Supreme was founded in 1994 as a single store on Lafayette Street in New York City, catering to kids with a brand of skatewear that transcended its intended fan base with a broader, yet niche, appeal. It has since gone on to spread globally and inspired a fanatacism that has led to overnight lines such as this in Tokyo:
It’s still redefining the fashion drop, with weekly Thursday (at exactly 11 am EST) releases of five to 15 new products at a time driving fans crazy. Even if you nab a good spot in line, there’s no guarantee that you’ll leave with product, which is why Supreme introduced online registration this year—creating a virtual Monday queue before the in-person Thursday queue—to secure the privilege of lining up in person to shop.
The pre-queue queue has inspired an unauthorized bot to reserve a spot (for a fee, of course) in the physical shopping queue—sparking an outcry that it has become even more difficult to shop there now that it has added a Stubhub-like layer—and has its own Reddit community and a Supreme Community website to share and monitor its upcoming drops and collaborations.
This year it arguably became a luxury brand thanks to (quite possibly) the most-hyped collaboration in history. After testing the water with Comme des Garçons, its Louis Vuitton collection in July caused pandemonium at the exclusive pop-up shops—Seoul, Paris, Miami, Sydney, Tokyo, London, Beijing and Los Angeles—opened to sell the co-branded apparel and accessories.
As more luxury brands partner with streetwear brands, high-low collaborations are the norm. Helping fund that: this year it sold a stake in the company this year to The Carlyle Group, marking the first time the top-tier private equity firm has invested in streetwear (but not its first investor group).
As WWD reported in October, Supreme sold a 50% stake in the brand to Carlyle for around $500 million—which would put Supreme’s enterprise valuation at around $1.1 billion ($1 billion in equity and $100 million in debt).
Supreme founder James Jebbia confirmed the transaction to The Business of Fashion. With projected earnings of $100 million, the balance may fund its global expansion including in Asia, where it only has stores in Japan.
Having put its rectangular logo on everything from a brick to a crowbar, Supreme is continually expanding into new areas including furniture (such as the sold-out $5,900 Artek Aalto chair) and Fender Stratocaster guitars. It collaborators and co-branded designs are seemingly limitless.
It also opened its 11th store in October, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, including a skate bowl—only its third in the U.S. and its second in New York City.
“We’re not just going to open a bunch of stores,” Jebbia told GQ. “We only open a new store when we do it right. The people we work with are super important, and we only do it when we feel it’s right.”
Still, the brand continues to be criticized (just see the comments on its Facebook page) for its policy of enforced scarcity.
Its fanatical exclusiveness and over-controlled access makes it nearly impossible for fans to purchase items while favoring resellers and pushing products to an illegal secondary market via those bots.
The “supreme” control the brand has over its fans as it orchestrates a self-created oil crisis reflects what the New York Times calls “the cult of the line,” commenting in August that it’s an experience akin to lining up for concert tickets in a world where shopping malls are imperiled.
“The queue is partly a resellers’ market: energetic young entrepreneurs snapping up wares in multiples, then flipping them at soaring markups on eBay or selling them for pocket change to finance their own buys.” As the Times adds, Supreme’s fans (vs. opportunistic resellers) are extremely loyal, waiting hours to score a new item and then share it on Instagram or Snapchat—but it’s a fickle community, too.
“These kids don’t come to go into the store,” said Jeff Carvalho, the executive editor of High Snobiety, a content-and-commerce website and magazine focused on high-end streetwear. “They want to be in the line.” Casting an appraising eye on the restive Thursday morning scene, he drove home the point. “The line is the new community,” Carvalho said. “When 200 to 300 kids are lining up outside of a store, it’s because they want to be part of something.”
“I wish people would understand why we have a line,” Jebbia recently told GQ. “Because we don’t have many shops, we aren’t sold anywhere [but our own shops], and we have good stuff… but it shouldn’t be so difficult for people to come into our shops. We just want to have a space that, on a Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday, people can just come to and walk in and check out our stuff.”
“Most people who are buying merch online use bots‚it has come to the point in the industry where if you don’t have a robot, you won’t get the merch you’re looking for unless the brand does a surprise release,” Gregory “Platinum” Williams recently told the Chicago Tribune.
“Anything that’s sought after—Supreme, Nike, Kanye West’s Yeezys—all that merch is impossible to get without a robot. Some people get lucky and are able to get an item manually, but that’s like winning the lottery.”