Jeff Ng, better known as Jeff Staple is not only a former part of the Sportswear International team (he was our US Edition art director from 2001-02), he is also exactly as old as the magazine (born in 1975) and­­, most importantly, he is a true a New York streetwear icon. Being the founder of the Staple Pigeon clothing line, acclaimed New York streetwear store Reed Space and creative agency Staple Design Studio, Staple is so busy he often finds himself replying to 150 e-mails between 1am and 7am. We met Staple at the winter edition of Berlin-based sneaker trade show Solemart. Interview by Maria Hunstig

You were one of the first to design a super-hyped limited edition shoe (the 2005 release of Staple’s Nike Dunk SB Low Pigeon caused riots at Reed Space and made it to the cover of the New York Post a day later). Would you ever queue for sneakers yourself?
No. The sneakers are really just a physical manifestation of the passion. It’s not really that you love rubber-injected things with leather on top. It’s not the shoe; it’s the soul, the music, the art, the design, the sport, all of these spiritual things that went into the shoe. The beauty of the shoe should be able to open you up to a whole world of amazing things. If you go to the grave being the guy who owns the most sneakers and doesn’t understand at all about architecture, graphic design, coloration, fabrication, sports and music, you missed the whole point. And that would be really sad.

But I think there are a lot of people who are like that.
Yes, but I feel it’s kind of my job to try and show them there is a bigger way. Like for instance on my social media, if I post a shoe, it gets so many likes. And if I didn’t care, in order to get more likes and followers–which is everyone’s objective in life nowadays–I would just keep posting shoes. But it’s important to me to show what I’m eating and what I’m seeing and where I’m flying and the music I’m listening to and the art that I’m seeing so that if you’re a sneaker fan looking at my life you’re like, “Oh, there’s other things that might influence the shoe that I like. Let me look into food or printing or something like that.”

So the sneaker people could all easily start an interest for cooking?
Yeah, out of shoes! It’s more common than you would think. A lot of cooks in New York are sneakerheads, actually. There is no sneaker-food thing, but the sneaker can take you into food and then it’s a separate thing of course.

The Nike Dunk SB Low Pigeon NYC
The Nike Dunk SB Low Pigeon NYC

Do you sometimes do things just so you can put them on social media?
Sometimes there will be a thing or an event that if I didn’t have social media, I might not go to. But I know that if I go there and if I shoot and post that, it will get a lot of perception and interaction and interaction is part of my job now. So it’s a reality.

What social media you think is the most important?
I think social media has to come from you authentically. If you’re not into social media, you shouldn’t do social media. You then have to find somebody for that. I only like Twitter and Instagram. It tried to launch a Tumblr, but I sucked at it, I didn’t know what’s going on and it was not authentic, same for Snapchat, I don’t get it. So we hired two kids who are Snapchat fanatics and they do it now and it feels authentic. I think doing a non-authentic social media is worse than not having a voice on it. To one brand, Snapchat might be the most important, to us it happens to be Instagram. But I personally still love Twitter. I can’t look at the Facebook interface as a graphic designer; it’s like the ugliest interface in the world to me.

Saying that you wouldn’t queue for a pair of shoes, why do you still make limited edition sneakers?
I tell you what: When Nike or any big company makes a limited edition shoe, they are forcing hype. When I do it, it’s because I am actually hedging my business. I don’t know if I can sell 200 or 10,000 pieces, I am a small business owner. I’m releasing a shoe in 2018 and I now have to determine the production run, but I don’t know what the trend is going to be in 2018. What if I put camouflage on a shoe and in 2018, camouflage is the wackest thing on earth? So I’m just being cautious, I’m not being a hypebeast. I would make more if I could, but it’s too scary of a proposition to me.

Last year you started opening up freestanding “mini versions” of your Reed Space in a few PacSun stores, a mall retailer with 900 stores across the US. Don’t you fear that Reed might become less cool once there are one or two dozen outposts of it?
In street culture, there’s a notion of being less cool when you are big. It’s really the only industry where if you become successful you risk your career. If you have a bakery and then Walmart wants to buy your bread you would sell them the bread, right? And if they want more bread you would make more bread. In street culture, if you make a shirt and it sells wells and then a bigger store wants it and it sells well and they sell out, they don’t want it anymore. So you can either go back to being very small or you sell out and you’re finished. Going back to your question I think the key is trying to keep innovative. And product is king to me. I mean even when news of us working with PacSun came out, everybody was like: “This is so wack, now it’s gonna be over.” But then when they saw it and how we sort of ripped out the interior of our Lower East Side flagship and put it into PacSun, they were like, “Oh wow, this is actually really dope.”

You have once been part of the Sportswear team. Do you think there will still be printed magazines in five years?
Yeah, for sure!  I guarantee there will be. I’ll guarantee that we will have printed magazines in 100 years.

Why would people buy them?
I don’t think digital is anywhere near what we can do with a magazine. I think you are actually using a different part of your brain when you are flipping through a tactile magazine then when you’re swiping through it on an iPad.

What part of your brain?
Discovery? It’s the same as online shopping. When you’re flipping through an iPad issue, you’re able to search and seek things. You can go to the directory and then you just scroll, scroll, scroll and hit what you want. This minimizes the discovery. Sometimes when you are flipping through a magazine, you see like a headline which doesn’t even inspire you to read the story but it just reminds you to do something else in your life that’s completely unrelated. That happens to me all the time. I see a word and I’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I have to do that thing.” I get a good portion of my inspiration from that, actually.

Do you think that at any point of your life you will lose your inspiration and creative energy?
I hope not. Just kill me if that happens. But I don’t think that will happen because I have trained myself to get inspiration from really simple things like random people, people watching, travel, different cities, things like looking at a newspaper….I don’t think those things will ever become out of style or too expensive. Some people are really inspired by things like climbing on top of Mount Everest or going on a cruise or things like that, so if they cannot afford the cruise and then they cannot be inspired anymore and that’d be sad. But I get inspired by really simple things. I could go to a roadside diner and look at a waitress work for three hours and be inspired.

What would that inspire you for?
I don’t know. But I am able to just transwire that into like a shirt somehow. (Laughs.)

I would like to see that! Can you give people advice on how to make watching a waitress into a shirt?
Not direct advice, but I can say: keep an extremely open mind about things. Don’t be so concerned with the solution and just absorb the stuff. I know so many young artists who are like: “I need inspiration. I’m gonna go to a gallery and find it.”  So they look at all the walls and then they come out of the gallery and they will be like “I didn’t find the answer to my question” or “I didn’t come out of there with my new collection.” It doesn’t work like that. You have to just open yourself up for anything, absorb it like a sponge then process it and then it will click.

Selected Staple Pigeon footwear collaborations
Selected Staple Pigeon footwear collaborations

Is there any person that you would like to work with that you haven’t yet?
I don’t like to answer that question, because first of all, if I die today and I my doctor said you have six hours left to life I’ll be completely content and happy with that. In all that time I have really been able to work with a dream roster of people that I would have never imagined. So in my head there is a small handful, literally less than five groups/entities or people who I would like to work with. But I don’t want to say it, because putting it out in the universe I feel they’ll turn up their nose at it.

Would you do something differently if you could re-do your career?
Everyone says no to that question. Sometimes when I hear about a company which becomes a $100 million enterprise in like five years I think wow, I must be an idiot. I’ve been doing this for 18 years but I’m not in that special place where I don’t have to work another day in my life and can live out my days. I am sure I could have taken business decisions to get there, but then I possibly wouldn’t be so happy or I wouldn’t be proud of what my output is. You don’t get something for nothing, if you want this, you have to give up this–you don’t get EVERYTHING. At least I can say that for 18 years every day I go to work and I am super happy and passionate about what I do. I am not a rich person by any means but I am rich in experiences.

What were the biggest challenges?
Trying to do it all by myself as the control freak that I am and not delegating or having partners. I was too greedy or controlling to delegate things in the beginning so I learned everything the hard way. I learned it by making the mistakes first and then figuring it out, which on the upside made me kind of a jack-of-all-trades. So now my lawyer is really surprised at some of the things I know about a legal contract and my accountant is really surprised about some of the things I know about doing a balance sheet. But then I can still do things in Illustrator or Photoshop that they can never dream of.

Would you say you are a businessman or a designer?
I think I am a pretty darn good 50-50 left brain-right brain example. I greatly respect art and creative process but at the same time, when I see a deal from a financial standpoint that has no possible way for a win then I will turn it down. I really pride myself on making deadlines and budgets. I think that’s actually one of the biggest secrets to my success. It’s not because I’m the most artistic or creative or talented person, it’s because I make every deadline and I make every budget.  If you make earth shattering, amazingly innovative work but you’re a million over budget and you are a month late, you will never get a call again. So I went for the consistency rail.

The original Reed Space flagship in New York's Lower East Side
The original Reed Space flagship in New York's Lower East Side

Do you think the whole sneaker/streetwear thing will ever fade away or decrease in size?
Yes, it already has. It already died one or two times and it’s already rebirthed. It will always go in ebbs and flows. But I think some people are wondering whether it’s going to become a trend which means that the next time it ebbs down, it will just die and not ever come back. But I don’t think so. I strongly believe that street culture in general–with sneaker culture being a small subset of that–can and will be bigger than any subculture that we have seen before whether its hip hop, skate, punk…street culture will be bigger than all of them combined.

What scares you about the future?
The youth. I think social media and the Internet are really fucking up kids. I don’t know what kind of world we’re going to have in the next generation. It’s really scary. I’m not having kids. I don’t want to add any idiots to this world. But maybe that’s what every generation says about the next generation.

It’s interesting because this generation is actually part of your target group…
That’s why I do talks and speeches. I’m trying to be the best dad that I can be to them. And my bar of excellence is very low: I only want to change one kid. I could be speaking to 500 people and 499 people would be like: I’ve heard this fucking story before and one kid is like: WOW. The only reason I am doing that it for that one kid.
So I still want them to buy sneakers but I don’t want them to treat it like such a commodity of a physical thing. I want them to enjoy the fact that they are in this room with 5,000 other sneakerheads and enjoy the interaction with people from all over the world.

But then wouldn’t things like music or political movements or religion be better reasons to unify people than sneakers?
No. I doesn’t mater what the carrot is. I doesn’t matter if it’s a donut or a chocolate cake or a carrot–I don’t care what the mechanism is for you to come in the door, but once you are in the door, then understand why this room is what it is and who the people are. But I don’t care what that carrot is. I think politics are super unimportant to life, honestly.

But compared to political reasons to unite, a shared passion for buying shoes feels a bit flat…
But I think there could be some great creative minds out of this industry. I know some personally that have gone on from shoes to do really, really amazing things outside of footwear. But it was their passion for sneakers that did it. I’m one of them! I’ve been collecting sneakers since I was in sixth grade, but I somehow managed to see past the shoes.

The shortened version of this interview is part of the current issue #268 of SPORTSWEAR INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE, The Street Issue. Find the e-paper version of the publication here.

The 2005 realease of the Nike Dunk SB Low Pigeon even made it to the cover of the New York Post
The 2005 realease of the Nike Dunk SB Low Pigeon even made it to the cover of the New York Post

Streetwear insider Jeff Staple
Streetwear insider Jeff Staple