Walking down the street, you could smell this sweet scent in the air, like the smoke of sandalwood. As you approach, you can hear music ringing in the canyon of Manhattan, then see the crowd outside the building, sometimes reaching 40 or 50 meters deep, overflowing the sidewalk of Lafayette Street. The attraction of it all was apparently a store - but at the time, when it opened in 1994, people's concerns seemed to defeat the real purpose of Supreme, which today has become a place. frantic meeting in New York City’s growing city center with the skate community.
At that time, Lafayette Street was not a trading route, so children in neighboring boroughs and New Jersey, Long Island and the northern part of the state could assemble without fear of harassment by the police or encroach on high-end shops. At that time, there were no metal barricades or security guards. In private, in an office or in a back room, the man who invented everything - Supreme founder James Jebbia - could be found working on the phone, negotiating with suppliers, preparing a another drop of t-shirts, sweatshirts and caps. His mission was to fill his always empty shelves, oblivious to the idea that something big was taking shape.
The filmmaker Harmony Korine, who had moved into her first apartment a few blocks away, a few months before the opening of Supreme, is one of the tributaries of the store. "At first, I never really thought it could be a business," he told me. “It was more of a meeting place. You know, a place for this particular crew. The start of Supreme coincided with the making of Korine's first film, Kids, directed by Larry Clark, which famously illustrates the style and bullshit of this same crew in downtown. "It was gross," he says of the energy the store drew. "It was a specific place, and DNA is still there today.
Supreme's call was instant. Jen Brill, who is now a prominent New York creative director with close ties to the brand, was a high school student on the Upper East Side in 1994, when she started venturing to Lafayette, just to see who worked in the new skate shop. "They were the cutest boys with the best styles and crappy attitudes," she said. “There was crazy energy around the store. It didn't look like a store. Because they absolutely didn't want to sell you anything. Maybe they didn't even want you in the store. "
Brill was not the only one struck by what was happening in the city. For years, the hometown acquired a difficult reputation in New York, but suddenly the cultural fringes collapsed. Kids was released in 1995, as was Clueless, with Alicia Silverstone, who describes a fundamentally different but equally stylish skate crew. In the same year, ESPN organized the first X-Games, a mass show that put skateboarding among other "extreme sports", such as street luge and sky surfing.
Twenty-five years later, when fads (like the televised street sledge) have fallen into the water, Supreme remains a brand of skateboarding and a brand of basic clothing and accessories that we need for sport. . But it is also much more than that. Since its inception in 1994, Supreme has slowly moved closer to the center of culture and fashion. Or more precisely, culture and fashion have been reconfigured around Supreme. Supreme streetwear clothing and accessories sell instantly, and the brand has become a collaborator in the world of high-caliber fashion with ongoing projects with high-level designers (Comme des Garcons, Undercover) or even more affordable (Hanes, Champion). Although details of the private company's activities are not being disclosed, a $ 500 million investment in 2017 by multinational Carlyle Group, for a 50% stake, estimated the valuation of Supreme at $ 1 billion .
But you wouldn't necessarily know it when entering a Supreme store today where the music is still loud. (In addition to New York sites, 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 magazines from fashion or blogs, if ever, offer Supreme ads or interviews with Supreme. You certainly wouldn't hear the brand's influence when shopping in malls and department stores - Supreme doesn't have wholesalers, so you won't find their products in these places. As strong as the clothes may be - red fur coats, leopard-print pants, denim resembling "FUCK" - the brand is almost silent, letting the clothes and the people who wear them speak for themselves.
James Jebbia, who, as always, runs virtually every aspect of the company he founded, refused to be interviewed in person for this story, but instead agreed to answer my written questions through an internal interlocutor - and perhaps provided the most insightful articulation of his vision. The life and affairs of Jebbia remain, for the most part, a mystery to those who are not part of its 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, this is not just marketing, but rather a kind of guiding principle, almost sacred. From the start, he studied what was happening on the street, drawing on what he had observed, and not on himself or another designer, to trace the path of his creation.
"The influence came from the people around the store, the skateboarders," said Jebbia. “They would wear cool shit; they would not wear skateboard clothing. It would be a Polo, it would be a Gucci belt, it would be Champion. We did what we really liked. And it was sort of a gradual thing. Some t-shirts, some sweatshirts, cargo pants, a backpack. But the influence was definitely exerted by the young skaters in New York. Subsequently travel to Japan and see their style. Or even travel to London. It was a combination of all of that. I never really thought of it as "this is what a skateboard brand should do."
Supreme is famous for its box logo - a red rectangle with white text, inspired by the text and photo-collage of artist Barbara Kruger - which appears each season on T-shirts, sweatshirts and caps. But for years, Supreme has also been making oxford shirts, chinos, ripped jeans, M-65 jackets, pocket t-shirts, and other pieces for a different kind of inner city population. : artists, architects, graphic designers for casual, fitted and long-lasting clothing.
"I've always wondered: why shouldn't we do good things?" Says Jebbia about exceeding the expectations of a skateboard brand. Supreme stores are spotless - t-shirts folded with razor-sharp edges, perfectly stacked; perfectly spaced clothes on the lockers.
Jebbia's mastery of the retail trade can be explained in part by his experience working at Parachute in the 1980s. The brand, which has since disappeared, was carried by famous personalities of the time, such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, David Bowie. and Rip, the abominable drug trafficker from Bret Easton Ellis' Lesson Zero Ellis novel, had previously had shops in Chicago, Los Angeles. , Toronto and Bal Harbor, Florida. The store was located in Wooster Street, across from the original Comme des Garçons store, which opened in 1983, the year Jebbia arrived in the United States from Sussex, England, at the age of 19.
Six years later, in 1989, Jebbia opened the basic Union streetwear store on Spring Street, which led to a meeting 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, have created a new kind of retail at SoHo, based on a subculture and not on designers. Only one thing was missing: a skate shop. "I didn't think about it at the time," says Jebbia. "But it was just an instinct that something was needed."
The formula for success - to build 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 people want to buy it. But executing such a plan is much more complicated. And to determine how to thrive in strict compliance with its very specific principles and logic, Supreme has, deliberately or not, reorganized the alignment of the entire fashion sector.
"He's a fashion leader," said longtime fan Alastair McKimm, who was a stylist for the brand and was recently named editor-in-chief of i-D magazine. "The reason for this success and its influence is that it has evolved slowly 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 it. "
Limiting quantities has become the hallmark of Supreme and one of its most important innovations. This is partly why the streetwear brand has so many loyal fans - and why it has left so many hopeful buyers frustrated and bitter. But the strategy naturally evolved from the first days, when the store was almost empty. The small series were produced out of necessity because Jebbia did not have the resources to keep a stable assortment of products in stock. “We made t-shirts, sweatshirts; if they don't sell, we'll get stuck with them, ”he says. The solution was to produce less. And if something sold well, instead of making more, it often made something different. “It was not a store full of commodities, where you could get the same product month after month. What we were doing had to be exciting. "
Naturally, gauging what could be successful was more difficult to do in an era before things like Instagram. Jebbia never knew what was going to move. Of course, pretty much everything that went 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 shit. Why do people talk about this? And what are we going to say? "If you came two weeks ago, would it 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 has created a sense of tremendous urgency that has turned each Thursday - "drop day" - into the jargon of Supreme supporters: a major event.
And indeed, the concept has recently proliferated. Thanks to Supreme, “drop” has become a buzzword, much like it did with the terms “streetwear” and “collaboration”. Céline's creative director, Hedi Slimane, recently announced the news, planning a major restructuring of her business to create a "more fluid distribution cycle." Meaning: There will be drops. Balenciaga, Burberry, Moncler and others are using this model in the hopes of adding warmth to their collaborations and limited editions. Gucci drop buzzies arrive frequently and sell quickly, including the Supreme-esque capsule collections produced in collaboration with the New York Yankees and Spanish artist Coco Capitán. This tactic is seen as a way for big traditional brands to connect with younger buyers. It is also a way to bypass the competition in a retail system modified by Supreme.
As the brand grew and began to develop - 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 has 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 sweaters the company was making and was impressed. In a short time, CYC produced almost all of the sweaters that Supreme sent to the market. Atkinson was struck by Jebbia's personal obsession with sweatshirts. "He was passionate about quality, whether it was the color, the cut, or the materials we would develop for them," said Atkinson. Long discussions on the particular merits of a shade of navy were not uncommon. "James had very high expectations," says Atkinson. "And I would say it also has a very good level of taste."
Brands like A Bathing Ape and Neighborhood - 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 their eye on in the late 90s and early 2000s. “We weren't blind to Helmut Lang. We were not blind to FUBU either, ”says Jebbia. “We were aware of what was happening in New York. But there weren't as many big fashion brands at the time. There just weren't any. But I must say that Helmut Lang was really important at the time. "
Atkinson remembers that Helmut Lang was the singular brand that Jebbia mentioned during their collaboration. "He was only wearing Helmut Lang t-shirts," he says. “He was very attentive to how the collars fit him. He used this as a benchmark.
Jebbia says its quality standards were based on what was already made. "With a lot of skateboard brands at the time, the quality was not good, the fabrics were a bit ugly," says Jebbia. "So we had to manufacture our product as well as the brands that the children of New York wore: Polo, Nautica, Carhartt, Levis". By avoiding wholesale, it 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 to 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, supervised a growing staff with extensive capabilities. Meier remembers that the immediacy with which his creations hit the store were major assets for Supreme. "When you think of a sewing shop or a place where they really make a product, you can sell it, like a block away," he says. “You feel very closely related to who buys it, who wears it, why it's cool. It's not like you're in a studio around the world.
Meier left his full-time position at Supreme in 2009 and then launched the OAMC label. In 2017, he and his wife Lucie Meier were appointed co-creative directors of Jil Sander. "Surprisingly," he says after switching 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, according to him, the company was still a “flagship” company. In the years that followed, the brand experienced rapid expansion, introducing new pieces such as the oxford shirts and cardigans mentioned above. "Twelve years later, everyone makes them," he says, "but the fact that Supreme made a cardigan in 2007 was a fucking revolution for the brand.
For much of this expansion period, Brendon Babenzien was responsible for design at Supreme (he has since launched his own brand, Noah). "It was really fun," said Babenzien, "to be able to satisfy both the youthful side - the side with which I grew up - but also to meet some of the needs of our audience who had been with the brand from the start." "In other words, make sweaters as coveted as Supreme's t-shirts." I was hoping that Supreme would be able to achieve really progressive things and really classic things simultaneously, "he says." I think we have accomplished that. "
Jebbia says that to achieve this type of expansion, special attention had to be paid to Supreme’s customers. "We are trying and evolving," he says. “Twenty years ago, if we had put on a fur coat at the store, the skateboarders would have left. Our windows would have been broken. Young people are much more open-minded today. We are trying to do things for young people today. We are not stuck in a box. "
An 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 start, like Leonard McGurr, the artist better known as Futura, who wears camo cargo pants that he bought from Supreme on Lafayette in 1995 and that he still wears today. The guys who never felt ripped off by buying a cap for $ 42 or an oxford shirt for $ 110, therefore continued to buy.
Andrew Rieth, a 44-year-old geophysicist and father of five, lives near Houston and met Supreme in 2001 while leafing 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 order by phone. So he went to where there were many who sought to follow Supreme: eBay. "It was before the current Supreme hype," he says. However, capsules sold at retail for $ 28 sold for $ 75. Later that year, during a trip to New York, he visited the store for the first time. "I was completely blown away when I walked through the door," he says. “I expected a standard skate shop with standard skate brands. Instead, they had a full line of their own streetwear clothing - extra thick sweatshirts, US made jeans hooded sweatshirt, M-65 nylon with velvet zipper lining that looked like something you would dream of. find it in a store. Everything had this really raw and authentic feeling. 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 that followed, before Supreme went shopping, his collection grew. “Getting Supreme status was kind of a mission.” He would go to New York sometimes, find articles on eBay, and trade with friends he met on online forums. He has always been impressed by the quality and design of the pieces. "The problem with Supreme, even now, is that they have always had this cool mix of sportswear, workwear and vintage clothing that you can choose in a way that suits your tastes. Over the years, Supreme's collections have grown and generally become stronger, but I can always find discreet, tasteful, unique and well-made things. "
Since 2013, Supreme publishes complete 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 drum kit, a pistol Super Soaker water, Band-Aid bandages all sported the Supreme logo). The new collections debut in full in advance, then are divided into weekly drops, which take place every Thursday for a few months. Unless there are leaks (and often there are), you don't know what will fall in a given week.
For Supreme fans, a specific thrill is derived from this system. The hottest articles are decided well before their publication. For some, for many, these pieces become essential to the adjustments of this season. For example, if you must have a shirt in the collection, you should check it every Thursday until it arrives (it could take several weeks), so hope you can be quick enough to buy it before it will not be sold.
Sometimes you have nothing. Every supreme believer knows this pain. But that only adds to the thrill. "Everyone has the feeling of being part of this underground society, you see?", Declares McKimm. It is obvious that you are not alone in the hunt.
Many Supreme parts are designed on the basis of references - modified versions of existing parts from the past. True obsessed people love to delve into ancient archives to find the originals, whether it's an obscure album cover that Supreme has slipped into a logo or a vintage military parka that is hard to find. But often, references are not that hard to spot, especially for those who are used to the 90s skateboarding and hip-hop styles. "I think it was a golden age for clothes, music, art, for a lot of things, ”says Jebbia.