Highsnobiety’s longtime Supreme expert, Ross Wilson, looks back to when he first came across the brand in the early ’90s and shares old stories with the shop’s OG manager, Alex Corporan.
If you were brave enough to venture out to the opening day of Supreme’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection at one of their stores in NYC, LA, London or Paris, you would have witnessed the now-standard pandemonium that accompanies any major release.
Now that Supreme has banned camping outside its stores, the early-morning rush sees chaotic scenes involving a mix of several hundred high school kids, streetwear collectors, skaters, tourists, journalists and inevitable resellers crowding the surrounding streets. Such scenes are now a regular, almost weekly, occurrence nowadays, but when I started hanging out at Supreme, back in the ‘90s, it was a very different story.
Long before the round-the-block lines, the security guards, the crowd control barriers, the ticketing system, release dates and even the LA, London and Paris stores, Supreme was just a little skate store on a semi-abandoned block in downtown Manhattan.
With all the focus on the sunshine state of California, skateboarding on the East Coast was as alternative as it got during the ’90s. New York’s seasonal bad weather, rough terrain, lack of skateparks, unforgiving traffic and overpopulated sidewalks made for a truly underground outlaw culture with skate rats hitting up the Brooklyn Banks by day and the old Ziegfeld Theatre by night. Pretty much halfway between these two skate spots — and a short push from Astor Place — was an unassuming block between Houston and Prince Street, tucked behind the main shopping strip of Broadway.
Before Supreme opened in April 1994, Keith Haring’s “Pop Shop” was the only retail store on Lafayette Street, and most of the neighboring units remained empty — giving the street a quiet, neglected feel. It was an ideal skate spot. Much like it went on to do a decade later with their Fairfax store in LA, Supreme helped build a retail community surrounding its little shop on Lafayette. Stackhouse, X-Large, Clientele, Flight Club, Triple Five Soul, Brooklyn Industries, Diamond Supply Co, G Star, American Apparel and WeSC have all opened (and sometimes closed) doors on the short stretch of this Soho street, now making it a major destination for shoppers.
The first time I visited New York back in October 1994, I had never heard of Supreme. I didn’t know anyone out there at the time, there was no official website, no streetwear blogs and no social media. I was skating round the city looking for a skate store, but that was harder than I expected — the skateboard industry was in a bit of a slump and unfortunately a lot of independent skate shops folded during this period.
I found a tiny skate department in Paragon Sports on Union Square, and the chain store Blades on Broadway, but no actual skate shops. Pushing around some Soho side streets, I stopped off for a slice at Ray’s Pizza on Prince St, where some dude told me about a new store that had just opened right around the corner. Rolling up to the front window seeing a bank of TVs playing skate videos of the time from H-Street, 101, Girl, and Stereo, I knew this was exactly the kind of place I had been searching for.
Firstly, the music hit you even before you even walked through the door — it was loud, seriously fucking loud! Slayer, Big L, Wu-Tang, Bowie, Sabbath, Bad Brains, Public Enemy — whatever was being played, it would always be at ear-splitting volume. I’ve been DJing in clubs for two decades, so I’m used to loud music, but in this confined space during the daytime it really smacked you right in the face!
Stepping inside, the store was well-lit with bright white walls and a really high ceiling — the complete opposite to the little dark skate shops I was used to back home in the UK. The store’s clean surroundings and impeccably displayed products presented itself more like a high-end fashion boutique, and the Nag Champa incense burning near the front mixed with the faint aroma of weed, coming from the little room behind the cash register, gave the place a distinct odor. There was a wall of decks at the back of the store, to the right of a glass counter cabinet of skate hardware, and clothing from skate brands like Zoo York, Shorty’s, Independent and Spitfire on the heavy industrial rails.
The shelving unit closest to the counter had a neat display of the store’s own tees and sweatshirts. Most skate brands were covered in huge garish, colorful designs, so the simple white logo in a red box placed on the chest of these garments made a stylish contrast. Having hung out in the store for most of that afternoon watching videos, and chatting to the staff about the UK skate scene, I decided to show some support and bought a couple of the shop’s tees for around $18 each. I originally wanted the Box Logo crewneck sweat but they were out of my size and those things were massive back then — it was the ’90s after all!
The best thing about independent skateboard shops is that they aren’t just a place to go shopping — they’re a hangout, a meeting spot and the epicenter of the local skate scene. Supreme took this vibe and rolled it to the fullest — there weren’t really many customers, just skaters hanging out, talking trash, smoking, drinking and skating. Before people were using social media to see what their friends were up to, they had to actually meet in person, and this little shop on Lafayette Street quickly became the clubhouse for every skate rat in downtown NYC. It could be intimidating to outsiders, but that’s just how they liked it.
For the following 15 years I became a bit of a part-time New Yorker, with regular bi-monthly visits for work, and Supreme would always be a familiar spot. Summer evenings were the best — video premiers on the sidewalk, skating Union Square and Astor Place, then hitting up the L.E.S dive bars like Max Fish, Lit Lounge and Motor City. I met some fascinating characters and made some great friends from that time, and it all centered around that scene.
My good friend Alex Corporan was one of the store managers at Supreme from 1996-2005 and, on a recent trip back to NYC, I caught up with him to get his side of the shop’s story….
For further Supreme history, check out their 50 best accessories over the years.
How was the skate scene in downtown NYC back in the early-mid 90s?
The NY skate scene was stylish, fun and high energy. It was a tight-knit community that hadn’t yet been exploited. Skate parks in the city weren’t even close to being a thing, so the streets were all we had — we were like a wolf pack hitting the asphalt from morning to late night.
What was your first experience with the Supreme store?
My boy Chappy was working at Union, James Jebbia’s first store, in 1993, and we met up at the ASR trade show in San Diego that summer. He was excited that their new shop was about to open and asked me to be part of it. I was super stoked because skate shops in NYC were a rarity at that time. The Supreme store was live in ’94 and it was perfect timing, because Zoo York had launched the previous year. All the NY crew were all back together again, including all the amigos up and down the East Coast. I actually ended up working there late 1996, I believe.
I remember the first time I went there it instantly felt like a clubhouse, was that an intentional vibe or it just played out like that naturally?
The clubhouse vibe happened naturally because, unlike now, skateboarding wasn’t full blown yet and pretty much all we had was each other — skaters, artists, photographers, club and bar crew, etc. We had that clubhouse vibe but always kept it with a clean retail touch — everyone made sure the store was always pristine.
The first few times I visited the store the clothing was mainly other skate brands, when did it start to become more about your own label products?
As with any brand, Supreme started small. Nothing turns huge overnight. There’s a lot of history, respect, friendship and support within the skate industry and we always stocked brands we appreciated. Supreme still carries other skate brands today, but it’s now very minimal due to the high demand for Supreme’s own products, which James Jebbia has built up with attention to detail and quality production.
Did the guys working in the store have any input/suggestions about what Supreme products were made?
In the early years, before there was an amazing team of people behind the brand, we would get called in to check out what’s coming out next and give input.
Can you recall when the store started to become a cult thing with Japanese tourists? What initially sparked that off?
I believe it was around 1997 when I really started noticing it. It felt like the scene as a whole became something the Japanese culture was very attracted to. The Japanese enthusiasts really dig the New York style and, at that time, it was such a heavy subculture.
Did you find that a few of you OG guys became low-key ‘celebrities’ to some of these Japanese enthusiasts?
It was a huge compliment to be looked up to by the Japanese enthusiasts and they treated us with so much respect. The funny thing is, they make me shy when I get approached, but feels good to make a positive impact on some people.
Personally, I saw a big change in the store visitors after that first Nike collaboration in 2002. The sneaker scene in NYC, and the whole Nike SB thing, was exploding back then and you guys seemed to hit it at exactly the right time. Did this influx of sneakerheads bring a whole new wave of attention on the store?
The change was huge, the whole sneaker culture really shifted the demographic of people shopping at the store. After a few tries to get in the skate industry, Nike finally did it right and all it took was the Dunk to really have people going crazy! The Dunk shoe itself has its own cult following in and out of skateboarding so those limited edition colorways, unavailable in ‘mom & pop’ or mega retailers, caused frenzy amongst sneakerheads. Sneaker re-sale culture became a big thing and that brought a huge new set of eyes to Supreme because we carried the largest stock of Nike SB in New York.
With all the cash flying around for those early Supreme Nikes, what was the craziest amount of money people used to offer you guys for a sneaker hook-up?
During that time people would nearly cry for another pair of sneakers and lose their shit if they couldn’t cop the latest release, and I’m talking about grown-ass men, so you can only imagine what people would offer!
When people started lining up for shoes and stuff there was no security – just Ryan stood outside smoking! Did anything crazy aggro go down back then?
In beginning of 2002 when the first Nike SB Dunk with Danny Supa came out, we had no idea what was about to happen, and a couple of months later the Zoo York colorway released and things started getting a bit stranger. We started getting personal phone calls from people we haven’t heard from before and more people coming to the store out of the woodwork.
In the beginning we did the security on our own but it became too much because we had to man the store overall. There were only 3-4 of us at one time, with no security, so we started hiring our friends to do the door. Every time I walk by nowadays to see the guys I’m like “whoa what a long way this has come.” There’s a professional security company holding it down all day every day, pretty much.
The inspiration for that Supreme baseball bat came from you guys actually having a bat behind the counter – did it ever get used?
Haha, the famous bat! It didn’t get used to that extent but it has come out a bunch of times, even before the sneaker frenzy. We were one of the first retail shops on that block and Lafayette was pretty abandoned, so you always had to worry about knuckleheads running around!
Around the late ’90s and early ’00s there seemed to be this thing going on where stuff, especially T-shirts, used to sell out on the shelves and customers would ask if you had any more “out the back.” If you didn’t like the way they asked it would just be arms folded and a straight “no,” but if someone came by who you knew then a choice of colors would mysteriously appear — often right in front of the person who just asked. Was this just a way of amusing yourselves or a conscious way of making sure only people you guys wanted to wear Supreme got to wear it?
We knew there was a heavy re-sale value, through eBay and person-to-person contact at the time, so we felt it wasn’t fair to Supreme fans that would actually wear it and never get to the shirt/colorway they wanted just because they couldn’t make it in between noon-3pm. We would hold a bunch of stock to make sure those genuine people got to purchase what they wanted. So yeah, we would have re-sellers pissed! That was one of many reasons the demand was so big because everyone wanted the hot Supreme tee — especially in any colorway of the Box Logo.
That general rudeness with the ‘no touching clothes’ policy really gave Supreme an edge over other stores at the time, and a lot of subsequent downtown stores adopted that stance to mixed effect. You guys were always super polite to younger kids, their parents and your friends but everyone else got a pretty frosty reception walking through those doors.
We had respect for everyone but it was the people that treated the store like a thrift store that annoyed us. The store was always tight and looked amazing so it was the people that treated it like their messy bedroom who got the cold shoulder. It was just a well-rounded attitude saying “don’t fuck with us.”
When the reseller culture really kicked off I remember you describing them to me as “rats” which seemed kind of appropriate!
They really don’t care; it’s like who can get to the counter first with the most stuff. They were all over each other and not caring about how they would hurt someone’s feelings or physically injure them so they can get that extra re-sell buck.
What was the deal with that NYPD cop who always used to be lurking in the back of the store? He seemed to be there a lot…
That is our family member, Wing the cop. He’s the man and skated with us back in the day. He’s also the original guy behind hooking up the NYPD barriers to keep the line in check outside the store way back then. People would always trip out when he came in and I use to love seeing the store go silent not knowing why this cop is in here. We always crack up about that!
The summers on Lafayette St were legendary — everyone just skating outside the store, video premieres, visiting pros dropping by and Neil’s dog wandering around the shop. What are your best memories of those hazy summer days and nights?
Every moment from the morning skating outside, having lunch with the crew, the warm-up sessions before the homies go skate and take over the city while we were working. The nights after closing, sitting around talking, making jokes, drinking, smoking while snapping photos and videos and killing time before we painted the town hitting all the clubs and bars.
Speaking of which, the Max Fish bar on Ludlow St. was the after-work spot – you guys were skating together, working together and partying together. How did that unity solidify the Supreme crew as the lynchpin of that scene?
Max Fish has been around since ’89 in the skate world. The original introducer to that bar was pro skater Jeremy Henderson, an OG New Yorker. He had an awesome loft right up the block and the rest was history. The Alleged Gallery crew, Supreme crew, Ulli Rimkus, Marc Razo…the list goes on; we all kept Max Fish as our hub to hang out and spend our late nights.
That era from 94-04 felt like a completely unique scene in downtown NYC — the skating, the creativity, the music and the general vibe. I’m sure you’ll always look back fondly on this time, but how would you sum up that whole period of life?
I agree that ’94-’04 was a unique time. I’m so happy have my close group of friends and still bring a big level of influence to the scene. It’s going to take a very long time for that kind of raw energy to happen again, due to the way things work nowadays.
It’s all a strong memory. The feeling you get when you wake up at times and go “holy shit that happened” is the best feeling overall.
I gotta say a big thank you to James Jebbia for really believing in all of us running that ship!
How do you feel Supreme as a brand, and especially the NYC store in particular, has changed since your time there?
Supreme as a brand is one of the most original and inspiring clothing lines out there. It speaks to everyone, no matter how old or young you are, and whatever you’re into, because it’s had the same energy from day one. It’s a lifestyle.
Its continued growth with the times is something not that many brands can ever seem to really do, especially in this city where clothing trends are constantly changing rapidly. Supreme manages to always set the standard of what’s next, and to see that happening globally speaks for itself.
Truthfully, you couldn’t buy the timing when it started. During the ’90s I feel that New York was at the last of its rawness and originality in all avenues.
Now read how to buy a Supreme box logo hoodie online.