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How Supreme Became One Of The Biggest Brands On The Planet

Jo KwokYee Lee
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History of Supreme

We take a look at the history of Supreme and how the New York streetwear giant came to be so huge.

If Gucci is the royalty in the realm of premium designer labels, Supreme is most likely its equivalent on the other end of the spectrum, streetwear. Every time Supreme drops a collection, teenage kids, sneaker heads, skateboard fans and whatnot will even camp outside their stores overnight to queue (before they ban so), regardless of the weather. That’s simply how popular the brand. From a small, independent skateboard brand to one of the most powerful, inimitable streetwear icons across the globe, the history of Supreme is surely one of a kind.

Founded in April 1994 by James Jebbia, he didn’t expect Supreme to rise to international fame like it did. The prestige of the brand now is beyond his imagination. More so, even now he still considers his shop as a space to sell ‘cool’ stuff, no chains and other big brands, but carries the cool items that everyone wears. Like that one shop in London where he’d go to whenever he got his paycheck from working in a Duracell factory in the 1980s.

History of Supreme James Jebbia

Above: Supreme’s very own founder, James Jebbia

At the age of 31, Jebbia debuted the brand that would eventually become the talk of the world, with the first flagship store located on Lafayette Street in Soho, New York City. By then he had already worked with local label Parachute and Stüssy, as well as opening the Union NYC store in 1989.

Supreme’s launch on Lafayette Street was initially quite misplaced – a skateboard shop against a backdrop of antique stores, a fire station and a machinist. The only business that seemed to click was Keith Haring’s gallery of pop art, which connected Jebbia’s venture with the downtown art scene. Still, Jebbia persisted to sell quality skateboards, play good music and foster cool vibes. Together with the fact that New York was a city with tough terrains, heavy traffic and other typical urban traits, the undisturbed street became a skateboarding spot and a hang-out for skate kids.

history of supreme skateboarding

Above: An NYC skate crew of the 90s.

Stocking only t-shirts from the outset, the streetwear entrepreneur later reckoned that his customers were willing to pay more in exchange for better quality. Since then he released a greater variety of wearables, such as hoodies, camp caps, outerwear and the likes, opening the doors to a wider customer base. Jebbia retained the down-to-earth, nonconforming and daring attitude of skateboarding as the overarching principle of his brand. Not only had his apparels delivered comfort in style to skaters, but some of his designs were controversial and strikingly explicit, which involved body-exposing female figures and ‘hentai’ depicting sexual exchange between anime characters. These audacious and adventurous ideas helped Supreme to stand out amid numerous skate brands.

Two decades into the establishment, Supreme has become a superpower in streetwear. It is notably one of the most sought after skate brands now among both long term fans as well as new breed of hungry collectors. It seems to many that whenever Supreme is present in a collaboration it will no doubt sell out within seconds. The US brand has partnered with respectable artists, like Peter Saville, who launched the floral ‘Power, Corruption, Lies’ collection and KAWS, who dropped the Companion collection featuring model Kate Moss. In terms of brands, Nike, COMME Des GARÇONS, Stone Island and now even the premium French luggage label, Louis Vuitton, are all close associates with Supreme.

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Above: The highly sought after Supreme x The North Face Baltoro Jacket released in 2017.

Now we’re not here to count all the collabs throughout the years (too many), but some partnerships truly have created the chemistry that would worth us to highlight. Like the Supreme x Nike Air More Uptempo that had Supreme’s moniker embossed on them and the Supreme and LV crossover suitcase with the latter smacking its signature monogram print on it. The Supreme x The North Face Baltoro Jacket released last year was another jaw-dropping, legendary piece with stunning mountain graphics, highly functional and sophisticated execution. Even tough its retail price stood at £468, its resale price has reportedly gone up to over £1,000.

Supreme has proven its influence around Asia, Europe and the US. Official stores can be found in Japan, London and Los Angeles. The charm of the brand has captured the heart of youth culture anywhere from 18 to 25, and thanks to them, the fame of Supreme has skyrocketed online. Despite minimal advertising as the founder wished, the brand has gained more attention and exposure via social media. The label denoted a modern sense of stylishness and greater social status, probably due to its shocking price tags and strict scarcity.

history of Supreme

Above: An original Supreme print advert from the 90s after the first Lafayette Street store was opened.

Dropping two collections in a year like many traditional designer labels, Supreme keeps everything in limited quantity because Jebbia wants his customers to cherish the moment and what they see. These products are here today, but if you don’t cop now, you probably won’t have the second chance.

Besides from its standard capsules of apparel, the brand has released some quite bizarre and bewildering Supreme accessories and products that drew questions and sometimes a good laugh from everyone. Skateboarding meets incense or nun-chucks? Don’t really see the connection? Some others have actually served good purposes, like hammers and bricks. They might REALLY come in handy when you finally build your own house, no?

Supreme Brick

Above: The famous Supreme brick, some people have even used for them real building purposes.

Supreme shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. Jebbia thinks that some brands that have made their way through and reached the top got too comfortable there. To him this could be fatal, that’s why he always designs as if it was his last and puts all his effort in it. This attitude has brought the brand to a lead position in the skateboarding and streetwear world.

Nonetheless, if Supreme could take one step further into the premium designer spectrum, especially after its success with Louis Vuitton, things could get very interesting. Perhaps merging the skate brand with Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel could result in sparkly chemistry. Why? There have been multiple times where the two brands released the same items for example basketballs, fire extinguishers and dices. Could that all be coincidences or are these hints dropped to suggest a collaboration opportunity? Comment who you’d like to see Supreme working with below.

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Jo KwokYee Lee
Jo KwokYee Lee

Jo is a Hong Kong-native and a graduate in MA International Journalism at Cardiff University. She is a big sneakerhead who always keeps an eye on new trainer drops. Previously interned at other streetwear magazines, she is excited to talk about modern street fashion, music and youth culture on RC. Jo's favourite brands at the moment are Vans, Stüssy, Nike and Anti Social Social Club.

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