Supreme was founded in 1994 by James Jebbia. Breaking out onto the skateboarding scene, Supreme differed from its competitors in that it was a brand run by skaters with skaters in mind. This uniqueness is what allowed Supreme to prosper, rising from a small skate brand located on Lafayette Street in Manhattan to one of the most recognizable brands in fashion today, easily identifiable by its iconic red box logo.
Initially, Supreme captured the essence of skating: it was bold, innovative and most importantly, exclusive. Releasing limited amounts of product to only a single store in Manhattan, the brand’s clothing was extremely hard to get a hold of, and anyone sporting a Supreme T-shirt gained a certain amount of respect for being able to cop such a limited design.
The exclusivity that made the brand popular with skaters is the same reason Supreme was able to achieve global success. With the rise of skate culture’s prevalence in popular media, came an increased demand for cool, niche skate brands — even if you didn’t skate. Supreme, catering to the demand of consumers, obliged, opening stores in Los Angeles, Paris, London and Tokyo, expanding its outreach and influence while still releasing limited amounts of product, retaining its exclusivity.
In the last decade, however, Supreme eschewed its exclusivity by opening a web store where anyone can buy Supreme clothing whenever a new batch of products is released online. While great for consumers who don’t live near a Supreme store, this choice turned the adventure of traveling to a physical location and meticulously picking out a T-shirt into the bland experience of sitting at home and pressing a few buttons on a keyboard.
The brand’s venture into cyberspace also made it more difficult for its die-hard fans to buy products: when a “drop” happens on Thursdays at 8 a.m. PST, the products go to the person who can click the fastest, not the person who truly cares the most.
Previously, devoted skaters would line up outside a store for hours, a trend that has long since been replaced by waiting next to the computer. This has led to a new era for Supreme, one in which its primary consumers are now “hypebeasts” (which Urban Dictionary defines as “a kid [who] collect[s] clothing, shoes, and accessories for the sole purpose of impressing others”) using specialized software to buy new products, not skaters who genuinely care about the culture.
Initially, Supreme captured the essence of skating: it was bold, innovative and most importantly, exclusive.
In the latest development in its expansion effort, Supreme recently opened a store in San Francisco, coupled with the release of a 30-minute skate part (a collaborative skate video) called “CANDYLAND,” which features sponsored skaters like Tyshawn Jones and Sage Elsesser. Filmed in a style reminiscent of skate parts from the ‘90s and early 2000s, “CANDYLAND” panders to those familiar with skate culture by showing some of the best modern skaters while simultaneously respecting the traditional style of skate parts: the video is filmed with wide angle cameras and focuses on the relationships between the skaters.
There’s only one problem: Supreme is not a skate brand.
Yes, Supreme still sells skateboard decks, wheels and trucks. However, their consumer base is no longer dominated by skaters. Supreme has moved past its early days of operating a small shop in SoHo,it known only by a select few. Now, it is a multi-billion dollar company, one more comparable to Gucci than to a real skate brand, such as Spitfire. By releasing “CANDYLAND,” Supreme is pandering to those unaware of skate culture and history, painting itself as a traditional skate brand and attempting to distance itself from the reality that its products are almost completely inaccessible to actual skaters, due to the high resale value of its products.
“CANDYLAND,” along with the other promotional videos it has released in the last two years, is Supreme’s attempt to rebrand itself as the traditional skate brand it once was. Creative director Jebbia recognizes the brand has changed a lot since its 1994 inception, moving from a small creative, unique brand to one which dominates the mainstream. It doesn’t help that The Carlyle Group, which profits from the war in Yemen through its stake in the defense and security company BAE Systems, bought a 50% share in the brand in 2017. Supreme’s affiliation with The Carlyle Group shows how much the company has changed from its skate roots. A true skate company would never endorse capitalistic gain through the suffering of others.
A true skate company would never endorse capitalistic gain through the suffering of others.
Skate culture is about more than just skating: it’s about going against the current, about being an individual and doing what you want, instead of society’s bidding. Supreme used to be a part of the culture, helping it grow and thrive by giving skaters a unique and fashionable look. Now, it has embraced the very aspects of society it used to rebel against.
It’s hard to go against the current — as Supreme still claims to do through the videos it uploads online — when you are the current, and when every product you release will be bought by mindless followers who think slapping an image on a T-shirt is skater fashion.
Supreme is not a skate brand. Supreme will never again be a skate brand. Supreme has turned into the very thing it once was against: mainstream, and any attempt to deny or obfuscate it is nothing more than a marketing ploy.
Marko Ristic still checks the Supreme website every Thursday, hoping for a return to form.