Jeff Staple recounts the origins of streetwear as though it were a fairytale. “Once upon a time in New York City,” he told us during a recent trip to Toronto, “100 people were into streetwear and there were five stores in the world supporting the industry. So if I saw another kid wearing Phat Farm or Triple Five Soul, I could say ‘Yo, where’d you get that,’ and we would be homies. Imagine you said hi to every kid in NYC wearing a Supreme shirt today. Your hand would fall off.”
The global rise of streetwear has romance, nostalgia and, seemingly, a happy ending. Jeff is one of the best people in the culture to tell its story. Raised around the streets of New York City’s Lower East Side, Jeff (born Jeff Ng) started silk-screening Staple-branded T-shirts in 1997. Those T-shirts turned into a design studio, an avant garde retail space and in 2005, an iconic sneaker collaboration with Nike. The release of the hyper limited edition Nike SB “Pigeon” Dunk Low resulted in televised riots, carrying sneaker collecting into an entirely new space in culture and solidifying Jeff Staple as an influential pillar in the streetwear scene.
That scene has changed quite a bit since the Staple “SNEAKER FRENZY” splashed the frontpage of the New York Post. “When I entered the game 25 years ago, street culture was creations made independently of structure,” Jeff says, “there was no rule book. That definition has gone out of the window as corporations have started entering the streetwear scene. Now it’s almost formulaic.” He then quotes Dior menswear designer Kim Jones, who recently said, “You wear clothes in the street, so everything’s streetwear.” Jeff’s response to the former Louis Vuitton’s artistic director’s sentiment: “Well yeah, obviously.”
Jeff doesn’t think that the responsibility to define streetwear falls upon 40-year-old men like Jones and himself. “That’s like asking a 75-year-old in the ’50s to define rock and roll,” he says. He explains that streetwear scenes are a product of the youth and the environment they live in. “You need a good mix of art and design culture, nightlife/music and food. If you have those three things checked off and humming at a really good pace, you have yourself a really great city for streetwear.”
On Jeff’s Instagram page, you’ll find images of those very three things from across the globe. As a fashion designer, Hypebeast podcast host and frequent brand collaborator, Jeff is more jet set than most, crossing his two millionth mile flown just last month. Whether he’s curating a global roster of artists for his MGD Lab collection, opening a pop-up shop in Covent Garden, attending an art gallery opening in Nakano or just boarding the airplane to get there, Jeff is tuning into the culture.
“Everyone in business class used to wear Hush Puppies, Cole Haan and a suit,” he says. “Now, as I walk through business class, I feel like every person up there is carrying a Rimowa suitcase and wearing Off White. The mark that ‘you’ve made it’ in today’s world is a pair of Yeezys.”
What does that mean for someone like Jeff, who lives and breathes the streetwear culture? “Well, I definitely don’t want to look like that douchebag in row 1A,” he laughs. His observation is a testament to how far streetwear has come since his time silk-screening shirts for a niche crowd of 100. Whether or not it’s a happy ending for streetwear has yet to be determined. According to Jeff, it’s a story that’s very much still being told.
Here’s what Jeff Staple has to say about the six cities he thinks have the power to influence the culture most.
“New York is the most gritty because it’s an old, disgusting city. It’s a cesspool, but there’s a beauty in that grittiness.”
“The street scene in Paris is very much tied to the luxury world. It’s very refined. When they conceive a streetwear brand, they think of it being presented in a runway show.”Tokyo
“The Japanese are the greatest copiers in the world. They take a culture, study it and dissect it to its roots. Then, they inject Japanese craftsmanship to it.”
“LA has a relaxed and laid back culture and you see that from the brands coming out of there. The brands are playful, fun and energetic.”
“I can’t think of a better word than dreary. It’s almost depressing streetwear. But they thrive on that, in almost a Woody Allen-type of way. London is gray, rainy and wonderfully self-deprecating.”
“How they’re mixing gender roles is some next level shit. Men can wear makeup and handbags, women can wear suits. It’s not an empowerment thing, it’s just a place where the boundaries don’t exist.”