The Real History of UNION
As the shop celebrates its 30th anniversary, here's a bit of trivia straight from the mouths of the OGs.
UNION is seemingly pulling out all the stops for its impending 30th anniversary, but interestingly it’s retconning some of the details of its founding in the process. Choosing to establish 1991 as its start date—in their words, “because that is the Store that Chris ended up actually owning as the NYC store has remained closed since 2010.”
And yes, for the woefully uninformed, UNION was born in NYC before it opened up in LA. That’s a story that appropriately enough starts in SoHo. Do enough digging and you’ll come across some choice quotes in this somewhat definitive Oral History of Stüssy published nearly a decade ago in Complex. It’s long enough that it warranted a second part bringing it into the 2010s.
But to get to the real UNION story, it doesn’t start at Stüssy, it starts at Parachute, a Canadian clothing brand originally founded by James Fowler that was run by a guy named Morgan Allard in the late ‘80s. Its store was located at 121 Wooster Street. Eddie Cruz and James Jebbia workded there in their teens, and as Cruz said: “Michael Jackson and guys like that were buying it.”
When Jebbia (along with his then-partner Mary Ann Fusco) opened up UNION in 1989, it was far from the purveyor of sub rosa Japanese brands, Marni, and in-the-know streetwear labels it’s known as today. Think more along the lines of Duffer of St. George (before it was sold to JD Sports and became a shell of itself), Rasta style staples like mesh tanks, and that sort of stuff.
Cruz described it as “one of the first shops to put cool, younger-looking merchandise in an environment that played hip-hop.” A sentiment Jebbia seemed to agree with, saying: “We had a lot of cool young brands. It was a very English kind of store. It was a youthful and rebellious kind of shop.”
The first shop was located on Spring and West Broadway, and moved around a few times before its final home (lol FINAL HOME, definitely worth another post down the line) at 176 Spring Street. So yeah, the current NYC Stüssy store is also the corpse of UNION NY. And yes, there’s this whole other story about the La Brea shop originally being opened up as “The Stüssy Union” back in the day when Eddie Cruz first brought the shop to LA, and then eventually partnered with James Bond to open UNDEFEATED.
“I came out to LA in like '92. Shawn [Stüssy] and James [Jebbia] gave me this great opportunity. We wanted to take Stüssy and UNION and combine them. We had a store here on La Brea called ‘The Stüssy Union,’” explains Cruz. “On one side of the store was all of Stüssy, on the other side of the store was all the brands that we were carrying at Union. It was quite an eclectic mix. As Stüssy grew and the line got bigger, I moved UNION out and separated the two so Stüssy could live on its own and UNION could live on its own—and they both are still here today.”
Another fun fact: Eddie Cruz and Aaron Bondaroff (of KNOW WAVE and aNYthing) essentially traded brand names. Cruz took UNDEFEATED and Bondaroff took aNYthing, each having come up with the other.
But perhaps the most interesting nugget that UNION finally decided to talk about was the hidden history of their so-called “Frontman” logo, the ambiguous haloed silhouette that’s essentially their version of the Jumpman (or Sheedman, Shaq, *insert ballplayer logo here*). It not only featured on a lot of their early apparel, but has been part of their store signage from the jump.
Ironically, the logo itself was designed by Korean-American designer Sung Choi, another streetwear OG who was also 1/3rd of P.N.B. In finally acknowledging the history, UNION admits they kind of liked the mystery behind it more.
“On purpose we never really shared where we drew inspiration from on this. For years some people thought it was a dancer, others a skater and some also figured it to be some kind of angel due to the halo. We enjoyed that you couldn’t pinpoint the logo because UNION has always been a place where people of many walks and backgrounds can all come together and share information, stories and of course style! So for years we loved the ambiguity of our logo,” writes the brand on their blog. “But to commemorate the 30 Year anniversary we have decided to share one of the main inspirations behind the logo.”
Shouts to @jiandeleon for pointing out the story a while back, but now the label has acknowledged that it’s inspired by actor Sidney Poitier’s role of Walter Lee Younger in the seminal play/film A Raisin In the Sun.
Written by Lorraine Hansberry and first performed in 1959 on Broadway, it was turned into a feature film two years later featuring the original cast. Notable for its predominantly Black cast and being the first Broadway show written by a Black person (Hansberry) and directed by a Black person (Lloyd Richards), it overcame the odds and prevailing notion that it would be a flop, becoming a success at the box office and with critics alike.
While the UNION logo hasn’t been as prominent as it used to be, the brand says that was due to “family issues” that needed to be worked out, but it’s a good thing that they’ve been able to figure things out in time for that 30th anniversary. A logo that classic simply belongs on the side of a future UNION x Jordan collab.