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Fashion : 'Dude Clothes' Ride Big Wave in L.A. and Abroad

June 21, 1989|NEIL FEINEMAN

If anyone can bridge the gap between beach and street fashion, it is probably Shawn Stussy. An Orange County home boy, he considers himself equally comfortable on the streets of Huntington Beach or Los Angeles, London or Tokyo--cities where his clothes are making waves.

Fans collect his T-shirts because of their graphics (this season he's into Jamaican flags) and their script-like logos. He makes the neon-colored beach shorts so many kids are wearing this summer. Knit shirts and long, pleated shorts in khaki or dark colors round out his casual collection.

Then there is the dressier side of Stussy's line. He shows shirts that range from pinpoint Oxford cloth in solid colors to bright flower prints, and his pleated pants are office worthy. The more informal items can be found at better surf shops and at Nordstrom; the dressier offerings at Barney's in New York and better boutiques throughout the country.

The range is so wide, in fact, that even Stussy is hard-pressed to pin a label on his creations. He simply calls them "dude clothes."

"They are almost conservative and open to interpretation by the wearer," the goateed 35-year-old explains. "If they have anything in common, it is that I want to wear them more than five times. If I didn't, the clothes would be frivolous and unnecessary."

That doesn't mean Stussy is austere. Far from it. "The key to understanding him is that he's the ultimate consumer," says his partner, Frank Sinatra Jr. (no relation to the singer).

"It's true. I want everything," Stussy says with a laugh. He's wearing a black T-shirt, black tennis shoes and black Levi's, his trademark outfit. But his closet is filled with top-of-the-line designer clothes, many of them from his favorite company, Comme des Garcons. As if to further prove his passion for material goods, Stussy interrupts a conversation so that he can investigate the office's new Polaroid camera, and makes a note to buy one for himself.

Any creative effort comes down to being true to one's "roots," he believes. And for Stussy, those roots start with the surf. He got into the business by designing surfboards at age 13. After high school, he and his girlfriend, Vickie Weiss, spent the next six winters in Mammoth, where he taught skiing, and the summers at the beach, where he produced custom-made boards.

Ten years ago he and Vickie, who were married by then, moved back to Orange County full time "to do the adult trip," which he defines as the ability to balance the demands of making a living, serving one's art--in this case surfboard design--and having time left over for fun.

Surfboards to Clothing

His thriving surfboard business served as the impetus for his clothing line when he started selling silk-screened T-shirts to the shops that carried his boards. And it was Sinatra, then a CPA, who spotted the potential. He gave Stussy $5,000 and told him to print more shirts. They quickly doubled their investment, and plowed the profits back into the business.

Stussy, a thrift shop habitue, began buying bolts of old fabric, with a plan. Having what he calls no "garmento background" or formal training, he started cutting the vintage fabrics into Bermuda shorts. And like the T-shirts, they sold out. "After that," he says, "it became a case of what could we make next."

By 1984, there was enough business for Sinatra to hang up his pinstripe suit to become Stussy's full-time partner. Last year, their fifth in business, they did $7 million in sales. This year, the business hit the $10-million mark. Industry insiders say they could have done twice that.

"A lot of people tell us we're blowing it by not growing faster, but we see it more as a matter of not being greedy," Stussy says. "Because we have controlled our growth, we have evolved naturally and called the shots our way."

He and Sinatra say they are in for the long haul. "It is not as if we came in with half-a-million dollars to invest, discovered that the surf market was happening and needed to cash in on it immediately."

Unlike many companies in their position, the annual advertising and promotional budget at Stussy is a paltry $20,000.

Concentrating on Product

"Instead of spending money creating an image, we've concentrated on developing a 'kick your butt' product that people want, even if they have to spend a little more time looking for it," he says.

Some unlikely people have joined in the search. For example, he recently discovered to his surprise that his T-shirts are stylish in London nightclubs. As he puts it: "There is a serious Stussy posse in the hippest clubs in the world."

His following grew dramatically several years ago when the rap groups Run DMC and Beastie Boys wore Stussy for their videos and stage shows. Now the clothes have become almost a uniform among the hippest segments of the dance music community in England.

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