Words by Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins Photos by Robyn Twomey
Over the years, we’ve seen the masses focus a microscope on the worlds of graffiti, hip hop music and “streetwear,” amongst other youth-bred movements. Paying focused attention to the players in a once-counter-culture that was not only overlooked but often rejected by mainstream commercial outlets, we’ve witnessed these grassroots operations grow like your favorite strain. And while the un-initiated don’t know the difference between “home-spun” and “homeboy”—you’ve been played—Mass Appeal knows the difference. That’s why you’re here.
With creativity, passion and recognition as their ultimate form of currency, many of today’s respected clothing brands were spawned from the sweat and dreams of former New Jacks looking to get their names up, get their records spun, or communicate an even bigger message a la a middle-finger reply to what the establishment has always dished out. Mass Appeal sat down with two OGs who have capitalized on their good accidents, put in major work and found a way to help build and add substance to a culture they so deeply cherish. Kimou Meyer, known the world over as Grotesk, is a gifted creative who has leveraged his undying love for the arts into several burgeoning entities, including his creative agency, Doubleday & Cartwright, sports-obsessed content tank, No Mas, and newspaper, Victory Journal. Jeff Ng, better known by his alias, Jeff Staple, is the owner of Staple Design and the Lower East Side-based Reed Space, one of the premier retail spots in the Big Apple for those who know what time it is. These two men have a shared history in the realms of learning and earning, and they have done much to pave the way for new voices in fashion and flavor. Below is but a sampling of their extremely enlightening conversation.
HOW THEY MET
Jeff Staple: So let’s take it all the way back. Do you recall the first time that we met? ‘Cause I have a bad memory.
Grotesk: I think it was ‘99. My wife was working at Alife on Orchard Street at the time. I would come pick her up after work, and they used to have that mezzanine with a lot of creative people coming by. Either there or in front of the store chilling, since you guys were kind of sharing the same block. That’s where Arnaud (Delecolle) and Jest (Rob Cristofaro) were situated; at the time they were Creative Directors of Mass Appeal.
They asked me to do illustrations of “Ten People You Should Know That’s Going to Become the Next Generation.” Your name was on the list and I think that’s how we first kind of had an official introduction. I had to meet you and take a photo. ‘Cause, at the time, I used to trace over photos as an art career [laughs].
JS: [Laughs] So I came over to Base and then we took photos.
G: Elf MPC came by — rest in peace — and Yuka.
JS: My girlfriend at the time.
G: I guess [laughs]. Also, Phillip Leeds, who works at Billionaire Boys Club now, and Jason Noto, who has Morning Breath Inc.
JS: So what was your wife doing for Alife?
G: It’s a funny story. Basically, in ‘99 we were just wandering around. I was fresh off the plane from Europe. We were walking on Orchard Street, like discovering the city. We were talking kind of loud in French. And Arnaud, the founder of Alife, who is half-French, half-Brazilian, was like, “Ay, I speak French too, what’s up? What are you guys up to?” And we were like, “Oh, we just arrived in New York.” And he was like, “Hey, you’re kind of cute. You need a job?”
JS: To your wife?
G: To my wife.
JS: And then that’s when you, like, punched Arnaud in the face [laughs].
G: [Laughs] I was like “Word? I like your store.” My wife was like, “Alright, I guess …” And the next week she started at Alife. Honestly, it was like a one-in-a-million chance, because indirectly through my wife I owe a good portion of my career. A lot of the things that happened to me started up with her. My first illustration opportunity as “Grotesk” came from Alife.
HOW THEY GOT THEIR NAMES & THEIR STARTS
JS: They gave you the name Grotesk?
G: They didn’t give me the name. They said you have to figure out a name, so that we can promote you. So I was like, “Alright.”
JS: Oh, so you didn’t have Grotesk before you met the Alife guys?
G: No, they really pushed me to come up with a name. And then I kind of took a few weeks and came up with a few names. Some were really dumb … how did you come up with Staple?
JS: When I started in ‘97, I started making t-shirts. I didn’t have a brand name. I didn’t want to make a brand actually. I walked into the Triple 5 Soul store on Lafayette, and the manager at the time was like, “Yo, I like your shirts. We should carry some here. What’s your brand name?” And I was like, “Uh … I’ll let you know tomorrow.” At the time, I was greatly influenced by hip hop music and culture. But I wasn’t into like, FUBU, Pelle Pelle or Rocawear. I loved the music, but for whatever reason the fashion didn’t connect with what I loved. And that’s why I always gravitated more towards, like, Union and Triple 5. I was really interested in the four elements of hip hop: DJ-ing, Graffiti, MC-ing and B-boy-ing.
The staples of hip hop culture. If I’m going to create a brand that’s inspired by all of that, I want it to be the staple of that too. That’s where I came up with Staple Design.
JS: I went back to Triple 5 and was like, “Yo, here’s the shirts. It’s called Staple.” He was like, “A’ight. That’s a dope name. So you’re Jeff Staple.” I’m like “No … Don’t call me that. That’s not my name.” I was like, “That’s weird. I don’t want to be Jeff Staple;” I guess I felt that way because of Marc Ecko. It was like, the trend. He was like, “Nah, that’s your name. I’m gonna make it stick. Watch.”
G: No one ever calls you by your real name, I guess. Except your parents.
JS: Now people book airline tickets for me as “Jeff Staple” and I can’t get on the plane because of it.
HAPPY ACCIDENTS (HOW THINGS UNFOLDED FOR THEM)
JS: What I wanted to get back to was the thing that you said about accidents. It’s almost like if you and your wife took a different path that day — if you didn’t walk on Orchard Street — you wouldn’t have met Arnaud. And where would you be today? I’m sure you’d be happy and successful but … you might’ve been on a whole different parallel reality. Right?
G: It’s funny how many good accidents I’ve had in life. And sometimes even a bad one makes you shift towards something good. Like when we met 13 years ago, I probably would have told you I’d be back in Switzerland.
JS: I might be getting this wrong, but weren’t you going through like visa issues and shit?
G: Oh, I’ve been through a lot …
JS: You were, like, so stressed out with having to go back and maybe not coming back. Yeah, you would have never thought, like, “I’m gonna be based in New York and have my own agency and be killin’ it.”
G: I think it has to do with work and reason too. I think you and I share the same attention to detail and obsession about what we’re doing. At the time I was working at Base; I enjoyed it a lot. But then I discovered that whole left-field movement of Alife starting, Triple 5 Soul, Staple, Rawkus and The Lyricist Lounge. I would start to spend more and more time and see that there was another life next to this. But for visa reasons I can’t just fully jump [into it]. I thought, “I’m gonna get kicked out the country,” so I had to do a double-life. During the day I would work corporate, then I would go nap for a few hours, and then go out from 10-3 in the morning and network with nightlife guys, open mic guys, get some freelance, go back, work a few hours, then two hours later be back at my desk doing a pictogram for the MoMA or something. I did that for two years until Ecko reached out to me and was able to help me with my visa and help me settle in a little bit. But I had to wait seven years to really get my green card and really follow my dream of doing my own business. You’ve never been through that!
JS: [Laughs] Nah, never. I’m a good ol’ American. The concept of accidents is really interesting ‘cause I often have young people ask me, “What is the secret to it all? What’d you do to get here? What are the answers?” And that day [when] Triple 5 bought 12 shirts from me … the backstory is, that was my birthday. March 7th, 1997. It was on my birthday that that happened. And I had just dropped my girlfriend at the hair salon to get her hair done for my birthday.
She was gonna get a perm and shit; it took like three hours. So I just meandered around downtown. And I walked into Triple 5, and I happened to be wearing a Staple shirt that day. It’s like, what if I didn’t wear a Staple that day; what if I didn’t go into Triple 5 that day — I literally might not have Staple today if I didn’t make that move.
G: That’s amazing.
JS: That’s how serendipitous it is. You could call it luck, you could call it an accident but … I go into these weird Twilight Zone mind-fucks when I start thinking about parallel realities and shit. And what would have happened if I didn’t go into Triple 5 that day? Would something else have happened where I would have started Staple? Was it destined to happen or was it seriously like, there is an alternate universe where I am like an accountant and I didn’t start Staple?
Because it was so random that I walked into there. What I do tell young people is that opportunities are floating in the universe and you gotta be able to recognize when one is in your face — and then grab it. I think that’s the skill set that young people should try to develop.
LEARNING (FROM THE GAME AND ONE ANOTHER)
JS: I remember those days when you were really just kind of like, you had to decide which clique you were in.
G: Exactly. Which is something that was influenced by some of the people I’d hang out with in graffiti. In graffiti, you cannot be with too many cliques. I think what I learned was to be respectful with the people you collaborate with — even if you’re not on the same page at the time. That’s something I tell the kids. I see a lot of hate on social media. You never know, five years from now … five years goes by like this, and you’ll have an intern that is now running
JS: You can balance it.
G: Like the stock market — I’m a little too hardcore this week, I need to chill out next week. Once you can start to manage that with your emotions, which is not always easy, you will have longevity.
JS: I was gonna say to that point, you talk about being an Observationist. I think from my point-of-view, I wish I could say I was deliberately doing that. From my standpoint, I think I was lucky that I came in just after the first generation of this independent creative thinking.
When I was in school I looked up to Eric Haze, Futura, Camella Ehlke from Triple 5, the Union guys — which was the Supreme guys — Alife, Stash. So I came in and I was just enamored by everyone. When I started my business, I had that mentality with everyone like, “You’re my father, you’re my grandfather in this.” And I think I kind of became, like, “Okay, he’s the guy that nobody has a problem with,” and that’s where I became the Observationist. I remember when I decided to open Reed Space. I sat down with James Jebbia and was like, “I’m gonna open a store, is that cool?” I just feel like, if you’re gonna open a store below 14th Street, you should ask James first.
REVIVAL OF BRICK-AND-MORTAR STORES
JS: I don’t think there is a revival of brick-and-mortar stores. I think it’s just too hard. Every time I have out-of-towners come in to New York and they’re like, “Aw, let’s go to the new shops,” I’m hard-pressed to figure out new shops for them to go to. It’s still Opening Ceremony, Odin and the mainstays. In terms of a revival where every three months, there’s a brand new exciting store … I don’t think it’s back.
G: Maybe it also has to do with the real estate, which makes it really challenging for a brand to all of a sudden sign up for a five-year lease in SoHo for 20 grand a month. The whole “pop-up shop” thing maybe has a little bit more of a brighter future, ‘cause you can create something unique for a few weeks, keep the excitement, launch your brand and shift towards [the] Internet.
JS: Yeah. I see a lot of pop-ups.
HOW THE CULTURE HAS CHANGED
JS: The way you learned about this culture was just like, “Ok, Saturday I’m gonna do my rounds. Walk Ludlow, LES, Lafayette, Broadway, West Broadway to Union, slide back around, pick up a mixtape on Canal St. That was how you learned and I remember I would just stand inside of Union with my backpack on and just soak it in. That was the only way you could have learned this shit. You just look at the way they did everything. I’m sure they didn’t even know what they were doing half the time. But you just felt like they were the masters of the domain, and this is how you’re gonna learn. Just by hanging with them. Hopefully some little nugget will come off in the three hours you’re out. And the other spot was Bobbito’s Footwork. Bobbito’s was a mecca for records, t-shirts, and Bob might come in and drop two sentences on you and you’d leave like, “Ah, Bob just spoke!”
G: One of the first t-shirts I bought was a Milk Crate / Bobbito knock-off of an MTA graphic. I thought that was incredible. That was really like my first few weeks in New York.
JS: You know who was the manager of Bobbito’s Footwork back then? Angelo Baque. Who is now head of all marketing for Supreme. He was manning the register at Bobbito’s Footwork.
G: Another thing was the energy and the path that was set by those moments for the next 15 years. I was at Alife waiting for my wife to finish working, and there’s Shepard Fairey, setting up for his first show in New York. And he’s like, “You guys think it’s gonna be cool?” Like, he was all stressed out. Months later, Ryan McGinness has his first show. Few weeks later, Reas and Espo do Street Market.
JS: And to think that Shep would do the presidential campaign poster … fucking mind-boggling.
G: When you think about it, in like two to three years, that whole culture exploded. And at that time there was generally a lack of space to express yourself. And those stores were like the galleries. For me, seeing that was like, that’s the art I want to have in my crib. There was no gallery at the time. You’d go to a store and ask, who did that screen print?
JS: It’s insane how the culture’s grown. And I think the street culture, or whatever you want to call it, is different than skate or hip hop culture. At least from my standpoint, from having a fashion brand. When I started Staple, Rocawear and Sean John were like the major guys. But those brands weren’t owned by designers. They were owned by celebrities. And they were famous because of their celebrity profile. The difference now is the people who own these brands are designers. It has a whole different angle to it. When Rocawear would blow up, and you’d see Jay Z on a yacht, you’d give him props for that. If you saw Bobby Hundreds or Nick Diamonds on a yacht, half the people would be like, “Fuck that dude!” But you’d never be like “Fuck that dude” to Diddy on a yacht. You’d think, “Hell yeah, that’s what he’s supposed to do.” When I started Staple, it was the “anti” to all of that. And just last week, I see on Diddy’s Instagram that he’s wearing Staple on Father’s Day. That was such a mind-blowing moment, because it’s like you’re kind of the reason I started Staple.
G: But you were on a yacht at that moment.
JS: [Laughs] Yeah, I was on a yacht. I had strippers with me. But that was really a moment. It just came 360°. I named Staple because I didn’t want to be Sean John. And now (he’s) wearing Staple.
This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 53, which you can purchase a copy of here.