Supreme’s journey from a single-door skate shop in downtown Manhattan to a global lifestyle brand can mostly be attributed to the brand’s fierce independence, setting its own rules, and sticking to the core interests of its inner circle. But another key facet of the brand is its magpie-like approach to applying cultural references beyond the world of skateboarding to its goods.
That element of Supreme’s aesthetic was documented earlier this year in the 120-page coffee table book Supreme Copies, whose anonymous author started out charting the inspirations behind Supreme designs on Instagram. We’ve interviewed the author about the putting together the book and tracking all the references Supreme has used. But first, a little history.
The skateboard industry has traditionally been based in Southern California and initially took its cues from surf culture. Most Cali skate brands usually just stuck a board graphic on their T-shirts, with apparel more an afterthought than the focus (which was reserved for hard goods such as skate decks, wheels, and trucks).
In 1976, Vision Skateboards changed the game by unveiling standalone clothing brand Vision Street Wear. Founded by Brad Dorfman and modeled by pro skaters such as Mark “Gonz” Gonzales, Vision Street Wear’s loud graphics, bold prints, and sheer range of products became an instant hit with skaters, clubbers, musicians, and fashion-conscious youths.
Over on the East Coast, however, shop owner James Jebbia noticed a remarkably different vibe among the street skaters of New York City. Unlike the smooth, sun-kissed asphalt of LA, the rough sidewalks and harsh seasons in NYC meant clothes had to be more durable and hard-wearing. Many New York skaters adopted American staples such as Levi’s jeans, Champion hoodies, Carhartt jackets, and Ralph Lauren sweatshirts, resulting in a style more akin to the hip-hop community than surf culture.
Jebbia’s own store, Supreme, founded in 1994, tailored its in-house clothing in line with the quality goods worn by the NYC skate community, and the result was a brand that would stand alone in the skateboarding world. Instead of only producing skate-centered designs, Supreme took inspiration from everything that resonated with Jebbia and his contemporaries. Punk, reggae, boxing, and designer brands were all reference points for the fledgling brand, which adopted an approach taken from New York’s remix culture.
In 1981, Bronx-raised DJ Grandmaster Flash released “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” The seven-minute track showcased Flash’s turntable skills by taking elements of songs by Blondie, Queen, and Chic to create a new body of work that sounded familiar yet completely original. The song’s crossover success opened the doors for a new wave of sampling and appropriation by musicians.
Sampling and remixing wasn’t exclusive to music, however. Uptown tailor Dapper Dan took the branding of luxury European fashion houses to the streets of Harlem with his custom monogram tracksuits, jackets, hats, and even car interiors. Supreme adopted New York’s remix culture to create products that resonated with its core audience: the skaters who hung out at the Lafayette Street store.
Many of the label’s early designs remixed existing ideas and images to incorporate Supreme branding. From classic album covers to big consumer logos, nothing was sacred. Part of Supreme’s appeal was that it simply didn’t give a damn about who it robbed or restyled, in keeping with skateboarding’s rebellious heritage.
As a skate store with limited marketing and distribution capabilities, Supreme’s remixed designs went mostly under the radar of the brands and artists being aped (or “paid homage to”). That is until French luxury house Louis Vuitton hit the company with a cease and desist in 2000 over the New Yorkers’ monogram tees and skate decks. Of course, many companies that once inspired early products eventually worked with Supreme as official collaborators. The Supreme x Louis Vuitton collection in 2017, in particular, showed how things had come full circle.
Supreme Copies is a fantastic summation of the brand’s willingness to put its own stamp on the designs of other. You can pick up a copy via the link below.
And here is our chat with the book’s anonymous young author, charting Supreme Copies’ journey from Instagram account to historical fashion tome.
How did you initially become interested in Supreme?
I first heard about Supreme through music and skateboarding when I was around 12 years old. I’m originally from a small town in Oregon, so most of the things I was interested in I would hear about online.
When you saw Supreme’s graphics and designs back then, did you take them at face value or did you realize they were influenced by something else?
It depends on the graphic, but sometimes I would realize straight away that the design was influenced by existing work. I grew up skateboarding and saw skate companies ripping off logos all the time. I didn’t think much of it till I got older and saw the extent Supreme was taking it.
I’m guessing the more you delved into the brand’s early output, the more you discovered. Do you often find yourself down a rabbit-hole of obscure subjects looking for the connection?
[Laughs] Yeah, definitely. I love researching the references. That being said, if a connection can’t be made off the bat, then I usually don’t try to dive too deep into something — if there are too many missing pieces of the puzzle, then it’s probably not the actual reference I initially thought.
Back in the ’90s to mid ’00s, Supreme was still a small operation, usually going under the radar of the larger brands it was referencing. What do you think of those early logo flips?
To me, those are the some of the very best graphics from the brand. I think it was a different time period back then, too. They didn’t necessarily go under the radar, but they weren’t put on blast either. I’d like to point out there are also a lot of excellent original Supreme graphics from that time period, too.
Do you feel Supreme has changed its approach now it’s become so popular?
I’d like to think they’ve tried to make their references a little harder to trace back than the simple logo flips they did early on.
In your opinion, do you feel these references are the Supreme team paying homage to the things they love, or just a case of ripping people off?
I get asked this a lot, and as of right now, my answer is this: it’s up to those whose work is at reference to decide. I’ve had artists [who Supreme has appropriated from] reach out to me that were rather upset, and I’ve equally had others who were excited that their work could be brought to reference.
Let’s talk about the @supremecopies Instagram account. Why did you decide to set it up?
I saw the necessity for an archive in the medium of Instagram. It just made sense. I liked the clothes and I like writing, so over time it became what it is today.
How quickly did it take off and what do you put its popularity down to?
Pretty quick — there was nothing really like it, so that helped. I put it down to consistency and staying true to the ultimate goal of the page.
Do you find all of the influences yourself or do people suggest subjects for you to feature?
It’s a mix of both my own discoveries and suggestions from followers of the IG account. A lot of times people suggest references but, like I was saying earlier, there are no connections to be made. I do really appreciate anyone who’s ever found anything that’s made it to the page.
What have been some of your personal favorite Supreme products that pay homage to something?
Any cut-and-sew pieces really. It’s cool to see them get down everything to the exact pattern and materials used. I really enjoy the “eyes” short-sleeve button-up shirt from SS11. It’s a JIMMY’Z reference.
What do you feel is the most obscure link you’ve ever featured?
That’s a hard one. Maybe that Obama piece from a couple seasons back? The one based on the kangas from Ghana. A surprising one is the Hysteric Glamour work jacket featured in the book. Surprising in the sense that they referenced an outside brand and then ended up collaborating with that brand a couple of years later.
What made you decide to put everything in a book rather than just online?
So it’s in a physical form. My Instagram page could potentially get deleted or hacked at any time, so it’s nice knowing I’ve at least documented it to this extent.
How many products feature in the book and how did you decide which to include and which to leave out?
It’s roughly just over 50 products. I wanted to include everything that I was over 95 percent sure was the reference. Like, you look at the side-by-side images and you can’t question it one bit. I also wanted to feature graphics that aren’t necessarily as popular as, say, the classic box logo or motion logo. I’ve also gotta save some stuff for volume two!
Were there any products you couldn’t feature for legal reasons?
Oh yeah, for sure. Anything referencing a movie poster or album cover. There were several pieces I couldn’t track down decent photos of that weren’t Supreme’s own stock images.