Is Supreme Still Supreme?

The recent release of Supreme's "reliable" S/S 13 collection, that some have called a return to form, brought me back to a thought I've had for a while now. The year is 1994: Teenagers in baggy jeans skate up Lafayette St., bobbing their heads to Biggie's newly fresh Ready To Die. "Gimme the loot, gimme the loot! I’m a bad, bad boy" is the anthem of the moment. The crew rolls up to #274 and hops off their decks. 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 is 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 day-long session than the shit they’re used to skating in. Outside, sneakers hang over the lamp post 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 photo-printed tee with Travis Bickle on the front. A newcomer asks for one in his size. "Sold out." These words will transform this store into the legendary brand it will one day become—Supreme.

It's these same words, and their subsequent feeling, that have brought people back to Supreme at any of its now 9 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 walk the line between well known and elusive has been a major source of its appeal. It has been able to grow without us ever getting to know it, appearing to the outside world to be in what marketers might call a perpetual “early adopter” phase. But nothing lasts forever and these days that tone has changed some. Their iconic box logo has saturated the streets of downtown New York and in the past year become a scarlet letter marking unoriginality. Many attribute this influx 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 pertinent examples. When brands mass produce, they have less control over who ends up wearing their product. And who wears your product is everything. While the elastic idea of “cool” is a subjective one, in the hyper-competitive world of 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. Following trends? Not cool. Going on sale? Not cool. Caring about what's “cool” and what isn't? Definitely not cool. Being cool isn’t just important, It’s everything.

Lots of us, myself included, are guilty of buying into their counter-culture brand image unconditionally.

In Supreme’s case, their infallibly 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 even mega-corporations like Nike. Lots of us, myself included, are guilty of buying into their counter-culture brand image unconditionally. In years past, I’ve desperately tried to justify my obsession, pointing to the fact Supreme pays more attention to details than similar brands. Truth is, I’m simply rationalizing the hype, hoping I can make myself magically feel better for dropping $48 dollars on a hat (it half works). We have put Supreme on a pedestal and made them virtually infallible. We may hold them to a higher standard and scrutinize the tiniest misstep, but, at the end of the day, they effectively provoke our desire to consume.

What has protected their reputation is essentially a non-marketing marketing strategy (as writer, and self-proclaimed fan, Glenn O’Brien once called it), designed to leave customers feeling satisfied with a purchase, but ultimately unwelcomed. As a result, we try and buy our way in. Owner and founder James Jebbia has even acknowledged this calculated ambivalence: “We work very hard to make everything look effortless.” He’s also divulged that Supreme tries to under-manufacture: “We’ve never really been supply-demand anyway. If we can sell 600, I make 400.” What even better captures this attitude is the lack of interviews Mr. Jebbia has granted since launching the brand. He knows better than most that oversharing takes the fun, magic and, most importantly, hype out of everything.

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? It doesn't take waiting in more than a handful of lines on Lafayette St. to point said finger at Odd Future ringleader Tyler, The Creator. As buzz surrounding Tyler and the rest of Odd Future began flooding the Internet, their movement had an instant visual connection to the box logo. It wouldn't be crazy to think OF's digital rise, alongside Tumblr's own similar trajectory, was powerful enough to usher in an entirely new era of Supreme’s legacy. Because this is still streetwear we're talking about, there are many people upset with this association. To some, it appears that Odd Future is somehow forcing Supreme to sacrifice a piece of its own identity in exchange for a new customer demographic.

Is Supreme still the low-key skate brand that no one outside of NYC knows about? No, absolutely not.

I get it. Tyler got famous and then Supreme got famous. It's a clear line of logic that sums up the complaints of Supreme diehards. Personally, I think that’s a rather shallow and limited assessment. Even if Supreme adopts the Odd Future demographic, the two types of customers coexist healthily. After all, Tyler is a fairly accurate representation of Supreme’s own image, embodying the youth, rebellion and individuality Supreme has always hung their five panel cap on. Quite frankly, he’s hardly been a model brand ambassador. On several occasions he's gone as far as tweeting to his fans not to wear Supreme just because he does. Besides, Tyler, The Creator can hardly be called mainstream by traditional standards—his music gets minimal radio play and his proper debut, Goblin, moved a modest 50K units in its first week. If there is proper blame to place, then it would be on Tyler’s "fame," and not Tyler himself. What he did do is expose Supreme to the real mainstream. Take for example, Justin Bieber, who was reported in a recent issue of US Weekly as buying T-shirts at the Supreme store in Tokyo. Or the fading, once multi-platinum rapper Lil Wayne, who donned a Supreme skullcap in his recent “My Homies Still” music video. It’s people like Bieber and Wayne. who are using Supreme as a contrived way of connecting with the young people they wish to win over, that may ultimately tarnish the brand’s reputation. But then again, lest we forget Supreme is first and foremost a business. A business that often masquerades, quite convincingly I might add, as art. And with art comes emotion, and with emotion comes sentiment.

So, is Supreme still Supreme? That's hard to say. Is Supreme still the low-key skate brand that no one outside of NYC knows about? No, absolutely not. And that only becomes problematic when people like me glorify their past. By keeping Supreme’s reputation frozen in time, we are only setting ourselves up for disappointment. I suggest we resist the urge to become so sentimental. If we ultimately decide that Supreme has "sold out" and we’re done buying what they've been selling since day one because it no longer feels honest, then that's our prerogative. But handing out judgements to others who still want to wear it just makes us seem like dickheads. And I assure you that people, whether OG's or newcomers, will always want to wear it. No matter how you feel, Supreme has continually been loyal in their consistency to deliver the very best in terms of quality and creativity, even if they don’t always say thank you. If we really care that much, and I know I do, 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 take a page out of Supreme's own handbook, shut up and never look back.

A previous version of this story originally appeared here. Jake Woolf is a writer living in New York City. You can read his blog here and follow him on Twitter here.