor. They kind of gave all the stuff that we rock today an edge that it didn't normally have. Whenever you think of sneaker brands, these kids were really the driving force that gave them street credibility.
Nick: In really simple terms: skateboarding is the closest active sport to streetwear. Streetwear kids love skateboards. Surfing is a little bit removed, in order be a surfer you have to live along the coast. If you're thinking about urban kids, concrete is their game—that's where they hang.
Jules: I remember buying my first pair of Jordan 1s at Dr. Jay's on Orchard St. We would skate in 1s and IIIs. I still got the cap that came with the Jordan 1s.
Paul: Skateboarding and streetwear make sense. Skateboarding happens on the streets, so it makes sense that you'd have a look that's more in line with streetwear. Surfing happens on a beach. Snowboarding will never have a huge impact on streetwear because you wear snowboarding clothes on the mountain.
Alex: The different thing about London and the skate team is that people weren’t really influenced by surfing, and American people were skating because they couldn’t surf, but here hardly anyone has ever seen surfing or knew what it was, so we were influenced by skateboarding.
Paul: The thing about skateboarding that makes it a little bit darker and a bit more negative and fucked-up than other sports is this built-in aspect of failure—most athletes who skate don't make the trick.
Eddie: In 1999 or 2000, I took a trip to London to get this brand called Silas. I took a little crew with me and I got to meet Russell Waterman who did Silas, and he sold to me because we had a lot of mutual friends. Then I went to the Duffer St. George store and noticed they had Nike from America there. I was like "why are you guys merchandising Nike Bruins and Blazers with Duffer St. George?" And Marco Cairns told me they were buying kicks in America and bringing them back here to sell in their shops. At the time, you could only really get Nike from NikeTowns or mom and pop sneaker shops.
Frank: Michael Koppelman is pretty much our ongoing connection to Tokyo, along with Paul Mittleman. Michael and Fraser Cooke are good friends. Michael was into Nike, he wanted to do shoes. He and Fraser came up with the Huarache.
Eddie: The Nike marketing people in London were very well aware of what Stüssy was doing and how important it was to street culture. And Nike was starting to take an interest in street culture. So Michael established a relationship with the Nike people in London and convinced them to do it. Hence came the Huaraches. The Dunks came out a few years later, and people went apeshit.
Frank: In 2001, we did our first Dunk with Nike, with the ostrich and snakeskin swoosh. Until that time, there weren't a lot of collaborations taking place. The Dunk was a relic of the past, it really wasn't trending again, but I believe that I need to give credit to James Jebbia for this collab. He had this idea, and we ended up making it with Nike. I think we made 3,000-5,000 pairs, and they sold out in two days around the world, at just Stüssy stores. Lines out the door. It was very well-received.
Eddie: I don't think a lot of people selling it understood the culture that was brewing around it. That was probably the emergence of sneakerhead culture. People were collecting sneakers but there was never really a collaboration happening—I believe that might have been the first one. They did it in a beautiful, simple way. People weren't seeing colors like that from Nike. People were only seeing team-oriented colors. Who knows? Maybe after that, that's why you started seeing Air Force 1s inspired by Timberlands, or burgundy Air Force 1s, or whatever. It was a super important shoe. I think it's important that Nike still works with Stüssy.
Frank: Now, all of a sudden, we had a way of connecting Stüssy's international status with an American consumer who didn't understand that world. That's what was happening in Japan at the same time, that's kind of how BAPE got their start.
Eddie: Coming from the Bronx, I was going around to all those mom and pop shops, and I was buying all their deadstock—shit that they couldn't sell. They really didn't know what they had, and the clientele that I was selling to didn't know the stuff existed.
Frank: Streetwear had a seed planted in American fashion, which was sneaker culture. If you're gonna get into sneaker culture and the history of them, and why they're hip, then you're gonna do the same thing with the apparel.
Nick: Sneakers are just one item of clothing, and we don't make shoes. So what are they wearing with their sneaks? They want legitimate street brands, and we had people involved like Paul who understood that world, so we were willing to go along with it.
Eddie: James Bond had a store called KBond here in LA. Before Opening Ceremony and other boutiques came to LA and started doing their thing, KBond was doing that. It's just that it was a bit ahead of his time, but it showed me that James Bond had this vision, and Nike noticed that. KBond ended up closing so I offered him a partnership.
Frank: As the collectible sneaker days grew, so did we. In America, a lot of people became sneakerheads. Sneakerheads became mainstream.
Eddie: It was interesting because a lot of people were in that same mindset. Stash with Recon/Nort, ALIFE, we were all thinking the same way but never spoke to each other about it. It just goes to show that if something's brewing, you're not gonna be the only one on it.
Nick: There's always something driving the industry, and at that point it was sneakerheads.
Frank: This became a business. Undefeated grew out of that business. Eddie would go to Tokyo, buy up limited-edition sneakers, bring them to America, and people would stand in line to buy them. It was a whole new industry.
Eddie: When we opened Undefeated, we wanted to be the alternative to Foot Locker. Not to say that Foot Locker's not good, but we wanted to give kids an environment that they could relate to. That was our dream.
Frank: The first thing that happened was the Internet started to grow, and blogs started to be created for style trends. Hypebeast is the biggest example. So this happened, and all of a sudden we could reach customers who were passionate about a subset. We no longer had to print eight pages in Details magazine to get their attention. And those eight pages didn't have much impact anyway. We went through great photographers with great campaigns, but it really didn't have the impact you thought it would have.
Eddie: When Hypebeast came about, everybody got to see what was out there in the world. It's cool that it blew up, but it kind of made it a little more commercial. I don't think it affected the industry in a negative way, because business at Undefeated is excellent. Websites like Hypebeast are a perfect platform to make announcements, and if they put it up, it will definitely make a difference for your sales.