the a-z of supreme
An alphabetical guide to understanding the world’s most coded, collected, and coveted brand.
A is for Art: Supreme is a lot like The Simpsons: both are incredibly nuanced cultural encyclopedias that soak up a wealth of diverse inspirations and refract these references through their own unique lenses. But what makes each entity brilliant is that you don't need an extensive literacy in The Simpsons's or Supreme's web of references to be a fan (in other words: you can laugh at Mayor Quimby without knowing he's a JFK caricature, just as you can fall in love with a Supreme tee without knowing its graphic is based on Amadeus). This is especially true when it comes to Supreme's art collaborations. Late artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, and Keith Haring have seen their work featured on clothing; living ones including Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Christopher Wool, and Urs Fischer have participated in the brand's skate deck collaboration series, coveted by skaters and art collectors alike. "What's important for us is the kid who comes into the store," Supreme's founder James Jebbia told Glenn O'Brien of the brand's art world crossovers. "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.'"
B is for Britain: Jebbia was born in the United States, but spent the first 19 years of his life an hour's drive from London in Crawley, West Sussex. And though Supreme is an iconically New York brand, it draws much inspiration from its founder's homeland. It counts Dr. Martens and, most recently, heritage label Aquascutum as collaborators, and often incorporates nods to British culture. Celebrated poet Philip Larkin's lines were lifted for one tee this season; Supreme has also referenced bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Wedding Present.
C is for cherry: Supreme's first full-length skate film arrived 20 years after its only other video, 1995's A Love Supreme. Helmed by director William Strobeck, cherry didn't simply spotlight familiar faces and living legends (though Mark Gonzales, Jason Dill, Anthony Van Engelen, Paulo Diaz, Alex Olson, and the late great Dylan Rieder all made memorable appearances). Strobeck put the focus on skating's next generation of hyper-talented teens — among them Sean Pablo Murphy, Aidan Mackey, Tyshawn Jones, Sage Elsesser, Kevin Bradley, and Nakel Smith — who later appeared in a David Sims Supreme photo book, released last year. In true Strobeck style (more on that later), cherry also featured a heavy helping of New York oddballs. The film is a triumph, a rich reminder that skating isn't a sport, it's a way of being.
D is for Dover Street Market: Supreme doesn't sell its items anywhere outside of its own stores or website, with the sole exception of Rei Kawakubo's New York and Tokyo outposts. Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market, told the New York Times that Supreme is among the top three best-selling brands at DSMNY, where it is located beside Gucci on Floor 7. Joffe added that Gucci is "thrilled to be next to Supreme."
E is for Erin Magee: Supreme's Director of Production and Development for over a decade, Erin also designs a streetwear offering of her own: the very excellent, by-girls-for-girls brand MadeMe. Check out its most recent collaboration, with Kim Gordon's cult 90s label X-girl, here.
F is for Fashion: These days, the fashion industry is pretty obsessed with skate culture. And while some in the skate world aren't really down with the "fucking clowns" (in Thrasher editor Jake Phelps's words), Jebbia has long embraced fashion with a capital F. Supreme has played with Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Versace, Vivienne Westwood, and DKNY; one of its earliest t-shirts features a reappropriated Courrèges logo. But for Jebbia, the Kaiser is King. "I'm influenced a lot by Chanel and by what Karl Lagerfeld has done," he told the New York Times at Supreme Paris's opening party in March (one Rick Owens and Kris Van Assche stopped by). "Oftentimes we get asked, 'Why are you doing a fire extinguisher?' I'm like, 'Well, Chanel can.'"
G is for Got Beef: You don't make millions of fans without ruffling a few feathers along the way. Long before Morrissey made a stink about Supreme's collaboration with "the beef sandwich pharaoh known as White Castle" and the "enfeebled" photograph of him Supreme used for a recent iteration of its celebrity photo t-shirt series, Calvin Klein was taking the then-fledgling brand to task. In 1994, Kate Moss fronted one of the American minimalist empire's campaigns; as Complex tells it, the newborn Supreme had begun producing stickers, and many of them ended up on Moss's NYC ads. In response, Calvin sued Supreme (though, ten years later in 2004, the stickered advertisements became a Supreme t-shirt). Speaking of who laughs last, perhaps the most notable Supreme showdown has been with the very artist who inspired its iconic box logo, Barbara Kruger. Upon learning that Supreme was taking legal action against Married to the Mob for its "Supreme Bitch" box logo shirts, the American artist had this to say: "What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I'm waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement."
H is for Humor: Others would argue that the totally uncool jokers actually do have a rather sharp sense of wit. For i-D's 35th Birthday Issue, we asked 11 designers to create limited-edition cover wraps. J.W. Anderson did a dildo, Jeremy Scott posed with Bugs Bunny. Supreme chose to interpret the i-D wink with an image of Slick Rick, the British-American rapper known for rocking pounds of gold jewelry and a signature eyepatch. Super clever!
I is for i-D: "For me and my generation, i-D was where we got our information," Jebbia told us in an interview for that 35th Birthday Issue. "It was one of the first magazines that mixed high and low; you'd read about Rei Kawakubo or Katharine Hamnett for the first time, next to Chanel, next to a feature about a girl making dresses at Kensington Market. Whether they were talking about music or fashion, they were on it and you believed it. It was always where I found out about everything; i-D was very important."
J is for Japan: By 1998, Supreme's fan-base was exploding on the other side of the globe, in Japan. So Jebbia partnered with Ken Omura, a Japanese friend of his, to open Supreme's first international store, in Tokyo's Daikanyama neighborhood. It now has two additional outposts in Tokyo (Harajuku and Shibuya), as well as outside the Japanese capital, in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. Supreme regularly collaborates with Japanese brands (Undercover, Sasquatchfabrix, and, of course, Comme des Garçons). Perhaps most interestingly, the brand really only works with Japanese magazines on editorials. Gosha Rubchinskiy recently photographed a Supreme spread for Popeye, and before it, shot one for GRIND. These titles, plus WARP, SENSE, Lightning, and Clutch, are where the vast majority of Supreme's editorials live. Complex wondered why this might be, and asked W. David Marx, author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. "The day the magazine comes out, stores gets phone calls immediately like, 'On page 20 of Popeye, I see this shirt, you have that in stock?'" he said. "It drives sales absolutely directly with no friction."
K is for Kaleidoscope: Though the Supreme box logo's most iconic form is Futura Heavy Oblique text set against a cherry red background, the "bogo" has taken many imaginative forms over the past 22 years. Some include odes to: The Sopranos, Jackson Pollack, Burberry, a 9/11 commemorative American flag, and Nate Lowman's bullet holes.
L is for Lafayette Street: After his stints at Parachute, Union, and Stüssy's OG Prince Street outpost, Jebbia set up shop just three blocks away, over at 274 Lafayette. "It cost me, like, $12,000 to open the store. Rent was two grand," Jebbia told O'Brien. "It was like, 'Hey, if we do five grand a week, then great!' We didn't really do any business at first, but we did okay." I'll say.
M is for Movies: Much like music, Supreme has referenced a wide array of films. The odd mob movie (The Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface) or kung-fu flick is to be expected, but some sources of inspiration seem a bit less likely: The Wizard of Oz, Silence of the Lambs, Amadeus, and Les Misérables. But perhaps the most influential film to the brand is one that features the brand itself — Kids. Supreme is indivisible from Larry Clark's 1995 portrait of youth on the lawless Lower East Side; its friends and family comprise Clark's cast (think Justin Pierce, Harold Hunter, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Chloë Sevigny), and the director has contributed to a variety of collaborations, including the recent Kids 20th anniversary capsule.
N is for Numbers: Reddit crunched them, in an attempt to calculate how much it would cost to build a house out of Supreme's newly notorious brick. The answer: $4,704,000 (not counting labor and resale costs, duh).
O is for Objects: That brick is one of very many accessories Supreme has released alongside its clothing and skate hardware. Fire extinguishers, pill organizers, nunchucks, pool floats, air horns — all rendered in some variation of red and white. For its most dedicated fans, Supreme truly is a way of life; it makes sense that even the most ubiquitous household products would bear its logo. Some of these products, however mundane, can be considered instruments of rebellion (the hammer, crowbar, bolt cutters) very much in line with the brand's skate ethos. Is it a meditation on totalizing consumerism? Is it for some lighthearted laughs? I don't know, I just really want to give my dog this bowl.
P is for Politics: Though Supreme thoroughly engages with popular culture, larger historical and sociopolitical themes are enmeshed in its designs, too. Malcolm X and JFK are recurring figures; and graphics have been lifted from Rock the Vote, the Vietnam War, and even WWII-era visuals. If only Supreme would turn its unflinching lens on Trump.
Q is for Queue: After its box logo, the one thing most synonymous with the skate brand is its blocks-long line, which stretches down Lafayette every Thursday morning. It's a popular site for puzzled media outlets to conduct gawking interviews, and an even more popular checkpoint for NYPD officers, who in the past have called off drops that they suspect will become too rowdy (the Foamposites never stood a chance). Jebbia isn't a huge fan of hypebeast resellers who make it difficult for his intended customers — New York skate kids — to buy his products. But the line is an apt representation of the brand's ethos. Supreme and its fans respect a little hustle, and a never-ending line means its offerings are relevant. "We always try to make things as good as we can, but I never count on that. So when I do see a line in front of the store, I'm like, 'Cool. People still like the stuff,'" said Jebbia.
R is for Ralph Lauren: One of the biggest influences on Supreme is a fellow New York native whose distinctive approach to American fashion has inspired its own feverish cult following of NYC hustlers: Ralph Lauren. The Bronx boy's countless diffusion lines — from heritage wares to sporty Polo styles — are a perennial inspiration to his downtown neighbors. While music, films, sports, and other fashion houses chiefly influence Supreme's approach to graphics and patterns, Lauren has influenced the smallest design details. And while the Brooklyn-born Lo Lifes have expanded into a vibrant global community, its founders — Brownsville kids who flash-mob robbed Ralph stores in the 80s — are the fathers of extreme streetwear hero worship.
S is for Superfans: Supreme has amassed a global cult of dedicated disciples who will camp overnight on the street for its product, make Lego models and baby shoes out of its sneakers, turn its shopping bags into furniture, and painstakingly dissect and decode its vast sphere of influence (big shout out to @supreme_copies, a laborious and incredibly informative project). One guy visited all of its stores around the world, then wrote a novel about it.
T is for Tunes: Supreme has a sharp ear and eye for diverse musical styles and the rich cultures that surround them. The brand is perhaps most commonly associated with hip-hop. Based on its collaborations with and inspirations relating to Raekwon, Ghostface, RZA, Dipset, Gucci Mane, Public Enemy, and Three 6 Mafia to name only a fraction, the reputation is well deserved. Yet Supreme also has a deep love and appreciation for post-punk, reggae, jazz, even pop music. Artists as varied as Miles Davis, Bow Wow Wow, Joy Division, Daniel Johnston, Britney Spears, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Curtis Mayfield, Swans, Madonna, and Nirvana all play a part in the Supreme universe.
U is for Undefeated: The brand has done collaborations with the New York Yankees, often recontextualizes college sports team color palettes, and reimagines the everyday clothing of sports-obsessed people (think Umbro soccer shorts or trackies), but one of the sporting world's biggest influences isn't an activity or team, but one man — Jebbia is a big Muhammad Ali fan. There was the Andy Warhol Foundation collaboration earlier this year, a Basquiat collab which featured an abstracted portrait of the boxer, a graphic lifted from a 1978 DC comic that featured a matchup between Ali and Superman, and one OG tee circa 1997.
V is for Vogue: Believe it or not (I didn't until writing this), Vogue has been on the Preme team since well before its recent, somewhat divisive Skate Week. Back in 1995, the magazine ran a story comparing shopping experiences, cult appeal, and clientele at a Chanel boutique on 57th and 7th and the then year-old Supreme store on Lafayette. The article is an uncanny prophecy if there ever was one: "A few miles away and worlds apart, yet at the core of what they are and what they mean to their devotees, they are deeply, fundamentally the same." Read the full thing here and tell me how good the photos are.
W is for William Strobeck: One of skateboarding's foremost chroniclers, William Strobeck has leant his singular style to some of the most beloved skate visuals of the decade. A key player in Alien Workshop projects like the massively influential Photosynthesis, Strobeck has long been involved with Supreme, and in 2014 directed its debut full-length, cherry. In addition to the 40-minute opus, Strobeck has filmed a number of shorter spots featuring Supreme friends young and old. Strobeck's work distills much of what makes the brand great: he captures a diverse array of skate styles and personalities, celebrates distinctly New York skate spots and street weirdos, has an excellent ear for all kinds of music (The Cure, Bauhaus, Cypress Hill, and Kim Carnes's "Bette Davis Eyes" have all appeared on a Strobeck soundtrack), and films a truly beautiful line.
X is for X marks the spot: If you couldn't already tell, Supreme loves a good collaboration. And while much of each season's excitement comes from waiting to see who it has newly joined forces with, there are some pretty long-running projects, too. Beloved brands like Clarks, Levis, Nike, and North Face are all regulars; Supreme has been working with Vans for over a decade.
Y is for Youth: One of the reasons Supreme (and Raf Simons, for that matter) has generated such a faithful following is its authentic engagement with the many facets of youth culture. But, somewhat ironically, Supreme began its life as a reaction against the skate industry's too young consumer base: "All of the clothing that the skate companies put out was crap," Jebbia said of the super graphic heavy skate styles dominating the market during Supreme's genesis in the 90s. "These companies had to sell to a wide range of people, and a lot of them were very young. When people think of skaters, they think of, like, the 12- or 13- or 14-year-old kid. But in New York, it was the 18-to-24-year-old hardcore kid who wasn't wearing any skate stuff." So, his team started making its own stuff for its own consumer, and has continued to do so for the past two decades.
Z is for Zip it: Despite the cultish fervor that surrounds every move Supreme makes, everyone on the inside is faithfully tight-lipped. Jebbia is notoriously press-shy, brand director Angelo Baque barely ever gives interviews, and little is known about the people actually designing the clothing now that longtime creative director Brendon Babenzien has departed to fly his own flag at Noah. "The less known the better," Jebbia once said, to which Baque added: "Ralph Lauren has Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger has Tommy Hilfiger. We like for Supreme to be at the forefront when you think of Supreme." In spite of its cult hype, long as hell lines, and deeply coded references, at the end of the day, Supreme just makes great stuff.
Lead Image: i-D, The 35th Birthday Issue, [No. 337, Spring 2015]. Limited edition cover wrap by Supreme