But cool is fleeting, and after Shawn left the company in 1996, selling his stake to cofounder Frank Sinatra Jr. (no relation to the “My Way” guy), Stüssy foundered culturally. Its graphics remained touchstones, its Tribe jackets desirable. It even sold well. But it didn’t have the same cache. “Everyone would be like, ‘I love Stüssy, but I don’t really want to wear Stüssy,’ which is like, a unique and almost uncomfortable thing,” says Fraser Avey, Stüssy’s global brand director since 2015. “You’re like, Yo, the stuff we’re making is actually not good enough or right. The brand is almost stronger than the product.”
How Stüssy returned to relevance is not a story about the state of the fashion industry—rather, it’s about succeeding against the grain by ignoring the larger pulls of private equity, tricky wholesale relationships, and relentless collaborations. Stüssy is doing the things you always want a fashion company to do: think smaller, be more niche, and respect its heritage without wringing it dry. Jayne Goheen, along with Israel Gonzalez, the men’s design director, has made the clothing into some of the best American ready-to-wear on the market. Where the brand once churned out recreations of Shawn’s pieces, it now sticks rigorously to its design points—and looks equally at home alongside Marni, Ralph Lauren, and Brunello Cucinelli, with whom it shares digital shelf space on Mr Porter, and alongside peers like Noah or Off-White, its neighbors on Union’s site.
“Stüssy is a special brand,” says Avey. “It can be democratic in its pricing, but can still be special, and it should still draw on emotion. We tried to bring some of that energy back to the US, not necessarily changing the people that perceive Stüssy in the way that we saw it—not changing their opinion—but perhaps altering, just pruning it a bit. Taking a little bit more care of how we moved, and how we showed up.”
For a long time, Stussy did what you were supposed to do to get big, which was establish wholesale accounts with multi-brand retailers with huge footprints in malls and commercial hubs all over America. By 2014, it had annual revenues of $50 million. But, Avey says, “these places…were not necessarily the right channels for the future of what we wanted to do.” Which was: “be a good brand, or at least be good caretakers of a good brand.” So the simplest reasons for Stüssy’s turnaround are also the hardest to pull off: they stopped making bad clothes, and stopped selling in uncool stores. “We just walked away from bigger retailer relationships,” Avey says.
When Sinatra’s son, David, became CEO around 2014, he and Avey began to make subtle changes. “It wasn’t grandiose,” Avey says. “It was everyday decision-making that led to this.” They started making cleaner, more sophisticated clothes.
“We started, truthfully, designing better,” Avey says. And they started selling in Dover Street Market, the global temple to avant-garde fashion, which “just interpreted it differently, and then like retranslated it back out to the world differently.” Avey and his team have spent the past five or six years redesigning Stüssy stores “with a little bit more diligence and care.” This decision lost money, both Avey and Sinatra tell me—not always popular in a fashion environment that rewards quick-scaling, revenue-generating brands. Stüssy’s priorities, Avey says, are different: “There isn’t this ambition to grow. The ambition is to be good.”
Avey seems to care a lot, but then he’s worked at Stüssy for basically his whole adult life. He started working there around 2008, when he was employed at a snowboarding store in Vancouver that stocked Stüssy, which quickly turned into managing the North American stores and advising on product. Avey has a slacker’s hair and voice, but he hustles; when he talks about Stüssy, it sounds almost like he’s selling Bibles. His mission was pretty simple. “We wanted to make good clothing for our friends that they appreciated,” he says.