Supreme first popped up on my internal radar about five years ago. The brand had just inaugurated its London store and 032c ran a long feature in its Winter 2011/12 issue to coincide with the opening. I mean, I had heard of the brand before that – its name and logo were vaguely familiar, fuzzy around the edges like a childhood memory, one that you can’t say for certain whether it was real or imagined, but it was only in late 2011 that it began to receive my conscious attention.
I quickly became aware of the hype and near-fetishization that the brand inspires, yet its utterly underwhelming FW11 offering left me wondering why. Had I simply cottoned on to Supreme at a low point for the brand, or perhaps even deep into its terminal decline? No, it couldn’t be that, because every single item sold out as quickly as ever, as swiftly as it still does. The feeling that I was missing something nagged away at me, like an itch buried beyond the reach of my finger nails, one that drove me to venture to its then-new London flagship to see what all the fuss was about.
After queuing up outside, my disappointment was confounded by the fact that its products looked no better in real life than they did on the web and contained cheap synthetics like acrylic. Quality was poor, aesthetic appeal was lacking, yet everywhere I looked I could see scrawny suburbanites who seemed to dress exclusively in the brand’s wares. I couldn’t understand Supreme’s appeal, and a succession of ugly collections that have dropped over the intervening half-decade have only served to perplex me even more.
Trying to decipher what its devotees see in the brand has become a bit of a fixation of mine. Since FW11, I’ve sifted through every lookbook and every drop, returning to Peter Street every so often and popping by Supreme’s Lafayette HQ in search of a nugget of insight that might help me comprehend how the brand manages to inspire such partisan devotion. And I still don’t get it. I had almost begun to accept that there’s nothing really there, or at least nothing that I consider worthwhile, but then David Shapiro, a New York-based writer and Supreme devotee who has written about the brand in publications as esteemed as The New Yorker, opened up a literary window for me to peer inside the mind of a box logo lackey.
In his soon-to-be published book, Supremacist, David makes a pilgrimage from New York to LA to London via Japan, visiting Supreme’s nine global stores (Paris doesn’t appear on his itinerary, as the trip went down before its opening) in an attempt to reach his own conclusions on what the brand means to him personally, as well as its wider significance as a global phenomenon. It’s a loosely autobiographical collage of fact and fiction best summarized by its Amazon synopsis as “equal parts travel diary and love story for the Internet age, where a logo replaces the crucifix.”
The book’s form feels tailor-made for a skeptic looking to understand the brand, such as myself. Throughout the narrative and along his journey, David is quizzed by a number of supporting characters on what, exactly, it is about Supreme that has driven him to make such a ludicrous journey. The questions are presented and answered in a conversational manner, no doubt born out of real-life instances where he has had to answer similar queries himself, giving the impression that reader and author are engaged in a direct and personal dialogue. They’re questions that feel like they’ve been pulled directly from my own mouth.
David Shapiro may just be a singular fuccboi, but in its opening preface the book is “dedicated to those who posted, and to those who posted, as I lurked.” This suggests that the theories laid out in the story aren’t purely his subjective opinions, but ones shaped by the views of other Supreme fetishists from across the web, making Supremacist a reliable study of the brand’s fandom as a whole. And his love of Supreme can essentially be boiled down to three elements: conceptualism, exclusivity and subversion.
David argues that Supreme’s long history of pop cultural references and repurposing of other brands’ trademarks elevates it beyond clothing and propels it into the realms for art. He claims that Supreme represents a “long-term conceptual art project about consumerism and theft … And corporate ownership,” which it executes by claiming other brands’ intellectual property (like Louis Vuitton’s iconic monogram or The New Yorker’s mascot) as its own. Basically, he loves Supreme for being the fashion industry’s very own Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, two of the brand’s past collaborators that get a lengthy mention in the book. This reference to Koons and Hirst is significant because understanding the pair is essential to understanding Supreme.
They may be two of the planet’s wealthiest living artists, but both have been derided by art critics for employing technically able assistants to execute their respective visions. Both are seen as ideas men rather than gifted artists, conjuring up concepts and having other people realize them rather than physically creating art, thus blurring the traditional parameters of ownership and plagiarism, just like Supreme. Their works are littered with pop cultural iconography, also like Supreme, and their use of a visual language typically associated with advertising has more in common with commerce than art. Supreme’s reappropriation of other brands’ logos is an obvious parallel. Koons and Hirst are popular for style rather than substance. The same could be said for Supreme. Hirst cites Koons as his greatest influence, while Supreme was founded at the height of Hirst’s fame. I don’t consider this to be coincidental: whether he chose to do so consciously or subconsciously, James Jebbia has, through Supreme, become the Damien Hirst of fashion.
Many art critics wouldn’t consider Koons and Hirst’s work proper art, but merely aesthetically captivating objects polished with a thin conceptual veneer and framed as art. By imitating the artistic form, Hirst and Koons’ pass their works off as more than mere objects, and by imitating Hirst’s creative process, Supreme’s creations feel like they’re more than just products. This has been the objective of every single lifestyle brand ever, but Supreme is the only one to have achieved it so completely without relying on prohibitive price tags or aggressive marketing, and this is largely thanks to its use of the Hirstian model. For its most ardent devotees, like David Shapiro, Supreme is truly more than just a brand. It has an intangible magnetism that few can articulate, but most can feel. There’s a reason why BAPE and Stussy, the two most comparable parallels, don’t inspire such depth or breadth of adoration: because they don’t frame themselves as anything more than just lifestyle brands.
Exclusivity is an essential component to all lifestyle brands, particularly those in fashion. In Supreme’s case, its importance is amplified by ultra-limited stock, which feeds into a much broader image that the brand has delicately constructed. In Supremacist, David writes that “I read online this explanation of the phenomenon of Supreme as a hierarchy of people sneering at each other.” One way of climbing up that hierarchy is by “understanding what they’re ripping off or referencing.” At the top of that hierarchy sit “the aggressively aloof employees themselves, who are sneering at everyone except each other, because everyone else [in the store] is submitting to being silently tormented by their disapproving faces.”
This is hardly a novel concept. According to sociologist Professor Yiannis Gabriel: “like many religious and nationalist illusions, consumer freedom fulfils a narcissistic function, offering us opportunities to enhance our self-image and raise us above those around us … If the therapeutic function of [consumer] freedom is attained by exercising it, its narcissistic function is attained by exercising it in a discriminating manner.” Supreme’s art pop (not pop art) approach and the arrogance of its in-store representatives adds a further layer of narcissistic exclusivity to the brand.
You can buy Supreme, but you can’t purchase your way into the brand’s inner circle – that knowing wink that proves that you truly get it is beyond purchase. After being rejected and mildly degraded by the brand’s employees, deciphering its riddles offers the ultimate feeling of prestige because it gives fuccbois the illusion that they’ve gained entry to that inner circle. It fills them with a sadomasochistic feeling of kinship with Jebbia and co., of being part of something bigger than themselves.
The likes of Tony Hawk and the first generation of skating greats may be approaching their 50s now, but skateboarding –and by proxy, skatewear – is still associated with adolescence. Supreme’s strategy of brazenly ripping off other brands’ creative property imbues it with an element of juvenile subversion that’s always been so popular with adolescent boys. The fact that it does so unapologetically and manages to avoid getting sued into financial ruin gives it this sort of canned rebellious cool that figures like Banksy have built their entire careers and fortunes off of. And judging from the drop-day queues outside of Palace recently, or this survey of Palace and Supreme fuccbois, skate brands’ core consumers are predominantly teenage boys.
This streetwise, hustle-ready image is further amplified by David Shapiro’s observation that “what unites Supreme’s accessories is that most of them have some sort of illicit/underworld connotation having to do with violence or drugs. But they appear, for the most part, ostensibly innocent – only when viewed together do you get the sense that they’re suggesting something illicit.” He proceeds to reel off a list of seemingly random Supreme accessories that suddenly begin to make a lot of sense when looked at through a criminalistic lens, like the Supreme x Mizuno children’s baseball bat from SS14. In Shapiro’s words: “it would be useful in an armed robbery – a small bat would probably get the job done just as well as a big bat, but it’s easier to conceal and carry. And also carries a lower legal penalty than using a gun.”
Supreme appeals to teenage boys in the same way that Grand Theft Auto and Martin Scorsese movies do. The brand’s clientele is obviously far wider than just pubescent dudes, but its image is tailor-made to tap into that juvenile part of the male psyche – the angsty teenage id that exists in the minds of all men regardless of age. This goes some way towards explaining the rabidity that the brand inspires: because there are few things as fanatically devoted like a teenager or a grown man driven by his inner child. This is the sort of fanatic that will camp outside of a store in the cold and purchase something, anything, from each collection without even asking themselves why. It’s this same urge that drives football fans to buy expensive replica shirts every year, even though they’re only minute modifications of the ones that preceded them. It is not coincidental that comic book collectors and competitive gamers, two groups that share many common traits with Supreme fuccbois, are also dominated by teens and men who won’t let go of their adolescence.
And why the criminalistic undertones? Because which teenager or FHM-reading dude doesn’t have escapist tough-guy fantasies about being a streetwise outlaw living off of his wits? It’s the ultimate masculine archetype: one guy against societal norms, living freely and independently, self-made and unconstrained by the demands of those around him. There is literally nothing cooler. In consumerism, we don’t just buy products, we buy proxy solutions to existential problems, or so advertisers would like us to believe. Shower gel manufacturers don’t just sell you hygiene, they sell you bottled sex appeal. These associations are so ingrained in everybody under the age of 45 they don’t have even be mentioned explicitly; our subconscious mind searches them out itself. This is highlighted in Supremacist when David recalls his first encounter with Supreme: “my girlfriend cheated on me with a guy who worked [at Supreme]. I found a Supreme shirt stuffed behind her bed … So I figured the brand might have something to offer that I didn’t then possess.” By buying Supreme, fuccbois attempt to assimilate some of the brand’s rebellious cool.
The most enduring observation in the book comes from Camilla, Shapiro’s travel partner and romantic interest, rather than from the author himself. At one point she remarks: “I think you have a Freudian collector thing going on with Supreme … Freud said that people collect things as a way of channeling their surplus libidos into objects of desire,” instantly cutting through to the very essence of the brand’s rabid appeal.
Supreme is what it is and inspires the feelings that it does because, as you can see from my analysis above, every single aspect of the brand has been thoroughly thought through and calculated by its creators, leaving no facet of the brand’s myth to chance or coincidence. And while they’ve covered all of their own bases, none of this would’ve been possible without the commodity fetishism that serves as the beating heart of the consumerist model. Supremacist may be specifically about Supreme but it is broadly about the modern consumerist society. Supreme is just a symptom of that, one that could just as easily be substituted with, say, Apple. The character of David Shapiro doesn’t only fetishize Supreme, he’s also a maniac that purchased all but one of his meals in Japan from 7-11. Supremacist isn’t simply about a brand, it’s about a modern neurosis.
Fuccbois may lust over a brand, but that particular form of gaping desire existed long before 1994, it’s just that Supreme has mastered how to tap into it. This obsession for Supreme is borne out of the same urge that drives people to brawl over cut-price TVs on the floor of their local Walmart on Black Friday. It’s what happens when the mind internalizes a lifetime of brand conditioning and marketers achieve their ultimate end goal. In the modern consumer model, our purchases are framed as expressions of our personality and identity. And when you define your identity by the brands you purchase and the products that you consume, you become locked into an endless cycle of purchase and consumption in order to justify to yourself that identity.
This is why every Supreme collection sells out without question and why fuccbois like David will voice opinions like “everything they do is awesome. Even the ugly stuff.” Because while most clothing brands might cater to humanity’s physiological needs or our desire for decoration, Supreme feeds a much deeper psychological yearning.
Supremacist is out July 5 on New York Tyrant.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
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