Meet Jeff Staple, China’s Favorite Streetwear Collaborator

Streetwear pioneer Jeff Staple might have launched his brand out of New York in 1997, with a logo honoring the city’s glorious wildlife, but his collections have an innate affinity to China. “The Chinese see me as this kind of lost brother because I’m Chinese but grew up in NYC, so [STAPLE] brings all of this street culture DNA and heritage that I’m able to then share with China,” he told Jing Collabs & Drops.

Combined with Staple’s connection to the nation, his brand has also seen success in the mainland as a result of rolling out local collaborations. The 2019 global Nike release of the SB Panda Pigeon was even, unconventionally, launched in China first because of the panda’s cultural significance. Channeling a distinct streetwear DNA, whether it’s through lines with local streetwear brand FUN, or the Nike SB Panda Pigeon Dunks, many Chinese consumers have been introduced to STAPLE through cross-branded launches.

JEFF STAPLES FUN

STAPLE has become synonymous with FUN in China via collaboration. Photo: Reed Art Department

“Since year one, I’ve been collaborating with people,” explained Staple. “To me, it was always like, if you can’t do something well, then why struggle to do it painfully? Why not work together with a master in that craft? When we come together, it’s like one plus one equals three.”

The brand brought that energy to its 25th anniversary celebration of STAPLE DAY this year, in partnership with American livestream app NTWRK. Suitably held on June 12, which is a day before International Pigeon Day, the Los Angeles-based event presented brand new collaborations with the likes of Oakley, Chinese brand YEENJOY, Fossil, and others. Though arguably, the most talked-about highlight had to be STAPLE’s giveaway of 26 pairs of sneakers, dating from 1997 to 2022. 

Joining in on the celebrations, Staple took a short time out of streetwear to sit down with Jing Collabs & Drops to discuss the qualities of his Chinese fanbase and the secrets to collab success.

What would you define as your most successful collaboration in China and why?

“It was probably the Panda Pigeon Nike Dunk, the most recent one. I wanted to give it to my brethren in China first and foremost. The result was tremendous. We did a tour of China and in each city, the turnout was like rock concert-level, with thousands of people coming out to support.”

Have you done any collaborations to specifically reach your Chinese audience?

“FUN was a great one. I met them at a Chinese trade show: YoHood. They did this great Garfield collaboration and it was just so cool to see their interpretation of this cartoon character that I grew up with. We worked together on a great three-piece collection that embodied New York nightlife culture and the pigeon, and that was one that I loved doing. 

We also recently did a collaboration with NBA and New Era. Interestingly enough, that [NBA] collection did way better in China than the rest of the world. I think that’s because in America the NBA is just sports and athletics, whereas in China it’s more like fashion. They love basketball obviously and watching it but it means something different. Wearing a Lakers logo in China is a fashion statement rather than saying I support this team and I’ve watched all the games.”

jeff staples staple pigeon nikes

Jeff Staple is best known in the sneaker world for his Nike Pigeon Dunks. Photo: Reed Art Department

What are the key factors to consider when launching a collaboration to the China market?

“There’s obviously a language barrier but then there’s also a very interesting thought process behind the idea of authenticity in China. You have to put in at least two or four times more effort into marketing in China, because there’s a blurred line between what is fake and what is real, so you have to go twice as hard to imbue what it is that you’re talking about.

There’s also the speed of trends – you have to put in twice as much effort to break through the noise.”

Have you come across any risks when collaborating within the China market?

“When we do something so well in China that it creates a lot of positive noise, the risk is that some unsavory people will look at the excitement of your brand and decide to get a trademark that you happened to not get. Like, you might miss class 32a for belts and handbags, they get it, and all of a sudden there’s a billion-dollar corporation doing a logo that you missed out on. 

That’s always the scary part. I’ve spent the best part of the last two decades playing whack-a-mole with people in a category that I’ve not managed to get and they’ve managed to get it. And now when we want the trademark, China views us as the bootlegger because the Chinese brand was able to lawfully get the trademark in a particular category and we have to prove to the government that we were the originators. It is a very expensive, multi-year process. And that comes because we’ve done something that created positive noise; bootleggers don’t want to bootleg something that has no heat.

One of the [bootleggers] that we met through our lawyers, he’s actually like a huge fan, like a graphic designer who’s a fan of the brand and me. He just bought the trademark for this category and he now wants a lot of money to get it back. And I’m like, if you’re a fan then why don’t you do the right thing?”

Do you have any collaborations coming up in China?

“We have a Reebok one coming out. It’s our first time collaborating with the brand. That actually came through the China office. Now that brands like Salomon, Wilson, etc. are owned by the Chinese Anta group – China isn’t just the number one or two sales driver, it’s basically the boss now.

It’s interesting as requests are coming from the China office, so a lot more is green lit in China than it was in the past. I really think the [Chinese brand x sportswear collabs] are going to continue as a trend.”

staple pigeon x yeenjoy

YEENJOY x Staple Pigeon 2022. Photo: Reed Art Department

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