I often imagine what 1994 on Lafayette Street in New York City must have been like: Teenagers in baggy jeans skate up the block, bobbing their heads to Biggie’s recently released Ready To Die album. Gimme the loot, gimme the loot! I’m a bad, bad boyis the anthem of the moment. The crew rolls up to #274 and hop off their scuffed decks in near unison. They enter a small store, which doubles as their new favorite hangout spot where a few friends work. They know they’re at the right place, the door marked with a simple red box carved out by an angular sans-serif font. A quick look around reveals the tees and hoodies here are more expensive than what they’re used to, but they’re obviously thicker and made better. That’s good — it means they’re better equipped to handle the rigors of a days-long session than the shit they’re used to skating in. Outside, sneakers hang over the lamppost across the street. Rumor has it that hoisting a pair atop the fixture is how the new employees are initiated. A few of the kids inside wear a tee with a photo-printed DeNiro in Taxi Driver on the front. A newcomer asks for one in his size. “Sold Out”, says the employee. These are words he will get used to uttering, and words that will transform the store into the legendary brand it is today — Supreme.
Anyone who has frequented Supreme since then has heard those words and knows a similar, disappointing feeling. When it happens to me I can’t help but think I was mere minutes too late in my attempt to purchase that new t-shirt, hat, limited-edition skate deck, sneaker, or all of the above plus a Hermes-inspired ceramic tray for good measure. But my failed attempts pave way for a void I attempt to fill by coming back days or weeks later to try again. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is this same feeling which has often brought people back to Supreme at any of its now 8 global locations. It’s a hype-cycle based on limited runs of product that validates the idea that people will always want what they can’t have. For 18+ years Supreme’s ability to rest gently upon this line between well known and elusive enough to make each new purchase feel special has been a major source of its appeal. It has been able to grow without us knowing it, appearing to the outside world to be in what marketers might call a perpetual “Early Adopter” phase. But nothing lasts forever, and that tone has changed –- their iconic logo, which was once a symbol to represent ‘the club’ amongst brothers in hypebeasting, has saturated the streets of downtown New York and in the past year become a scarlet letter marking unoriginality. Many attribute this influx of box logos onto city streets and Instagram photos to the brand’s recent mainstream exposure. Exposure isn’t inherently bad, but over-exposure has historically been a death sentence in terms of relevance. Brands like The Hundreds and Stussy serve as examples. When brands mass produce, they have less control of who ends up wearing their product. Those Majority Adopters then bring along their lame friends until the line between who is “cool” and “lame” becomes muddled. In the end, we all end up looking like jackasses in some weird logo’d out uniform. While the idea of “cool” is of course a relative one, in streetwear it has been awarded to the brands that find their unique identity and stick to it, while relying on a bit of luck to somehow not end up on the bodies of the wrong people. For example, following trends?Not cool. Going on sale?Not cool. Even caring about what “cool” is isn’t cool. And In this world, being “cool” isn’t just important. It’s everything.
In Supreme’s case, their impeccably cool reputation has afforded them the rare opportunities to work with artists like Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, designers such as Thom Browne and Adam Kimmel, and mega-corporations like Nike. I myself am guilty of buying into their counter-culture brand image pretty much unconditionally. In years past, I’ve desperately tried to justify my obsession, pointing to the fact Supreme pays more attention to the details than similar brands. Truth is, I’m really only looking for an out and trying to rationalize the hype, hoping I can make myself feel better for dropping 48 dollars on a hat (it’s kind of worked). I know I’m not alone in this regard. Together, we have put Supreme on a pedestal and made them almost infallible. So although we hold them to high standards and scrutinize even their tiniest design missteps, season after season they effectively provoke our desire to buy, no matter how frivolous certain products may be. Spalding x Supreme baseball bat? That’d look awesome in my closet. Supreme dice? Perfect for my bathroom counter. Hell, Supreme could drop limited-edition toilet paper and I might think about lining up for it. What has protected their reputation is essentially a non-marketing marketing strategy (as writer, Glenn O’Brien once called it), designed to leave customers feeling satisfied with a purchase but ultimately unwelcomed. As a result, customers essentially try and buy their way in. Supreme has become the beautiful girl we can never have — she just never seems that interested, in turn magnifying our desires for her affection. And it works. After all, there is no quicker way to lose a customer than to make them feel like you’re desperate for money. Owner and founder James Jebbia has even acknowledged this calculated ambivalence, stating, “We work very hard to make everything look effortless.” He’s also divulged that Supreme always tries to under-manufacture, so theoretically everyone who wants one, can’t get one. “We’ve never really been supply-demand anyway. If we can sell 600, I make 400.” What perhaps better captures Supreme’s attitude is the lack of interviews James Jebbia has given since launching the brand. Perhaps he knows better than most that overstating the creative process that goes into products takes the fun and magic out of them.
Because Supreme hasn’t veered from their under-producing strategy, it’s kind of hard to blame them for their transition to the mainstream. But we have to blame something or someone, right? Waiting in line for new Supreme drops has taught me that many point the finger at Tyler The Creator and the visuals for his own catapult-to-fame song “Yonkers”. For those who have not seen, in the video Tyler is shirtless other than the chains around his neck and the now famous “feathers cap” atop his head. Given the controversial content of the song and its subsequent cultural impact, I think it’s fair to claim it as an iconic image for our generation. As word of Tyler and the rest of Odd Future began flooding the Internet, their movement had an instant visual connection to the box logo. Some even seem to think it was powerful enough to usher in a new era of Supreme’s legacy. I recently searched for the feathers cap on eBay and came up empty, but in previous searches I’ve seen them go for prices upwards of 300 dollars. Regularly, other merchandise fetches 3 to 4 times its original retail price. Can we blame Tyler for these absurdly priced post-market deals? Well, the fact is that re-selling or “flipping” unique Supreme merchandise has always been a part of the culture, and forum sites like Strictly Supreme (where these after-market deals happen) were around long before Tyler and his Wolf Gang started piling up YouTube views by the million. But Odd Future is responsible for changing the social implications of re-selling simply because they and Supreme now occupy similar space in our minds. While Supreme apparel has traditionally been considered valuable because of the product itself and its unique characteristics, in the status quo Supreme merchandise is considered valuable because it is a symbol to proclaim, “I like Odd Future.” This has a lot of people upset because it appears that Odd Future is somehow forcing Supreme to sacrifice a piece of its own identity in exchange for this new demographic.
I get it. Tyler got famous, then Supreme got famous, so it appears there is a clear line of logic that leads us to point the finger at him and Odd Future. But I think that’s a rather a shallow assessment. Even if Supreme adopts the Odd Future demographic, the two types of customer can coexist healthily. After all, Tyler is an accurate representation of Supreme’s own image –- he genuinely embodies youth, rebellion, and individuality. And he’s hardly been a brand ambassador. In fact, he has tweeted on several occasions to his fans not to wear Supreme just because he does. Besides, although his fans are devoted, Tyler, the Creator could hardly be called mainstream by traditional standards. His music doesn’t get played on the radio, and his debut albumGoblin sold a modest 50K units in its first week, just enough to land him the #5 spot on the Billboard Top 200. If there were blame to place, then it would be on Tyler’s fame, not Tyler himself. What he did do is expose Supreme to therealmainstream. These are people who are looking to escape their own mainstream perception because it actually stands to hurt them in the long run. Supreme, as these types see it, is a way to remain relevant by appearing ‘in the know’ to fans they are afraid of losing. Amongst this crowd is teen-sensation Justin Bieber, whom doesn’t buy so much as a toothbrush without consulting his publicist and was reported in a recent US Weekly as buying t-shirts at Supreme in Tokyo. Also notable is the fading, once multi-platinum rapper Lil Wayne, whom donned a Supreme logo skullcap in his recent “Still My Homies” music video. It’s people like Bieber and Wayne, not Tyler, whom are the one’s I find disheartening and blameworthy. They, not Tyler, are using Supreme as a contrived method of connecting with young people, andthis is ultimately what will destroy a brand’s reputation.
Then again, do I really have the right to be grumpy that Bieber and Lil Wayne are wearing Supreme? After all, it is only the streetwear snobs and Supreme purists like myself that are the ones whining Supreme may have ‘fallen off’. But what makes those kids in Iowa, Alaska, or even China who have just discovered Supreme unworthy of wearing it? What makes us so special and how did we end up so entitled? More importantly, who is to say that Supreme’s owners didn’t want a little more notoriety so they could run a successful business and finally, after years of busting their ass, get paid? It is almost like we expect Supreme to remain ‘underground’ and tell Bieber to f-off. If they get rich and famous then they no longer represent the fairytale I began this piece with, those prototypical, struggling downtown New Yorkers hanging out at a skate shop to somehow stick it to the proverbial Man. But it is just a story at this point even if it were once true –- if that were really Supreme in 2012, then I doubt they could stay in business selling 140-dollar hoodies and 40 dollar graphic tees. The real problem is that Supreme is first and foremost a business, but I along with so many others have been tricked into thinking it’s art. With art comes emotion, and with emotion come sentiment.
So is Supreme still supreme? Assuming the real question is “Is Supreme still the low-key little skate brand that no one outside of a 30 mile radius of any major city knows about?” then no, absolutely not. But that only becomes a problem when people like me glorify their past. By keeping Supreme’s reputation frozen in time, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. In turn I suggest we resist the urge to become so teary-eyed and sentimental about a clothing brand. If ultimately we still decide that Supreme has ‘sold out’ and we’re done buying it, then that is our prerogative. But huffing and puffing when other people still want to wear it just makes us seem like jerks. And I assure you, people will want to buy it. Lines for the recent release of Supreme’s Fall/Winter 2012 collection prove it. But know that if you do decide you’re over the box logo lifestyle, it would be shameful to come crawling back years down the line when the brand has become vintage and ironic. Supreme has always been loyal in that they consistently strive to deliver the very best in quality and creativity, even if they don’t always say thank you. So if we really care that much, I think the least we can do is stick around and continue to show support. Otherwise, I don’t think there’s anything else to do but shut up and never look back.