[Music, Angel’s Vado, up and under montage of Supreme-branded accessories]
Ski mask and a headband.
Shovel, hair clipper.
Table lamp is one of the coolest things so far.
Fragment bike chain, nun-chucks, Larry Clark calendar, Hermes ashtray, dice coin banks and the last supper ashtray set. Fire extinguisher. I have a dog bowl as well.
This is Relentless, a podcast about unusual aspirations, farfetched ideas, or that perfect pair of nunchucks.
I’m Maddy Russell-Shapiro and in this first season of Relentless, we’re exploring fandom and specifically [music fades out] the dedicated fans of one New York City-based clothing and accessories brand, Supreme. In the first episode, we introduced the brand, its adherents, and the unusually complicated system to make a purchase. In this episode, we’re taking a deeper dive into the world of Supreme. What is so special about this brand? How does it manage to inspire such interest and devotion?
[SCENE: SUPREME THE BRAND]
As you know, this investigation started because of a pink box logo beanie that my husband bought me last winter.
Curtains:I think thatstory of the hat is probably the most universal story most people have is that level of social currency. People say, wearing Supreme makes me cool. Makes me cool to old, young, man, woman, child. It’s a stamp of approval, wearing it. It’s like an unspoken secret language, wearing Supreme. That is the most interesting thing of brand. It’s a universal symbol of cool. You wear Supreme, you’re cool as well.
That’s Curtains, a creative consultant who grew up in Brooklyn in the 90’s. He and I spoke about Supreme recently. We met at a recording studio near the Empire State Building.
Maddy: Somebody described it to me as a secret society.
Curtains: Absolutely. It’s like, Ah, you’re one of us. People look at other people, you’re alright, you’re an ok person.
This story is an exploration of fandom, but it is inextricably linked to the story of Supreme as an internationally acclaimed brand.
Curtains: A brand is a brand. If you make product people can purchase, your competition is vast. I would put Supreme in the same category as a Louis Vuitton, as an Hermes, you know, it’s the same level of brand execution and brand identity. This brand is such a blanket of so many things to so many different people. And I can’t think of many, many other brands with that magnetism that can attract people of all walks of life. Supreme, Nike, Apple, Coca Cola, Converse, Levi’s. Regardless of age, sex, economic status, those brands are universally accepted as symbols of cool.
Maddy: What brought you into all of this?
Curtains: Curiosity. Grew up in the hood. Drug dealers were first celebrities we knew. The drug dealers in my neighborhood, they drove best cars, best jewelry, best clothes. It made me curious. What is that?[Fade in and under, TajMahal’s Levels]If that guy has it, what is it? It must be good. That curiosity leads you down a rabbit hole of discovery.
[SCENE: STREETWEAR ATTITUDE & COMMUNITY]
[Music continues underneath]
In addition to Supreme as a top-tier brand, this is also a story about one New York City store that opened in 1994. It built, retains, and continues to grow a fan base that spans countries and ages.
[Music fades out, street ambi underneath]
If you insist on putting things into categories, even brands, Supreme’s are varied. As I visited multiple supreme stores this fall, I got a lot of input from fans about what Supreme is. Some call it a skateboard brand or an upscale skate brand. Others call it a fashion brand. Someone called it the most hip brand in New York. A more cynical response I heard was,
Overpriced items that you can get on an everyday average store. Overpriced cause they have a logo on it.
How does Curtains categorize Supreme?
Curtains: Supreme is the coolest lifestyle brand in the world. Period.
Here’s a term that comes up a lot when you talk and read about Supreme: streetwear. What exactly does that mean?
Curtains: Streetwear is a culture. Streetwear is like a way of life. Streetwear is a mindset. The technical, the most technical definition I ever heard of streetwear is streetwear is a culmination of small sub-cultures geared and led by youth culture that were more based on rebellion.
[Music up and under, Taj Mahal’s Levels]
So when you think of skate, skate is a big part of streetwear. Skaters: rebellion; punk, hip hop: rebellion; graffiti: rebellion.
[Street ambi added, music continues]
Another term favored by fans on the Supreme line is hypebeast. What does that term mean? One fan provided a two-part definition:
[Music fades out]
A person who wear things they don’t even know what it is. Also a person who researches and likes the stuff, wear it for a certain reason.
On occasion, I’ve heard the term hypebeast addressed to me when I wear my pink box logo beanie. And I’d like to think that in those instances it’s been a compliment. But maybe I was being called out as a poser!
So there’s a kind of universal appeal. There’s a decidedly urban angle. And there’s an explicitly rebellious tone. But ultimately, this is about individual people wearing and using the merchandise.
Shivan: If you’re gonna wear clothes and you want to be unique and different, Supreme is a good way.Why buy from H&M something anybody can have when you can buy from Supreme?
I recently interviewed two friends in their late teens right after one of them had made a purchase at a supreme store.
People may say it’s just clothes, but it’s different to us.
This is what we like, what we enjoy, this is happy for us.
There’s also this simple psychological explanation, from a Supreme fan in London,
Because you wait for as long as you do, that’s the reason you feel good about it in the first place. Cause you’re like I’ve waited so long to get it, I got, cool. Just like anything in life.
So what about the rebels on the inside, the team at Supreme that generates the designs, that decides how much product to release? What is their perspective on customers and the market? I haven’t met anyone from Supreme yet, but
[Music fades out under Curtains]
Curtains: I think they think about what they want to do and they really don’t care.They don’t let the market tell them what to do. They do whatever they want to do; whatever they feel is right. And their instinct is usually spot-on. I mean, of course they’ve missed but if you look at a brand that so many wins you don’t notice the misses. Not everything works. Sometimes a graphic might miss, a collaboration might not hit, but you can tell from their output, they really just care about what they care about.
Maddy: Who do they have in mind, as they’re thinking about who they care about?
Curtains: I mean, if you’ve ever read anything from anyone who ever worked there, they all have the same consistent answer to that question. It’s whatever me and my friends think is cool, that’s what we’re going to make. That is the way all creativity should work. If you’re a creative person, you should be your first customer. The product should always come from your instinct, your personal taste, your personal interest, and if you don’t want to buy it,don’t make it.
[Stripe Like Tommy’s Mostess]
[SCENE: IMAGERY AND DESIGN REFERENCES]
So Supreme goes about doing as it wishes. It acts as an arbiter of taste. It regularly promotes a wide range of other brands’ products that are turned into supreme-branded versions through official and unofficial collaborations. One fan I met explained,
[Music fades out]
Chris: Supreme moves the culture forward, to be honest, because if they do it, other brands start to do the same thing. Love to see what they come out with, how people get crazy for weird things, like chopsticks, inflatable blimp, a motorcycle you could have bought online for $400 cheaper without the Supreme lettering.
The biggest deal collaboration to date was in spring 2017, with Louis Vuitton. This comes up a lot in my conversations with fans as an example of Supreme’s influence and evolution. In 2000, Supreme received a cease-and-desist order from Louis Vuitton for releasing merchandise covered in a version of their iconic monogram that incorporated an s for supreme. Fast forward seventeen years and the two brands officially collaborated with much anticipation, wide acclaim, and a fair amount of grumbling. The prices were high and access in New York was limited to those who were Louis Vuitton VIP customers. Nonetheless, the overall assessment seems to be that this was a significant turning point.
Curtains: I think it was long overdue. The best thing to happen to streetwear. It validated this thing that higher fashion institutions look at as hobby or game, “printed t-shirts, woo-hoo!” So many streetwear brands that have that same execution and same brand execution as some of these high fashion companies. LV kind of putting their stamp of approval, so to speak, with a brand like Supreme helps all the other “streetwear” brands now get a different type of attention.
In addition to brand collaborations, Supreme also promotes art and artists to its fan base and customers.
Curtains: I would say Supreme is possibly one of, if not the most, educational brand when it comes to design. I’ve learned things from a Supreme t-shirt. It’s weird to compare, but like, Supreme garments is almost like going to the MoMA. There’s so much elements there. There’s music references, there’s vintage pop-culture references, there’s art references. I’ve got put on to new music and artists just from a Supreme t-shirt, just by them putting a graphic on a shirt, it makes you want to investigate, who’s that, what’s that. It might make you think where does that come from? And then you go down a rabbit hole of education. From Day One, consistently, they’ve been educating through simple design. If not the best, they’re one of the best at infusing education into their designing. Everything is so meticulous, everything is very thought out. I think it’s good for kids that are so die-hard Supreme, Supreme.I think it’s great that they’re giving them all these cultural references to explore and learn something new and open their horizons up a little bit.
By way of example, Curtains talked about a collaboration from 2012 and 2015 with the artist Daniel Johnston.
Curtains: I wasn’t hip to his work. They did a couple jackets, shirts with him. And I wasn’t hip to it and I was like well, if Supreme did it, it must mean something. I look into the guy’s work and it’s pretty cool. Simple line drawings.
The 2015 collaboration included some very basic pieces. A short sleeve collared shirt with two chest pockets on the front came in black, tan, or teal. On the back of the shirt is a line drawing of a mutant duck with four heads and three feet. There was also a jacket with the word Supreme hand lettered on the front and on the back another line drawing, this one of a headless and armless female torso, like a marble statue you would see in a museum. The words ‘i love you’ are printed above.
Curtains: They did a bunch of pieces with him and the work was super cool. I’ve had friends bought that artist’s work after seeing it on a Supreme shirt. People trust the brand so much that you’ll trust what they’re standing by is something you should be checking out. No one knows everything. Supreme is the perfect platform for those too-cool-for-school people, if it’s on Supreme, then I’ll give it a shot. They’ve worked with Damien Hirst, and George Condo, and some of the biggest artists in the world. There’s a lot there for people to digest.
This fall, the season’s first artist collaboration came out in week 4, in mid-September, with a controversial figure in contemporary art, Andre Serrano. There was a whole line of clothing and skate decks that featured some of his most iconic work with religious and sexual themes and imagery. When I went down to the store for that release, I wanted to find out what customers think about these artist collaborations.
Blair: My name is Blair Moore, I am 28 yo, and I had spot 13. I’m actually in quality control and property management and I’m also a designer as well, I have my own clothing line.
Maddy: Did you read up on the artist a little bit?
Blair: I did. At first, I wasn’t a big fan of the crucifix and urine but heard from his words and other critics about what it was meant to represent and wasn’t as controversial as at first sight.
Yup, crucifix and urine. This image from 1987 is titled Piss Christ and is in fact a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in urine. The photo has fiery red and orange tones and the crucifix itself is in golden hues. It appears to be suffused in celestial sunlight. This fall, Supreme printed the photo on the front of black t-shirts and black hooded sweatshirts.
Chris: My name is Chris Andea, I’m 22 years old, I’m from NYC.
Maddy: What number?
Chris: 60, my first time.
Maddy: Do you often research artist collaborations? Do those interest you in particular?
Chris: Yeah, I mean, just because I don’t want to wear something that I don’t really support, not in a bad way. Anybody who wears it that’s fine.
Maddy: Do you pay attention to references?
Evan: A lot of them, I do know.Something in my life, might not have a big impact, anything else it’s cool, like blood and semen, shock factor, take ten seconds to look it up,
If you do look it up, you’ll see swirling, bubbling hues of pink and red and orange on a backdrop of black or white. It looks like a satellite view of an unfamiliar landscape. Some of this work previously appeared as album cover art for Metallica in the 1990s. I’ll let you read for yourself how Serrano made this work. More pertinent to my story is that for Supreme, the images used for the collaboration covered sweatshirts, sweatpants, the back of skate decks, billed canvas caps, and a couple different styles of vans sneakers.
Evan: Cool guy, Andre Serrano, edify yourself. Cool artists that they may not ever get a chance to meet like Scratch Perry, Lou Reed, pretty cool.
This fall, Supreme also collaborated with the conceptual photographer Cindy Sherman and with Katsuhiro Otomo, the Japanese manga artist. I find these elements of Supreme to be really compelling, the artist collaborations as well as the more esoteric cultural references.I may not like the way all their merchandise looks; I may not support every message they promote; but I’m impressed by the intentionality behind it all.
[Stripe Like Tommy’s Mostess]
So here’s my next big question: who buys Supreme? I’ve learned about a variety of motivations. The brand’s enormous popularity is enough reason for some people to want it as a status symbol. And there are those who are drawn in for more emotional reasons. Maybe they used to skate. Or maybe the 1990’s references are reminiscent of their own youth. Then, there are the collectors and the resellers. Hype and nostalgia, that’s where we’ll start the next episode of Relentless, with more voices from the line and more conversation with Curtains.
[Cross-fade Mostess out and BSNYEA’S Chinatown up and under until end]
Music in this episode is by Angel, Taj Mahal, Stripe Like Tommy, and BSN YEA!. All the music was created at Building Beats, a DJ and music program that teaches entrepreneurial, leadership, and life skills to youth in New York City.
Thank you to Curtains for spending time with me during a busy day in New York. Rhank you also to my husband and to my brother who both provide ongoing input and encouragement and help me get many ancillary tasks done so I can focus on interviews and editing.
Relentless episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, GooglePlay, and Stitcher. To find out more, go to therelentless dot org. Follow us, like us, subscribe, sign up, and come back for the next episode!