Shawn Stussy is a man who needs no introduction, so we’re not going to write one about him. Here is an interview we grabbed with Shawn while he was out here in Australia speaking at CARBON. We spoke about Australia, shaping surfboards and how to launch a brand. It ended up being a long ass chat so we had to split it into two parts, this is the first part – the second part will be live in a day or two…
EA – Have you been out here (Australia) before?
SS – Once before, like 20 years ago, it was at the height of Stussy and we were doing real good here, but I didn’t have much contact with it because Australia was the only place that I had a licensee. Everywhere else in the world I made the product in America and we distributed it. But here we had the Hill brothers, Steve and Peter. It wasn’t Globe then, they brought in hard goods, skateboards things, etc. under a name I forget right now. I licensed my name to them at that time. I didn’t have much contact with the Hill brothers because there was another guy I dealt with named Jim Fisher. He came from Quiksilver, he was a sales guy there. Jim came to me like ‘hey, I think your going to do really good, can I run it down here in Australia for you?’ He knew the Hill brothers, so they financed it, Jimmy ran things day to day.
At the height of Stussy my wife and I flew into Melbourne then went on to Sydney. We got picked up, shuffled off to a dinner in a warehouse, super fun for us with parties and such. Romper Stomper had just came out, there were actors, and assorted hipsters. Very fun and cool. But my vision of Australia was driving a VW Kombi van up to Byron Bay, surfing and camping about. But Australia, I mean Melbourne and Sydney anyway, in the early 90?s was to me was really cosmopolitan.
EA: So you’ve got like another week here this time?
SS: Well I got Monday to Friday and I fly to Tokyo on Saturday. That’s why I’m here, I kind of had to go there (Tokyo) anyway. So when Carbon reached out I went yeah, I’ll go make a loop. I have a few days but not enough to really do anything. I didn’t bring a board or a wetsuit, I was like, I don’t want to travel with all this shit for one or two days, you know.
Empire: You’re shaping a lot again.
Shawn Stussy: Yeah I have been.
Empire: Pretty impressive. You’ve got some interesting shapes coming out.
Shawn Stussy: I do make a lot of these little racy single fin hulls, kind of point-wave boards. You know, I’m at Rincon and Malibu and up at the Ranch, so it’s a weird flat rocker board that works for a certain alternative thing. You can still surf them pretty hard combined with the finesse part.
Empire: Yeah, it was shaping that kind of led to Stussy getting developed… I read interviews where you said it was shaping that kept you afloat for the first…
Shawn Stussy: Ten years, yeah… It was never going to be clothes. I was only a surfboard company.
Empire: Yeah, I think there was one where someone said, ‘oh Stussy just happened overnight‘, and you were like ‘naaaaa, I was still shaping for ten years to keep this thing going before it took off‘.
Shawn Stussy: Yeah, totally.
Empire: So now that you’re going back to shaping, is that just something that is a passion in you that you still want to do?
Shawn Stussy: Yeah, I’ve done it since I was thirteen.
Empire: What was it that made you pick up the planer for the first time you did it?
Shawn Stussy: I don’t know… I shaped my first board in between seventh and eighth grade. I went to high school in ’68. I’m living in Huntington Beach, Surf City, all the shops were there at that time. There was one summer, three months, where you had longboards and shortboards in the shops at the same time. Then we went back to school and you never saw a longboard again for years, ‘til Herbie in the mid ‘80s came out, with that square nosed side slipping thing, cleaning out the crowd at Lowers, you know. So there was no collectability culture, there was no old board collectors then at all, the old boards worth heaps today were put up under the house. It was Barry Kanaiaupuni with red rocket, Lopez, Brewer, and Reno that mattered now. The short board era had begun. no looking back, and no tankers allowed. If you lived somewhere else, this info took a bit more time to travel, you know what i mean?
Shawn Stussy: Like, I mean I found punk in ’78, but if you lived in New York City you could have been 12 living across the street from CBGB’s and you might have found it earlier. If you aren’t at the epicentre of when something happens, it’s still going to be one or two years, especially pre computer. So I say ’78 for punk but it’s happening in England in ’76 and ’77. It was the same with surfing. There was that one summer, Greek had the Maui model, the Vardeman shop was there with the Jackie Baxter model, David Nuuhiwa noseriders… All these iconic longboards were the last season of longboards. Then boom, all of a sudden it’s Gerry Lopez, Dick Brewer, Reno Abellira , BK and the crew… You know, it was really quick.
That summer I learned to surf. We’ve always hung around the beach, there was no boogie boards, so you made your plywood skimboard and you would go rent the rafts from the concession, those blue ones with the yellow rubber with the ropes, and you stand up on those, little kids, you know. My sister who is four years older, a couple of years prior, ‘66ish, when all those Gidget movies happened, all the girls in the neighbourhood bought a board and rode it once or twice and then they went up behind the garage, they abandoned them. So that same summer when the boards got little I cut the blank off in front of the fin, ripped the glass off, and shaped a little 6’8” modern board from an old tanker because you couldn’t buy blanks. Clark wasn’t selling blanks to the public, it wasn’t like you could go to a shop and buy them. So I made my first one in the summer between eighth and ninth grade.
Empire: How did it go?
Shawn Stussy: I don’t know, I can’t remember now. It seemed good at the time. I probably made ten of them that way and then about that time in that short window, the shortboard revolution happened and then they started selling blanks at Frog House in Newport.
Empire: Just learning, evolving it all. That’s crazy. It’s crazy that it just went whoosh. You don’t see that anymore. You don’t even hear of it.
Shawn Stussy: Now there’s all those categories going on at the same time, but it wasn’t like that. If you knew what you know now, and was the guy buying longboards then, dude it was a motherload.
Empire: Yeah, where they just hang it up on their wall and don’t ride it.
Shawn Stussy: Yeah, if you would have known about that then, you could have filled a warehouse with them because nobody even wanted them. There was no like glimmer to it at all, it was just old, you know. Rock and roll happened, there was no more Paul Anka, you know what I mean?
Empire: Yeah. Are you hand-shaping all your boards these days?
Shawn Stussy: Yeah, every one.
Empire: and designing the fins.. ?
Shawn Stussy: Yeah, all of that.
Empire: So there’s no computers, nothing…
Shawn Stussy: Well, I’m going to have to at some point because I’m just a dinosaur, it takes me four hours, it’s a joke. Eventually if I keep doing this, one will surface as the one worth scanning. A magic one is going to come along and I’m going to have to template it. I mean it takes me so long and these hulls you can’t get quick-shape blanks. I have to get these big long planks to get my low rocker S decks.
Empire: You’re really just cutting them out? Are they in stores? How do you get a Shawn Stussy board?
Shawn Stussy: Come visit my shop in the back of the barbershop in Montecito. But mostly just for friends.
Empire: You had them on the store for a little while?
Shawn Stussy: Yeah, on my own website for awhile, but i sold them all.
ON STARTING STUSSY
Shawn Stussy: And then the clothing thing kind of started rolling – as that blossomed I shaped less and less, because that thing is paying the bills. But yeah, Stussy clothing never would have happened. The way it happened was trade shows in 1981, ’82. Remember Action Sports Retailer? Which turned into a big beast. At the beginning it was this funky little thing in Long Beach. The two guys that started it, older guys than me, lived in Laguna Beach where I’m from.
I’m making surfboards in 1980, I just scribbled Stussy on them. These guys are like five years older than me; we all hung out at the same beach. These older guys are seeing all the kids ride my boards; twin fins, bright pink and stuff, and they were like “Oh we’re having this –“. It was their second show. They had one with maybe twenty booths in; you know, Quiksilver and Billabong and stuff. And so they go “Oh we have this show.” I go ‘oh yeah, I kind of heard somebody – the Quiksilver guys – talking about that.‘ And they go “We’ll give you a booth because we want to have surfboard makers in there.” And I went oh cool, so I made like eight boards or something and I went with my buddy, we were going to stand in this booth, I didn’t know, I hadn’t been to trade shows. So, I go let’s print some black Hanes t-shirts and I printed white Stussy on them, like Alva, you know?
I stood there for three days and I sold about 24 boards. But every single person came by saying: “Yeah I’ll take a board or I’ll take two boards, but how much are those t-shirts?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, they’re not for sale.” “But no, I want to buy 24 of those.” So I was like, “Okay, they’re eight bucks”, or I forget. There wasn’t like a price sheet or anything. At the end of the three days I had sold a thousand; I was like “oh fuck, are you kidding me?” So I went home and printed the shirts and then I went bing, I’m shaping one board a day…you know how Merrick’s shaping five a day and I was like a ‘60s hippie still, like fuck you production guys. You might as well be contractors framing a house, this is an art, you know. And you got Bob Marley blaring and a big fatty and it was like a whole day to turn one out…it was like my art, you know? So that was the way I made boards, it was like a sculpture. It wasn’t like a job. Then, I’m like oh now I can put food on the table with these tee shirt things. So that’s how that started.
The next show six months later I had two shirts. That same show everybody wore those little cord OP short shorts, you know. And I was like – we were over that, because we were starting to be more punky and stuff. So I went to the Army Navy store and bought chinos from the war, my mom cut them off – they felt really long, I mean they were probably here (points to about three inches above the knee) but they seemed like they were so long, but in hindsight they weren’t – and just for myself. When I went to the next show, I’m like okay I got two t-shirts for you!! They go “Yeah and what about those shorts?” And I’m like what do you mean about the shorts?
It was the same thing. I went to all the army surplus stores and bought ‘em all up and hemmed them and sold those. Then I couldn’t find a stash of them anymore because I probably bought 300 or 400 pairs over a six-month period. I couldn’t find as many of them anymore. So, my aunt, she knew all these things about sewing, she went “We can pick those apart.” So I picked all the thread apart and got all the components, ironed them to make a pattern off of them, you know what I’m saying?
Empire: You got the pattern cut out?
Shawn Stussy: Yeah, so we took shopping bags, like I would take from the grocery store, the brown square bags and I made a template. And so then my mom and my aunt made a hundred pairs. It was never like I’m going to start a clothing line. It was just kind of a street-smart flea market kid going well fuck, I could make a hundred of those. That’s easier than making ten boards and I make more money, you know…
Empire: And the t-shirts just had your Stussy scribble on them?
Shawn Stussy: Yeah and then they said ‘New Wave Designs’. There was a moment there when it was 1980 and it was like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. But that’s what I mean. It wasn’t like let’s start a company. It was a long gestation period.
ON THE STUSSY SCRIPT
Empire Ave: Your scripting is probably one of the most famous handwriting scripts getting around. Is it something that it just came to you, or was it something you’ve had to work on?
Shawn Stussy: Well, the beginning of the logo part was 1979. I always worked through the ‘70s for another shop, Russell Surfboards in Newport Beach called The Brotherhood. I was just a shaper. The logos were very ‘70s, the newer ones were Country Surfboards and Lightning Bolt. Before that was all of the ‘60s logos, were ovals and Dewey Weber and Greg Noll style graphics…
Shawn Stussy: Well it’s ’78, ’79, it’s Sex Pistols and The Clash. It hits America.
Shawn Stussy: Yeah. So, I’m a punk guy. I’m going to start my own business and the last thing I want to do is make boards like what I thought were the old days. Even though they were guys i respected, I was like ‘fuck you, old guys’. Then I just wrote Stussy and broke away at the end of ’79 and made my first Stussy board. It was like, I didn’t want to be some hippie guy with a big moustache. Those were all my friends, but I remember right then McCoy came to America and McCoy had a big sticker for the time. And I was like oh man, these Aussie guys, if they can do it I can do it. The place I worked I would write ‘shape S Stussy’ on the stringer. And they were like “You fag, glory hog”. I’m like 22 or something and they were like “Dude, you egomaniac.” It was really like hippie guys, you know? And I’m like kind of young and I want my shit to start rolling. So I could just tell, wow, I got to move on here. That was how that happened. I just wrote Stussy…
Empire: Then it just evolved from there where it’s just became an iconic.
Shawn Stussy: Just when it went on that t-shirt at that show and then the guys went, “we’ll buy the t-shirts.” So it was not ever thought through very much. It just kind of happened.
Empire: Just happened, and is that still basically your handwriting now?
Shawn Stussy: Yeah, that was just my name. I wrote it like a couple hundred times with different pens on different kind of paper and just picked the best one.