The Stussy Style : Irvine Clothier Heightens Hype by Playing Hard to Get
Miles Siggens has gotten used to offers from style-conscious Londoners wanting to buy the shirt right off his back. They also want his jacket, his pants and his hat.
But the 27-year-old distributor of Stussy Inc. in the United Kingdom refuses, no matter how attractive the price.
“There’s a growing fan club of Stussy and these fans are trying to buy back (discontinued) items for their collections,” Siggens said. He, along with partner Michael Kopelman, a celebrity disc jockey who frequents nightclubs all over the world, took over U.K. distribution for the Irvine-based clothing company in March, 1991.
Since then, the interest by nightclub-goers from London to Tokyo to collect hats, jackets, T-shirts and any other apparel bearing the Stussy mark has accounted for 15% to 20% of the company’s 1991 sales of $24 million. Sales outside the United States and the trend to collect vintage Stussy designs significantly escalated in the past year, although the clothing line has been a hit in the United Kingdom since its European debut four years ago.
Like other overseas distributors of Stussy wear, Siggens has worked closely with designer Shawn Stussy on restricted distribution and unusual marketing ideas. The techniques enable them to maintain the hype among the fashionable set in big cities far from the surf and sand that continue to influence the 37-year-old designer’s casual lifestyle and comfortable clothes.
A short art film using Stussy-clad youth and an album of original rap music endorsed by Stussy are among the many affiliated projects in the works in England and Japan--projects that have Stussy Inc.’s blessing rather than any financial backing.
The artists working on the film and album consider them pet projects and a logical extension of being part of the global inner circle, formally known as the International Stussy Tribe.
“Tribe” members include disc jockeys, musicians and artists who begin as fans of Stussy’s collections and eventually get to know the designer personally. Consumers who may never become official members of the “tribe” are still drawn by the basic human instinct to belong to a clique, Siggens said. He compared it to a music fan who buys a concert T-shirt as a common link with other loyal fans.
The film and music projects have become an unorthodox way to promote the goods without much expense. The company maintains a visible international presence with virtually no advertising budget and minimum giveaways. Unlike other companies that give out shoes and apparel to music and sports celebrities for promotion, Stussy said he does not give away clothes just for the sake of seeing his product on music videos and in magazines.
Yet Stussy clothing appears regularly in editorial layouts in fashion magazines in the United States, England, Germany and Japan without a push from the sales staff.
From those magazines, customers overseas get an image of the clothing that is very different from the beach identity that Californians still associate with the line.
“In L.A., Stussy is part of everyday life. Over here (in Europe) everyone is very excited about it in a very different way,” Siggens said. Despite shipments coming in every four to six weeks, he said little new stock lasts in shops more than three days.
“The beach culture is really good for Stussy, but London and New York and Tokyo are seen as major fashion centers and I think they put him on the map as far as vibe, as far as legitimizing his place in fashion,” he said. Siggens tends to buy less “beachy” items for the retailers he supplies in the United Kingdom, avoiding wilder graphics and seasonal items, such as shorts.
Stussy, who began his own business making surfboards in 1979, said he never considered his clothes surf wear, although he is often grouped with such clothing companies. Major surf-wear makers--including Quiksilver, Ocean Pacific and Gotcha which, like Stussy, are located in Orange County--view Stussy as a strong competitor on the West and East coasts and in Europe and Asia.
The wave of traditional surf-wear companies attempting to imitate the slouchy, urban street clothes that have been an integral part of his collections for several years strikes Stussy as amusing.
Mark Price, vice president of marketing for Gotcha, which has expanded into the hip-hop street-wear market in recent seasons with G-Culture, acknowledges Stussy as one of the originating designers of the look.
He sees Stussy’s connection to the music industry instead of other companies’ associations with a particular sport, such as surfing and snow boarding, as a distinct factor in Stussy’s longevity and broad appeal.
“The tie gave him a niche of his own,” Price said. “There’s a whole slew of companies that are trying to get the music scene connection, which is something Stussy has been doing for 10 years.”
Another factor in Stussy’s success, Price said, is how his company controls its sales volume. “He’s never supplied his demand and that’s always a healthy attitude to take.”
Business has been a balancing act of controlled growth while expanding the company’s presence in new markets abroad. Co-founder and Chief Financial Officer Frank Sinatra Jr. (no relation to the famous singer) believes it will help push revenue over the $25-million mark in 1992. But Sinatra and Stussy stress that they are satisfied with restricted growth.
“We have no desire to get bigger,” Stussy said, “no desire to open new accounts. And we feel we could continue doing business for many more years, sleep at night, enjoy kids growing up and not be a victim of our business.
“You’ve got to look 10 or 20 years down the road and nobody in America does. They just want the money now. They want instant gratification. But then they burn themselves out. This happens especially in the fashion industry.”
The company’s philosophy of controlled growth has pervaded its operations since the beginning, a strategy that has no doubt helped its image.
“It’s very important the kids don’t see it everywhere,” said Carol Grey, a professional buyer for Nordstrom stores in Orange County. By limiting distribution to a few stores, Grey added, Stussy “keeps his stuff fresh in the customer’s eye.”
Stussy sales representatives are careful to select retailers that are not just interested in turning over a major amount of the company’s products and that will present the merchandise well.
“A lot of people freak out when we say we don’t want to open any more accounts,” Siggens said. “They ask, ‘Aren’t you a businessman?’ We could have hundreds more accounts if we wanted, but we’re much more into longevity than making a fast buck. And we want to do what’s right for Stussy.”
As owner of Stussy Germany, Martin Van Doren carefully controls distribution to German retailers to keep the product in demand. Van Doren, 25, said he goes with “exclusive stores, mainly trend stores, that carry special items. That way people have to look for it and they have to get it quick. We never keep much in stock.”
Stussy said his business philosophy began in his punk rock days when he had orange spiked hair and an attitude that he fondly remembers as “anarchic, do it your own way.” It was then that the Huntington Beach surfboard shaper used a big marker to scribble his name, which has since become the company logo and trademark.
With surfboard sales came T-shirts as a way to increase name recognition of the product. Sinatra, an accountant friend and fellow surfer, spotted Stussy’s design potential and offered to invest $5,000 toward the creation of more Stussy brand apparel. In 1983, the two became partners. Stussy Inc. went from strictly T-shirts and Bermuda shorts to an average 100-piece collection three times a year.
The surfboards continue to be manufactured, now through a licensee and on a much smaller scale--only 20 to 25 boards a month. As a hobby, Stussy still personally shapes some boards for his friends. But the limited numbers and high price tag (Stussy boards retail for $360 to $400 compared to other quality boards that start at $250) mean revenue from this area is modest.
In the United States, Stussy clothes typically sell in surf and skate stores, specialty boutiques and Nordstrom and Macy’s department stores alongside other high-priced “California lifestyle” clothing. In contrast, specialty shops in cosmopolitan cities between the East Coast and the Far East hang Stussy clothes with international designers such as Michiko Koshino, Dusser and Ralph Lauren, whom Stussy said he counts among his “role models.”
Like Lauren, Stussy designs basics to outlast fashion fads and he uses high-quality fabrics that are sometimes costlier. And like Lauren, who has his own signature boutiques around the world, Stussy has opened three stores in the past eight months as a way to better control the company’s image.
“The weak link is the professional buyer in the store,” Stussy said. “They buy what they want and merchandise it how they want. I can’t go beating my head against the wall about it. But I have these other pieces that are untried. I think I know more about what the kid on the street wants than they do. But I can’t get it to the kid on the street.”
Using his personal capital, Shawn Stussy opened the boutiques separately from Stussy Inc. in joint ventures with some of his sales representatives. The financial success of the first signature store, which opened last November in a prime SoHo location in New York City, has even Stussy surprised.
His partner in the New York store, James Jebbia, said he sees “everybody from a 10-year-old kid who saved up his money to somebody like (internationally renowned fashion photographer) Bruce Weber who can buy whatever he wants” coming into the boutique.
The continuing appeal of the clothing, Jebbia said, has to do with it being “well-made, well styled and reasonably priced.” Stussy shares some of the affluent clientele of expensive designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Commes des Garcons. Their prices, however, differ greatly: Compared to Stussy’s average price of $20, simple items such as T-shirts sell for as much as 14 times more at Jean Paul Gaultier and Commes des Garcons.
“Everybody loves the store. It’s just a very downtown thing,” said Lisa Marsh, associate fashion editor of Daily News Report, a menswear industry magazine. Part of the appeal of Stussy clothes, she added, has to with them being “so young and so hip.”
Six weeks ago, Stussy opened his second signature boutique--this one in Laguna Beach in partnership with his girlfriend, Paula Henry. The two opted for a store near the home they just purchased, rather than in trendy Santa Monica or along Hollywood’s Melrose Avenue. A third boutique premiered June 19 in Tokyo and plans for Stussy stores in Paris and London are being considered.
From Punk to Paris Before Shawn Stussy incorporated Stussy Inc. in 1985, he designed T-shirts and shorts for “surf punks” in Huntington Beach. Today, his designs are attracting an international counterculture crowd, and Stussy’s sales are expected to exceed $25 million this year. Growing Revenue: Year: Revenue (in millions) 1988: $13 1989: $17 1990: $21 1991: $24 1992: $25 At a Glance: Stussy Inc. Corporate headquarters: Irvine Founded: 1982; incorporated, 1985 Founders: Shawn Stussy and Frank Sinatra Jr. Nature of business: Hip urban street clothes for surfers, skaters and the nightclub set The collection: Includes baseball caps, fishing-style hats and knit beanies, T-shirts, shirts, jackets, pants, shorts and occasional novelty items, such as this year’s biker wallets and belts
Distribution points: Stussy fashions may be found in London, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, New York, Los Angeles, Laguna Beach Stores carrying Stussy: Specialty boutiques, surf and skate stores, Nordstrom, Macy’s Employees: 30 Projected 1992 sales: $26 million Source: Stussy Inc.