Supreme have always been more than just your average graphic T-shirt brand, having put out quality cut-and-sew apparel since their inception in the early ’90s.
James Jebbia set up Supreme with the aim to provide skaters with clothing that was a cut above that of the mass-produced skate brands of the time. Unlike their peers in the skate capital of southern California, New Yorkers have to deal with extreme seasons — from harsh cold winters to blisteringly hot summers — and in the ’90s, their swag had almost nothing in common with their contemporaries from the Sunshine State.
In Supreme's Rizzoli book, Jebbia commented on how his early clientele inspired him to produce more than just screen-printed T-shirts:
“Most of the skaters who came in would be dressed well. They had great style. They’d be wearing Polo, Champion hoodies, Carhartt and other classic stuff. But they didn’t wear many skate brands’ actual clothing, because most of it came from the West Coast and it didn’t suit their style, and most of it wasn’t very good. So we slowly started making a few things of our own. When we did, we tried to make them as good as possible. When we did a sweatshirt, we embroidered our logo really well and we used a high-quality, heavyweight sweatshirt. People noticed and appreciated the difference in the quality and fit of ours, and seemed to like them. We followed on from there, basically trying to make better stuff for New York skaters.”
The company selected to produce Supreme's quality, hard-wearing apparel was the family-owned independent clothing manufacturer Brent Sportswear Inc. Co-owned by cousins Aaron and Stephen, Brent Sportswear Inc. had access to the domestic mills that produced military fabric, an authenticity and quality that appealed to Jebbia when he was producing clothing for the unforgiving streets of New York.
I spoke to Stephen Brents, who was instrumental in the production of the original Supreme clothing line, and his cousin Aaron, who recently unearthed the company's archive of early Supreme products which will soon be available at auction for the first time.
Hi Aaron, please introduce yourself…
Aaron: Hey I’m Aaron Brents, aged 31 from Los Angeles, CA. I’m the co-owner and creative director of Brents Sportswear Inc. alongside my cousin Stephen Brents, the co-owner and CEO of the company.
Please may you fill us in on a brief history of your company Brents Sportswear Inc?
Stephen: The first business, Steve Brents Company, was founded in 1983 to produce camouflage, outdoor and hunting apparel. After selling the business to Buck Knives Inc in 1988, Camco Manufacturing was launched to sell hunting gear to big box retailers such as Cabela’s and Bass Pro. In 1993 I sold my interest in Camco to my two partners and formed Brents Sportswear, Inc.
You’ve built your brand's reputation by using fabrics from original vintage military and workwear garments. Has that always been your agenda and have you ever had issues sourcing such material?
Stephen: Yes, original military fabrics and work-wear fabrics have always been the mainstays of our brand. The mills that make fabric for the military are all domestic, so our garments are manufactured in the USA. I have stayed in touch with these mills and convertors so haven’t experienced any difficulty in sourcing the fabrics. When remaking vintage military WW2 jackets such as the MA-1, L2-A and B-15, the fabrics, rib, zippers, snaps, and interlining were made especially to order. Work-wear fabrics such as cotton twills, herringbone and hickory stripe are all sourced from several different domestic mills.
When did you first start working with Supreme?
Stephen: It was in 1993 when I met James Jebbia at the Stussy Store on Prince Street in Soho, NYC. I went into the store to enquire about doing private label production for the Stussy brand and was introduced to James, who was overseeing the NYC store. We began a dialogue and our relationship developed from there.
What were the first products you produced for Supreme?
Stephen: Crewneck sweatshirts and pullover hoodies were our first items for Supreme. James loved the vintage 1940s look and feel of the Brents sweats, 4-needle cover stitch construction and 12oz 100% cotton fabric. After the sweats, we produced cargo pants/shorts and painter pants/shorts.
We used 9oz combed cotton twill and military herringbone fabrics for the cargos, and 100% combed cotton rip-stop fabric in the painters. The construction was double or triple needle-felled seams, depending on the style, with nice beefy pocketing. All these features particularly appealed to Supreme.
We also made snap-front Western shirts, button-front military shirts, and an over-dyed herringbone quilted overshirt jacket.
What was the production process from start to finish — were Supreme very specific in their brief, or was it more of a collaborative process between you both?
Stephen: In the genesis of our business it was a matter of remaking our items and private labelling them for Supreme. As their business evolved and Supreme (as a brand) gained traction and notoriety, James began to send over sketches and samples he wished to add to Supreme’s product mix. In most cases two to three samples were made to get the fit drilled down.
Next, pre-production samples were submitted before the goods went into work, and after that the first finished garments off the line or T.O.P (top of production samples) were sent to Supreme to sign-off.
I know that authenticity and quality are both very important to James; did he take a keen interest in the manufacturing and details of the garments?
Stephen: James was totally hands on in every aspect. Our materials and construction were perfect for Supreme but James would adjust the fit on the garments as he received feedback from his customer base. He went to a slimmer fit in the shirts and made some minor adjustments on the bottoms.
Were many products refused or amended at sample stage due to James not being satisfied with the garments, or having simply changed his mind?
Stephen: Very rarely, if ever, was a project scrapped. Yes, there were numerous revisions, changes and modifications. Apparel manufacturing is not complicated, as long as a process is followed.
Can you remember the production run quantities for your first few projects with Supreme, back when it was just a single-door store in NYC?
Stephen: Woven tops and bottoms would be produced in three to four colorways in a quantity of 40 to 60 of each color. We were already running the styles he was buying and could add his numbers to our production. The crewneck and hooded sweatshirts would usually come in five colorways over a production of a couple of thousand twice a year through the early-mid ‘90s.
When did production runs start to increase in numbers with the popularity of the store/brand?
Stephen: In 1998 we started making up to 800-1,000 pieces per style, so for four colorways there would be 200-250 items per color.
Having been there from the start, it felt like Supreme rarely changed their look/feel for the first decade — that period from 94-04 was very comfortably formulaic: heavyweight sweats, baggy pants, overshirts and jackets. When do you feel the brand started to diversify more towards fashion?
Stephen: That is a good question. My thoughts are their style adapted with the collaborations that were with more fashion oriented brands.
What are you most memorable stories from your time working with Supreme?
Stephen: Talking with James over the phone regarding design and production — one of his favorite sayings was “this is not rocket science!” Working with Supreme was exciting while at the same time extremely challenging. We had three very talented people that handled the Supreme business — sampling, sourcing trim, pattern making, production monitoring and interfacing with Supreme’s creative director.
When did your relationship with Supreme come to end and why?
Stephen: The relationship came to an amicable end in 2002. It is hard to pinpoint why the relationship ended…everything has a beginning, a middle and end.
Do you still own any of the early Brents Sportswear produced Supreme products and, if so, do you have any plans for your vintage collection?
Aaron: Yes, we still have some of the original Brents-produced Supreme products in our archives. We will be auctioning them along with many other vintage items we have manufactured from a wide range of brands, including our own Brents garments. The release date of the auction will sent out to subscribers of our email newsletter at brentssportswear.com.
What’s the future for Brents Sportswear Inc?
Aaron: We’ll be launching a new Brents Sportswear website in October, selling rare vintage and one-off samples from our archives, alongside new products we are working on for key accounts in USA and Japan. We are currently working on a vintage M/51 fishtail parka with a button-out blaze orange ripstop lining and a raglan-sleeve vintage stripe rib jacket, for one of the better menswear stores in Japan.
Also in the conversation stage is a museum-inspired pop-up store with our friend Sean Wotherspoon of Round Two Hollywood. Sean is all over the history behind Brents and a great creative individual, so we are looking forward to making that conversation a reality.