The Supreme brand story
The 1st Supreme store
Walking down the street, you could smell that sweet fragrance in the air, like sandalwood smoke. As you got closer, you could hear the music echoing in the Manhattan canyon, and then see the crowd outside the building, sometimes reaching 40 or 50 meters deep, spilling over the sidewalk on Lafayette Street. The attraction of it all was ostensibly a store - but at the time, when it opened in 1994, people's concerns seemed at odds with the real purpose of Supreme, which today has become a frenetic meeting place in New York's growing downtown with the skateboard community.
Supreme founder James Jebbia
In those days, Lafayette Street was not a commercial thoroughfare, so kids from the surrounding boroughs and from New Jersey, Long Island and upstate could gather without fear of police harassment or encroachment on upscale businesses. In those days, there were no metal barricades or security guards. Out of sight, in an office or back room, the man who invented it all - Supreme founder James Jebbia - could be found working the phone, negotiating with his suppliers, preparing another drop of T-shirts, sweatshirts and caps. He was on a mission to fill his ever-empty shelves, oblivious to the idea that something big was taking shape.
Celebrity influence and the Supreme community
Filmmaker Harmony Korine, who had moved into her first apartment a few blocks away a few months before Supreme opened, is among the store's affluents. "At first, I never really thought it could be a business," he tells me. "It was more of a hangout. You know, a place for that particular crew. " Supreme's start coincided with the making of Korine's first film, Kids, directed by Larry Clark, which famously depicts the style and bullshit of that same crew downtown. "It was raw," he says of the energy the store drew from. "It was a specific place, and the DNA is still there today.
The appeal of Supreme was instantaneous. Jen Brill, who is now a prominent New York creative director closely associated with the brand, was a student at an Upper East Side high school in 1994 when she began venturing to Lafayette, just to see who was working at the new skate store. "It was the cutest boys with the best styles and crappiest attitudes," she says. "There was a crazy energy around the store. It didn't feel like a store. Because they definitely didn't want to sell you anything. Maybe they didn't even want you in the store. "
Brill wasn't the only one struck by what was going on in town. For years, the township had earned a tough reputation in New York, but suddenly the cultural bangs were falling apart. Kids was released in 1995, as was Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone, which depicted a fundamentally different but equally stylish skate crew. That same year, ESPN hosted the first X-Games, a mass spectacle that put skateboarding on par with other "extreme sports" like street luge and sky surfing.
The beginning of collaborations for the skateboard brand
Twenty-five years later, while fads (like televised street luge) have fallen by the wayside, Supreme is still a skateboard brand and a brand of the basic clothing and accessories you need for the sport. But it's also much more than that. Since its inception in 1994, Supreme has slowly moved closer to the center of culture and fashion. Or more accurately, culture and fashion have reconfigured themselves around Supreme. Supreme's streetwear clothing and accessories sell out instantly, and the brand has become a collaborator in the high-caliber fashion world with ongoing projects with high-profile (Comme des garçons, Undercover) or even more affordable designers (Hanes, Champion). While details of the closely held company's operations are not disclosed, a $500 million investment in 2017 from multinational Carlyle Group for a 50% stake valued Supreme at $1 billion.
Streetwear supreme stores around the world
But you wouldn't necessarily know that walking into a Supreme store today where the music is still loud (In addition to the New York locations, there are now shops in Los Angeles, Paris and London, as well as six in Japan). And you may not be able to fully appreciate the profound power of Supreme by simply reading fashion magazines or blogs, if ever, featuring Supreme ads or interviews with Supreme. You certainly wouldn't hear the brand's influence by shopping in malls and department stores - Supreme doesn't have wholesalers, so you won't find their products in those places. As strong as the clothes are - red fur coats, leopard print pants, denim that looks like "FUCK" - the brand is almost silent, letting the clothes and the people wearing them speak for them.
James Jebbia, who, as always, runs virtually every aspect of the company he founded, declined to be interviewed in person for this story, but instead agreed to answer my written questions through an internal contact - and provided perhaps the most insightful articulation of his vision. Jebbia's life and affairs remain, for the most part, a mystery to those outside his inner circle. What is clear is that he acts on his own terms and refuses to make concessions based on what someone else wants or does.
"The reason we do things the way we do is because we respect the customer," he says. For Jebbia, it's not just marketing, but rather a sort of guiding principle, almost sacred. From the beginning, he studied what was happening on the street, relying on what he observed, not himself or another designer, to chart his creative course.
The atmosphere in the streetwear stores
"The influence came from the people around the store, the skateboarders," Jebbia explains. "They would wear cool shit; they wouldn't wear skateboarding clothes. It would be a Polo, it would be a Gucci belt, it would be Champion. We did what we really liked. And it was kind of a gradual thing. From a few t-shirts, a few sweatshirts, cargo pants, a backpack. But the influence was definitely from the young skateboarders in New York. Later travel to Japan and see their style. Or even traveling to London. It was a combination of all that. I never really thought of it as "this is what a skateboard brand should do".
The famous Box Logo
Supreme is famous for its box logo - a red rectangle with white text, inspired by artist Barbara Kruger's text and photo-collage - that appears each season on T-shirts, sweatshirts and caps. But for years, Supreme has also been making oxford shirts, chino pants, ripped jeans, M-65 jackets, pocket T-shirts and other pieces aimed at a different kind of downtown demographic: artists, architects, graphic designers for casual, fitted clothing that lasts a long time.
"I've always wondered: why shouldn't we do good things?" says Jebbia about exceeding expectations for a skateboard brand. Supreme stores are impeccable - folded t-shirts with razor-sharp edges, perfectly stacked; clothing perfectly spaced on racks.
Jebbia, former employee of Parachute
Jebbia's retail mastery stems in part from his experience working at Parachute in the 1980s. The now-defunct brand, worn by such luminaries of the day as Madonna, Michael Jackson, David Bowie and Rip, the nefarious drug dealer in Bret Easton Ellis' novel Lesson Zero Ellis, once had shops in Chicago, Los Angeles. Toronto and Bal Harbour, Florida. The store was on Wooster Street, across the street from the original Comme des Garçons, which opened in 1983, the year Jebbia arrived in the U.S. from Sussex, England, at the age of 19.
Six years later, in 1989, Jebbia opened the seminal Union streetwear boutique on Spring Street, which led to a reunion with Shawn Stüssy. Jebbia opened the first Stüssy store in New York, also on Wooster Street. Union and Stüssy, along with Triple 5 Soul and XLarge, created a new kind of retail in SoHo, based on subculture, not designers. All that was missing was one element: a skate store. "I didn't think about it at the time," says Jebbia. "But it was just an instinct that something was needed."
Supreme's marketingThe formula for success - for building a brand that lasts 25 years - seems simple enough: create a high-quality product that will last a long time, sell it at an affordable price and make other people want to buy it. But executing such a plan is much more complicated. And to determine how to thrive within the strict confines of its very specific principles and logic, Supreme has, deliberately or not, reorganized the alignment of the entire fashion industry.
"It's a fashion leader," said Alastair McKimm, a longtime fan who has been a stylist for the brand and was recently named editor-in-chief of i-D magazine. "The reason it's been so successful and influential is because it's been slow to evolve and has been very, very well managed from day one." He said Supreme has led the charge in the new consumerism: collections, making things very limited, making things very exciting when you actually get your hands on them. "
Limiting quantity has become Supreme's hallmark and one of its most important innovations. It's part of the reason the streetwear brand has so many loyal fans - and why it has left so many hopeful shoppers frustrated and bitter. But the strategy naturally evolved from the early days, when the store was nearly empty. Smaller runs were produced out of necessity, as Jebbia didn't have the resources to keep a stable assortment of products in stock. "We were making T-shirts, sweatshirts; if they don't sell, we'll be stuck with them," he says. The solution was to produce less. And if something sold well, instead of making more, he often made something different. "It wasn't a store full of commodities, where you could get the same product month after month. What we were doing had to be exciting. "
Of course, gauging what might be successful was harder to do in an era before things like Instagram. Jebbia never knew what would move. Of course, pretty much everything that was going on: "We would actually have seasons where we would have sold our summer product at the end of March. We would have nothing to sell in April, May, June and July. People would come in and say, "This store is crap. Why are people talking about this? ' And what are we going to say, 'If you had come in two weeks ago, it would look really good'?
Jebbia's solution to his inventory problem was simple, but radical: He found a way to replenish his stock every week. While many buyers hold out until the end-of-season sales are over, Supreme created a considerable sense of urgency that turned every Thursday - "drop day," in Supreme fan jargon: into a major event.
And indeed, the concept has recently proliferated. Thanks to Supreme, "drop" has become a buzzword, much like the terms "streetwear" and "collaboration" have. Celine's creative director, Hedi Slimane, recently broke the news by planning a major restructuring of his company to create a "more fluid distribution cycle. "Meaning: There will be drops. Balenciaga, Burberry, Moncler and others are using this pattern in hopes of adding warmth to their collaborations and limited editions. Gucci's buzzy drops arrive frequently and sell out quickly, including Supreme-esque capsule collections made in collaboration with the New York Yankees and Spanish artist Coco Capitán. This tactic is seen as a way for traditional big brands to connect with younger buyers. It's also a way to bypass the competition in a retail system modified by Supreme.
Towards the conquest of Japan for the red and white brand
As the brand grew and began to expand - it opened its first small shop in Japan in 1996 - Jebbia began to think beyond hoodies, T-shirts and caps. But that doesn't mean he stopped thinking about them. Craig Atkinson, CEO of CYC Designs, owner of the Wings & Horns and Reigning Champ brands, started working with Supreme around this time. Jebbia had seen some of the sweaters the company was making and was impressed. Before long, CYC was producing nearly every sweater Supreme sent to market. Atkinson was struck by Jebbia's personal obsession with sweatshirts. "He was passionate about quality, whether it was color, fit, or the materials we would develop for them," Atkinson says. Long discussions about the particular merits of a shade of navy were not uncommon. "James had very high expectations," Atkinson says. "And I'd say he has a very good level of taste, too."
Brands like A Bathing Ape and Neighbourhood - Jebbia's new neighbors in Harajuku - had already established large fan bases. He was inspired. But Japanese brands and their customers weren't the only things Jebbia had his eye on in the late '90s and early 2000s. "We weren't blind to Helmut Lang. We weren't blind to FUBU either," says Jebbia. "We were aware of what was going on in New York. But there weren't as many big fashion brands back then. There just weren't any. But I have to say that Helmut Lang was really big back then. "
Atkinson recalls that Helmut Lang was the singular brand that Jebbia mentioned during their collaboration. "He only wore Helmut Lang T-shirts," he says. "He was very mindful of how the collars fit him. He used that as a benchmark.
Quality rather than quantity according to Jebbia
Jebbia says his quality standards were based on what was already made. "With a lot of skate brands at the time, the quality wasn't good, the fabrics were kind of ugly," Jebbia says. "So we had to make our product as good as the brands that kids in New York were wearing: Polo, Nautica, Carhartt, Levis." By avoiding wholesale, he could keep prices low. Jebbia said, "Our goal was to try to make things as good as the best brands on the market, but not the fashion brands, and have that quality that people will wear for a very long time."
As ambitions grew, the operation became more sophisticated. Luke Meier, who had been in charge of design in 2002, oversaw a growing staff with extensive capabilities. Meier recalls that the immediacy with which his designs hit the store were major assets to Supreme. "When you think of a sewing room or a place where they actually make a product, you can sell it, like a block away," he says. "You feel very closely connected to who buys it, who wears it, why it's cool. It's not like you're in a studio across the world.
An extraordinary team that has pushed Supreme to the top
Meier left his full-time position at Supreme in 2009 and later launched the OAMC label. In 2017, he and his wife Lucie Meier were named co-creative directors of Jil Sander. "Surprisingly," he says after moving from Supreme to a high-end luxury brand, "it's not that different."
Angelo Baque, founder of the Awake NY brand, started at Supreme in 2006, at a time when he says the company was still a "flagship" company. In the years since, the brand has expanded rapidly, introducing new pieces such as the aforementioned oxford shirts and cardigans. "Twelve years later, everyone's making them," he says, "but Supreme making a cardigan in 2007 was a fucking revolution for the brand.
For much of that expansion period, Brendon Babenzien was head of design at Supreme (he has since launched his own brand, Noah). "It was really fun," says Babenzien, "being able to satisfy both the youthful side - the side I grew up with - but also meet some of the needs of our audience that had been with the brand from the beginning." in other words, making sweaters as coveted as Supreme's t-shirts. "I was hoping that Supreme would be able to make really progressive things and really classic things simultaneously," he says. "I think we've accomplished that."
The expansion of Supreme
Jebbia says that achieving this type of expansion required paying close attention to Supreme's customers. "We try and evolve," he says. "Twenty years ago, if we had put a fur coat on the store, the skateboarders would have left. Our windows would have been smashed. Young people are much more open-minded today. We're trying to do things for today's youth. We're not stuck in a box. "
One undeniable result of all this growth is that Supreme has become very popular in recent years. Chances are, if you're not obsessed with Supreme, you have a young cousin, niece or nephew who is. There were also those who were there from the beginning, like Leonard McGurr, the artist best known as Futura, who wears camo cargo pants he bought at Supreme on Lafayette in 1995 and still does today. So the guys who never felt ripped off buying a $42 cap or a $110 oxford shirt kept buying.
Andrew Rieth meets Supreme
Andrew Rieth, a 44-year-old geophysicist and father of five, lives near Houston and encountered Supreme in 2001 while flipping through a skate magazine. He noticed a skateboarder wearing a Supreme hat, became interested in the brand and called the store. They politely told Rieth not to place an order over the phone. So he went to where many were looking to follow Supreme: eBay. "This was before the current Supreme hype," he says. Still, the $28 retail capsules were selling for $75. Later that year, on a trip to New York, he visited the store for the first time. "I was completely blown away when I walked in the door," he says. "I was expecting a standard skate store with standard skate brands. Instead, they had a full line of their own streetwear- extra thick sweatshirts, American-made denim hoodies, M-65 nylon with velour zipper lining that looked like something you'd dream of finding in a store. Everything had this really raw, authentic feel to it. At the same time, the idea of spending $150 on jeans or a hoodie, or $300 on a jacket, was totally foreign to me. "
Rieth came out with just a tiger-striped camo cap, but in the years since, before Supreme made its store, his collection has grown. "Getting Supreme status was kind of a mission." He would sometimes travel to New York, find items on eBay and trade with friends he met on online forums. He was always impressed with the quality and design of the pieces. "The thing about Supreme, even now, is that they've always had this cool mix of sportswear, workwear and vintage clothing that you can pick and choose from in a way that suits your taste. Over the years, Supreme's collections have gotten bigger and usually louder, but I can still find understated, tasteful, unique, well-made things. "
Since 2013, Supreme has released full collections twice a year: fall/winter and spring/summer. These collections include suits and overcoats, basketball jerseys, leather jackets and silk shirts, as well as the famous collection of functional accessories and sporting goods (a Pearl battery kit, a Super Soaker water gun, The Band-Aid bandages all sported the Supreme logo). New collections debut in their entirety in advance, then are broken down into weekly drops, which take place every Thursday for a few months. Unless there are leaks (and there often are), you don't know what's going to drop in a given week.
For Supreme fans, a specific thrill is derived from this system. The hottest items are decided long before they are released. For some, for many, these pieces become essential to that season's fits. For example, if you must have a shirt in the collection, you have to check it every Thursday until it arrives (it could be several weeks), so hope you can be quick enough to buy it before it sells out.
Sometimes you have nothing. Every supreme believer knows this pain. But that only adds to the thrill. "Everybody feels like they're part of this underground society, you know?" says McKimm. Obviously, you're not the only one on the hunt.
Many Supreme pieces are designed based on references - modified versions of existing pieces from the past. True obsessives love to dig through old archives to uncover the originals, whether it's an obscure album cover that Supreme slipped into a logo or a hard-to-find vintage military parka. But often, the references aren't so hard to spot, especially for those familiar with '90s skate and hip-hop style. "I think it was a golden age for clothing, music, art, for a lot of things," Jebbia says.