supreme's james jebbia on why he’s not obsessed with image and legacy
Over the course of two decades, iconic streetwear brand Supreme has put out seminal collaborations and defined the look of a generation.
Lucien wears all clothing Supreme. Jewelry model's own.
In the early 80s, when James Jebbia, founder of streetwear brand Supreme, was a teenager growing up in Crawley, on the fringes of London's commuter belt, i-D was his lens on life. Before he left for New York in 1983, aged 19, this magazine, together with The Face, was his fashion and music benchmark. "For me and my generation, i-D was where we got our information," says James. "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." Over its 35-year history, i-D has remained an ongoing informant for James, continuing to educate him with its neutral approach to fashion, whether at the street level or on the Paris runway. "It's probably difficult for young people to fathom this pre-internet, but it's the one magazine I've bought since I was 16 and I still buy it today. I've got no alliance to any magazines, but i-D has always retained its youthfulness and vibrancy. It wasn't for people in a glass tower and it wasn't elitist. It didn't feel like there was any agenda. It was 'if it looks cool, let's just shoot it'."
Supreme has always emanated a similarly free curatorial instinct in its approach to fashion. Each season, the collections hit a pitch-perfect ongoing review of stateside menswear culture. From Ivy League and blue collar via Ralph Lauren and Polo Sport, the label distils its references through a very specific downtown NY, skate, punk and hip-hop heritage. The accompanying collaborations and imagery — whether on skateboards, fly posters or T-shirts — are as much about cementing the brand's DNA as they are about championing its distinct and seemingly disparate influences, which include the likes of Comme des Garçons, Public Enemy, H.R.Giger, Lady Gaga, Malcolm McLaren and Dead Kennedys.
Although every fashion brand delineates a lifestyle its customers can buy into, Supreme's multilateral and unrestrained approach has been at the core of its success. James is always quick to clarify that there is no grand masterplan, no scheme and no strategy at Supreme. "We're not thinking about image and legacy, we just want to make great stuff, season in, season out, no more, no less. New York is a great place and I'm lucky to have worked with a lot of the same people for a long time, and we're just all on the same page. We're not trying to be everything for everybody. We're not trying to please the masses. We just want to grow at a reasonable pace. Supreme hasn't changed for 20 years, and that feels very simple to me."
From day one, the Supreme store on Lafayette in New York, which opened in 1994, attracted a cast of locals and downtown rascals like Gio Estevez and Aaron Bondaroff, skaters, including Harold Hunter and Jason Dill, and the emerging art, film and photography crowd like Ari Marcopoulos, Harmony Korine, Kenneth Cappello and Terry Richardson. Ari's and Terry's photography galvanised the original identity for Supreme, their iconic images becoming synonymous with the brand. Over the years, Terry and Kenneth have shot look books, fly poster campaigns and T-shirts, which have seen the seminal box logo tee worn by a range of icons, including Lou Reed, Kermit the Frog, The Diplomats, Raekwon, Mike Tyson and most recently Neil Young. Ongoing, Supreme continues to diversify this imagery, adding celebrated British photographers like Alasdair McLellan (who famously shot Kate Moss for the brand) and Tyrone Lebon to its visual roster.
When pressed to identify a moment he would hold up as a pinnacle in Supreme's evolution, without much hesitation James says, "When we did the posters with Lou Reed, shot by Terry Richardson. Simply because before that, there was a perception of what a brand like Supreme could be about and what we represented to a lot of people - and to most it's skateboarding and it's hip-hop. In my head, it wasn't just that. But when we worked with Lou Reed, it made people question what that was all about. To us it made perfect sense, he was an awesome musician and he was a rebel. It allowed us to do other things that wouldn't be expected from a skate/streetwear brand, in a way that we could go in other directions if and when we wanted to and it would still feel real and natural."
The direction of the brand took a bold swerve when Supreme began taking skateboard decks and festooning them with the work of celebrated downtown and contemporary artists. Opening with Ryan McGinness and Kaws, they eventually worked with art maven Neville Wakefield and delivered highly collectible board graphics from Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, Damien Hirst and Marilyn Minter. "That happened very naturally, and that came through us doing a deck with Larry Clark. Larry was obviously into skateboarding, and he'd always had a strong connection with Supreme. We weren't looking at Larry as this high-end artist, we just loved Larry Clark the photographer who loves skateboarding, and he's done these great photos, and it just made sense, so we did the deck," James explains. "One of my guys was working with Jeff Koons, and Jeff asked if we'd be down to do one with him, and of course we were. And then we started to see that musicians and artists are no different from normal people — they're down to do cool stuff. That's always how it's been and we're not overthinking what we can do. It's just got to feel right; we're not bound by any parameters."
The only forecast for the brand James is prepared to reveal is his plan to keep taking Supreme to the next and higher level: "I don't look beyond a year, I don't look too far beyond at all. I think it's pointless. We just keep going at the pace we're at. Hopefully we keep making great stuff, stay relevant, and if the opportunities come up we take them. It really doesn't matter what you've done in the past. We just don't rest on our laurels."
Text Jeremy Abbott
Photography Alasdair McLellan
Styling Max Clark
Hair Matt Mulhall at Streeters London
Make-up Hiromi Ueda at Julian Watson Agency using Sisley Skincare and Cosmetics
Photography assistance Lex Kembery, James Robjant, Matthew Healy
Styling assistance Bojana Kozarevic, Kristofj Von Strass
Hair assistance Lewis Pallett
Make-up assistance Mizzie Logan, Yuko Murakami
Production Lucy Johnson at Art Partner
Retouching Output Ltd
Model Lucien Clarke