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.

39 Responses to “Is Supreme Still Supreme?”

  1. Tim

    Very well written, and some great points made. Nice job. Now get Mac Miller off my screen.

  2. For consideration

    Hey Lawrence, editor man,

    Focus less on that neck-beard and more on lacing FP with stories like this.

    Nice work, Jake.

  3. CW

    LOL please do a little more research on TB x Supreme. Supreme essentially Pyrex-ed it. No designer collaboration took place, I promise.

  4. MaxSur

    I must say, I’m in Malaysia at the moment and the presence of Supreme on this side of the world is startling. I see toothless old men with a supreme sticker on their moped, fat guys in t-shirts, fake Supreme bags for sale at every other market in Bangkok. Even if you keep it limited and don’t allow many to buy your products, well there’s parts of the world that can make your thing for yourself.

    Originality is a losing battle. Good article, thanks.

    • Jake Woolf

      Wow, had to get your Four-Pins fix even when in Malaysia. That’s awesome. Also, really interesting global insights. I think that counterfeiting is a separate issue, that does however have implications on a brand’s “cool factor”. Again thanks for the feedback.

  5. Justin

    I agree with the point on Lil Wayne—he’s a 30 year old pop star who’s a walking billboard at this point.

    But can’t Justin Bieber buy a brand that most kids his age desire without being thrown into the same space as Wayne? Yeah, he’s a symbol of teeny-bopper TMZ pop, but he’s also a teenager who shares has the same feelings about Supreme as us. I don’t think there’s anything disingenuous about that. His age, his music (his last album was his first step into adulthood), and his image as a bit of a douche (aren’t we all?) leads me to believe that he’s more on our side of the Supreme consumer fence, looking across at Wayne instead of standing with him. There’s nothing wrong with famous people wearing Supreme so long as those famous people echo the image of “cool” that Supreme’s existing buyers look for. Someone like Joey Bada$$ (I can imagine he owns some Supreme) would probably be a good example of that.

    This was still the best article I’ve ever read on Four Pins though.

  6. lz

    Might be a surprise to street wear and sneakerheads but real skateboarders never really considered supreme a skate brand or any of their locations real skateshops. Most skateboarders are in fact not that hyped they cash credibility on skateboarding because that was their first niche of appeal when they started. Good article, just may need a little perspective from the group they originally hung their 5 panel hat off of. Truthfully, who isn’t cashing in on skateboarding these days?… oh yeah, skateboarders.

  7. cas3

    the irony here is that your EIC dick rode the brand and contributed to the dilution of its appeal. get em coming and going, its the american way…

  8. CK

    surprised you didnt refer to Pharrel’s destruction of Bathing Ape anywhere in this article.

    Another point to mention (albeit briefly) would have been that, sad as it is to admit, we’ve all grown up. Buying Supreme in 1994 would mean you’re likely mid-30s now. It’s OK to have moved on, and to let “your” brands move on.

    Nice article.

  9. Jean

    Supreme sell cheaper its products than the equilibrium price (price/quantity ratio). With “low” price, low quantity and a constant great supply, Supreme creates a surplus demand and fuck’em all.

  10. Jan

    Very interesting and needed article. I sometimes wonder what is actual plan for Supreme for upcoming years. It’s without a doubt iconic street+ brand and if you ask me, it’s strengt is in its unique ‘sold out’ factor (typical for items for elite) in conjunction with rebel feel. Based on that they were always able to pull off weird collabos, produce axes with their logo etc. Their latest collaboration with Rolex however made me think about purpose of that move. Does Supreme want to show themselves as iconic brand on the same level as Rolex? What’s in it for hand watches manufacturer? For me it’s a image upgrade for Supreme but it also shows that it’s getting quite far from it’s roots. I totally understand that after so many years in the industry you get to know people making high-end brands. I’m just not sure how this correlates with street-diy image of the brand. It all depends on where they want to place themselves in the market. Would be great to know your opinion Jake.

  11. E

    There’s some “people” who took notice of this write up, good job Jake.

    Despite my current life and role, I’ll always remember Supreme as the spot to meet up with dudes like Ian, Rodney and Harold and then bounce up to Astor Pl to decide where we’d catch the train to go skate. Never bought anything there growing up because of my loyalty to my own skate shop and their loyalty to their riders. It’s good to see guys getting money now. I say sell the culture, let the nerds adopt and when they get tired of it, we’ll still be here carrying on. Cause what Supreme stood for especially in the East Coast skate scene is not a fad.

    • Jake Woolf

      Hey thanks! Not sure who you mean by “people” but it sounds like a good thing.

  12. Vanna Huot I'm Gay

    This shit is hilarious. Anyone buying this garbage is a bunch of broke ass wannabee fashionista. Fuck outta here with this Supreme bullshit. Overprice garbage is more like it. My gay ass got more fashion sense than any of these niggas talking on this page. This shit is weak.

  13. Todd

    I felt the same way about many brands that I grew up with such as Fresh Jive, Stussy, DC etc back in the 90’s as they exploded into mainstream at the age of 36 I am totally comfortable rocking my DC shoes still with a Stussy T because regardless of how mainstream or whatever it became, they were still the brands that I love to wear. Excellent writing.

  14. Tamia

    *starts a slow clap* Seriously one of the best articles I’ve ever read on FP. This was fucking beautiful Jake.

  15. timmy toothless

    ‘streetwear/sneaker heads’ are the comic book nerds of the past decade years.

    throwing away thousands to slavishly consume image

  16. bruce

    My friends and I have been NYC skateboarders since the 90’s. We always thought of Supreme primarily as the way that a rich douchebag tried to buy his way into being cool. Supreme has been able to mine a lot of cool ideas from NYC skateboarders, musicians, and artists, find a way to commodify it, re-package it, and sell it. Supreme isn’t a creator of that culture, it’s just another consumer.


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