Interview with Jeff Staple at SOLE DXB
Gareth Warren from Sneakers Middle East sat down with the legendary Jeff Staple at SOLE DXB, to chat about Cole Haan, collaborations, the future of streetwear and most importantly: DXB Pigeons Vs NYC Pigeons.
Q: Jeff, thank you so much for sitting down with us and having a chat.
Jeff Staple: Of course!
Q: I want to start with the pigeon motif, what’s the thinking behind that?
JS: I’ve always been a fan of brands that have animals as their mascot. There’s Ralph Lauren and the horse, Lacoste and the alligator; when I was getting into fashion, there was that brand Ecko, they had the rhino. I was always a fan.
I felt like brands that have animals connect really well with us as people. After my brand was a couple of years old, I started to think about what the animal would be, and growing up in New York City, pigeons were sort of pervasive everywhere. And most people hated them for the most part, they were like sort of vermin but I think I sort of always had a loving relationship with pigeons they always, to me, felt like what it meant to be a real new Yorker. To always hustle and struggle to survive, no matter what the elements – winter, summer – was being thrown at them, they were always there and always sort of took no shit from people. And that’s what I loved about them and we adapted that as our logo.
Most people didn’t get it, but I felt that was sort of similar to the streetwear vibe it was kinda anti-establishment. Our logo was a little anti-establishment so that’s why I choose the pigeon. And then what happened which was pretty cool was that it turns out that everywhere there’s a dense metropolis population – there pigeons.
That’s what I was gonna say, like Dubai…
JS: Your pigeons are beautiful!
Well, your pigeons are massive and stubborn!
JS: I know!
Our pigeons would run away… wait, are we actually talking about our pigeons?
JS: Yes! Your pigeons are really beautiful!
Yeah but if you get to them, they’re gonna fly or run away. New York pigeons stare us down. We move for them!
JS: Yep. Exactly! They’re walking and you walk around them. Yeah
So, what happened accidently was that every major city that I would go to they would go, “oh the pigeon brand, we love that brand, that’s our bird.”
And I would say, “no no, that’s my bird!” So, we would have this little argument. But it helped to spread the brand really fast.
Q: A lot of the colours are inspired by the pigeon? How does that work?
Jeff Staple: Obviously, the pigeon came first, I think it was a nice coincidence that pigeons have a nice colour palette to them. Grey tones, pops and the feet are usually pink on a NYC pigeon, they’re not pink here. I study pigeons everywhere I go by the way.
But yeah, they have a great unique colour palette its very signature and I didn’t pick pigeons because of their colour, I picked pigeons because of their spirit but it just so happened to be a nice bonus as they look really good as well. And it’s cool, because we as a brand really own this colourway now. Even if a brand tries to do this colourway without our pigeon, people say, “Oh did you get permission from Jeff to do that?” So, it’s kinda cool that we own a colour. It’s kinda hard to own a colour. You know Coke read, IBM blue, Tiffany blue, there’s not too many unique colour combinations so it’s really awesome that we have this.
Q: Speaking about collabs. What are the three main things you look for when a brand comes to you saying “Hey Jeff, let’s do something.”
Jeff Staple: OK, that’s a great question coz I actually just tweeted the answer last week. I was just talking about that on twitter. When you decide to work on a collaboration or project there’s three F’s that you look for:
One is Fun, is it going to be a fun project to work on
Two is Finance, is the money good.
That’s them paying you?
Jeff Staple: Yes, or you make a collection or a collaboration that’s really going to perform well and sell well, and people are going to buy it globally. And I don’t want to sound greedy by saying “funds” or “finance”, but how something sells is a marker of how well your design is.
I can make something and I can say as the artist, “this is amazing” but that’s subjective. You can say it sucks. But if I make something and I say I sold 10,000 of these, you can still say it sucks, but I can still say but many people like this. So, it kinda shuts down the argument. That’s why I like money as a benchmark.
So: Fun, Finance and Folio.
Meaning portfolio. Will this be a good thing for your book, your resume or for your history of work?
My rule of thumb is: if two out of those three are checked off, it’s probably a good project to go with. And if you think about that and start looking at the different combinations. If they’re like, it’s fun and good for your book but there’s no money in it – it’s still probably good to do.
Q: Have you ever had to turn down a collaboration because it didn’t tick these checkboxes?
JS: Yeah, we’ve turned down collaborations more than we say yes to collaborations. Sometimes a brand comes along, and we don’t even get to the point where I ask myself if it checks off those boxes because brands just don’t align at all. And it doesn’t help and, quite honestly, I tell them straight up, “listen, I love to take your money and use the budget that you have, but this doesn’t help your brand and it doesn’t help our brand either it would be a waste of our time and your money. Maybe we can figure out some other way we can work together you know.”
Q: The Cole Haan collab how did that come to be. These are not traditional sneakers.
JS: It’s a whole different genre and I’ve been close with Cole Haan for many years now, my friend Hiroshi Fujiwara who does the brand Fragment, he did a Cole Haan many years ago. And in doing that collaboration, when he did the NYC launch, I got connected with the brand that way.
I’m also really close friends with the head of innovation and creative for Cole Haan, his name is Scott Patt. I’ve known him for 20 years now so we’ve always had a great working relationship and we did this collaboration two years ago the first staple Cole Haan collaboration which I’m super happy about…
And you know, side note: It’s really great to put on and almost 3-year-old shoe and just have it stand the test of time. They’re so comfy, I’m wearing it without socks in the desert, this is totally breathable, its timeless, this is great.
And we’ve also been – through my creative agency Staple Design – working with Cole Haan after this, on innovation, product design, marketing collaborations. We helped work with them on the Chinatown Market collaboration. And we have another collaboration coming up next year that we’re previewing right in this room. Those aren’t even final samples, but we wanted to show what’s coming out for next year.
Working with Cole Haan is great because to me the brand really just represents work and you know traditionally its always been about sneaker culture and what you wear when you’re growing up as a kid. But eventually you get to a point where you mature, your sophisticate you have a family, a job, you have to have meetings, you have to carry yourself in a sort of more elegant manner if you will.
Sneakers don’t work for every occasion. This is how it is in New York anyway, anyone who’s not wearing like a Timberland boot or a sneaker is probably wearing Cole Haan. So, I really love that whole aspect of a new workwear.
Q: How hyped is this collection going to be when it drops? May 2020 I’m guessing? How many colourways? How many silhouettes?
Jeff Staple: Oh, I don’t even know. To be honest, we’re still figuring it out. I literally was making design additions and subtractions as of last week. And that’s what great about having the direct line to Scott who’s the head of design. We did a camouflage that came out so good, I was like, “Scott I want to add an olive colourway.”
Q: Now switching to SOLE DXB, what do you think of an event like this, for the kids in this city?
Jeff Staple: I mean it’s an amazing venue, it’s crazy because you know this type of a fair type thing is getting really popular nowadays like ComplexCon, but it’s crazy that this is your eight year of having this, ComplexCon is only 3 years old. So, you guys are like 5 years older than the big ones already so it’s great to see that this city has really embraced street culture and sneaker culture in this way.
In some ways, it’s very advanced, because you have Burberry and Kenzo and luxury brands here like we don’t have that in America yet. In America and the west, it’s still very segmented, there’s fashion shows, there’s couture, then street and there’s very little mixing still.
There’s no high-end fashion brands at ComplexCon. So, it’s nice to see everything mixing and quite honestly, Dubai is that kind of a city anyway. To me Dubai is very much like a melting pot of the entire other side of the world. They call NYC a melting pot, and in some ways it’s a melting pot of the western hemisphere, but here I might people from India, South-East Asia and Australia, for them it’s very far to go to NYC but for Dubai its right in the middle.
Q: When you guys were doing your stuff, you’ll were a lot grittier than the kids these days, do you think that that youth of today’s world. Are they gritty enough to go anti-establishment and do something crazy that you guys did back in the day or are we just doomed for the rest of time…?
Jeff Staple: There’s a double-edged sword there. There’s two sides to that coin. One side is what you’re saying, which I agree with. When you say grittiness, what I think is hustle. Do they have the drive and the hustle to get their hands and knees dirty and ‘blood sweat and tears’ you know?
Because a kid can grow up and be 13 years old now and be an “influencer” and make a living just by posting on Instagram, so how is that kid gonna like really like scrape and get his hands dirty?
But on the other side of that token, that kid looks at someone like Virgil Abloh, who’s head of design at Louis Vuitton and even politically speaking – an Obama or someone like that. And now there’s a kid that’s like, “f*ck it I’m 13 years old I can be the head of this, anything. The sky’s the limit.”
And honestly, when I started 20 years ago, it was unfathomable for me to have that sort of access. I was like, “I wanna be able to sell a t-shirt.” That was my dream. If I could have a stranger buy a t-shirt of mine, I could die.
But now a kids are like I’m going to LV, that’s his barometer now. So, it’s great when you start setting the bar so high. Then it starts to get really interesting. I like both sides. There’s going to be a natural selection like a Darwinism process. If those kids that were talking about are not gritty enough, don’t have the hustle, they’ll fall away and give up but the ones that remain are going to do some amazing things that I’m excited about.