Hypebeast Trade: jeffstaple Founder/Creative Director of Staple Design & Reed Space
If you haven’t kept a pulse on jeffstaple since 2005 when he designed the now infamous “Pigeon Dunks,” it is easy to write off the name as simply “that one guy who designed that one pair of shoes that one time.” But, fast forward seven years and the same man that pioneered the coveted Pigeon Dunks is now more firmly than ever at the helm of a rapidly growing creative collective known cohesively as Staple Design. In addition to operating the multifaceted creative agency, jeffstaple also still maneuvers the drastically changing retail landscape with his 2003-founded New York brick & mortar store location, Reed Space. When he’s not editing Reed Pages – a print publication offshoot of Reed Space – navigating the direction of Staple’s fashion line, or discerning upcoming collaborations and branding projects, jeffstaple is still a sneaker aficionado at his core and a self-professed, experience-driven graphic designer.
With no substantial “academic” or “scholastic” training to cite for his substantial resume of business endeavors, his more than 15 years in the industry have proven a brutal training ground to sharpen an organic business plan that places artistic integrity above the bottom line and the core ethos of innovation senior to any marketing plan. In our latest Hypebeast Trade feature, we sit down with jeffstaple to take a slightly different focus than a mere surface level glimpse into his designs or his creative inspiration, in favor of an in-depth exposé into the day-to-day operations and internal structure of Staple Design and Reed Space. We’re also able to hear his thoughts on how the era of internet-driven commerce and hyperactivity play into the integrity of his business and brand.
Can you introduce yourself and your role at Staple Design/Reed Space?
My name is jeffstaple, I’m the founder & creative director of Staple Design & Reed Space. Basically my role is to be very integrated in the many different facets of all our businesses. We have apparel, retail, curation through art shows, magazine publication and creative services for different companies. One of my main jobs is to really make sure all of my team members are working to the best of their ability and being able to execute, and giving them the tools that are necessary to execute. That’s really the core of my job. I always say one person can’t really do that much, no matter how hard they work, because there’s only 24 hours in a day even if they figured out a way not to sleep. You always need a team with you, and not only do you need a team but you need your team to be actively working.
Can you provide an overview of your company structure? Yearly revenues?
We’re not a publicly traded company so I don’t give revenue figures. So an overview of the company structure? Essentially there’s a sales manager who really takes care of the clothing collection and makes sure the distribution for that is on-point. Out of the clothing line there’s also designers, production designers, graphic designers… Then you look at Reed Space. There’s the shop staff, there’s the floor manager, the head-buyer and manager, plus the art gallery team sort of rolls into that team as well. Then Reed Pages Magazine is another small team of editors and writers. Sitting above all of that is a financial operator that makes sure all of the companies are in checks and balances, in terms of profit and losses. Then sitting on top of that is an office manager/my assistant who sort of acts as like a buffer for me and helps me to execute on the things that I need to, in case I get inundated. I say buffer because that person also assists in fielding requests/questions/queries, and all sorts of odd things. Then I’m the captain of that entire ship and I sit over everything I just described.
In what sort of capacity does Staple Design operate?
Well Staple Design specifically, not including Reed Space, we do a lot of creative direction, design services, consultation, ideation, etc. It’s kind of difficult to pinpoint exactly the type of thing we are because we’re not really a design agency or ad agency, we’re not really an artist union or anything like that. We’re really quite multifaceted in the different mediums that we can work in. So it could be an ad campaign, it could be a product, it could be an experiential curation, it could be a store opening for a brand, a fashion line, etc. etc…So it could be many different things. Then Staple Design also happens to produce a menswear label called Staple, which oddly enough is what it started as back in 1997. So that’s basically the two major chunks of what Staple Design does, apparel and creative direction.
How much of the company’s services are based on experience versus scholastically-derived knowledge?
I would say 101% of the company’s services are based on experience. I’m a two-time college dropout, never took a business class. I did two years of journalism, and two years of design school. There’s nothing academically or scholastically driven about this company. I still to this day have not written a proper business plan—15 years in. While there’s realities… like I said before, the financial officer needing to make sure our checks don’t bounce and our people are paid, and our rents are paid, stuff like that — those realities have to be there. But we’re definitely not so driven on pie charts and graphs, and ROI’s. We almost always take projects on because they feel right versus the fact that they pay well or not. With that mindset, I’d say we’re definitely experience-driven. We do it from the heart much more than with the wallet in mind. Of course we have to keep the bills paid, but we mostly work from the heart.
When it comes to partnering with brands, how do you often approach the partnerships?
Well I wrote a really long piece recently in Antenna Magazine about the idea of partnerships and collaborations. My approach is similar to the question before, where again, it’s not just about the mathematics and numbers.
It’s about how it feels.
Yeah, we have to vibe. First, it’s great if they respect what I’ve created. It’s great if I respect what they’ve done or what they do. It’s great if I like the person. It’s great if the money is right, too. It’s great if that’s all there and it’s a win-win. If all those things are working together then it can usually work out really well. That’s not to say that if one of those elements is missing then I won’t do the project, I’ve done projects where one of those elements wasn’t there. But then I do feel the project suffers because of that. Or not suffers, suffers is too strong a word. It’s just the project might not be as awesome as it could have been because all of those elements weren’t there. There’s different reasons. Sometimes you do a brand collaboration or partnership because you greatly respect the brand, but you weren’t really feeling the guy you were working with. Sometimes the money is amazing but the brand is so-so. Sometimes the dude is so fucking awesome, he’s like the coolest dude ever, but his brand is eh, and the money’s eh, and you still do it because the dude’s so cool. There’s different pluses and minuses to why you do it. But if all those elements come together then it’s really great and that’s what I usually look at. In that article [Antenna Magazine] I went in-depth about how I feel it’s a mistake for companies to view collaborations as a must-do thing. I feel like every season now companies have to do a collaboration, like it’s in some sort of PowerPoint, like “what’s this year’s collab, what’s this month’s collab?” even. And it’s crazy because the nature of the collaboration is that it doesn’t happen systematically like that, it should happen organically. If you’re out there seeking collaborations to happen and forcing it, I guarantee you they’re not gonna be as good as if they happen organically.
Do you ever look back and question some of the business decisions you’ve made? Any particular examples?
Let’s see. You know, honestly no. I don’t regret or question any of the decisions I made in the past. None of them were really bad. I’m trying to think of any really bad ones… and there weren’t any.
Name names, Jeff, let’s go.
Ha, there weren’t any bad ones, it’s funny. I can always take something away from a project. I’m trying to think of one where I really, really just deaded it. I’m really close to deading a project right now but… nah, I can’t recall one. The real answer to this is I never really look back, nor do I ever really look forward, haha. I never look back and question anything because it’s not just about collabs and partnerships, it’s really about life in general. I never look back and question decisions I’ve made. There’s a reason I made that decision back then, and I live with that no matter what. I think I learned that a lot from, as nerdy as this sounds, it comes from playing poker. If you called that dude’s bluff, or if you folded your hand and then realized you folded the best hand, or if you called, and he had the best hand, you can be on tilt and fume over it for hours or days even. But whatever elements happened at that exact moment that made you make that decision, you have to just live with that decision and let’s deal ‘em again. The best you can do is learn a little bit from it, but if you harp on it like “oh, why did I do that! Why did I do that collab?!”… I never look backwards like that. I always keep looking at the exact moment I’m living in.
In a world of hyperactivity, how does one resist the desire to make large sweeping changes to their brand? How do you resist trend and resist new interests from diluting your brand?
It’s a weird question honestly, because I don’t think hyperactivity, or what I assume you mean by internet/social media, things like that… I don’t see how that should have any bearing on how you change your brand. I think that is probably inherently a problem. If you have a brand, you should have a mission, and you can tweak that mission and obviously make changes along the course, but if you have a brand and every few months you’re making large sweeping changes, you don’t have a brand… you have many brands. I think people who have successful brands have taken one or two, or a handful of iconic things, and based their entire brand off of that. Timberland 6-inch boot, North Face Nuptse jacket, Polo shirt with embroidery on chest, Air Force One, iMac, iPod… these are lifelong brands that have based billion-dollar companies off of very iconic pieces. So it’s not like every year you can just keep changing course… you don’t really have a company then. I don’t think that has anything to do with the internet or hyperactivity or anything, I think that’s just an entrepreneurial thing. Business owners should be ready to take a bullet for their brand, or don’t go into business. Anyone who’s changing their shit up every year is definitely not willing to take a bullet for their brand, and it’s obviously a fleeting moment for them, so why would they die for it?
With trend and stuff, you can’t really just totally resist trend. Me personally, I can’t speak for other designers, but for myself, I’m pretty bad at following trends. And that’s to say that’s a negative. I think if I as a creative director followed trends better I’d probably make more money, but I tend to be a little bit ahead of the curve too much. I know this only because I always, throughout the 15 years of doing this, I constantly hear that like 2-3 years after a collection drops people are like, “Yo can I get that T-shirt?”, and I’m like “the one that came out three years ago?!” People are asking for my stuff three years after it’s been out, and that cycle always happens. So I feel like my opinions are 2-3 years ahead of the curve which, honestly, is not a good thing. The people that make the most money are the ones that are on-trend, dead-on, at that exact minute. And those are the people that can, as the saying goes, strike while the iron’s hot.
So for me to resist trends… I mean I’m the opposite, I’m trying to figure out how to be more on-trend. I’m not trying to resist trend, I already am. I said this on Twitter, if you’re a brand out there and I’m in love with your brand, I guarantee you’re probably not making as much money as you could be. And it’s a fucking fact. Because if I like your shit, you’re not mainstream, and you’re not balling as hard as you need to be. Maybe Apple is the only exception of that… and Nike. But other fashion brands and gadgets and stuff, if I’m into your stuff, you got the wrong customer-base to be making maximum loot.
In many ways, what Staple Design does and Reed Space sells, work together in the same feedback loop. How do you utilize both to your advantage?
Well it sounds really genius right now but when I started Staple clothing, first it was a clothing line. Then I did Staple Design, the design studio. Then I did Reed Space, which is a retail store. If you look at those things you have a clothing collection, which teaches us how to make shit, manufacture shit, deal with manufacturing issues of getting stuff made. Then all the other things that come along with doing a fashion brand; showing at trade shows, making lookbooks, ad campaigns, marketing, seeding to the right people, etc. There’s a lot of things that come along with owning a fashion brand. We’ve learned all those things in the past decade and a half. With the design studio we learned; first and foremost, how to make things look nice from a design standpoint. I’m a trained graphic designer, a lot of people working here went to design school – not for fashion, but for graphic design. So we know how to take care of the little details that make a difference between things looking alright, and things looking incredible. And then we do it for other people, too. So we’re able to step out of our vane world and think about the realities of what a publicly-traded, billion-dollar company needs to deal with, which is appeasing lots of different people on lots of different levels. We have a lot of experience with that.
We have a retail store, which allows us to see how people interact with the product on a ground-floor level. It’s all well and good if the boardroom presentation says, “Oh, this is what people want to get, and this how we should make it,” then the manufacturer says, “Yeah but if we make it for this much money it’ll come out like this.” Fine, you do it, you make it, you put it in the store, and if nobody buys it, you failed. So it’s so important to have that really street-level view of like, are people buying your shit at the end of the day?
So with all of that I created in 15 years, it’s kind of a whole life cycle, the life and death of products. From clothing, how it’s made and marketed, sold into stores… to how things are designed, created, spec’d… to how they’re sold in retail, how they’re marketed, how customer service works into that. It’s really like the birth and the death, the death in this case being the sale of an item. I’ve been doing this so long we really have a great 360-degree view of that entire landscape. So when you talk about the feedback loop, it definitely is a huge advantage. At the same time while now it looks like, “Oh that’s genius, you sort of have that whole thing owned.” Then now we have a magazine, too, so now we know about media, promotion, marketing, more so on that level it really is 360 degrees. Not to mention even the social media aspect of it. The important thing to me is it all happened organically, and by necessity. Like, I opened the store out of necessity, not out of 12-point business plan.
If the Pigeon Dunks never caused the level of hysteria that they did, would Staple Design still have been able to gain a huge foothold within this culture?
The Pigeon Dunk was obviously really important to exposing our brand to a lot of different people. I think when people say, “Yeah, but imagine if he didn’t do the Pigeon Dunk, where would Staple be?” You know, when I was in high school my social studies teacher said, “When Christopher Columbus discovered America” – you know how he discovered America right? It’s sort of a little well-known fact, but he was looking for India, for spices, went the wrong way, hit America, found the Native Americans, and America was born, right? So like, would we be studying Christopher Columbus if he didn’t just stumble upon America? You can call it skill or you can call it dumb luck, the point is moot because he did fucking discover America! Doesn’t matter that he wasn’t trying to do it. Now I’m not even saying that I wasn’t trying to design a Pigeon Dunk and it just happened by accident. I actually did design the Pigeon Dunk, it actually got made, it actually got sold, people actually own it, people actually went crazy, and people actually eBay it today for $2,500. Those are all facts. So to say, “What if you hadn’t done that?” I can’t even imagine a reality like that. That is actually a reality I manifested. It’s so weird to be like, “What if you hadn’t done that, though?” Like, “Yo Jay-Z, what if you didn’t do Reasonable Doubt? Where would you be?” It’s like, yeah. But, I DID make it so why are you asking?
What are your thoughts on recent incidents surrounding Jordans and Foamposites?
Sadly, I think it’s dope, haha. I think it’s sad people get hurt and possibly lose their lives over shoes, but I also think it’s great for sneaker culture, which is a culture that’s really important to me, and not because of what’s recently been happening… you know, I’ve been a sneaker head since I could earn my own income. As nerdy as sneaker culture may sound, it is an important thing to me. A few years ago there was a time I might’ve thought sneaker culture might die, like it might not exist anymore. But now I think there is a whole new generation of young people that are gonna carry the torch and keep the excitement in the footwear game. So in a weird way I’m sort of excited by those things that happen.
As somebody who understands the concept of limited availability, how do you balance growth with more commercial projects?
I think one of the important things about working in limited-edition items is to do it for the right reasons. We’ve never done a limited-edition product for the explicit purpose of driving hype up. We do it because maybe the tooling is too expensive, we can’t make that much, there’s a lot of risk in doing that, etc., etc. Maybe we do it because the person we’re working with isn’t capable of making that many items. But we’ve never been like, “Hey, we can effectively make like 1,000 of these, and make money, but let’s make 200 of them instead just to fuck with people.” We’ve never done that before. And I know for a fact big companies do just that. They can easily make 30,000 of something but they choose to make 200-300. Maybe back in the day, innocently, they were making stuff in limited quality for the same reason but definitely today it’s strictly for the purpose of driving hype, which I don’t believe in. So to answer that first part, we don’t make limited-edition stuff for the sake of making it limited. We do it because there’s a necessary reason why.
How do you balance that with the growth? Well to go back to that first part, if you’re not doing things in limited-edition qualities and collaborating with different partners to just drive hype, then the questions bears why the fuck are you doing it? Well the reason, why you do it is to innovate. And to put excitement into the market. So if I’m not really good at doing something, but you are, but you’re not good at doing the thing I’m really good at, we should come together and do some really great stuff. That’s innovation, when you put two minds together. If that is the main purpose for us to do limited-edition projects, that should be able to filter into our more commercial projects. It should benefit every bottom line in our company at the end of the day. To me, the stuff we do on a higher level eventually trickles down to the stuff we do on a more mass level, but that innovative spark is always in there. That DNA thread of energy, excitement, innovation, what have you, is then drawn down into whatever the main line or more mass appeal project happens to be.
Any last words you’d like to share about the business side of Staple Design/Reed Space?
I think young people really have to evaluate whether they want to be an entrepreneur or not. You hear all the time that it’s not easy… but it’s beyond not easy. When I say “take a bullet for your company,” the reason I say that is because you’re literally giving up your life for this thing you’re about to start. So you better be sure you’re really ready to start it. Otherwise you’re just wasting a lot of people’s time, including your own, and a lot of people’s money, including your own. To me, there’s absolutely no shame at all in being a supporter of someone who has a vision, or a worker. If everyone was an entrepreneur in this world this economy would collapse. There needs to be people that can help the entrepreneurs, who can use different skill-sets and different expertise to form a team.
I have a lot of friends that think they are failures because they’re not entrepreneurs. They see what I do and they’re like, “Oh, I can never do that – I suck.” Nah dude, there’s nothing wrong with what you do. I think before you jump on that entrepreneur/self-starter bandwagon you really need to sit down, look in the mirror, and ask yourself, “Do I like to sleep in Sundays? Do I like to chill with my girl? Do I like having a girl?” These are questions you need to ask yourself. If your answer is yes to any of these questions you probably don’t want to be starting a business because you’re gonna give those up real quick. I would just really evaluate yourself before you jump ship into this venture.
On that note, thanks for your time, Jeff.