As part of our ongoing debates series, we ask if Supreme has lost the spark that once made them so unique...
Supreme is no longer New York's best kept secret. In the past, only the streetwear illuminati, downtown skate rats and well-informed creatives were blessed with the knowledge of just what lay behind that enigmatic red emblem, but the Internet has (whether willingly or not) thrust the notoriously press-shy and introverted brand into the spotlight, as people across the globe are drawn to its hysteria-inducing collaborations, esoteric subcultural influences and blink-and-you'll-miss-it product drops.
While Highsnobiety's readers voted Supreme Most Relevant Brand of 2014 in our annual HS Crowns awards, the label's position at the top of the streetwear pile is not set in stone. As the fashion world moves its fickle gaze away from streetwear and the brand's fanbase becomes accustomed to the circus of hype that follows every release, Supreme risks suffering the same fate as BAPE, whose exponential growth was followed by an Icarus-sized fall from grace.
Continuing our Highsnobiety Debates series, we ask the question:
Has Supreme lost its edge?
No - Supreme is as Razor Sharp as Ever
What has set Supreme apart from its peers since day one is its coalescing of 1990s street style, pop-culture iconography and rebellious countercultural spirit in a way that gleefully disregards any notion of what a skateboarding or streetwear label should and should not do. In its most recent Fall/Winter 2014 season, the brand nodded to Anna Pavlova's The Dying Swan, Raymond Pettibon, H.R. Giger and Stone Island, alongside its usual bevy of throwback '90s streetwear. What other label - streetwear, skate or otherwise - can incorporate 1920s ballet, illustrations of cops coughing up sperm, the artwork from Alien and $1,200 technical jackets (complete with goggles) in one season and still remain consistent?
Supreme's exponential growth has been met with an even-handed maintenance of its rebellious spirit and eclectic cultural lens - yes, Justin Bieber and Drake have joined forum lurkers and diehard sneakerheads as fans - but the label is still equally at home when dropping fine Loro Piana wool topcoats and esoteric artist collaborations as it is with streetwear staples. Recent seasons may have packed fewer punches than they used to and the label's most revered pieces may lurk forlornly in the past, but this is still an independently-owned clothing brand that can sell out the same logo-adorned basics in a matter of seconds every year and whose sneaker releases are greeted with such rabid responses that police intervention is required. All of this while eschewing advertising, widespread distribution and celebrity seeding, don't forget.
The label's aesthetic may have changed little in its 20 years of existence, forever drawing from its beloved golden age of 1990s skateboarding, hip hop and streetwear, but the brand remains as unafraid as ever to challenge and offend - New York's latest wave of gentrification has been met with pins and shirts proclaiming "Eat the Rich" and Raymond Pettibon's illustrations of trigger-happy cops feel especially cutting given America's latest spate of police shootings. Would the brand have more "edge" if it chased fads and made neoprene jogger pants just like everyone else?
Yes, Supreme is no longer a secret. Yes, people who don't live and die for the box logo now have access to the brand. But this is still a label that collides a rainbow of countercultural influences, one that is always willing to break the rules and one that 20 years after its birth, is still dividing opinion enough to prompt extensive debate pieces in online publications.
Yes - Supreme's Glory Days are Over
For a long time in its just-over 20-year history, Supreme has firmly remained a cult favorite among the skate community, as well as various people in the know. And the whole time Supreme hasn’t given one damn. That’s what was so likable and relatable about the brand - it didn’t give a fuck about its supposed “coolness.” Fast forward to the brand’s 20-year anniversary last year and it seems Supreme has become some sort-of parody of itself, having sacrificed its edge in order to gain widespread popularity. The brand has settled into a simple formula that they know works well, and in the process have gained a lot of fans, but have consequently lost what made them so great to begin with.
Sure, they’re still making T-shirts that express their original ideology, as with their ongoing “Fuck Em” print, but actions speak louder than words, and all signs point to selling out. Without even arguing that more and more outlets for the brand have opened up in recent years - five Japan stores, a London store and an EU online store - and James Jebbia disclosing that he wants to make it easier for fans to get a piece of Supreme, the real problem lies in the brand’s calculated business tactics.
In an attempt to rebut fears that the brand has sold out, fanboys will argue that Supreme is still difficult to get ones hands on, and that the brand could easily up their quantities if their sole purpose was making a quick buck. Jebbia himself revealed that the brand’s notorious short runs are “because [they] don’t want to get stuck with stuff that nobody wants.” But while Supreme’s numbers, in regards to quantity per item, remain limited, their output is as high as ever, with collaborations through the roof.
Sure, there was the unexpected Stone Island collab or the Holy-Grail Nike Air Force 1 release, but what about last season’s Ruff Ryders gear, or the exponentially growing number of Vans collabs? Each item might sell out in seconds, but when you’re giving us no less than nine Vans sneakers (in a multitude more colorways) in a single year, alarm bells are ringing. The fact is they’ve watered down their product. Everybody wants a piece, but rather than ruin their image by not selling out as quickly, they’ve upped the brand collaborations and style drops, but still kept quantities down, meaning there is something for everyone to (potentially) get their hands on.
Regardless of quantity, there is also the matter of quality. In one of the rare insights into the brand, Jebbia stresses that Supreme is all about quality. However, since moving much of the brand’s production from North America to China, it no longer seems to be the case. Design-wise the brand is also guilty of lagging in recent times. While it has never been high-fashion and so has always avoided current fashion trends, the brand’s much-loved ‘90s streetwear vibe has begun to look a little familiar. As each season passes, the brand is scraping the barrel with each collection, rehashing ideas and designs from their own archive. While many will argue that is the point, that they set their own trends, it seems counterintuitive for a fashion brand to keep this (re)cycle going.
The fact of the matter is Supreme has started to give a fuck. It’s started to care about staying relevant, staying at the top, staying “cool,” which inadvertently has made it completely uncool. By using the brand’s well-earned mystery and allure from over two decades in the skate scene in order to sell its product, Jebbia has created a type of meta-streetwear myth. Using this to further its own image, Supreme is now an easy sell to the brand’s loyal fan base. If it weren’t for these tactics, the brand would have settled into mediocrity a long time ago, and so it’s kept its popularity thanks to cheeky business moves, rather than quality output. In this case, hats off to James Jebbia, the joke's on us.
So what is next for Supreme? Surely this cycle can’t go on forever? And surely it won’t. We’ve all seen what happens to brands - or most things for that matter - once they hit the big time. So perhaps this phase of sustaining its hold on the market is yet another careful business move. Perhaps Supreme is stretching out this period at the top before it bows out in an Irish exit on the streetwear scene, leaving us all shocked, disappointed and wanting more. We can only hope, as that would in fact bring Supreme back to its roots, showing us once again that they actually don’t give a fuck.
Check out the rest of our ongoing Highsnobiety Debates series, and feel free to weigh in your opinion in the comments.