Staple: The Q&A

Posted by Rob Walker on March 6, 2007
Posted Under: Brand Underground,Q&A,Subculture Inc.

Today I’m pleased to present a Q&A with Jeff Staple, of Staple Design, The Reed Space, etc. I’ve forgotten now how I first met him, but as an example of where he fits into “the scene” these days, consider this Consumed column about a collaboration between New Era (the old-school baseball cap company with surprising street cred) and NYC “custom bling” jewelry artist Garbiel Urist — put together and overseen by Staple.

Anyway, the story of Staple’s success has been told many times in magazines like Theme and… I don’t know, lots of magazines, but that Theme piece is one that I remember. The point is, the part of his story that seems to get the most attention is that he says he got into the streetwear/T-shirt/design business by accident (made some T’s for friends, stores wanted to sell them, etc.). I’m interested in what happened after that, because to me Staple seems a bit ahead of the pack in terms of building a real business. If I had to bet on one brand-underground entitity that’s really going to “make it big,” not just as a brand but as a business as well, it would quite likely be Staple. (Luckily for me, I don’t have to bet.)

Here, then, my Q’s, and his A’s.

Part of my interest in the so-called brand underground (so-called by me, of course) was the creative side, but part if it was always in the entrepreneurial side. I feel that by and large being sort of openly entrepreneurial is seen as not just acceptable, but kind of cool, for this generation. (I forget how old you are, but basically I mean contemporary youth culture.) But there’s still some stigma around “selling out” in the “wrong way.” Maybe I’m wrong about all that, so what do you think?

The way I see it, there are a whole lot of creative people in this world. The differences are the ones that are able to make something out if it. Even back in design school for instance, tons of kids had a great eye, great talent, and graduated with great grades. But what you were able to do with that talent was the deal breaker. Maybe it’s because I am now so neck deep in this industry, but in my opinion, there is a HUGE chasm between being an “entrepreneur” and “selling out”.

My company is somewhere floating in the middle of this chasm. I’ve been doing this long enough to remember the days when doing a shoe with Nike or designing a soda can would automatically be deemed as “selling out”. Now it’s a badge of honor. I wonder why this is sometimes. Maybe reality has set in for many people. Rent, Mortgage, Car Payments, Child Support, Sneaker Habit…hey whatever your thing is, you’ve got to take care of it and “keepin it real” maybe doesn’t work out like it used to.

Maybe we’re more hip to the game. More cynical about it. It’s a “cash in/cash out” attitude that many younger people have nowadays. I see some people starting brands today and I think “There is no way this person had a long-term plan about his company. He’s in for the quick dollar and then in 3 seasons, he’ll be out.” And that’s totally cool. Sometimes, I wish I had that ephemeral attitude with Staple. I feel like I cherish Staple so much that it can be a negative. I’m too protective of it sometimes. I envy those who can pimp their shit out without a second thought.

How many employees do you have now? Probably several are designers, but what about, like, an accountant? That’s when businesses start to get tricky, seems to me, when you really have to start hiring people who have actual business-related skills. Thoughts?

We have a dozen on staff now. I struggle with whether that’s too many or too little. Sometimes I read about companies in Business Week … “staff of 6 grossing $12 million in sales.” That’s when I think shit, I need to trim the fat.

Then on the other hand, we are all very busy, so I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we basically have 3 different companies within Staple. (Clothing, Design and Retail/Gallery). A blessing in disguise is that I am simply horrific at mathematics. Funny story: When I first got into New York University, I took a math placement exam to see where I should be placed. I did SO bad on this that my guidance counselor told me I would only be required to take one basic math class. If I passed it, I would be exempt from ever taking math again. I think in that math class, we never got past long division. I swear, we did no geometry, algebra … nothing complicated at all. Well I got an “A” in that and never took math again. They basically had zero hope for me in math and just gave up on me.

So I knew when I started getting serious about my company, I could either spend 2 full days trying to balance my checkbook and pay bills, or I could bring in some experts to do this. So from my 2nd or 3rd year in, I had a financial advising firm take care of all my shit. They are still with me today. So anytime, i get an official looking envelope with the State of NY logo on the top corner. I don’t even open that shit. It goes right into the accountant’s desk. That level of trust? PRICELESS.

I often read business magazines that talk about how the founders eventually need to be replaced — that creative, visionary founders don’t make good CEOs or presidents of companies. I can see that day coming. My creative vision is barely used anymore. And if it is, it’s between the hours of 10pm-4am. During regular business hours, the only programs I have open on my computer are iMail, iCal and Excel.

Sad, isn’t it? A designer? Creative Director? and I don’t even open one design application during normal business hours. So I think my skills are not being used to their potential. I should be spending 20 hrs a day thinking of cool new shit. Not figuring out who is late to pay a bill or why ConEd is double-billing me for something.

The trick is working with someone who understands what I want from Staple and shares that vision. That’s very difficult since Staple is a 10-year-old kid now and for the past decade, he’s only had one parent and guardian: Me.

At what point did you start did you start to say, ‘Okay, I want to have a real business and I need to figure that shit out?’

By my third order. My first two orders were from two local shops. Triple Five Soul back in the day was a dope little boutique that carried its own cool collection and featured new brands as well. That was my first ever order: 12 shirts.

My second order came from Union, the legendary streetwear store in Soho, NYC. 12 shirts. 12 became 24. 24 became 36. And it sort of went like for a little bit. I was still hand-screening tees at Parsons School of Design after hours.

Order number 3 came late at night with a phone call to my house number. Someone was calling from Japan and he wanted to get a Staple shirt. I was amazed! Japan!? How cool that someone in Japan wants one of my tees! I asked how many he wanted. He said 1,000. And in that instant, my business became “real”. And I haven’t looked back since.

I remember you asking me once about business books, but you’d pretty much read the few that I recommended. Any favorites?

I’ve read a bunch of business-related books and to be honest, there’s not many I can say meant a lot to me. I tend to find only 1 or 2 parts of each book that are relevant to me. I think that makes sense: We work in a universe of the “underground” after all. Niches are what we try to create all the time. So why would I expect to find business answers in a book from Barnes and Noble or Amazon?

But that’s not to say some other books, from possibly other genres have influenced me in someway. Here’s a sampling:

Fire Someone Today, Bob Pritchett
Apex Hides The Hurt, Colson Whitehead
Driven From Within, Michael Jordan
The Brand Gap, Marty Neumeier
Vanishing Point: How To Disappear In America Without a Trace, Anonymous
One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar, The World’s Greatest Poker Player, Nolan Dalla
Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist, Peter Hall
Lovemarks, Kevin Roberts
Wordcraft, Alex Frankel

And I try and read every issue of:

National Geographic
Fast Company
New York Times Sunday (Late) Edition

I’ve heard that you give a pretty kick-ass Power Point. Is that true? Are you willing to reveal as much in public, or does it kill your street cred?

I’ve been called upon more than once to do some public speaking. I’ve been doing it for the last 3 years at Parsons School of Design Orientation Day to get students amped on class. I’ve spoken at Apple Stores in Tokyo, World Expos, Universities, at Corporate Conventions and Off-Sites. Maybe one reason they’re good is because I don’t use Power Point…haha.

I don’t think there’s a negative to it at all. I have no problem giving up some trade secrets. Because I know I am always on to the next thing anyway. And THEY know that I KNOW that I am onto the next thing . . . so they know it’s futile to try and bite/steal/plagiarize/copy what I do. A great man once said, “I taught that person everything he knows! But not everything I know…”

You don’t have to name names (although you can) but how do you decide what projects you WON’T do?

It’s pretty simple. In a collaboration, It has to make sense for all parties involved. It won’t be successful if only one party benefits and the other gets shafted. The other reason for not doing a certain project is public perception…and I definitely take this into consideration. Would the public say “Why the hell did those two get together?” Then it might be not be a good idea to do it.

Here’s an interesting example. We recently started working with the boot company Timberland. Legendary name, but maybe has lost touch with young people in the last decade. They asked us to do a collaboration. Our suggestion? Let us hook you up with our friends at Supreme. Do the boot with them. We’ll even project manage and consult on it for them. Then, let’s do the Staple boot.

So I looked at it from all perspectives. Does Supreme want to do this? Does it make sense? Will it be hot? Yes. Yes. And yes. Does it make sense for Timberland. Fuck yes…a dream come true for them actually. Does it make sense for Staple to allow James [Jebbia, founder of Supreme] and his company thru the door first? Quite honestly, yes. I have huge respect for what James does and the legacy he has endured with his brand and he deserves the seniority respect.

So it was a win-win-win situation for everyone involved. I think honestly, not everyone in this game has the vision to pull that off. And the connections to make it happen. And the pride to know what was best for the client. I think little things like that set Staple apart from the rest.

Recently I read on Freshness Mag, they were talking about the Timberland x RZA boot that will come out in March. Freshness said “Sorry Jeff but I think the RZA boots are the best of the entire pack.” Little did they know that I actually designed that one also! It made me feel proud. And hey, nobody on this green earth knows except me and RZA, but that’s cool. I don’t always need the spotlight. Staple doesn’t always need the spotlight. Its more about “Honest day’s work. Honest day’s pay.”

You have retail, you do design/branding/whatever work for clients, and you sell your own products through other stores (as well as of course your own). Is one of these more the main money-maker, while another part is basically a loss-leader (as they say)? Do you see that mix changing in the future?

A couple of years ago, the clothing line Staple was bringing home the bacon for “Staple Design Inc.” It was probably 60% Clothing/35% Design services/5% Reed Space. Last year, Design Services took 1st place. This year, Clothing took it back.

But each year, Reed Space is gaining LOTS of ground. We just opened our second location in Tokyo and have 3 more planned in the near future. I foresee Reed Space taking over the #1 spot for the company in less than 3 years. That would be a beautiful thing.

What’s your advice for somebody who wants to be the next Jeff Staple? And don’t give me any bullshit about staying true to yourself and just doing what you believe in. Everybody knows that. I mean something practical.

I mean honestly, that would be No. 1. Stay true to yourself. haha. I guess that sounds obvious, but it’s not. Getting influenced to change your ways is easier than one would think. And staying true to your passion is one of the hardest things to do.

OK other than that? Treat EVERYONE you meet with respect. Equally. Don’t brown nose the CEO and don’t belittle the intern. You never know when the tables will turn. And also, PATIENCE. Good things really do come to those who wait.

Murketing extends sincere thanks to Mr. Staple, a mightily busy young man, for his time (and patience, come to think of it) with our questions. Murketing also heartily seconds the advice to treat everyone with respect, especially the intern. Check Staple Design’s site right here, the Reed Space site here, and Mr. Staple’s blog here.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

that was on the best interview i read in a good minute. and i read a few other good ones this week.

thats true words of wizzy. i’ll take em wit me as make this arduous and exciting journey thru the biz.


Written By Joe Star on March 7th, 2007 @ 6:07 pm

That was the best interview with Jeff I have read. This kat is an inspiration to all of us young urban entrepeneurs. Thank you for sharing this interview for all of us to be inspired by.

Written By Alby on March 7th, 2007 @ 7:44 pm

Jeff is nothing without Nico…

Written By ray on March 7th, 2007 @ 11:12 pm

Great read!


Written By Klim on March 8th, 2007 @ 11:05 pm

Great read. Jeff is the man at what he does hands down.

stay up.

Written By whadafunk on March 12th, 2007 @ 12:26 am