In October 2017, the most famous streetwear brand was valued at a staggering one billion dollars. How did a brand originally underground and dedicated solely to skateboarders become such an empire? The answer starts with three points!
An authentic skateboarding culture & iconic branding
The genesis of Supreme goes back to the 1980s. At that time, James Jebbia, an Englishman with a passion for art and fashion, moved to New York. He started as a salesman for the Parachute boutique, then after a few years opened his first boutique, Union NYC, where he sold English brands such as Fred Perry.
His business led him to cross paths with Shaun Stüssy, owner of the surfwear brand of the same name, which is successful in California. Stüssy will offer him to open a franchise of his brand in New York. Jebbia accepts and runs the shop for a while but soon gets bored. In fact, he sees himself more as a designer and dreams of launching his own brand.
That’s what he eventually did: in 1994, he invested $12,000 in savings to found Supreme, a skateboard store in Manhattan on Lafayette Street. Jebbia himself had never been on a board, but the world of skateboarding attracts him and he notices that back then the shops of the time offered nothing of quality for riders who were looking for practical and resistant clothing but also stylish enough to appeal to girls.
It should be remembered that at the time, skateboarding was not as popular as it is today, and the riders formed an underground community that did not identify with New York’s dress codes. Jebbia therefore offers with Supreme better quality pieces: pants are reinforced and t-shirts are thicker than the competition. In the Supreme store, everything is designed for skateboarders and the shelves are wide enough to walk around with a board.
But what will above all make Supreme a must-have is its famous and unmistakable red and white “box logo” largely inspired by the work of the artist Barbara Kruger. This logo will become a symbol of recognition for all skateboarders around the world and federate the community around the brand. It will then be spotted in competitions or in videos and will represent a kind of emblem for riders around the world.
Collaborations with artists and celebrities
Another thing that has made Supreme iconic is its various advertising campaigns designed by the controversial photographer Terry Richardson, as simple as they are fiendishly effective: they all feature a celebrity on a white background posing with a t-shirt flocked with the Supreme logo.
Kate Moss, Michael Jordan, Lady Gaga, Mike Tyson and Tyler the Creator have all played along and made these poster campaigns unforgettable. Even Kermit the Frog has been featured in one of those ads!
James Jebbia took advantage of this exposure to avoid putting himself forward, preferring to let the artists play the ambassadors of the brand. Among others, Kanye West, Drake, Frank Ocean, Lou Reed and Rihanna were seen wearing Supreme, reinforcing the brand’s exclusivity.
Supreme has also very often relied on capsule collections with contemporary art stars such as George Condo, Takashi Murakami or Roy Lichtenstein to create skateboards or sweatshirts that can be found later on the resale market. We can also mention Supreme’s countless collaborations with other brands, which cause riots with each new drop: Nike, Lacoste, Comme des Garçons or Louis Vuitton.
Another smart idea: in addition to clothing, Supreme also offers all kinds of goodies to fans of the brand. These accessories range from key rings to mugs, lawnmowers and even water pistols that drive collectors crazy, passionate about everything that has anything to do with Supreme.
A cult of exclusivity
But above all, and paradoxically, what has made the Supreme brand so unmistakable is its culture of rarity.
Originally James Jebbia produced in small quantities to avoid having unsold models and this has become over time the best asset of the brand: to produce in small quantities to give the feeling to the kids that wearing Supreme means being part of an elitist community.
“If I can sell 600 pieces of a model, I’m only going to produce 400,” said the designer in an interview. In this way he ensures that supply always remains lower than demand. This positioning is reflected in the brand’s strategy with its franchises: while it is highly prized, there are only six Supreme stores in the world. The Parisian shop opened with great pomp and circumstance at the end of 2016 with a live performance by PNL – a French rap duo, as much popular as they are rare in the media – for the inauguration.
As a result of these orchestrated shortages, Supreme is the most sold brand online. A veritable black market has been organized, and shops entirely dedicated to the resale of Supreme products have opened. Teenagers spend entire nights queuing up before each drop and then reselling the products themselves or to dedicated online stores.
To go further:
- Larry Clark’s ’95 film Kids, which follows the wanderings of two teenagers in nineties New York City. Clark was largely inspired by the skateboarder bands that used to hang out at the Supreme store and even cast many of the actors in the film.
- Complex’s Sold Out: The Underground Economy of Supreme Resellers looks at the resale phenomenon of Supreme products and the economy that results.