The origins of the story that pit an enterprising college student against the fashion juggernaut known as Supreme began several decades prior to their entanglement. The creative in question, Chandler Easley, was just a toddler. Supreme itself wasn’t even an entity. Its founder, James Jebbia, had opened Union NYC a year earlier and there was little indication that he would forge what would become the largest, most popular streetwar brand in the world. However, this is a story about fashion. It’s about them. Just not quite yet.
It began when four men – Luke, Fresh Kid Ice, Mr. Mixx and Brother Marquis – more commonly referred to as “2 Live Crew,” found themselves as defendants in a lawsuit brought forth by Acuff-Rose Music. The latter had charged that the rap collective’s “Pretty Woman” – off their 1989 album, As Clean As They Wanna Be – was based off of Roy Orbinson’s rock ballad, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which they owned the publishing rights to.
Although 2 Live Crew had attempted to do their due diligence in acquiring the right to sample/use the preexisting piece of music, Acuff-Rose Music had declined, and 2 Live Crew proceeded with recording the song nonetheless.
A year after “Pretty Woman” was released, 2 Live Crew had sold 250,000 copies. Not surprisingly, Acuff-Rose Music positioned themselves for a financial windfall from a subsequent lawsuit. Although there is never a “a sure thing,” there was no prior ruling to suggest the 2 Live Crew had any chance at winning the case.
Nashville attorney, Alan Turk, represented the defendants as the case worked its way up from the circuit court level. “You don’t often realize when something is going to be important,” Turk said. “In fact I think it’s fair to say this is the most important case I’ve ever been involved in, and I had no idea that was going to happen when I accepted.”
Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Although the case seemed quite cut-and-dry to those with even the most untrained ears – with the familiar bass line starting both songs and the echoed refrain of “pretty woman” in each – the Court saw it decidedly different.
On March 7, 1994, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendants despite their acknowledgment that under copyright law, you need a copyright owners’ permission to use their song, photograph or video. The justices viewed 2 Live Crew’s “Pretty Woman” as a commercial parody and thus could be protected and used without permission.
“To me, the Campbell v. Acuff-Rose case is still the gold standard when it comes to fair use,” said Stephen Zralek, an entertainment law attorney at the Nashville firm Bone McAllester Norton.
To this day, the entanglement between Luther Campbell and Acuff-Rose remains one of the most vital weapons in a creative’s arsenal – seemingly giving them free reign to repurpose, recreate, and reimagine existing properties without fear of legal ramifications.
Whether he knew it or not, Chandler Easley had the law working for him when he decided to try his hand at fashion as a college student while attending the Art Institute in Chicago. While most cut their teeth in design school or under the watchful eye of a trained professional, Easley cultivated his idea on a message board – a breeding ground for flawed logic and a decidedly anarchist outlook.
The message board in question, NikeTalk, billed itself as “the ultimate online sneaker community.” Although rooted in the interests of people with a shared passion for collecting shoes and merchandise, the message board expanded through the years to include lifestyle discussions focusing on sports, music and even region-centric discussions that encouraged “IRL” relationships.
“Snooping around Nike Talk in 2003, I would buy Air Force 1’s and various trainers,” Easley says with a thick, New York accent. “I was into it purely for the information I could find out about [shoes being released]. And then in 2004 I started using it like social media by connecting with people.”
As part of Complex‘s coverage of the “50 Most Influential People in Sneakers Right Now,” they noted of NikeTalk founder Nelson Cabral’s destination that it ” just might be the most important online property in the history of sneakers and the Internet.”
In response to the posting of the Complex listicle on NikeTalk itself, one user noted, “I had no idea NT was so popular. I guess being in ‘general’ for so long actually made me forget about the N in NT.” That is to say, many people had turned a passion for sneakers into a community of like-minded individuals who could talk about a variety of topics. Nike had brought them there, but the relationships were keeping them there.
Like many other portals which rely on back-and-forth interaction – with Reddit being the absolute cream-of-the-crop right now with 74 million more men visiting than women (as of 2013) – NikeTalk also boasted a significant disparity between males and females when it came to who was posting.
“Shortypop was initially this girl on NikeTalk and that was sort of her moniker,” Easley remembers. “She had what would be referred to on NikeTalk as ‘heat.’ She had dope pieces. She was also a reasonably attractive girl [in a place] populated predominantly by dudes.”
Shortypop, born Latisha Embrey, had gained a reputation in the NikeTalk forums as a quasi “manic pixie dream girl” for young men who dreamed of cultivating a relationship with a woman who shared their passion for sneakers. Chandler Easley was one of them; although his budding business acumen trumped any romantic notions that he might of had.
“As far as my initial interactions with the girl referred to as Shortypop, that had to be about 2007,” Easley says. “I would have been a sophomore or junior in college. It was about taking her equity that she had in the space and monetizing it. You’re talking about a place with hundreds of thousands of people and she was a known quantity among them.”
Whereas Vine, Instagram and YouTube stars are something that seems commonplace these days – even landing them on a Forbes list – Easley’s foresight when it came to recognizing the power of a personality in a niche space made him the perfect brand architect.
“We were talking on AIM,” Easley says. “It kind of became an offline relationship, even though it was still online – but it was away from NikeTalk. I think I was already talking to her before I came up with the idea that she had a name that we could build off of. It wasn’t like, ‘she’s Shortypop, I think this can be a big thing, let me hit her up.’ We were already having this conversation.”
This conversation centered on turning Latisha Embrey’s screen name (Shortypop) and her likeness into a clothing brand – something that Easley had no experience doing at the time.
“The first piece I designed was a photo tee with her face on it. In hindsight, I could do a million times better today. But it was what it was.”
Like any other start-up enterprise, making money was the goal from the outset. With no key investors or loans from the bank, Easley and Shortypop did it all on their own as if Bonnie and Clyde touting keyboards instead of gats.
“I took the photograph [for the first T-shirt] at a hotel room in DC in a bathroom,” Easley says. “At that point, I was a novice, student photographer. We printed up the tees on American Apparel blanks. I would guess between 48 to 60.”
Armed with a unique marketing strategy – bringing it directly-to-consumers who not only got the reference, but also respected the “face” of the brand – Easley used the NikeTalk forums how a seasoned comedian might try out new material on an audience who was willing to laugh no matter what.
The first run of T-shirts completely sold out. Shortypop was no longer just an assumed identity. It was a real business.
Easley and Embrey had cleared their first major hurdle as a brand. Not only had they made a product and sold it, but they made a profit off their first design. However, this would be the first and only time that they would work in unison with each other.
“Shortypop and I kinda had a falling out over the profit from those first T-shirts,” Easley says. “I think I gave her half the money, and all she did was wear the shirt. I was the one printing them and fronting the money. She thought she deserved more, and I was like, ‘fuck that.’”
During this cool-down period which Easley estimates spanned nine months’ time, Easley focused on typical collegiate exploits in the Windy City.
“There was no well-thought planning or strategizing between the time the initial shirt was released in Spring 2008 and our falling out shortly thereafter, and the essential relaunch of Shortypop without her in Fall 2008,” Easley says. “It was simply just nine months later it dawned on me I should be capitalizing off the brand equity I gained nine months previously and pushing this shit without her, and moving from that point to the end in Spring 2010.”
Although Easley wasn’t plotting some grandiose power move in the fashion sector, he was analyzing what was working in the space.
Parody has always been a focal point for new brands attempting to make a name for themselves in a crowded field. From Brian Lichtenberg’s take on Balmain, to Fahad Al-Hunaif’s Margiela’s flip, the COMME des FUCKDOWNs of the fashion world all harken back to the case of 2 Live Crew versus Acuff-Rose Music.
Rather than bring high fashion into streetwear, Chandler Easley decided to reappropriate one of the biggest behemoths when he decided to refocus his attention on Shortypop in 2010.
“Nine or 12 months after the first tee is when I decided to do the Supreme parody,” Easley says.
While Kermit the Frog will best be remembered for his place in the heart of children all around the world, there is a sector of streetwear enthusiasts who will always remember when Jim Henson’s creation appeared in a 2008 Terry Richardson photoshoot for Supreme. Easley saw his opportunity to build off of this and took it.
“I found this Miss Piggy doll on eBay,” Easley says. “It was 2 feet tall and was pretty expensive. It was $300 and change for this collector-sized Miss Piggy doll. And then I bought a child-sized T-shirt that fit the doll and embroidered a Shortypop logo onto her. I positioned it that Shortypop was turning out Kermit’s girl. In hindsight, I would have gone further to push the analogy even harder. I did 100 [shirts] in each color and made $4,000 dollars in revenue.”
In a 2012 interview, Easley had a firm reasoning as to why he used parody when repositioning Shortypop, saying, “Picasso has a quote that says, ‘Good artists borrow, great artists steal.’ When he says ‘steal,’ he means ‘make it your own.’ If I steal something from you, it’s in theory mine. But if I borrow, it’s under the intention that you’re going to get it back.”
In Easley’s mind, his efforts were his own. “It’s about taking what people have done a step further,” he said in the same interview. “That’s my problem with people who say you shouldn’t rip off BAPE or Supreme. There’s no one out there who’s doing anything that’s explicitly original.”
Not surprisingly, Supreme reached out to Easley. However, the initial interactions weren’t akin to a pack of bullies picking on a solitary kid in the schoolyard.
“The first real contact with Supreme was [when] they purchased a Miss Piggy T-shirt and had it sent to their store which was above the old Stussy store in New York,” Easley remembers. “It was on Wooster Street, I know that.”
Easley is of course referring to Supreme’s loft headquarters where The New York Times managed to score a hard-fought-for-interview with James Jebbia.
“They were on a fact-finding mission of some sorts,” Easley says.
Raised in a household with a prominent attorney for a father, Easley knew that Supreme’s interest in his products and their newfound desire to open a dialogue probably warranted an attorney to speak on his behalf.
“My dad is an attorney in California and he used to do a lot of work with the American Bar Association and American Association of Law Schools,” Easley says. “So he’s well-rounded in the lawyer circle. He put me in contact with a person who specialized in corporate buyouts and negotiations. I think my dad had the foresight to understand what Supreme might do to me – which was litigation.”
Had this case occurred in the early ’90s, who knows how the saga between Chandler Easley and Supreme would have played out. On one hand, the Shortypop products Easley was making – with similar font and red box logo – were nearly identical to Supreme. However, Leah McSweeney of Married to the Mob acclaim had done something similar with her “Supreme Bitch” line which predated Shortypop’s own parody by five years (and had yet to receive a $10 million USD complaint from Supreme for trademark right infringement).”
Much like 2 Live Crew’s reappropriation of “Pretty Woman,” Shortypop was toeing a similar line in fashion.
“You can either shoot the fair one, or you can give me something in exchange for falling back,” Easley says. “I think they were surprised to get an email back from an attorney who handles Fortune 500 companies when [they] had initially emailed little old, Chandler Easley.”
After two weeks, Shortypop was no more. Easley’s attorney and Supreme reached a financial settlement that dictated that he longer produce anymore merchandise.
“That guy convinced them that it was better for them to pay me rather than sue me in order to dead the shit,” Easley says. “I mean this guy is a power attorney and wears a $10,000 dollar suit. This never would have happened if my dad wasn’t an attorney.”
It’s clear that when Chandler Easley talks about Shortypop, he’s equal parts proud of what he accomplished, but also worried about how something he did as an adolescent reflects on his current work as a photographer and art director.
“I wasn’t invested in it like it was my life’s work,” Easley says. “This isn’t like Ralph Lauren where it has my name on it permanently. My skill set as a creative moves with me as a person, not with the projects that I’m tied to. It’s like saying to an artist, we’re gonna pull out the art you made in grammar and look at it like, ‘is this good?’ Did I make money from Shortypop? Absolutely. I make more money – dollar for dollar – doing the creative things that I do now. It was just a launch pad.”