[Music up then under and out - Horizons]
Multiple Voices: I’m from Harlem, Brooklyn, Bronx, Albany, New Jersey, Hong Kong. I’m 13 years old, I’m 34 years old, I’m 46 years old, I’m 17 years old, I’m 27.
[Music back up and under narration]
Each week, super-fans of the brand Supreme line up at the flagship store in downtown Manhattan, sometimes in the freezing cold, for a chance to purchase a t-shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, a skateboard, or any number of branded accessories.
Maddy: How would you explain Supreme to someone who’s never heard of it?
[Music fades out]
Joe: It’s just a clothing brand a lot of people like, especially inner city urban youth. I’d say, you probably won’t get it. But a lot of people do. It’s just a hobby that people like to spend their time and money on.
Maddy: What do you do when you aren’t lining up for Supreme?
Multiple Voices: I own my own business owner. I’m a pharmacist. I want to be a psychiatric aid. I’m a college student. I’m a broke college student.
Maddy: Why are you a fan of Supreme?
Emanuel: I just like the simplicity of the shirts and hoodies and stuff. It’s just like hyped up. I was like, why not? I was following the hype.
Maddy: Why do you think so many people come out here for this?
Josue: The name. That’s what everyone is coming for, the name. Could be any little thing, put the name Supreme on it, everybody want to buy it.
[Music up - Wintertime]
This is Relentless, a series of stories about the pursuit of farfetched ideas, unusual aspirations…or that perfect pair of sneakers.
I’m Maddy Russell-Shapiro, a newcomer to New York City with a staring problem and boundless curiosity about other people. These days, I’m particularly fascinated by tenacity. How do people set their sights on a hard-to-reach goal? In what ways do they change course once they get started? What keeps them going? What is more satisfying, the pursuit or the result?
To start, I’m investigating fandom and specificallypeople who are devoted to one particular skateboard and clothing brand: Supreme.
Maddy: Why are you so into this?
Justin: Every grown man has a hobby, right?
Amit: This whole thing is about street culture and you know, culture in general.
So, why is this interesting to me? Here’s my story.
[Music cuts out (end of Wintertime)]
This year, 2017, was my first full winter in new york. I’m from California and in February when it was really cold, my husband bought me a pink knit cap, a beanie, to keep my head and ears warm. Or at least, I thought what he gave me was a simple winter hat. But it turned out to be much more.
[Music up and under, iMachine]
It turned out that the hat he gave me is kind of magical. When I wear this hat, I am noticed by a whole swath of the city to whom I would otherwise be, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
How does this hat manage to engage other people? Quite simply: it has one adornment, a little red rectangle affixed to the front with the word ‘Supreme’ printed in white Futura letters. The brand calls this their box logo.
The little red rectangle with white letters functions like a beacon [music ends] to a fan base that is young, largely male, urban, and acutely attuned to others in the pack. That I am a 40-year-old woman wearing this knit cap does not seem to faze adherents. Walking the city’s streets, strangers -- mostly under the age of 30 -- call out compliments. Suddenly, I am connected to people with whom I may seem to have little else in common.
Maddy: How do you explain Supreme to someone who doesn’t know the brand?
Theresa: Basically just culture you could say. Whenever you think of Supreme, it’s New York, New York.
Male Voice: Biggest streetwear brand in the world. Could make more money to release more but they strive on exclusivity, and supply and demand.
For the uninitiated, who include most of my friends and family, this line of clothing and accessories was originally conceived in the 1990’s for skateboarders in New York City. Their merchandise is only available at Supreme stores, the Supreme website, and in one specialty department store.
Supreme prints its brand name on highly-desirable sweatshirts, t-shirts, and hats. This season, there will also be fanny packs, a travel toothbrush, and chopsticks, all branded Supreme. There will also be a mid-century modern armchair, a Fender Strat guitar, and a Lucite paperweight that seems to contain a suspended stack of hundred dollar bills.
Each season starts with a release of a photo tee, a t-shirt featuring a photo of a celebrity wearing a Supreme t-shirt.
Amit: Everyone is going for the Nas tee.
Adrien: The Nas tee is a must.
Emanuel: I wanted the Nasty Nas shirt.
Maddy: Is there one piece you’re excited to see in person?
Yaya: Nas tee. Can’t go wrong with that.
Maddy: Why is that one so popular?
Yaya: I mean, Queens, hip hop... he changed hip hop. So that’s it.
My limited experience wearing Supreme has made me attuned, for the first time, to the unspoken messages that clothing broadcasts. And I enjoy the occasional response that my own signaling, via my pink beanie, garners. I wonder to what extent these feelings are familiar to other fans of the brand. And I wonder why my husband wants so much of this stuff.
Maddy: What do you want to get this season?
Husband: The patchwork hoodie.And maybe the Mophie battery pack, the flashlight...
Maddy:The list grows.
Husband: [Fade behind narration] S-logo tonal hoodie. S-logo beanie…
I’m baffled by my husband’s desire for Supreme merchandise.
[Husband’s voice back up]
Maddy: Wait, all these things for yourself?
Husband: Oh, yes.
Maddy: That’s a lot of things.
Husband: Maybe the lockbox?
Maddy: Oh gosh.
Husband: You can’t judge. You’re a reporter.
Maddy: [Laughs] I don’t judge. I just take in information.
But, full disclosure, I do have a soft spot for any clothing brand that encourages and convinces men to wear floral prints and pastel colors.
Each week this season, I’ll go right to the source, to the throngs of customers waiting outside the store, and join them in line.
Here’s me and my husband trying to secure places in line for the first drop, the first release, of the fall 2017 season which took place in mid-August.
[Sound of phone alarm.]
Husband: That’s my alarm that goes off at 8:59am, one minute before the sign up goes live. Sign up online for Thursday’s release. You have to enter name, credit card, and they will assign you a random spot on the line. The page is not up yet. Five seconds, four, three, two, one, zero. There we go. It’s live.
[Sounds of typing]
Maddy: [reading, fade to background] On Wednesday you’ll be notified about your place in line as well as your time slot. Numbers will be chosen at random...
Figuring out how to acquire Supreme merchandise online or in person is almost like a quest.
Maddy: [reading] No loitering, selling, or trading. Violators will be removed.
Maddy: And we don’t know how many spots. What’s your guess?
Husband: For Thursday? Maybe 600?
Maddy: 600 numbers?! How many of those people will show up?
Husband: All of them.
Husband: Yeah. First Supreme drop of the season, everybody is going to show up.
Maddy: Even people who don’t have numbers?
Husband: Even people who don’t have numbers will show up.
Maddy: Can they get 600 people through the store in one day?
Husband: They can come pretty close.
So I sign up online that Monday morning. Then, on Monday night, information starts leaking online about the drop through Twitter and fan forums. On Wednesday afternoon, I receive a text message. I’ve been selected for the lottery! and I get number...427.
The text message directs me to show up at 4pm on Thursday to line up. But I decide to go down first thing in the morning instead.
[Music up and under]
Maddy: I’m across the street, the storefront is all glass, I see skate decks, got a skate video playing in the window, four or five security guys in black t-shirts…a police officer just came out of the store. I don’t think the store is open but they are getting ready to go.
The crowd builds in front of the store, including a French tour group in transit,
French Tour Guide: Est-ce-que vous connaissez un magasin qui s’appel Supreme?
[Spoken translation]: Do you know a store called Supreme?
Tour guide: Alors, qu’est ce que c’est Supreme?
What is it?
Oui? Non? Alors, generalement, c’est les jeunes qui connaissent.
Generally, young people know.
Vêtements déstinez à qui? Aux stars, ouai.
It’s clothing for whom? Celebrities yes, who else?
De la street, exactement. Pour les skaters.
Streetwear, exactly, for skaters.
Others gathering in front of the store are disbursed quickly and efficiently by security guards. Those who do not have a number for today, a reservation in the line, are encouraged to return later in the week. Anyone with a number is dispatched around the corner. That’s where most of the line is, in an alley. People there are lined up by number for the full length of the block, inching their way towards the front.
Justin: My name is Justin, I’m 31 years old. I woke up about 6:30, I drove from Philly two and a half hours, I pulled over on the side of the highway to take a piss in a coffee cup, and I’ve been here since 11 and I don’t plan on getting in the store any time soon.
Maddy: What number do you have?
Justin: Number 195. I like to build my accessories collection, I like the weirdest items like the shovel, chopsticks.
Adrien: My name is Adrien, I’m 20, and I’m from Albany, New York.
David: My name is David and I’m also from Albany, New York. I’m his father.
Maddy: Have you guys come down before?
Adrien: Oh we have, a couple years ago actually, it was madness.
David: It was terrible. We didn’t even get in, it was so long lines, and so crowded, we waited six hours.
Adrien: Yeah, about eight hours.
David: That was quite a bonding experience.
Some longtime fans are drawn back by nostalgia,
Maddy: What number did you have today?
JP: I got lucky number 7.
Maddy: No! Have you lined up before?
JP: When I was in my early 20’s, in 2006. I’m a therapist, I moved some clients around.
Maddy: So your clients have no idea?
JP: I also do therapy at a high school, Fridays once in awhile I’ll wear some sneakers, or a messenger bag that says Supreme on it, so a couple of the kids will say, hey, Mr. Simon, what did you cop online? And I was like listen, stay in school, don’t spend your money on this shit, bro, or wait until you’re older.
Maddy: Tell me why you love the brand
JP: Why I love it, 90’s in New York.
Other fans have never had the chance to line up before,
Jack: I’m Jack, I’m 17, I’m from Tom’s River New Jersey.
Maddy: What do you want to get?
Jack: I’m getting that Nas tee in black, getting the patchwork hoody, a deck, and a shovel.
Maddy: What are you going to do with the shovel?
Jack: I don’t know, it’s a shovel.
Maddy: How are you feeling now?
Jack: I’m hyped!
There are very few women,
Jessica: I’m 30, from Brooklyn.
Maddy: How long have you been into Supreme?
Jessica: Since last year. My friends are into it. Now I look at it more frequently and I’m like you know what this is pretty nice.
Eventually, I meet Serv, a guy who is there to shop, but who skips the line entirely.
Serv: I come here, early, and usually the line be way bigger than this, I just grab somebody in the line, I be like, yo, you want to make extra $40 or $50? They say yeah. And that’s it.
Did you catch that? He’ll pay a premium to save time. Apparently, this is not uncommon. In fact, after just a couple hours talking to people outside the store, I’m starting to realize how many customers are there for something more than to build their own sartorial or accessory collections.
Maddy: Obviously you all love Supreme. But like, as people, do you think there’s one thing you all have in common that brings you out here for Supreme?
Justin: Everybody is a hypebeast, that’s what everybody has in common, or everybody wants to re-sell the items. I would say about 60% of the people on this line are gonna resell the items, maybe more. To make a couple bucks. And it takes away from the people that want to keep the items for themselves. But that’s been Supreme forever.
Maddy: What’s the biggest markup you’ve ever gotten on something you sold?
Kalene: Probably a K, a thousand, for a shirt.
Maddy: I thought when you said “a K” that was an item, I was like, I don’t know, like a special accessory. Wow, a thousand dollars for a shirt that was probably what, $50?
Kalene: Around there, yeah.
I’m not the only one circling the block. In addition to the people in line, there are just as many people milling about the area, most wearing Supreme-branded clothes, keeping a close eye on the proceedings. They lean against parked cars, stand aloofly in the shade of street trees, and perch on the stoop of almost every building that is just beyond the perimeter of the security detail.
By the end of my first day outside Supreme, things literally look different: the block of Lafayette Street in Soho is no longer a busy touristy thoroughfare but a thriving marketplace; somebody wearing the Supreme logo is not just signaling hipness but also brandishing the mark of something sacrificed for gain.
I want to understand more about this fan base and the market economy that surrounds the brand. So I go back the next day,
Maddy: Ok, it’s Friday morning, it’s the second day of first Supreme release and I am back at Lafayette and this time I came later, I came at 10:30, because thunderstorm and I do not know how to record in the rain.
The first people I interview that morning, are these guys:
My name is Grahams, I don’t do lines. We was no number, we just walk in.
Maddy: And what’s your name and your age?
I’m Rich the Kid. We just got here this morning.
Maddy: Where did you come in from?
Rich the Kid: LA. We’re very special people.
Maddy: Tell me about your specialness.
Grahams: He’s a rapper, his name is Rich the Kid, we start our own label, he’s blowing up, baby!
Maddy: And this is why you don’t have to wait in line.
Maddy: And this is why people in line were photographing you when you came out of the store.
Maddy: How does it feel to speak to someone who doesn’t know who you are?
Rich the Kid: It’s alright. It’s refreshing.
So now we know that not everyone has to wait on line.
That day, they finish making their way through the original 600 numbers.
I go again the next day, when the line is first come, first served.
Maddy: Ok. It is Saturday, August 19, Day 3 at the Supreme line for the first drop.
I meet visitors from Hong Kong,
Maddy: What do you like about the brand?
Paul: It’s easy, it’s trendy, and it’s hype. It’s popular in a way in Asia so that’s why we want to get, I mean, we don’t get a lot of stuff, maybe certain t-shirt, cargo pants.
I meet a family on vacation,
We’re the Padilla family from Sacramento, California. My son’s 16th birthday yesterday, we waited in line four hours, didn’t get in until today.
And I meet a really young reseller,
Charlie: 13, from New York City
Maddy: What’s your name?
Charlie: I’m Charlie.
Maddy: Was this your first time coming down here?
Charlie: No, no, no. I’ve been coming for a year or two. I’ve made a business out of it, like the shovel, which I have right here, has a big of Supreme branding, goes for over $100 over retail. Could definitely sell anything in the store for more.
[Music up and behind - Contraband]
Clearly, my work here isn’t done. I’ll be back again every upcoming Thursday I can for the rest of this season. I also want to know how this whole resale market works. Is it accurate to refer to people as fans for whom shopping at Supreme is essentially a job? And what does Supreme itself think about all the people making money off their original work? What more can I glean about youth culture and fandom through the lens of Supreme? If I enter the draw every Monday, will I eventually get a good number? If I get a good number, what will I buy??
[Music cross fade Contraband out and Chinatown up and behind]
This episode featured music by Angel, Synchro, Taj Mahal, and BSNYEA. All music was created at Building Beats, a DJ and music program that teaches entrepreneurial, leadership, and life skills to underserved youth in New York City.
All interviews for this episode were recorded in New York City during Week One of the fall 2017 Supreme season. Thank you to everyone on the line at that week’s release who took the time to speak with me.
Relentless is available on SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, and GooglePlay. To find out more, go to therelentless dot org. Follow Relentless, like it, subscribe, sign up, and come back for the next episode!