Interview

Jeff Staple, Creative Director

DESIGN VISION is a design research project at Sony that predicts societal trends from
a variety of perspectives and explores the course that the future might take.
Designers at the Creative Center conduct their own research and interviews, leading to analysis and implications for the future.
The research in 2020 was conducted while the world was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
From that research report, we reprint an interview with Jeff Staple, the creative director from Staple.

Jeff Staple Creative Director. Born 1975 in New Jersey. Jeff founded Staple Design in 1997, and continues to garner respect from youths the world over through his work on the streetwear brand Staple and his Hypebeast podcast.
He is famous for his celebrated collaborations with a wide range of brands, from sportswear makers to luxury brands.

Youth Culture as a Compass for
the Future of Brands

Founder of the streetwear brand Staple, Jeff Staple has amassed a huge following among the youth through his high-profile collaborations with sportswear brands, tech companies, and more. He has long served as an inspiration for youth culture by teaming up with popular figures like Hiroshi Fujiwara, a multi-talented creator who has led the Japanese street fashion scene. For this interview, we sat down with Jeff to hear his views on the future of brand communication.
(Reprinted from the DESIGN VISION Insight 2020 report issued in October 2020)

Contagion of Positive Vision
in a World Gripped by a Pandemic

Tell us about your brand vision.

Staple’s brand statement is Positive Social Contagion. It’s not really about doing good for society, like many people think. It’s about making yourself happy. A lot of us think it’s our duty to make others happy, including friends and family. But the flip side of that is that we tend to neglect ourselves. That can cause society to fall apart. The idea of social contagion is that positive acts spread positive influence. This vision is consistent in everything I do, from fashion and retail to branding and marketing. I’m not really trying to change anyone’s life. I’m simply focusing on what I need to do for myself and sharing it with others, but that ends up impacting the lives of others. Now, with COVID-19 threatening our lives, I feel this vision has more significance than ever before.

A sweatshirt with the message
"A positive social contagion" printed on it.

You’ve long been an inspiration for young generations. What’s the key to your success?

Staple mainly targets youths aged 15 to 25—a really tough demographic group, because they’re extremely finicky and their culture keeps changing. We also have to keep shifting our target to new generations. There are three important things to keep in mind: win trust, stay real, and don’t lie. Large corporations tend not to attach much importance to youths, and young people hate being a marketing target. A brand has to be a guide or mentor for young generations. You give them knowledge and support, and they will give you back raw, youthful energy. Your success depends on whether you can establish this reciprocal relationship.

How to Build Trust With
Youth Culture and Communities

Sony used to drive youth culture with products like the Walkman. What do we need to do, in your opinion, to win over youths again?

I grew up as a Sony fan. But to be honest, I don’t think today’s youths share the same kind of love for Sony that older generations had. That could be because Sony is missing out on opportunities to collaborate with youths. Everyone knows that it stands for high quality, but they don’t think it’s very cool. It’s kind of like an old teacher at school—someone you can trust, but don’t want to hang out with.

One of the things I stress in collaborating with youths is workshops. They provide a place for open communication, and this builds trust. We also gain all kinds of insights from them. Focus group interviews are a popular marketing approach, but they don’t allow you to build trust with your subjects, so you can’t really get useful information out of them. The questions tend to be biased, leading the subjects to say what you want them to say. That’s why I think workshops are the best way to get to know youths.

Jeff’s talk show at NTWRK,
a popular Live-commerce platform in US.

These days, we also use a Livecommerce platform called NTWRK. Gen Zers and Millennials are its main users. The beauty of this service is that it lets you speak directly to your audience.

Another great thing about it is that it incorporates the unique streetwear brand culture of product drops. Unlike traditional fashion brands, which release products at set times during each season, streetwear brands drop (release) limited-edition products at limited places for a limited time only. NTWRK brings the same approach online to whet consumers’ appetite. When we dropped our collection with Nike on NTWRK, it nearly flooded the bandwidth.

Importance of Clarifying
the Company’s Social Stance

What kind of meaning do you think sustainability has for Gen Zers?

I think it’s an important criterion for them in deciding where to spend their money. They shun companies they see as detrimental to ethics, human rights, democracy, and the environment. Sustainability is no longer an option; it’s a mission. With the rise of fast fashion, anyone can make high-quality products now at low cost, and it’s become harder than ever to differentiate. With more options to choose from with little difference in quality, consumers are making choices based on whether they identify with or trust a brand’s stand on social issues. So not making one’s stand clear has become a risk for companies.

You’re also active in the BLM movement. Can you talk a bit about that?

Realizing that not speaking out didn’t make me a neutral observer, I got in touch with Hiroshi Fujiwara, a designer and longtime friend, and we designed a T-shirt to raise money to support BLM. It generated sales of 25 million dollars. My brand is strongly influenced by African-American culture, so I also announced long-term support plans. One of them is called One for Equality, a permanent commitment to donate 1% of all future profits to organizations fighting for racial equality. We also set up a 125,000-dollar scholarship fund for minority students at Parsons School of Design, and provided creatives pro bono to an NPO that offers minority youths a place to express themselves.

Hypefest NYC, 2018

I believe music and fashion rooted in African-American culture are deeply ingrained in Japanese society as well. I’m sure there are lots of stuff made in Japan that took inspiration from the creativity of African Americans. Sony’s entertainment content, too, features elements of their culture in many places, right? So I think it’s natural to respect that culture and give back through creative means. As a global brand, I think it’s important for Sony to clarify its social stance.

(July 30, 2020, online interview)