AAPI Heritage Month: Even After Decades of Success, Streetwear Visionary Jeff Staple Is Still Fighting an Identity Crisis

For AAPI Heritage Month, FN is spotlighting Asian American and Pacific Islander executives, entrepreneurs and designers as part of its ongoing commitment to champion diversity across all areas of the footwear business. 

Jeff Staple is revered for his captivating footwear collaborations and beloved Staple apparel company. But the legendary designer recently confessed to FN that he’s always been far more comfortable in the background.

“I definitely grew up with an identity crisis, and quite frankly, I’m still fighting that identity crisis today,” Staple told FN. “I started Staple in New York City out of college, which came from this cross-section of hip-hop culture and skate culture. They were predominantly Black and Latino and white, so I was a minority outlier. I’d go to a hip-hop club or an open mic night, and I would be the minority. I’d go to a skate thing, and I’d be the minority.”

He continued, “I wanted people to appreciate what I was creating for what it was, and I was hiding that it was done by a Chinese person. I didn’t want people to know. The moniker ‘Staple’ — it’s not a Chinese name, it’s not a Black name. You don’t know what it could be. The first 15 years of the brand, I was operating behind the curtain.”

The Staple founder — who has worked with giants in the sneaker business including Nike, Puma, Converse and New Balance — attributes much of his identity crisis to the racism he faced growing up in New Jersey.

“I grew up in a society that was predominantly Caucasian. I was really just trying to hide,” Staple said. “I was just trying to assimilate and not ruffle feathers. I went to a high school of 1,600 kids, and out of those 1,600 kids, there were only three Asians. To put this in perspective, this is like the ’70s and ’80s. All these things that I find to be really beautiful now — our last names, the food we ate — wasn’t a cool, interesting thing. It was like an alien thing. It was like, ‘You’re weird.'”

However, according to Staple, the actions and comments of others didn’t seem racist at the time. But his perspective changed once he left New Jersey and realized what he had been facing all along.

“Racial remarks and racial slurs and ridicule until age 17 was an everyday occurrence to the point where it wasn’t even racism to me; it was just everyday living. I didn’t know a life without it,” Staple said. “It wasn’t until I went to New York University when I turned 17 or 18 that I was like, ‘Wow, no one called me a derogatory name today.'”

Also, the designer said the NYU student body consisted of more Asian men and women than he had ever experienced before. “It hit me early on that seeing people who look like you doing cool, aspirational, inspiring things is so game-changing,” Staple said.

Since arriving in New York, Staple has become a mainstay in footwear and fashion, opening the the landmark streetwear boutique Reed Space in 2002, creating the Staple brand and delivering the Nike SB Dunk “Pigeon,” which is universally recognized as one of the greatest sneaker collaborations of all time.

Although all of those accomplishments required tremendous effort, Staple said he’s arguably had to work even harder at becoming a vocal leader.

“I’ve been traumatized and abused and institutionalized to hide my identity and let my product speak for itself, and a lot of me still thinks that,” Staple said. “Product is king — what you make should be what is represented by you, not who you are or the color of your skin. But in the last 24 months, we’ve reached this crescendo where those things do matter. What you went through as a minority, what your ancestors went through, this informs who you are, and I’m still trying to reconcile with that and deprogram my brain to understand that you should accept who you are, you should be proud of you are, you should speak on who you are.”

He added, “I am going to speak on the issues more, and I have been — but I wouldn’t say I seek it. I’m still not on a soapbox. I see my contemporaries, my friends like Eddie Huang, Ben Baller and Kerby Jean-Raymond, and I love them because they wear all of their emotions and all of their struggle on their sleeves. I’m just not that person. This is very new territory for me, but I’m honored that people want me to speak. I recognize that people now know that I’m Chinese, and I’m down to speak more.”

In March, the Stop AAPI Hate organization announced that it received 3,795 reported hate incidents — including verbal harassment, physical assaults and civil rights violations — from March 19, 2020, to Feb. 28. For Staple, the recent wave of anti-Asian hate hit close to home.

“My wife was verbally accosted in Washington Square Park in SoHo — in an area in New York City where you would think nothing would happen. She was by herself, walking the dog, and no one came to help with this crazy person saying s**t,” Staple said. “And the things that I’m witnessing are atrocious. But I’m a little bit numb to it all because I’ve seen this before. I know that when someone says a small, snide remark, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. That is not the depth of their racism or their aggression.”

He continued, “And I’ve seen that aggression firsthand. I remember when a white Italian girlfriend in high school and I met her father, and he told his daughter to my face, ‘Why are you dating a [racial slur]?’ I’m more numb than outraged, although I am mad about it. But I’m not at all surprised. The saddest part is that I’m telling stories from three or four decades ago, and we are still dealing with the same exact thing. It just shows how broken this country is.”

To offer some respite to the hate that has taken center stage, Staple did what he knows best: He let his product talk.

A year ago, Staple began working with Puma on a yin-yang-themed Clyde, which would be sold exclusively via Foot Locker. To promote the project, he created a lookbook featuring his mother, Grace, doing Taichi in Chinatown while wearing the shoe.

“We designed these Puma shoes over a year ago, when we were heading into the throes of COVID, so I wanted to tap into this ideology of yin-yang — the balance of the light in the dark and how even at the darkest hour. an opportunity comes out,” Staple explained. “A year goes by, we’re still in COVID, and there is a lot of racial profiling and attacks on Asian cultures and Asian people.”

To give extra purpose to the collaboration, Staple encouraged fans of his brand to support local businesses in Chinatown NYC from April 16–21, save their receipts and bring them to Nom Wah on Doyers Street — a dim sum house that dates back to 1920 — for a raffle ticket to potentially win a pair of the shoes.

“We were going to do the traditional [marketing and] seed them to 50 influencers and have them post the shoe and share the lookbook images. Really typical stuff,” said Staple. “But as we’re about to plan for this launch, it seemed strange to use this Asian ideology and just be like, ‘It’s available online and at Foot Locker.’ It seemed cold.”

He added, “I was just trying to play my part as this guy who has a fairly adept skill set of moving desirable products to people. In the grand scheme of things, between COVID and Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, to be able to make hype product is a pretty useless skill set, but if I can harness that superpower and channel it into something good, that’s what I’m going to do.”

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