Fresh off The New York Times comes a story about Supreme that presents its cult standing in unequivocal terms. This lengthy piece describes the long lines and global fan base, limited runs, elitist skate sentiments and anarchic heritage of the eighteen-year-old New York brand, calling it a “company that plays hard to get”. It then sits down for a little tête-à-tête with “press-shy” founder James Jebbia, presenting a rare and insightful interview. Check out the full article below
“PUT your hands up, let’s go!” barked the gangly young man in the red varsity jacket, his sneakers planted atop a bike rack on Lafayette Street in SoHo, as he produced a wad of crumpled bills from his slumping jeans.
A crowd of hundreds of street kids flashing a dandy streak in their camo and their leopard print had been assembling like a slow-motion flash mob since the night before — ever since word trickled out that the 2012 spring-summer collection forSupreme, the cultish street-wear brand, was about to drop. In certain urban circles, a new Supreme line qualifies as an event, on par with a new iPhone. Fans camp out on folding chairs and sleeping bags.
The die-hards, however, can get restless, so to break the tension, the young man, adopting the role of hip-hop hype man, decided to “make it rain” — to use a strip-club parlance. As ASAP Rocky’s rap anthem “Peso” thumped from a car parked nearby, he sent bills fluttering over the whooping crowd before tumbling into a triumphant crowd surf.
Passers-by in suits offered quizzical looks. But that’s perfectly fine with Supreme. No offense, but if you don’t know about Supreme, maybe it’s because you’re not supposed to.
For much of its 18-year existence, Supreme was confined to the in-crowd, a scruffy clubhouse for a select crew of blunt-puffing skate urchins, graffiti artists, underground filmmakers and rappers.
“It is a little club, a secret society,” said Tyler, the Creator, the rapper with the group Odd Future, who showed up at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards decked out in Supreme.
Word, though, is getting out. Once dismissed as skate-wear by fashion people, Supreme has been embraced by a new global tribe eager to crack its code.
Huge lines, once endemic to its New York flagship in SoHo, now form at satellite stores in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and other cities. The current issue of British GQ Style, a men’s fashion bible, hails Supreme as “the coolest streetwear brand in the world right now.” And the Berlin culture magazine O32c called it “the Holy Grail of high youth street culture.” The Business of Fashion site called it “the Chanel of downtown streetwear.”
In fact, he did not consent to a formal interview until a reporter’s third visit to Supreme’s loft headquarters on Wooster Street, with its soaring white walls and hushed air. He and Angelo Baque, the street-cred-oozing brand director, needed convincing that the reporter would “get the references.” Supreme draws inspiration from sources as disparate as John Coltrane, Robert Longo, Malcolm McLaren and Public Enemy.
Despite his elusiveness, Mr. Jebbia does not come off as a garden-variety fashion prima donna. At 48, with his erect posture, blunt features and mournful ice-blue eyes, he gives off the intimidating air of an aging middleweight boxer who still has a few knockout punches left in him.
Seated in a blue Commes des Garçons shirt and jeans beneath a giant photo of James Brown, he politely explained his reticence. Reporters, he said, usually garble the story, pigeonholing Supreme as a skate-wear company, instead of, say, New York’s brass-knuckle answer to A.P.C., the plus-chic French label.
“It’s always something stupid,” Mr. Jebbia said, sounding more weary than angry, in a no-nonsense British accent that calls to mind a member of the Clash. “They’ll see the lines at the store and say: ‘Those kids are crazy. What are you guys selling, crack?’
“However, if they see a line outside of, say, Louis Vuitton or Uniqlo, it’s fully accepted and understood why: they just came out with something hot that their customers love and want to buy. It’s no different for us. There’s no tricks or gimmicks. It’s all about good product.”
A quiet family man (he and his wife, Bianca, live in the West Village with their children, Miles, 5, and Nina, 3), he has no interest in playing the downtown celebrity himself.
Mr. Jebbia grew up mainly in Sussex, England. His American father was in the United States Air Force, and his English mother was a homemaker and then a teacher (they split when he was around 10). Mr. Jebbia devoured style magazines like The Face and I-D, and spent weekends window-shopping in London. For a time he worked in a Duracell battery factory.
But New York held a firm grip on his imagination, so after a visit in 1983 to his father, then living in West Virginia, he moved to Staten Island, into a $500-a-month apartment. Over the next six years, he worked his way up at Parachute, the ’80s minimalist clothing store in SoHo, and sold fashionable backpacks and vintage clothes at a flea market on Spring Street.
Eventually he scraped up enough money to open his own shop, Union, on Spring Street, which specialized in British labels like the Duffer of St. George and Fred Perry, as well as Stüssy, the California skate-wear line. That led to a partnership with Shawn Stussy in the cultish Stüssy boutique on Prince Street, which could be seen as a progenitor of Supreme. When Mr. Stussy cashed out, Mr. Jebbia, never a skater himself, opened a skate shop of his own, on a then-forlorn stretch of Lafayette.
It was an auspicious moment in New York. Wu-Tang Clan lobbed its hip-hop offensive from Staten Island, KAWS turned bus shelters into canvases, and Larry Clark splattered the screen with “Kids,” the 1995 film about sexed-up New York teenagers in the age of H.I.V. and club drugs.
Supreme felt like “Kids” in real life, Mr. Clark said; a few actors in the film even worked there. “We would always meet at Supreme and then go skate at Washington Square Park,” he said. “Everybody hung out there.”
The shop became Boys Town with a Biggie soundtrack, with Mr. Jebbia as an underground Father Flanagan. “A lot of us who didn’t have apartments, who had weird situations, we all knew we could go there, get a meal, have a beer, a smoke,” said Mr. Bondaroff, the gallerist, who was a high-school dropout from Brooklyn at the time.
The store reflected the city around it. “People would buy stuff and get robbed afterward,” Mr. Jebbia said. “But New York in general was like that.”
As the clubhouse scene flourished, so did its appeal among discerning skate punks who knew how to accessorize a Gucci belt with Carhartt work pants. “We were making clothes for that New York skater, who is a picky kind of person with good taste,” he said. “He may look scruffy to the outside world, but he’s very sharp in the way he dresses.”
Mr. Jebbia slowly expanded the line — from T-shirts and hoodies to a full sportswear and lifestyle line. But it never lost sight of its core customer, the city kids who came of age quaffing 40s and doing kick flips at the Astor Place Cube. After nearly two decades, Supreme remains a proud holdout from New York’s gloriously raunchy bad old days, before Rudy Giuliani and “Friends” colluded to scrub the city of much of its grit.
BUT how does Supreme maintain street credibility in an era when Justin Bieber pops up on celebrity gossip and lifestyle sites in a Universal Monsters/Supreme “Creature From the Black Lagoon” hoodie?
Mr. Jebbia insists he is not elitist about who wears Supreme. If a 9-year-old from New Jersey wants a Supreme hat because Kanye wears one, fine. But he is loathe to water down Supreme’s boundary-pushing urban sensibility to cross over to the suburban mainstream.
“I feel a very important factor to our longevity is that, over the years, we have managed to create our own unique identity and aesthetics,” Mr. Jebbia said. Big or small, the brands he admires — A.P.C., Polo, Isabel Marant, Antihero Skateboards — invented and maintained “a dope original and consistent design language,” he added.
He seems unconcerned that other brands with a skate heritage (Stüssy, Skechers) have reaped mass-market riches. “Our business is as good as any high-end designer,” he said, declining to discuss specific revenue numbers. “We do good because we make good things.”
He shrugs off suggestions that Supreme expand for expansion’s sake into, say, women’s wear. “It’s not what we know,” Mr. Jebbia said. “It’s not in keeping with what we do.”
Those in Supreme’s inner circle see nobility in Mr. Jebbia’s unwillingness to cash in. Ms. Kola, the party promoter, said that celebrities often approach her seeking to collaborate with Supreme, but that Mr. Jebbia waves them off.
“He easily could have a million stores,” Ms. Kola, said. “He could be dressing people, and giving free product to celebrities, like every other brand does. But he keeps it very limited. It’s very much a friends-and-family vibe.”
But to Mr. Jebbia, it’s more than just being noble. Staying true to Supreme code is the only business plan he has.
Supreme, as he put it, “needs to be cool to survive.”
On the red carpet, Supreme has become a certifiable thing for rappers and pop stars. At the recent Paris Fashion Week, Kanye West arrived at the Céline show wearing a green-camouflage pullover field jacket by Supreme. In September, Frank Ocean performed on “Saturday Night Live” wearing a Supreme hockey jersey adorned with a Southwestern-style thunderbird.
For any other brand, such sightings would be considered a P.R. coup. But they are beside the point for Supreme, which is so fiercely protective of its anarchic downtown heritage that it would rather be ignored by the masses than misunderstood.
“Most businesses just have a goal of getting as big as possible,” said Glenn O’Brien, the style writer. But Supreme does not “try to be in every department store in the world,” preferring instead to stay underground and boutique.
“Supreme is a company that refuses to sell out,” he said.
SUPREME is also a company that plays hard to get. That uncompromising spirit starts with the stores themselves.
Opened in 1994 by its press-shy founder, James Jebbia, the Lafayette Street store pioneered an art-gallery-cum-storage-facility chic, with its white walls and plywood shelving.
The Container Store this was not. The retail experience — from the Bad Brains blaring overhead, to the store clerks who sized up visitors with blank stares — could be forbidding.
Shoppers could look but not touch, especially during the early days, recalled Aaron Bondaroff, a founder of Ohwow gallery who worked at the shop in the 1990s. Anyone who mussed the folded T-shirts could expect a scolding.
The subtext was clear: One had to earn the right to shop there.
“I walked in there and, even as a girl, I still felt intimidated: these were real skate kids,” said Vashtie Kola, a downtown music video director and party promoter, recalling her visits in the ’90s. Like the skate world in general, the store, she added, was “a place where authenticity is of extreme importance.”
“People can pick up on your scent,” she continued. “It’s a hard world to gain respect in.”
Then, as now, the merchandise was every bit as coded. Supreme channels various underground style currents: the punkiness of Dogtown-era skatewear, the macho utilitarianism of military gear, the brash colors of ’80s hip-hop — and merges them into a singular aesthetic.
Prices are hardly astronomical (jeans are about $130; hoodies, $170), but Supreme cultivates the same covetous frenzy that might greet a new $9,000 Hermès Birkin bag.
Limited runs help stoke demand. A corduroy shell jacket, a collaboration with North Face listed at $298, recently sold out in one minute online and appeared almost simultaneously on eBay for $700, according to Peter Panagakos, of Strictly Supreme, a members-only Web site where Supreme zealots trade rumors and merch. (Invitations to the site are themselves highly coveted.)
Collaborations with bien-pensant contemporary artists further enhance Supreme’s esoteric air. The current fall-winter collection, for example, includes an Army-style M-51 jacket, featuring artwork by the skateboarder and artist Mark Gonzales, for $298. Skate-deck collaborations with artists like Damien Hirst and Richard Prince may retail for less than $100, but are “collected like art,” Mr. O’Brien said.
The artist Nate Lowman remembers seeing a skate deck he designed — a bullet-hole motif — hanging at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue, next to editions by Christopher Wool and Jeff Koons. “They’re hanging there on the wall, for thousands of dollars,” he said, still laughing at the idea. He telephoned Mr. Jebbia, who wants to keep the boards in the hands of the kids, and he said that Mr. Jebbia cursed into the phone, saying, “I’m going to tell them to stop.”
The brand’s calibrated mystique extends to its promotion, or lack thereof. Supreme could be a case study on guerrilla marketing. Bumper stickers with its fiery-red Barbara Kruger-esque logo can be spotted in bohemian neighborhoods around the globe — Harajuku, Tokyo; Shoreditch, London; Kreuzkölln, Berlin; Greenpoint, Brooklyn — like hobo signs for global cool hunters.
Its inscrutable Web commercials, meanwhile, could double as video installations at the Whitney Biennial. In one grainy spot, “Chicken Wing Recipe,” the rap group Three 6 Mafia hangs out in an underlighted room at the Chateau Marmont, smoking, drinking and mumbling directions for killer wings.
For a time, it produced a Supreme magazine, featuring the likes of Chloë Sevigny and Ryan McGinley as models, that functioned as a social register of sorts for the downtown art set.
Other branding efforts are sporadic at best, like the one-off calendars shot by Terry Richardson and Larry Clark, sold in limited edition at the shop, that were so N.S.F.W. that they might raise eyebrows at Hustler. Or the minimalist posters with no tag lines, just a photo of renegades like Lou Reed, Lady Gaga and Mike Tyson in a Supreme T-shirt.
Spend enough time in Supreme’s orbit, and it’s fair to wonder: is Supreme borrowing their cool, or are they borrowing Supreme’s?
PERHAPS its biggest mystery is its founder, Mr. Jebbia. A sphinxlike figure and keeper of the Supreme faith, he rarely grants interviews.