Camella Ehlke, a 19-year-old art school dropout with a passion for sewing, founded Triple 5 Soul in 1989 from a storefront apartment on Ludlow Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Triple 5 Soul’s tie hats and piecework hoodies quickly caught the attention of rappers like Pos of De La Soul, appeared in trendy magazines like Paper, and had fashion-forward Japanese customers filling their suitcases with the brand’s wares. In the 1990s, Ehlke’s store became a hub for Downtown New York’s creatives, and Triple 5 Soul embodied the energy emanating from the Downtown New York club scene. By 1996, Triple 5 Soul had grown to become one of New York City’s first major streetwear powerhouses, with locations in Los Angeles.
“To be honest, I’m not sure how I did it. “But I definitely wing it, and it was a hustle,” Ehlke tells Complex from her Brooklyn studio. “I honestly got lucky by collaborating with someone, even if he later turned out to be a toxic human being.” We made these deals with the devil, and it turned out to be 80% business and 20% creativity.”
Ehlke left Triple 5 Soul in 2004 after entering into a partnership that compromised the brand’s creativity in favour of commercial profits. Triple 5 Soul, like many other streetwear brands of the 1990s, eventually died out. However, in January, the brand’s Instagram revealed that Ehlke would be returning to streetwear as the creative director of Triple 5 Soul.
“My main reason for returning with the brand really sparked during COVID when I was sewing and making a lot of stuff,” Ehlke says. “I was telling Virgil Abloh about it, and he just said, ‘You gotta get back on your sewing machine.'” You need to start telling these stories and educating the youth about the legacy and history of this brand, because it’s vital.”
Complex had the pleasure of speaking with Ehlke about Triple 5 Soul’s upcoming relaunch, stories from New York City in the early 1990s, her thoughts on streetwear today, and more.
For clarity, this interview has been edited and condensed.
I believe everyone is pleased to learn that you will relaunch Triple 5 Soul this year. You left the company nearly two decades ago. Could you please explain what happened to Triple 5 Soul after you left and what drew you back?
I was basically done. When I decided to leave [in the early 2000s], I felt like my creativity was being stifled, and my coworker at the time was toxic. So I continued to pursue my art, opening a cafe in Brooklyn and running a bed-and-breakfast in Upstate New York. I lived the city-country life and raised two children. Now I believe the time is right.
The brand had been in limbo in terms of ownership, and now some people in Canada are attempting to resurrect it. I’m currently working with their CFO to form a team, and I’m once again in charge of creative direction.
It feels good to have that freedom back. And my main motivation for returning to the brand was sparked during COVID, when I was sewing and making a lot of stuff. I was discussing it extensively with Virgil Abloh. He simply stated, “You need to get back on your sewing machine.” You need to start telling these stories and educating the youth on the legacy and history of this brand because it is extremely important.”
It’s been a fun journey for me to be the creative director of the brand I founded and started, because I feel like I can weave in that storytelling. We’re not looking to reinvent ourselves as a [retro] ’90s brand. However, we’re using our archives to advance the story. I’m really curious to see what the youth and younger brands are up to these days. I’ve recently explored a number of them on the West Coast, and I’m blown away by how much community is now woven into people’s brands. That’s what made Triple 5 Soul so special, and I feel like I was doing it in the early ’90s. It was like a whole vibe and a whole crew of artists collaborating and doing each of our own things.
So, what can you tell us about your first relaunch collection? It’s great to see you’re getting back to basics by sewing 1:1 bespoke pieces.
It’s a hybrid. My own art has been centred on upcycling garments for the past few years. For example, I recently transformed old hooded sweatshirts into these chair covers. So I’m investigating that idea right now for this piecework collection, which will be revealed in the relaunch. We’ll also have the essentials. But we’re experimenting with the idea of combining iconic pieces from the brand into new styles. T-shirts and sweatshirts are cut up in various ways.
Basically, this attention to detail was what I took away from the brand back then. And that’s what I’m hoping to emphasise in its relaunch.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the new creative team?
Except that it’s small, energetic, creative, and brand new. I’d like to let everyone know that we’re super inspired, and we’re trying to stay forward and creative while weaving the past and the present together. I’ll mention a few well-known artists who have contributed to the brand. I’m also planning to reach out to a large number of other original designers and artists in the future. But I’m more interested in what new people are doing. We’re looking for something new.
I don’t want to be that “bring back” brand that just pulls out all of my old graphics. I’d like to collaborate with new artists and incorporate their work into my own storytelling. I’d like to see a mix of young and established artists.
So let us return to 1989. You’re a Pratt dropout of 19, and streetwear isn’t even a clothing genre. What was it about New York City at the time that inspired many of the first streetwear brands?
It was the perfect time because New York was still gritty but also very affordable. All of this happened at a time when people could express themselves, make things happen, and make a living as a broke young artist. I believe there was a real pulse going on because hip-hop and other music we were exposed to were still underground. There was this genre clash. We’d go to clubs and listen to house music mixed with hip-hop, which you couldn’t hear on the radio. To hear new music, we had to go to these parties or buy mixtapes. As well as the art. Because of graffiti, New York City was like a blank canvas on which people could express themselves and get their work out there simply by walking down the street. In terms of clubs, so many people were given the opportunity to MC or DJ and shine. Clubs like Wetlands and S.O.B.’s provided a platform for young people. At these parties, I was selling tie hats and other items. It was a unique era that is difficult to describe.
It’s incredible to think that you started selling Triple 5 Soul at the Tower Records flea market, alongside James Jebbia and Mary Ann Fusco, before Union even opened. What exactly was Triple 5 Soul doing at this point?
So I used to make tie hats, cut-and-sew hoodies, and baggy pants when I had my shop on Ludlow Street. As a result, everything was somewhat customised. I used to buy fabric from these jobbers around the corner who essentially sold deadstock fabrics. As a result, I was upcycling without even realising it. I’d take all these different fabrics, stack them up, and cut out my pattern. Then I’d have different hoodie, sweatshirt body, and sleeve pieces for customers to choose from.
So I believe that was appealing to someone who wanted to develop their own personal style. We had uniforms back then, but we also wanted to be unique. It was one-of-a-kind, which I believe was also appealing to Japanese customers, who were visionaries in wanting to step away from their own culture and bring back new styles from New York.
Those outfits were also brightly coloured and striped. Striped T-shirts and hoodies with a striped cut-and-sew. [Alphanumeric co-founder] Alyasha Owerka-Moore created these really cool logos for me, which I hand silk-screened onto pieces of fabric before sewing the patch on.
Because the 555 Soul labels were printed on scrap fabrics and other materials, even the logo patches were 1:1 replicas.
It is now a no-brainer to open a store on Ludlow and Stanton. However, the LES was different in 1989. Why did you choose that location?
Well, I was already down there. I lived on East Second Street, across the street from The World, which was like a super-fun party. When I was about to leave Pratt, I came across this storefront space on Ludlow. It had an apartment in the back and a store with a curtain in front. I basically turned it into a tailor shop/store/clubhouse by putting the sewing machine in the front. We’d have MC or DJ parties in the backyard, with friends bringing speakers. But, in general, the rent was very low, and it was a nice place to live.
That’s interesting to hear because I believe you were among the first to usher in a more vibrant retail scene in the area.
It was definitely like a clubhouse. It was never about me creating fashion. If I did a fashion show, it was at a party in a club. Models would appear, and various friends would DJ. It was more of a party atmosphere. It was heavily focused on music. Every night, we went to the clubs and parties. That was the setting.
The store was actually underground. Even if people were aware of it, they would have difficulty locating it.
I suppose not being in a shopping area contributed to its allure. People would call us before going to James’ store, Fat Beats, or Pat Fields in SoHo. People would make their rounds, and there were only a few really cool shops. Soon after that, you’d have Alife, Liquid Sky, and other cool little shops. People came to my store for the mixtapes rather than the clothes.
That’s correct. I believe you had a close relationship with Rawkus Records.
Rawkus Records wasn’t too far away, either. Empire Management wasn’t far behind. As a result of music and parties, we gravitated towards each other.