The rise of Supreme from small clothier to one of the biggest names in streetwear is an American success story.
Founded in 1994 by James Jebbia, the SoHo-based company has gone from a shop that initially catered to skateboarders to undoubtedly being one of the most recognizable brands in the streetwear business, including ownership of 11 freestanding stores in the United States and around the world, some 25 years after it first opened.
Jebbia, who learned the craft while working at a factory in England and then later at Stussy NYC opened his first shop on Lafayette Street in New York City in 1994 for the price of $12,000.
Since then, not only has Supreme risen in status, but Jebbia still runs the store he launched 25 years ago – even though the private equity firm The Carlyle Group did purchase 50 percent of the company (worth around $500 million) in 2017.
Born in the U.S. but having grown up in Crawley, West Sussex in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, Jebbia spent his spare time traveling to London to buy clothing from a low-key, non-brand store. It would be the beginning of what would become a lifelong love for urban fashion and that store would serve as the inspiration for his first business.
The early days of Supreme
Jebbia was reportedly fascinated with New York City, so he returned to the U.S. at the age of 19 to learn more about fashion while working in SoHo for Parachute, owned by Eddie Cruz, who would also later co-open Undefeated with James Bond.
Jebbia also helped open Union NYC in 1989 and then assisted Shawn Stussy in launching Stussy just two years later. Jebbia was still working at Stussy when he created Supreme in 1994. He opened his own store after Shawn Stussy decided to retire from the streetwear game in the mid-’90s.
The first Supreme store was constructed with skateboarders in mind even though the brand also appealed to hip-hop artists, punk rockers, youths and those who identified with the counterculture.
Supreme catered primarily to skaters by keeping the doors open and the merchandise placed around the perimeter of the store so that skate enthusiasts could roll right into the shop without ever getting off their boards. Jebbia quickly gained a following in the skate and punk rock scenes, which led to the label “Outlaw” for Supreme, and news of his store spread like wildfire.
In the beginning, Supreme made only T-shirts. But when customers showed up wearing Carhartt paired with Gucci, Levi’s and Vuitton, Jebbia quickly moved to try hoodies, realizing that if the material was a higher quality that his customers would be willing to pay a little more for it.
The hoodies worked, as did the fitted caps they tried next.
Collaborations came early on, with artists making work for skateboard decks, as well as for T-shirts and other clothing. The painter Lucien Smith credits Supreme’s intimacy: “A lot of people don’t understand that this is a super small group of people who are just working on that original idea – that it is a skate shop,” he says.
Jebbia and the Supreme staff have always been mindful of their customers, usually between the ages of 18-25, who want to own cool gear. In fact, the store in those early years became a haven and a hangout for city kids, many with nowhere else to go.
While Jebbia served as a surrogate father to so many kids from broken homes and who had dropped out of school and society, he would spend time in the store learning from the kids and their culture and discovering how to deliver to them what they wanted in streetwear.
Jebbia has always stayed true to his core values and those principles have led to international growth. Collaborations with cool artists, brands, fashion houses, and musicians have only increased the label’s popularity as well.
Supreme goes international
In 1998, a second location for a Supreme store was placed within the Daikanyama district in Tokyo. Shortly after it opened, it became clear that Japanese consumers were infatuated with the New York City skate scene.
That same year, two more Supreme stores in Japan were launched: one in Osaka and another in Fukuoka. Later, another three stores opened in the country, two of which are located in Tokyo. With six of its 11 stores located in Japan, Jebbia has certainly capitalized on the popularity of streetwear in that nation.
Perhaps the fan favorite for tourists and locals alike, the Supreme store in the heart of Tokyo’s fashion district Harajuku is both large and convenient. Situated above the equally-busy NEIGHBORHOOD Harajuku flagship shop, the second-floor store expands out with racks and shelves along the far opposite wall, outerwear jackets and bottoms to your left.
From the street to the runway
Supreme is a brand that is popular worldwide. The company opened stores in London in 2011 and in Paris in 2016 and has simultaneously over the past decade moved out of the skate parks and onto the runways of high fashion.
The rise of Supreme to elite status in high fashion is ironic considering the label has mostly appealed to the counterculture and especially after Supreme had been sued by a major label for copyright infringement.
In 2000, Supreme released a collection of skateboard-centric retail items, including beanies, skateboard decks and T-shirts bearing the Louis Vuitton monogram, but did so without the permission of the famous fashion designer. Louis Vuitton took legal action against Supreme which led to the collection being pulled from circulation.
Fast forward nearly two decades later and Supreme and Louis Vuitton released a collaboration in the fall of 2017, a seemingly impossible feat given their earlier disagreement.
The 2017 collab was a tribute to the glory days of New York artists in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s – people like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, and Robert Mapplethorpe.
English fashion designer Kim Jones of Louis Vuitton had this to say about the line he helped design: “It’s the time when anyone from anywhere went out and mixed together in clubs. It was looking at the uptown-downtown social mix, which was so important then,” he said. “It’s really important. Because that’s the thing that seems to be crumbling now.”
The collab included backpacks, bandannas, gloves, jackets, shirts, and skateboard trunks, all designed to appeal to Supreme’s diverse fans.
Jones noted that Supreme’s fans are comprised of relatable people: “You see so many different types of people, and they are people you can relate to – they understand high-low, they’re smart, they’re intelligent, and they’re humorous. They know what they want, and they are very loyal – and a customer who is loyal is a real aspiration for anybody with a brand.”
The art of the collaboration
Supreme was one of the first streetwear brands to perfect the art of the collab.
Although the company had conducted numerous collabs over the years, the one that opened up opportunities and eyes to the rest of the fashion world was the line of tees, shoes, and shirts produced with Comme des Garcons in 2012.
“I have never met anyone with such a strong, single-minded vision who has always stayed close to his sense of values,” says Adrian Joffe, president of Comme des Garçons. “That’s why our collaboration was so meaningful—and why the growth of Supreme has in a way mirrored our own.”
It may be easier to list the companies Supreme hasn’t partnered with, but a few of its major collaborators have included Nike/Air Jordans, Clarks, The North Face, Vans, Timberland, Coleman, Stone Island, and Champion. Supreme has also collaborated with brands to create a variety of accessories and other non-clothing items such as a cruiser bicycle, bricks, crowbars, a gas-powered mini bike with Coleman, a punching bag with Everlast and a pinball machine with Stern.
Streetwear for the ladies
Supreme has always had an eye on trends and what began as a male-focused label has expanded to include women’s wear with the recent growth in that sector of streetwear.
In an interview with Vogue, Jebbia addressed the decision to add women’s wear to the Supreme line:
“My thing has always been that the clothing we make is kind of like music,” Jebbia says. “There are always critics that don’t understand that young people can be into Bob Dylan but also into the Wu-Tang Clan and Coltrane and Social Distortion. Young people—and skaters—are very, very open-minded . . . to music to art, to many things, and that allowed us to make things with an open mind.”
The iconic logo
Given the enormous amount of success that the brand has enjoyed, it should come as little surprise that the Supreme logo is one of the most recognizable logos in the streetwear industry. The company boasts major collaborations with companies such as Nike, North Face, Playboy, and many others as well as record-breaking sellouts of the timed release of new products.
The story of how Supreme established this level of success as well as how their iconic logo came to be, though, is one that contains both high-points of astounding success as well as instances of considerable controversy.
When Jebbia opened the first Supreme store in Manhattan, the main purpose of the store was to sell products from other brands that were popular among the skating community. However, Jebbia wanted to commemorate the opening of the store by selling three t-shirts that were original to the brand.
All three of these t-shirts were very simple in their design, with one featuring a picture of a popular skater on the front, the other featuring a picture of a popular musician, and the third featuring the rather simplistic Supreme logo that a friend had designed for Jebbia when he opened the store.
It wasn’t long, though, before the t-shirt that featured the Supreme logo began to outsell all other products in the store, and Jebbia realized that he was on to something special with this logo.
Jebbia then began to design a wide range of other clothing products that featured the Supreme logo in a variety of colors. Very quickly, the Supreme logo had become a status symbol in the street culture of New York City, and the groundwork that would pave the way for the logo to become internationally popular in skating, hip hop, and rock circles across the world had been laid.
However, there was a degree of controversy to the logo’s design. After Jebbia’s friend designed the original Supreme logo, Jebbia felt as if the logo looked a little flat. In order to add more depth to its design, Jebbia lent his friend a book by New York conceptual artist Barbara Kruger for inspiration.
When the friend finished with the new design, the Supreme logo came out looking very similar to Kruger’s signature style of artwork, which featured bold white letters surrounded by a red box in order to portray a rebellious, anti-capitalist message.
Kruger didn’t own any copyrights on the logo itself, and no legal action could be taken against Supreme, but that didn’t stop the artist from commenting about how she was very displeased about the company so blatantly co-opting her signature style.
In spite of this controversy, though, there’s no denying the fact that the Supreme logo turned out to be very lucrative for the brand. The message that Kruger managed to convey with her artistic style fit Supreme’s target audience perfectly, and the popularity of products that featured the Supreme logo skyrocketed, first in New York City and then throughout the world.
While it is unfortunate that Barbara Kruger’s work was used in a way that she did not condone, it should also be noted that appropriating the styles of other artists and brands is somewhat common in the skating apparel market, and Supreme isn’t the only brand in this industry to design their logo in this manner. That’s not meant to excuse the appropriation of Kruger’s style, but it is to say that Supreme certainly wasn’t acting outside the norm when they developed a logo using design elements that weren’t entirely their own.
Controversy aside, the bold, eye-catching design of the Supreme logo has undoubtedly served the brand well, allowing them to subtly speak to the interests of their target audience while still creating a logo that is simple and clean in its design. It has a regal aura about it, commanding respect for the name, which is also reflective of its clothing since it is made in limited runs.
Limited runs, high demand
Another business tactic Jebbia has fully embraced is the limited run. By only having two major releases a year and dropping a few items in its stores and online each Thursday morning, Supreme creates a sense of urgency and high demand with its customers.
A Supreme drop IS a major event. People line up early and wait in a queue that can snake for quite some distance around the block. Jebbia had this to say about why he does limited releases:
“We can have a leather jacket for $1,500, and if it’s a good value, young people will understand that,” Jebbia says. “But we also want to have the feeling that this won’t be here in a month. When I grew up, I think everybody felt that way. It’s like, If I love this, it may not be here, so I should buy it.”
Marketing by not marketing
The mystique that surrounds Supreme is due, in part, to its lack of marketing.
While many brands focus on huge ad buys or public relations campaigns to build name recognition, Supreme has taken a more grassroots-based approach. Instead of spending money on advertising, Supreme uses its enormous fan base to be their brand ambassadors to help grow sales.
The company regularly leaks information about future releases and watches it spread through the fan base. This grassroots movement allows huge events to develop in an organic manner.
As word of a new release spreads through the community, fans begin to line up outside of Supreme stores. They constantly refresh web pages to get the latest Supreme products, and the excitement level that Supreme can create with a few small leaks has allowed the company to thrive.
Supreme is one of the most popular streetwear clothing lines on the planet. Because its products are so in demand and purchasing Supreme items is very challenging, several secondary stores have emerged with huge resale prices for the hottest Supreme gear.
Having seen so many streetwear brands fall by the wayside over the years, Jebbia remains firmly grounded in reality in his private and professional lives and refuses to take the success his company has experienced for granted. He has also stayed true to his roots, his customers and his business principles. It’s that high level of vigilance that keeps Supreme on top.
“I’ve seen brands get comfortable,” he says, “but I’ve never felt comfortable. I’ve always felt every season could be our last.”