Some people believe that catching a break is the key to success, but to Jeff Staple working your tail off to create that break is actually the key. Jeff is the brains and motivation behind his break, what started off as a small tee shirt business is now a multi-dimensional design/retail empire that produces flawless creations perfect for today’s consumers.
Along with becoming a hugely influential figure within Streetwear and its niche cultures, Jeff keeps pushing design into new frontiers solidifying himself as a visionaire. Today, Staple Design attracts big name clients, Reed Space is in Tokyo and NYC, Staple Clothing is burning up the street; all in all Jeff Ng aka Jeff Staple is the hardest working man in the industry and his Company growth shows. We caught up with Mr. Staple to learn more about Jeff, his company, and the future; with some exciting insight on upcoming releases including a much coveted collaboration with Levis… Its an exciting time for the NY based designer, innovator, icon, and entrepreneur. Interview by Matthew Ross
SXH: How was it working with Levis?
First of all, when Levi's invited me to do a project with them, it was really an honor. I mean, I can't recall a time in my life where I WASN'T wearing Levi's, you know? So the opportunity to do something with them was very exciting. Levi's is a huge company but sometimes working with large companies can be slow and cumbersome. But working with Levi's was pretty organized and efficient.
SXH: When you brainstormed for the tenth anniversary celebrations was Levis a given? What are they doing right now that makes them an A+ candidate to work with?
When I mapped out the 10th Anniversary collaborations, none of the collaborations were a given. I personally asked each person or company for the opportunity and if it made sense then we worked together on something. Levi's was sort of a long shot of course. But I'm really happy they agreed. Levi's practically invented denim. They could close up shop right now and still be one of the important brands of all time. But recently, the stuff they have done with Fenom FLU and Devon Aoki on the womens side has been really good. They continue to innovate when they are one of the few brands in this world that can rest on their laurels.
SXH: When you think of Levis what it comes to mind? And when you put Staple X Levis together what does that say? Do you think there is difference in opinion regarding Levis between the US and Japanese markets?
There's definitely a HUGE difference. In The States, Levi's is often regarded as an old brand that is no longer relevant. With newer, trendy brands chomping at the bit. These newer brands exist in Japan too of course, but Levi's has managed to maintain a high brand image over there. People have no problem dropping over $300 on a pair of Levi's. I think its because of some of the brand extensions I mentioned above that have helped foster this. Also their retail environments are much better over there than here.
That's not really a big deal. That often happens when different regions of the same company do something cool and innovative. The thing that boggles my mind with Levi's USA in particular, is that they PROHIBIT the cool stuff from entering this country. I've often tried to represent Fenom or FLU in Reed Space only to hae it met with opposition from Levi's USA. I cannot understand why they would react this way. The only explanation I can muster is that they're hating. For example, if Staple Australia was making some really dope shit, I, as the head of Staple, would want to see that stuff available to everyone in the world. Mind you, this isn't a case of Levi's Japan not wanting Fenom or FLU available anywhere else…that I could understand. This is Levi's US prohibiting other regions to carry it. Really…just boggles my mind.
SXH: How has Levis (est. 1853) managed to maintain its strength in a now saturated denim market?
Levi's does its best when its sticking to its roots. When it stays authentic. You can see when Levi's strays off course and it shows. So while there are lots of trendy companies that come and take a bite out of their share, Levi's will always remain a staple of the industry (pun intended.)
SXH: I have been speaking to a lot of people in the industry (Established industry types like yourself) who at this point in the game are getting really tired of a lot of the goings on… Could/would you feel comfortable at this time to sound off on some of the issues, problems, jokes, etc. (please don't hold back)…
I don't really think there is a problem. I mean, we're talking about fashion here. People's lives are not at stake. I think a lot of people in the industry are annoyed at the recent influx of new jacks. And yes, it's a law of averages right? The more people you have in one room, the more chances there will be wackness in that room. But so what? To me, the cream will always rise to the top and the crap will fall away naturally. I personally welcome fresh blood into the industry. It inspires me and shifts the balance of power. And it forces me to continue to innovate and move forward. I never want to be that old fogey in the corner that complains how its not like the good 'ol days anymore.
SXH: The state of the world today is a bit… fuzzy right now (best way I can put it), what is your opinion of the US in regards to the world? Could you speak on the state of the economy (possibility of a recession, devaluation of the dollar and its effect on Staple, Reed, and you personally). Are you concerned that the retail sector is headed for rough waters? What is your stance on the War? How do you think the worldviews the US and how do you think the average US citizen views the world?
For better or for worse, I didn't go to business school and I don't have an econ major. So while I can understand that the US economy is struggling, I still bet on my heart rather than my wallet. Again, sometimes, this can get me into trouble. When I opened Reed Space for example, it was in December of 2002, a year after 9/11. Shops were closing up left and right, we just missed the holiday shopping rush, it was a bad winter all around. Probably the worse time to open a store. But we thrived in that condition…somehow. I followed my heart and my gut.
As far as US relations, I must say when I travel abroad, I am almost ashamed to be an American right now. We are being represented by a leader that mocks the power of his authority. And because he represents all of us Americans, we pay for his actions. It's like a company. I'm the founder and president of this company. If I'm an asshole and a dick, you will probably assume that all of my staff are assholes also. It's a trickle down effect. When I'm abroad and people ask me where I'm from now, I usually say downtown Manhattan. I'm hoping the mental picture of NYC overpowers their disdain for America as a whole. And typically it does. People think NYC is like a separate entity from the rest of the US. There's some truth in that also.
SXH: If you had to set aside the 3 most valuable possessions in your life what would they be and why do they such meaning?
Well you asked possessions, so I'm not including people on this list. Just objects:
A Chinese calligraphy painting that my grandfather made for me.
My laptop. People can't believe that I run my entire company off of one laptop. I don't have a main computer I use at the office. I just use one laptop. If I lose that, I lose everything.
My keys. They allow access to everything in my life.
SXH: If the reading public does not already know, Jeff is a champion traveler. With reference to all your travels… has there ever been a time that you were genuinely scared? Was there a time that you just wanted to drop everything in NY and move to the specific local of the moment? Is there a location that you will never travel back to even at gunpoint? Also when you travel what are your essentials, and what are some travel tips that would help the novice traveler like myself?
Yes, last year there was an incident where I was asked by the flight crew to beat down and detain a drunk man beating his wife. I got pretty "jack bauer" on him and it was definitely scary. I documented the entire thing, minute-by-minute on my blog you should check it out when you want a good read. (check it out here
There was a time when I seriously thought about moving to Tokyo. I had an apartment lined up and everything. At the last minute, I decided to stay in NYC and I'm happy with my decision. I'm still fortunate enough to be in Tokyo at least 6 times a year, if not more and I like it this way much better. NYC is the only place for me.
I like to travel light. One tip I have for the novice traveler is to be as nimble as possible going thru security. I think about this even as I'm deciding what to wear on the flight. Avoid shoes you have to lace up and tie. Avoid metal on your clothes. I can't stand being behind someone in security line who doesn't understand the concept of "no metal thru the detector." Its takes like 5 times thru the machine for them to realize it. On my flight from Australia recently, a women went thru the metal detector and it went off. She had a steak knife in her pocket! A kitchen sized steak knife! WTF?
Another tip is to choose an airline carrier now and stick with them. The benefits you receive by racking up miles with one carrier are invaluable. I use OneWorld which includes American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. I can basically get anywhere in the world and I can use all their first class lounges and priority check-ins. If you commit to one airline, its not too hard to start getting benefits. (You can also add to this by signing up with a credit card that treats dollars as miles. So the next time you buy Pigeon Dunks, you can add 2000 miles to your account!)
SXH: We also know you're a great promoter of Apple products (and if Apple is reading so am I)… two questions: what product would you love Apple to come out with? What apple product would you love to collab on?
Apple should come out with an apparel collection…especially outerwear. Steve, give me a ring…I'm ready.
SXH: By the time this is published it will be a new year. January 1 brings the tradition of resolutions… what are yours? What were some resolutions in the past that you have stuck to? And what are some resolutions that you broke within the first week? How do you usually celebrate New Years and was it any different this year?
In 2008, one of my resolutions is to go out more and be social. I'm kind of a loner and I like to work a lot, so I don't go out so often. But I don't know…maybe as I'm getting older, I feel a need to observe what's going on. It scares me because sometimes, I'll go to a party and I will be completely confused about everything—the music, the fashion, the social interactions. I feel like an alien sometimes. Also, every time I go out, something positive usually happens. I run into an old friend or meet new acquaintances that I wouldn't have met otherwise.
In 1993, I stopped drinking completely and have been dry since. I also gave up eating pork that same year. I am very happy about cutting those 2 things out of my life. I tried cutting beef and chicken out of my diet but I haven't been successful at that yet. Have you tried Kobe beef in Japan? Ugh, that's gonna be a hard one.
SXH: What does family mean to Jeff Staple? Could you address that from both a personal and professional standpoint?
Professionally, I don't mix family and business at all. I think it's a bad idea. Personally, I am very close to my mother and she's like a cool friend. She's not like a typical "mom". Our relationship is really cool.
SXH: Do you think we have become a society too needy of unnecessary possessions… or is this consumerism good for society? Do you think society is on a downfall or upswing; can you give examples of why you think this? And if you feel there is a downfall issue is there any hope or any way to mend these issues?
I don't think you can generalize about society as a whole. For every rapper that's putting diamonds on his rims, there's a guy going vegan and switching to all organic products. I think the real issue that most people have is a false sense of happiness. I see people confused at things that make them happy versus things that are SUPPOSED to make them happy. There's a big difference. And consumed products may or may not be part of that equation. I'm not saying that the LV handbag is bad for you. I'm not saying its going to solve your problems. I'm just saying that people need to look in the mirror longer. And harder. And ask if how they are living is making them happy.
SXH: What is your business philosophy? Do you reinvest all your profits back into Staple to grow the brand or do you diversify? What kind of structure is Staple, is it a Corp, an LLC, etc. and why did you set it up the way you did? How much of the business decisions did you learn out of a book, how many learned from friends and family, and how many of the lessons were learned on the job?
I'm just a designer that got lucky. But luck only gets you so far. From there, common sense helps a lot. From a business standpoint, I had to learn everything on my own…by making my own mistakes. Sure, I had people giving me advice here and there, but I still had to make my final decision and live with that decision. I recently started to read business books but I find that they don't apply to my world. So I might read a book and only 1 or 2 chapters can pertain to what I do. Again, I listen to my gut a lot. More and more, I find that this works for me. Because at the of the day, even if my gut told me to do the incorrect thing, I still don't regret the decision.
SXH: How is the running going? (Reference to a Darren Hudson post) Yeah I read it… For anyone a little hazy regarding To Darrin Hudson: that is Jeff's personal blog (that is also fed through Honeyee.com). I know by know you're probably sick of answering this question but very briefly who is Darren Hudson? (Sorry this is my only generic question)
Ahh..running might be another resolution that I have to work on. Haha. Darrin was my high school buddy who I had sneaker battles with back in the day. We were the only two kids in our high school that were THAT crazy into kicks. It's poetic because everyone thought we were weird back then, but now look at the world. We were influencers back then, man! (If only I bought stock in Nike! Shit!) I lost touch with Darrin and I dedicated my blog to him. The blog was a way for me to catalog all my sneakers (which I have been doing a horrible job on). I found people were much more interested to show the relationships that led to the sneakers, rather than the sneakers themselves. And happily, Darrin discovered the blog and we've reunited. It's pretty cool. He's a teacher in Florida now. Another profession we have in common.
SXH: Your obsession with Ping Pong and Kit Kats are well documented. What other obsessions do you have? And are any of them past the point of help?
I'm obsessed with meeting people. Sitting down to a good meal with a cool person is something I never want to give up and its one of the most enjoyable things about my life. I sometimes think that it might be the strongest sources of inspiration for me.
SXH: When you're not traveling, working on projects, what does Jeff Staple do during his down time?
For the most part, I'm never not working. If I'm on vacation, or just hanging out with my friends, there's always a part of me that's "on". With that said, I do need to turn off at times. But I can't lay on a beach or do something relaxing. Because my mind then drifts back to work automatically. So to get my mind off work, I have to do something that requires 101% of my mental concentration. For example, snowboarding. If you think about a project while you are riding, you will likely eat shit very soon. Basketball is another. If you don't like getting dunked on, you probably shouldn't be thinking about techpacks while playing defense. DJing is another great love. Again, can't think about deadlines while you're mixing a beat unless you want a room full of angry drunks staring at you.
SXH: How do you think color affects the market? I mean do you choose your colors due to seasonal trends, moods, to effectuate feelings or, "just because it looks good"?
In terms of colors, I do what I'm feeling at the moment. So for example, in Spring 2008, all our tees only come in black and white. A lot of our customers asked how come we're not doing teals, aquas and pinks like everyone else. I can't really answer them. I just do what I feel is right, even if it seems completely wrong at the time.
SXH: What artists do you admire? IE your walk into the MOMA, Uffizi, MOT, etc… what artists are you going to make sure to see… And what about their work inspires you? What is the next frontier for Art? Medium? Focus? Mood?
I never really go to museums or galleries. I don't get inspired from other people's art. I appreciate them. I appreciate the labor and process that went into it. But I rarely find art as an inspiration source.
SXH: If you were trapped on an island what one thing would you bring (and boat has been answered already) and why?
A person I really enjoy spending time with.
SXH: Whom have you met that to this day you still can't believe you were in their presence? And what was the experience like? Did the meeting happen as though you imagined it to be?
Tibor Kalman is one my design heros. I studied him greatly in school and I met him a few weeks before he passed away. When I met him, he was already in a wheelchair and we were in the dairy/cheese aisle of a grocery store. It was so anti-climactic. Exactly as Tibor would have wanted it.
SXH: 2007 Review Questions…
Best News Story:
I read this headline in BusinessWeek Magazine this year: "NIKE LIMITS QUANTITIES OF SHOES TO INCREASE BUZZ" (Whoa fellas..who leaked that one to you? It's 2007.)
Nike+ and the iPhone (which still needs lots of improvement)
Best Staple X Product (Sorry only get one):
Best Country Traveled in '07:
Best Hotel of '07:
Four Seasons, Hong Kong
Best Meal of '07:
Masa, New York City (thanks Julia!)
Best e-mail video of 2007:
Thankfully, my Spam filter gets these before I do.
Best Jeff Staple Interview:
hahah…funny question. The one in Antenna mag was pretty good. Even though they spelled my company name wrong in the headline.
Best Piece of wisdom you can give our readers for '08:
Try fasting just one week this year. It will change your life forever.
SXH: Do you practice Yoga or some form of meditation… I only ask you because it seems as though you have such a demanding lifestyle and I know you are not self medicating so I was wondering how you achieve such inner harmony and balance? You always seem so relaxed how does one achieve the Jeff Staple Zen?
I think I was born this way. My mom recently told me that as a child I NEVER cried. She actually only remembered one time where my crying was a problem. It was at a loud party with lots of people and music. But the second we left the party, I was fine. When I was scared, I wouldn't go into a fit. I would simply point to the thing that was frightening me and say the word "scary".
But more recently, the stress levels and demands of what I do are so high its tough to keep perspective. I've some close to losing my life a few times. (couple of weeks ago in fact!) and that I think that helps me to put things in perspective. I highly recommend almost dying. It makes the world a much better place to live in.
SXH: Out of all the work you have done in the last 10 years what are you most proud of, and what are embarrassed to admit you were a part of? What award/recognition was the most meaningful?
I am most proud of the team I have assembled at Staple and Reed Space. I have a great group working with me and I would never be able to accomplish even 20% of what I do without them. You can be the most gifted and talented person in the world. But if you're not making money while you're sleeping, you're not a business.
I'm not embarrassed or ashamed of anything I've done in the past. Everything is a lesson learned at worst.
With the awards, it's tough to say. Each one I get is really an honor and special to me. It's funny when I get some form of recognition because to me, I'm really just going my job. So it's odd to me that another person would say, "We want to give you this award for doing your job."
SXH: If you could eat lunch with anyone dead or alive, who would it be and why?
I wouldn't mind having lunch with Ralph Lauren. I think what's he created is incredible and I could even achieve .01% of what he has done, it would be an accomplishment.
SXH: If Hollywood were to make the Jeff Staple movie who would play you? And who plays Nico?
I think Nico should play both of us…like how Eddie Murphy played everyone in Coming To America. Haha…
SXH: Do you have any regrets? Any fears? Any qualities you would like to change?
No real regrets. I am happy with what's happened to me so far. Even though some decisions may have been questionable by some people, I feel like everything happens for a reason.
I know there are probably some things that I should change about myself; nobody's perfect, but I also realize that I am the way I am for a reason. If I change one tiny thing, it would probably cause a ripple effect and change something else.
SXH: What other nuggets can you share with the SLAM! Readers regarding what's in store for you and Staple Inc.?????
One of the things that bothers me the most about this "blog-generation" is early leaks. I find a lot of times, all the buzz is on the leaked information, and then when the thing itself is actually released, nobody talks about it. So I try and only speak about things when they are ready to be released.
SXH: What kind of legacy do you personally want to leave? The same question for Staple Inc.?
The motto for Staple is "A positive social contagion." If you break that down and really analyze this, then you'll have the answer.