Before the term "streetwear" was even coined, before Supreme, Zoo York, there was Triple 5 Soul. Any quick search on the internet on the top, most influential 90's brands and you will undoubtedly come across any number of lists touting Triple 5 Soul as one of the best brands out there. Founded in 1989, Triple 5 Soul stood at the very precipice of what would eventually come to be known as streetwear. Connecting all the different facets of the culture we know and love, it was in a humble storefront apartment that then 19-year old Camella Ehlke, a fashion school dropout, would go on to create one of, if not, the most influential brand that shaped the very industry we are in today.
You see, for us, Triple 5 Soul isn't just another brand. Off the Hook was one of the very first retailers in Montreal to carry Triple 5 Soul, the second the Canadian distribution opened up. It was one of the very first brands we carried alongside the likes of Akademiks, PNB Nation, LRG, and Upper Playground. The world was in a very different space back then and streetwear had not yet seen the popularity it has today. In a world where the internet had not yet been invented, the noise this humble New York brand was making was loud, a rallying cry that brought together skaters, snowboarders, hip-hop enthusiasts, DJs, artists through their legendary parties and next-level mixtapes.
And so, with the return of Triple 5 Soul back to the store after almost 20 years, we sat down with Camella herself to learn more about what's been going on behind the scenes as her and her new team prepared for the relaunch.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IMAGE VIA CAMELLA EHLKE — TRIPLE 5 SOUL ARCHIVES
OTH: Walk us through the early beginnings of the brand.
C.E: That's a big question. Well, I had just dropped out of college, I was at an art school, and I realized I really just wanted to start working on my own art practice full time. It was a different time back then, New York was a lot cheaper and had a more gritty type vibe. I managed to get a storefront apartment and started teaching myself how to sew. The late '80s/early '90s was such a special moment in time. It was a mix of so many different genres: hip-hop, house, jazz. Everything revolved around music.
It wasn't easy discovering new music either, not as easy as now with the internet and cell phones. Back then, if you wanted to discover new music that wasn't playing on the radio, you had to go to parties or buy mixtapes. Everything revolved around music so I would set up sound systems in my backyard with my friends and throw a few parties right there on Ludlow Street. A few of my friends were DJs, and they would ask me to make some original-looking clothing for them that they would then wear when they go out and play their sets in clubs downtown. I'd go with them and sell some of my pieces on the side.
OTH: Like the tie hats?
C.E: Yes, exactly. I sold pieces at the KRS One Car Wash Party, at the World Night Club on one of the wavy tech-noise floors. One day, Pat Fields was waiting for me to show up once, and he asked me for 100 tie hats. I was making everything by hand back then; it was a lot of work, but you just had to make it happen if you wanted to survive as an artist. My apartment slowly became a sort of clubhouse, and it wasn't until years later that it would eventually become like a formal store.
IMAGE VIA CAMELLA EHLKE — DE LA SOUL FEATURED ON PAPER MAGAZINE WITH A TIE HAT (RIGHT), AN ICONIC PART OF TRIPLE 5 SOUL HISTORY.
OTH: What was your process back then?
C.E: Honestly, I didn't know what I was doing. Streetwear didn't really have a label or title behind it back then; everyone was just trying to make something of their own, as was I. I was taking in influences from everywhere. I loved vintage military stuff, and I would go and buy it, cut it up, customize it. Then I fell in love with climbing gear, and I would geek out over that and walk to all the spots from Downtown to Wall Street, buying hiking shock cords and adding that to my clothing. It was a total mix-up with no real plan. I mean, I wasn't even formally trained, right?
Even my runway shows, I never did a formal fashion show. I would throw parties and do showings at clubs.
C.E: By far, one of my favorite parties I've thrown was one that I did at the Grand Nightclub. Stash and Futura built a life-sized subway car out of plywood for me, and I had asked my friends to walk for the runway. It was pretty amazing because the doors of the car would actually open, and it was cool to watch my friends walk through and model the collection. I even had the Rocksteady crew and Crazy Legs come out breakdancing as well. What a great night.
IMAGE VIA CAMELLA EHLKE — STASH & FUTURA BUILDING THE SUBWAY CAR INSTALLATION FOR A SHOW
OTH: Diving into the history of it all, you've worked with a long list of amazing collaborators. From having some legendary people like Rashida Jones feature in a lookbook, to throwing parties with Rock Steady Crew, Mark Ronson, and Stretch Armstrong, are there any others that stand out?
C.E: I mean, nowadays, these people are all legends, but back then we were all just kind of starting out. Everything kind of just happened organically, haha.
At the time, Triple 5 Soul was gaining a lot of traction and was growing into a larger and larger company. I was mainly overseeing the marketing department with my dear friend Ben Velez, and we had developed this concept called the Verses project. Basically, after opening the Lafayette store, we wanted to bring in a bunch of artists into the store and just let them do whatever they wanted. Ben was traveling through London, around Camden or Hoxton, I think? Anyway, he started seeing Banksy's street art everywhere and eventually came into contact with his manager.
So we flew him out, and even back then, not many people in New York knew who Banksy was. But he showed up to the store, bombed the store with a whole set of stencils all along the walls. He finished around midnight that night, and we all ended up going to this bar around the corner. It's funny because even back then he was super lowkey, and while we were at the bar, he told me he wouldn't be coming the next day to the opening party.
OTH: You mean even back then he was super anonymous?
C.E: Yeah, exactly, kind of like Shepard Fairey was in the beginning. The party was amazing because we had Charles Dark, Peanut Butter Wolf, and Mad Lib DJ-ing the party.
IMAGE VIA CAMELLA EHLKE — BANKSY TAKEOVER AT THE LAFAYETTE STORE CIRCA 1997
OTH: Now that you're back at Triple 5 Soul, after almost a 20-year hiatus, has your creative process changed at all between now and back then?
C.E: Not so much. Everything's come full circle, as it always does with fashion, so we really want to lean into the archives of the brand, reviving archival pieces, building on top of them, and telling the story of the brand for the newer generations. I don't really want to have the brand in this position where we're just kind of posturing and paying people to wear it or stuff like that. We're drawing from a place of nostalgia, so we don't want it to feel like we're starting a new "90s" brand. We're diving deep into our archives, so we want it to feel authentic and true to us. We're excited to share the legacy of the brand with everyone.
IMAGE VIA CAMELLA EHLKE
OTH: What prompted you to come back to the industry?
C.E: During COVID, I got back into sewing. It was nice to have that freedom again. I was talking to Virgil [Abloh] a lot back then, and he said, "You gotta get on your sewing machine again. You gotta start telling these stories and let the youth know about the legacy and history of this brand because it's really important."
OTH: In a recent interview you held with Maurice Bernstein, it was mentioned that you've been called the "the Mother, the Grandmother, the Great Aunt, the Big Sister, of the whole streetwear legacy."
C.E: I mean, Virgil used to say that a lot to me too back when we started our friendship. I don't know if I can take full credit for all of that, haha, but I guess the term mother might work because I was one of not too many females within that space.
OTH: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to start up their own brand?
C.E: Get your hands dirty, and figure it out. I think people get so intimidated by the process and don't really explore their creative limits, but they have to. They have to so they can live through the process to really push themselves. A great place to start is to go through your community and make it a collaborative thing with like-minded people.
TRIPLE 5 SOUL WILL BE RETURNING TO OFF THE HOOK ON THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 28TH.