People don’t have to buy what big business sells. The music business knows this all too well. What still sells is honesty and great beats. There is little of that on MTV and less on major-label Hip Hop. But “little” isn’t the same as none at all. There is still great music and there are still creators with their cultural credibility intact.
Jeff Staple heads a brilliant enterprise that is as much a cultural barometer as a business. In an industry that had prided itself on “keeping it real,” the commercialization of urban has hit the wall of hypocrisy. Jeff Staple (photographed by Haruka Demura), and Staple Design have flourished and Staple could be a sign of what’s next; smaller, smarter, and more honest merchants of cool.
JP: Your company, Staple Design, is at an intersection of several cultural trends like skateboarding and Hip Hop to name a couple – you makes clothes, you design magazines, what exactly is Staple Design? What do you do?
JEFF: Staple Design is a company I founded back in 1997 with absolutely no intention of starting a business. Everything happened by accident. I have never written a business plan nor do I plan to. With that said, we are now involved in four major forms of business: 1) An independent clothing collection called STAPLE that is distributed all over the globe in top shops and boutiques. 2) A creative / consulting agency with some of the most influential clients in the world including Nike, Burton Snowboards and LVMH. 3) A retail experiment called Reed Space with locations in New York City and Tokyo. Plans for more Reed Spaces worldwide are in the works. 4) An art gallery that functions as a base for artist relations and management. What we now have, again by accident, is a 360° view of the entire consumer market – from creators, to manufacturers, to sellers, to buyers, to marketers. Now, ten years later, we find ourselves in a very favorable position. Accidentally, of course.
JP: You have an “indy” sense even though you’re working with some of the biggest brands in the country like Nike and Levi’s – how do you keep your Indy credibility?
JEFF: I stay honest. To myself mostly. I guess it’s pretty easy for anyone to do. But I am blessed enough that clients think my honest opinions are worth their budgets. I don't want to say its all luck. There was definitely a lot of hard work involved in that. A lot of investment mostly of the blood, sweat and tears variety. But I am lucky that people took notice.
JP: When I think of your brand, I think of something that was truly born out of the Internet experience. How big a role does the Internet play for your marketing and brand positioning?
JEFF: Well when I started Staple in 1997 I didn’t even have an email address. Since then, we've just had our nose to the grindstone and been doing our thing…year after year after year. Enter 2005-06-07 and the Web 2.0 explosion. Now everyone takes notice of us because it’s simply easier access. But in reality, we've been doing the same shit we've been doing since 1997. The Internet has helped to accelerate the spreading of our positive social contagion, but other than that, it doesn't affect our daily operation.
JP: There are many types of “urban” brands from Rocawear on one side and a host of more alternative labels like BAPE on the other -- the apparel business, like the music business is changing. Did the big brands lose their audience at some point to smaller brands? What are some of the up-and-coming brands we’ll be wearing next year?
JEFF: Yeah you can see it in the stores you shop in. When I started Staple, there were three types of stores in our market: 1) Totally Wack: i.e., Mom and Pop Hip Hop shops selling urban; usually Perry Ellis America and Pelle Pelle jackets. 2) Slightly Less Wack: i.e., Urban Outfitters, Up Against The Wall...these guys would carry your Mecca, Enyce et al. 3) Dope Stores: Union, True, Fred Segal, Colette, etc carrying the hardest to find labels in the world.
Today, the "slightly less wack" and the "dope stores" are looking really similar. What does this mean? It means the mid-tier stores are wising up and placing orders with harder to get brands. They are finding out about them quicker via the Net and as you said, the bigger companies are losing a major piece of the pie. Next year, you'll be talking about VisVim, Headporter, Swagger, Phenomenon, Acronym, and maybe a little bit of Staple here and there...haha.
JP: From a youth culture perspective, what are the most relevant magazines? Can they survive in an increasingly electronic age?
JEFF: Magazines are definitely finding it difficult to keep up with the freshness of online magazines. Miraculously, Complex Magazine still manages to have meaning to this industry; Japanese magazines as well such as Huge, Boon, Warp, Woofin – they take a higher level of design and photography to the subject matter which is still sorely missing in the on-line world.
JP: Do you think Hip Hop – or lets call it “Platinum Selling” Hip Hop is just suffering from the “long tail” effect that people simple listen to a wider variety of music, or is something else going on with Hip Hop – sales have been sluggish at best?
JEFF: Hip Hop has become a parody of itself. People come up in Hip Hop music and act like what they "think" they are supposed to be acting like. There was a very poignant part of Jay-Z's documentary "Fade to Black" where he said, "See what the public did to rappers? They're scared to be themselves." Any sluggish sales that Hip Hop is facing is well justified in my opinion.
JP: Apple Computers depends on leading edge consumers, like designers and artists, for some of their cool to rub off – are they doing anything wrong by not opening up their “proprietary” music format for iTunes? Have they made ANY mistakes in marketing?
JEFF: I'm not following this so closely, but anything Mr. Jobs is doing fine by me up to now.
JP: What are the most culturally influential websites you see six months from now – will MySpace be as cool a place a year from now?
JEFF: I have never been on MySpace in my life. I look at sites that I am personally interested in. Like weather.com and espn.com...ha. So I don't ever look online to look for inspiration. In that sense, I'm kind of old school. I get much more inspired by sitting down and having dinner with someone.
JP: In mass versus niche thinking we are seeing more big marketers trying to niche-themselves by creating smaller brands that have greater appeal to fewer people – how big do you want your brands to be?
JEFF: I am torn all the time. Is there a way to be huge yet still maintain your artistic integrity? I'd like to be financially independent and retire from doing Staple of course. I'd also like to award the people that helped make Staple and Reed Space what it is today nicely. This takes cash of course. Does this mean sacrifice? Its something I'm still trying to figure out.
JP: The globalization of culture has been talked about for a long time, with MTV at the forefront because kids in Japan could see what kids in New York were wearing or listening to – the Internet has one-upped MTV, do you see any truly global media or marketers being born out of all this increased connectivity? Is MTV as important as it once was and can it be?
JEFF: I think every kid growing up today is going to be globally minded. Which is dope. It's gonna be incredible to see how that affects the upcoming generation of creatives. You never know, it might be good or bad. On the one hand, kids might be exposed to so much that its inspiring...or they might just sit their and "watch" what people are doing on their monitors. They may never actually get off their ass and "do" anything. MTV hasn't been important since Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video aired.
JP: Are we seeing a resurgence of rock music as the music of choice for young people – or maybe “post-rock” music?
JEFF: I think it never left. Sure there are ebbs and flow in musical tastes but rock is always around. Hip Hop has a lot of work to do to get back to its Golden Era. Or am I just getting old?