Off Brand

Why Supreme Is Happy to See Customers Burning Their Merch

It may look like a backlash against the super-exclusive streetwear brand, but it’s pretty much the opposite

Illustration: Fran Caballero

SSupreme, the attitude-heavy, way-cooler-than-you-are skateboard and streetwear company, is a singular brand. For more than 25 years, it has balanced the snooty exclusivity of high fashion with an arty underground vibe that somehow converts to irrational consumer devotion. No other business has more thoroughly captivated the “hypebeasts” (basically: voracious streetwear consumers) who evidently derive social capital from standing in line for limited-edition goods doled out by legendarily surly retail workers. Though Supreme distributes through only about a dozen rather small stores, major brands clamor to collaborate on crossover projects, and at last check, it was reportedly worth $1 billion.

So when a recent report revealed that people are burning, slicing up, defacing, and otherwise ruining and destroying Supreme gear worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars on the secondary market, and documenting this destruction online, you might logically conclude that there’s a backlash afoot. Maybe all those brand collaborations — a Supreme Oreo cookie was recently announced — are becoming a turn-off. Some consumers, at least, must be getting really sick of Supreme and the flavor of conspicuous consumption it represents.

This is not the case. If anything, it is really just more proof, however counterintuitive, of the Supreme brand’s unique potency.

To back up a bit: The first Supreme store opened in Manhattan in 1994, founded by then-thirtyish James Jebbia, who has said he didn’t really know much about skateboarding, but was interested in the creative and rebellious culture that surrounded it. He was also interested in how discriminating and finicky skateboarders were on matters of style (or anti-style). Supreme sold apparel and gear, often in intentionally limited supplies, for “the few who know what’s up,” as Jebbia once put it. As if to underscore this vibe, Jebbia hired skaters to staff the store, which developed a reputation for being chilly-to-rude toward shoppers who didn’t know what’s up.

This formula worked, and while the brand grew beyond cult status — and what’s now called its “box logo,” sans serif type on a red block background — it never quite crossed over to the mainstream in any traditional way. There were no deals with department stores or move into malls. This was by intent: Supreme didn’t want to be overly accessible. Instead, it gradually opened new stores (in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Paris) and dabbled in collaborations with artists and other brands. In 2017 the generally press-shy Jebbia disclosed that Supreme had taken on a substantial private equity investment from The Carlyle Group. At the time, its annual revenues were reported to be approaching $100 million. Despite this, Supreme’s exclusive and desirable reputation remains perfectly intact among the hypebeasts who fuel the streetwear market.

Jump ahead then, to the recent report in The Guardian, rounding up examples of Instagrammers and YouTubers destroying perfectly good Supreme merch. There is, for example, @ericwhiteback — who labels himself The Supreme Guy, and whose feed is dominated by Supreme-themed images — putting a snazzy-looking $250 pair of Supreme x Vans Diamond Plate slip-ons on the grill, and torching them (using a Supreme lighter, natch). Later he burned a Supreme T-shirt, flipping it with tongs. Other clips show Supreme gear owners flaming a limited-edition T-shirt supposedly worth $1,000 on the resale market, cutting up another rare shirt, lighting up a valuable hoodie, and so on.

As The Guardian suggests, this is in part simply a matter of being shocking for the sake of online traffic — Whiteback’s T-shirt roast has about 340,000 views. And partly it’s about a kind of trolling: a performative irreverence that really might upset some viewers (or “trigger” them, as one Supreme-destroyer put it).

But neither of those factors undermine Supreme. As streetwear site Highsnobiety recently explained, in an essay responding to the Supreme-destruction kerfuffle, “Supreme is a coveted brand whose products sell for wince-inducing mark-ups on the resale market, which means that it’s only accessible to those with very deep pockets or a willingness to sleep on the pavement outside of a Supreme store before drop day like a vagrant.” So not merely obtaining but casually obliterating such gear is a kind of next-level conspicuous consumption.

That can only work because Supreme remains so coveted — and is coveted in a really distinct context. As much as Supreme strives for the rarified status of a luxury brand, it also embodies a kind of punk-ish, sneering disregard for the whole idea of branding, and luxury. (That, after all, is part of “knowing what’s up.”) Over the years, it has at times seemed to be critiquing itself and its consumers; as one notorious example, there was the $75 Supreme brick. Which was simply an actual brick that said “Supreme,” in the box logo style. It sold out.

“All fashion labels strain to exude an air of aloof coolness, but Supreme does it so well that it often feels like an expression of contempt,” that Highsnobiety essay astutely argued. It’s certainly hard not to see the Supreme Oreo stunt — and dozens of other brand team-ups in its forthcoming line — as a kind of parody. And after all, even the brand’s logo is obviously borrowed from the style of artist Barbara Kruger, whose work frequently critiques mindless, ad-driven consumer culture. “Setting Supreme gear on fire might be pure clickbait, but it also feels like the most ‘Supreme’ thing ever.”

Destroying Supreme goods can’t destroy the brand. Ultimately, Supreme is a brand that is so cool that it actually hates itself — and that’s exactly why it’s so beloved.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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