As Supreme celebrates its twentieth year, Emily Manning considers the brand's continuing place at the heart of streetwear.
The call came after 40 minutes of silently stumbling my way around Portobello Market’s blue-tarp, tenement maze of strange smelling faux fur coats, still locked in a delicate two-step with a nasty hangover and blinded by an aggressive bout of September sunshine. I was two days off a transatlantic flight, and although I’d be staying for four months, I already was out of money. As I passed a stall with beat up pairs of Nike Air Huraches hung from their shoe strings, their vendor tried me again.
“Do you like Supreme?”
Now in its twentieth year, James Jebbia’s downtown destination for latchkey kids and art collectors alike was born only three years after I was - both of us coming of age reconciling our analog infancies with digital tomorrows. Referential but never, ever “retro,” both the quality of Supreme’s clothing and its nuanced code of cultural references have organically evolved over its two-decade long lifespan constantly bearing these origins in mind. The simple, red canvas camp cap I was wearing was my giveaway.
“Yeah, I do.”
This guy wasn’t the hype beast you’d find in a pair of uncreased Jordans camped outside of the storied skate brand’s Lafayette shop on a Wednesday night. His Carhartt pocket T-shirt spotted with oil stains cuffed at the sleeves revealed patches of weathered skin spangled with stick and poke tattoos that probably pre-dated both Supreme’s and my births. He got up slowly from his lawn chair and motioned me over to a table with a few old Premiership jerseys folded neatly on top.
“I’ve got something to show you.”
He lifted the blanket lining the table and pulled out two massive plastic storage bins completely hidden from view and cracked open their lids to reveal an archive spanning the entirety of Supreme’s lineage, from a 1998 Burberry patterned box logo tee to an 80’s-era Budweiser print, union made hat that inspired the brand’s 2009 capsule collection. As he spun stories of traveling to an outlaw Lower East Side of daylight robberies and 14-year-olds nursing brown bags of Olde English while heel flipping through Astor Place - a far cry from the capitalist tourist playground of today (thanks again, Giuliani) - it became clear that he wasn’t making much of an effort to sell any of it. For the same reason Jebbia rarely grants formal interviews to reporters trying to make sense of his brand’s quadruple eBay resale values, this man wasn’t too convinced that those in search of knock off Boy London crew necks would fully appreciate the brand’s quality, let alone speak its cultural language.
Where social media often places the focus on providing the consumer with behind the scenes access to collections in process, drumming up cachophenous hype for fast fashion platforms that ultimately ring hollow, Supreme’s non existent marketing strategy has fared all the better over its 20 years. Less a shroud of mystery and more a focus placed solely on product and its visual presentation, Supreme’s markedly minimalist aesthetic lets quality speak for itself.
Jebbia his crew have always stayed faithful to the gritty spirit of their core customers: kids raised breaking, splitting, and licking blunts in Washington Square Park’s hazy Julys, so well depicted in Larry Clark’s Kids. For as much as the film put its finger on the venemous pulse of that New York, in ways that extend far beyond the legacies of its club drugs and shoe string belted baggy cargo pants, so too has Supreme remained a youth oracle. In Kids, Clark scored Harold Hunter and Justin Pierce beating the shit out of a man who crossed their path to an eerily sprightly Daniel Johnston track, smashing together shards of subculture under the single moniker of youth. Supreme’s first full length skate video cherry, released just shy of two months ago, sees an artful black and white sequence of young blood Aidan Mackey cruising to The Cure’s harrowing “Cold,” similarly weaves together these threads. Creating a space in which Jeff Koons, Juelz Santana, Siouxsie Sioux, and Kermit the Frog all inexplicably yet harmoniously co-exist, Supreme is the physical embodiment of New York skate subculture’s amalgamative voice, cadences proudly proclaiming “fuck what you heard.”
Although Supreme’s series of artist collaboration skate decks draw in Christopher Wool and Damien Hirst collectors, at the end of the day, they’re still $68. And what’s further, Jebbia doesn’t stake their successes on the buzz they make or even the speed of their sales, but, as he said in a 2009 conversation with Interview’s Glenn O’Brien, “for us, it’s not good if a kid doesn’t look at it and say, ‘I don’t know what the fuck that is or who did it, but that’s really cool.’”
This constant litmus test is what makes Supreme still so relevant today. Whereas other brands have sought to commodify and trend nostalgia in the form of re-issued Lisa Frank or revamped Sega Genesis consoles, Supreme doesn’t try to sell me back my childhood, it envelops and synthesizes these subcultural snapshots into a much larger frame of reference at which youth always remains the centre. Occasioning the brand’s milestone anniversary needn’t call for history lessons or countdowns of archival highlights, but for larger meditations on what these seemingly disparate cultural confluences do for the youth of today, what avenues they open up, what possibilities they unearth.