Supreme: The Story

On London’s Peter Street, a queue of brightly dressed teenagers are a loud presence, chatting, tapping, snacking, smoking and likely fidgeting with the debit cards and iPhones in the pockets of their puffa jackets. The fairly orderly line extends deep into London’s Soho, 100-200 deep. Weaving around a corner, then another, the queue, monitored by security guards, gives the passer-by the impression of a celebrity meet-and-greet or the opportunity of a lifetime.

But it isn’t. These pre-teens and early 20-somethings are queuing just to buy and item. Specifically, items from Supreme. As you may or may not know Supreme was once a scrappy skate brand, with baggy tee’s and simple hoodie, now however, its a billion-dollar global phenomenon and as likely to be worn by David Beckham or Emelia Clark as by the skateboarding dropouts who wore them first. The designs are relatively simple, the items are expensive. For these teens and many around the world, they might as well be objects of worship.

Supreme began as a counter-cultural hang-out spot on a New York street corner in 1994. Twenty-six years later, what ensures that generation after generation of teens – more well-heeled than their 1990s predecessors – are forever coming back? Well this is the question that a new coffee-table book (“Supreme”) aims to answer, folding historical and new work from cult film directors, photographers and writers (Larry Clark, Harmony Korine, Ari Marcopoulos, Nan Goldin) into more than 300 beautifully composed pages of designs, photoshoots and thoughts.

The brand began life as we said, a skateshop – and quite frankly a failing skateshop at that. James Jebbia, its ever-popular founder and the writer of the book, was born in America; his family moved to the UK when he was barely a year old. James immersed himself in New York’s street-style culture when, aged 19, he moved back across the Atlantic, initially working at Stussy, another streetwear brand and rival.

He then founded Supreme. The clothing only entered the frame when Jebbia realised that he needed to make ends meet. The first examples featured Robert De Niro’s character Travis Bickle and the famous Supreme logo: a bold white font on a red background, in the style of Barbara Kruger’s late 1980s propaganda art.  

This was a brand created by and for losers and misfits. Korine, writer of the 1994 Aids crisis film Kids – whose cast worked at Supreme – contributed a poem to the book, in which he describes the original fans: “We came and we went. Skateboards / broken teeth / gold teeth / we dipped / we boosted / broken homes.” In these pages of the book there are hundreds of kids who fit that description, whether rap acts like Odd Future or just the average pavement-variety “skateboard bro”. The Supreme kind became a stereotype: long-haired dudes who always have money for beer or weed, but can’t seem to afford a frame for their mattress. 

But as an “anti-establishment” stance became something to be monopolised, so too did Supreme. The household celebrities who feature in the book are perfect representations of this. There’s an aged Johnny Rotten sneering into a camera against an all-over-print Supreme background; we see Lady Gaga in a Supreme t-shirt and sunglasses. There are the famous shoots with Kate Moss. It’s like Vogue, but for celebrities who openly do drugs and are generally perceived as a pain in the ass during their careers.

Supreme spread across the world, and became something worn not only by skaters, but by kids from the well-off Home Counties, fair-haired, well-spoken kids who speak in London “roadman” slang but wouldn’t be caught dead hanging out anywhere but on the Kings Road or the modern hangouts of Kings Cross, for fear of what their parents might say.

None of this features in the book, of course – the brand is too cool for that. But these hidden fans are a huge group who help to keep the company afloat, both financially and visibly . These are the teenagers you’ll mostly see queuing in Soho every Thursday (thats when Supreme release new clothes and items FYI.)

Today’s Supreme outlets aren’t too distant from the original New York store. The central floor is spacious, the spot on NYC’s Lafayette Street was designed so that skaters could drop their boards and bags, and turn to gawk at the clothing and skateboard decks on the wall. But in London, it’s just empty space: large bags and skateboards need to be checked in with security at the door. Supreme now has 12 locations across the globe, serving a customer base that stretch far beyond the brand’s skaterboy roots. There was of course the collection everyone heard about with Louis Vuitton in 2017, where the brand sold £575 hoodies and £1,345 jackets, all of which sold out, of course. 

But despite the high prices and mass appeal the teenagers keep offering up their mum and dads credit cards. Some simply in it as a ‘Reseller’, a insane freelance industry has sprung up on the back of Supreme. People resell their famous box-logo hoodies, known as Bogos – literally a hoodie with a small logo on it – for three times the retail price. The hyper-entrepreneurial can build up job-lots to sell on: for instance, Yukio Takahashi’s Supreme collection sold for £200,000 at Sotheby’s in 2019. 

Big business couldn’t let the freelancers sneak away with all the profit from this highly profitable brand. In 2018, Supreme received a $500-million-dollar investment from The Carlyle Group – a multinational, private-equity corporation with previous investments in Beats Electronics, Moncler and Dr Pepper. And yet, in spite of this, the brand has retained its outsider appeal. Perhaps fans of Supreme see the investment as similar to reselling a Bogo hoodie – one is a lucrative item, resold for profit; one is a business, also sold on for profit. Or perhaps those who wear Supreme don’t know about the investment – or don’t care. The brand’s aesthetic is effectively maintained by the non-clothing items it releases each season. There have been stash boxes, skate tools, rolling papers. In 2007, Supreme offered up a five-pack of brown paper liquor bags, featuring the brand’s F.T.P. – “F— Tha Police” – logo. Or would you prefer an off-road Honda motorcycle, as released in 2019?

Supreme’s ability to straddle the underground and the mainstream is largely due to their approach. Though they perform as a fashion brand, they’re more like a tongue-in-cheek art project, every skateboard deck in this glossy book seems designed to shock or intrigue. But isn’t that what its all about? Going back to those early days, supporting the dropout, the skater kid, the stoner. Those who looked to shock and awe those around them with their actions, it’s still the same brand. Just in this Supreme is a triumph of consumerism.

But never the less, the hypebeasts in London and around the world will continue to queue, all trying to ‘cop’ the latest Supreme Brick or plain white t-shirt. All searching to be unique, different or seen as a leading fashionista. What they don’t realise, they all look the same.

Supreme is published by Phaidon on February 5 at £35


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