Since starting Supreme in 1994, founder James Jebbia doesn’t think of the brand in the way most people in fashion might, as it began in a small store on Lafayette Street and has since turned to a global icon. Emphasizing this is Vogue hiring legendary photographer Anton Corbijn to shoot their new feature/interview with the brand’s founder—Corbijn was the creative director behind the visuals for Depeche Mode and U2.
Thinking of Supreme more as a space, Jebbia who grew up in Crawley, West Sussex, England as a teen in the ’80s, worked at a Duracell factory who would spend his spare money on trips to London to buy clothes at an elusive kind of store that would eventually became the model for Supreme. “The cool, cool shop,” says Jebbia. “The shop that carries the cool stuff that everybody was wearing—no big brands or anything.”
By the time he was nineteen, Jebbia left England and worked as a sales assistant at a SoHo store called Parachute, to eventually founding a store Union, previously on Spring Street, but now in LA, then helping run a shop with Stüssy until Stüssy decided to retire.
Upon opening Supreme’s Lafayette flagship, its location was relatively quiet with a strip of antiques stores, a firehouse, and a machinist, but also a Keith Haring shop, where a downtown art-scene connection was key. Jebbia built a spare space, soon becoming Supreme trademarks, then brought in good skateboards, played music and videos constantly to draw onlookers.
Admitting that he always adored the skate world, “It was less commercial—it had more edge and more fuck-you type stuff” — the kids Jebbia employed, often were skateboarders themselves, who were cool and opinionated, and the very first employees were extras in Larry Clark’s film Kids, written by Harmony Korine.
Initially, Supreme made only a few t-shirts, then their customers arrived wearing Carhartt matched with Vuitton, Gucci with Levi’s. Soon Supreme created a cotton hoodie, realizing that if it was made a little better than what was out there, skaters would be willing to pay a little more for it.
According to Jebbia, this sort of thinking isn’t unique to skate culture. “Gucci is saying, ‘Hey—just because you’re young doesn’t mean you won’t love this $800 sweatshirt,’” he says. Jebbia expresses the genius of Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele, showing young people wearing pieces on the runway that they’ll actually wear as they go about their lives. “He’s creating exciting products for right now—today,” Jebbia says.
Following the success of hoodies, then fitted caps, collaborations with artists also began, which included making work for skateboard decks, as well as for T-shirts and other clothing. The painter Lucien Smith credits Supreme’s intimacy. “A lot of people don’t understand that this is a supersmall group of people who are just working on that original idea—that it is a skate shop,” he says.
Over the last two decades, Supreme has worked with a list of artists including, Christopher Wool, Jeff Koons, Mark Flood, Nate Lowman, John Baldessari, Damien Hirst and more, but the collaboration that stood out the most was with Comme des Garçons, in 2012. “I think that opened a lot of doors, a lot of eyes,” Jebbia says.
“I have never met anyone with such a strong, single-minded vision who has always stayed close to his sense of values,” says Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons and Rei Kawakubo’s husband. “That’s why our collaboration was so meaningful—and why the growth of Supreme has in a way mirrored our own.”
With the fashion world waking up to Supreme, the brand has opened stores in Tokyo, London, and Paris in the past decade — although, the hot topic currently is its recent collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Jebbia loved working with LV’s menswear designer Kim Jones, who designed skateboard trunks and backpacks, bandannas and gloves, shirts, jackets and more.
“When you see the lines for Supreme in New York or London,” says Jones, “you see so many different types of people, and they are people you can relate to—they understand high-low, they’re smart, they’re intelligent, and they’re humorous. They know what they want, and they are very loyal—and a customer who is loyal is a real aspiration for anybody with a brand.”
The Louis Vuitton collaboration was also, for many in fashion, their first glimpse into the secretive world of Supreme, which is defined by their authenticity, immediacy, speed, and deftness in its way of doing business.
While Jebbia worries about overexposure, Supreme keeps advertising to a minimum and utilizes social media primarily as an exhibit platform. “We’re not trying to overconnect ourselves,” Jebbia says. “We’re just trying to show people things that we do—no different from what a magazine did 20 years ago.” (They published six issues of their own magazine before developing their website around 2006.)
“My thing has always been that the clothing we make is kind of like music,” Jebbia says. “There are always critics that don’t understand that young people can be into Bob Dylan but also into the Wu-Tang Clan and Coltrane and Social Distortion. Young people—and skaters—are very, very open-minded . . . to music, to art, to many things, and that allowed us to make things with an open mind.”
To read more of Supreme’s history, head on over to Vogue now for its full coverage.