At the height of its popularity, Triple 5 Soul was one of the most creative and successful streetwear brands. 30 years later and there's but a handful of traces that it ever existed. In our latest #TBT series, we explore the brand's origins and the aspects that led to its disappearance.
In 1989, working out of a storefront at 151 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that both served as a place she rested her head as well as her design epicenter, Camella Ehlke - only 19 - was hand-producing and manufacturing a streetwear line that would eventually be at the forefront of an industry that 25 years later remains rooted in similar tendencies and inspirations as she was cultivating. Calling the brand 555 Soul (later Triple 5 Soul) as a tongue -in-cheek reference to one of the then-popular telephone party lines in New York City, Ehlke fondly recalls the earliest days, "I lived in my store. I sewed everything myself. People were coming from Japan and filling up their suitcases. It was before PNB and before jeffstaple. All those kids were my friends. We were all kids. We would all party together."
Between 1989 and 1996 the brand grew organically, mostly through Ehlke's deep rooted connections to those that inspired the movement. As The New York Times noted, "555 Soul's love beads have been worn by the rap artists Jungle Brothers and Boogie Down Productions." In 1997, the first 555 Soul flagship store opened up on Ludlow Street. "It was always just a downstown streetwear brand," Ehlke says. "I wasn’t trying to be anything but myself and cater to my friends who were all emcees and DJ’s. People like De La Soul were all in Long Island and they would come out and find the store and Pos would be like, 'make me some clothes.' He knew it was different and original which is what all these guys wanted. That’s what we were all trying to achieve with our style. That’s what streetwear is to me."
With the store's success came more international opportunities and increased demand. "It was a pretty tight community of friends and artists revolving around the brand," she says. "We were very focused on remaining underground and authentic in these early '90s days but slowly the demand got great and greater [and] I could no longer keep up sewing it all." Ehlke turned to Troy Morehouse for help. She recalls, "Troy wasn't a mainstream garment person so I admired that aspect. He had just finished doing Phat Farm for Russell (Simmons) and he said to me at the time that I moved to Lafayette St. 'that I needed to get everything together.' It was still just me doing everything. He jumped in and took half ownership of my brand and put in a little bit of money and started doing the production for me. And slowly he took it to the next level with me – a more commercialized level. In our time, a lot of my friends said, 'you’re such a sell out' when I partnered and started going to the trade shows. But ultimately, ten years later, and they all did the same thing. Back then it wasn’t cool to make money. It was cool to be underground. It was cool to be original." From her earliest interactions with Morehouse, she was aware of what she had potentially gotten herself into. "I was in over me head. I was a kid, buying tons of fabrics and not being able to meet orders. The supply and the demand, it was too much for me. It was kind of a deal with the devil, but I had to do it." With a new partner, the brand shifted from 555 Soul to Triple 5 Soul.
By 2001, Ehlke had enough. "I was so fed up by where he was taking it," she says. "It was really frustrating for me as an artist and a creative person with a vision. At first he kind of saw my vision, but he always shot it down. Because I wanted it to be this full, encompassing lifestyle. Triple 5 Soul Sounds. Triple 5 Soul Café. We did this whole art collaboration series where we would get an artist to take over the whole interior of the store – one of them being Banksy. It was the first time anyone brought Banksy to New York." According to the Daily News Record, "In an email to friends and associates, Ehlke expressed mixed emotions about leaving, writing: 'I have decided to depart from Triple 5 to pursue new happiness, freedom and excitement. I remember [the company's history] with a big smile and positivity to fuel me forward.' She signed off as 'original founder of Triple 5 Soul and newly freed woman.' In a brief statement, Morehouse said: 'I respect Camella for her courage to move on to new challenges.'"
Back then it wasn’t cool to make money. It was cool to be underground. It was cool to be original.
By 2004, Morehouse aimed for a "streetwear alliance" in the form of an umbrella organization. Dubbing it Project Soul, it encompassed a variety of endeavors like Triple 5 Soul, Triple 5 Soul Footwear, Boxfresh USA, and Subscript. "It just enables us to become a powerhouse, a stronger entity in the market," said Lori Dunston, vice-president of merchandising and sales, at the time. "I had no interest in what was happening after I sold it," Ehlke recalls. "He was completely an unhealthy person to be involved with or around. Most of the employees that were close to me on my side of the fence left. It was a very divided situation which is not how I operate and work. I think I gave it a go for a long time."
The "Triple 5 Soul name" has undergone a series of owners since Ehlke departed - most notably in 2009 when it was acquired by Ocean Star Apparel. “We’re extremely pleased to announce that our new brand partnership with Triple 5 Soul is complete and is being launched for Fall 09 August on the selling floors”, said Clement Leung, OSA COO. “The integration of this heritage street wear brand is perfectly timed with current market trend opportunities and a natural fit to our core manufacturing competencies." To this day, Ehlke remains befuddled as to who is the true "owner" of the brand's name which still has value despite no new products being created. "He [Troy) pimped it out," she says. "He licensed the brand out to so many people and did so many bad deals with the wrong people just because he was greedy that I think (the brand) is just kinda caught up. The brand doesn’t exist any more. As far as the ownership of the name, that could be a few people who he had secret deals with." Today, the brand is a part of a larger conglomerate appropriately titled "Triple 5" which "manages a multi-channel business: private label, branded wholesale, and traditional and electronic retail."
Today, Camella Ehlke is a devoted mother and the proprietor of the Breathe-Inn with her husband. When asked about making a return to the fashion industry, her often calming voice gets noticeably stronger, and her cadence picks up. "I’m always sewing and making things. I have two children. I’m thinking of getting into children’s wear possibly. I still love what Japanese brands are doing like visvim. On the States side of things, I really admire what James Jebbia does with Supreme. He’s an old friend of mine. James is a really smart guy. We both started selling at the Tower flea market when he had Union and I had 555 Soul. We kind of go way back. I think his whole 'no frills,' 'let the makers who make it best do it for you' is a pretty smart niche that he captured. '
Despite making $38 million dollars in sales, Ehlke suggests that when she left in 2001, she hadn't made life-changing money. "I didn’t cash out to be a rich person. Toward the end, we were making decent salaries. I wanted out for piece of mind. It’s not worth the money to be miserable and in a bad environment. I did my time with it, and it played itself out. I enjoyed it."