I recently read the Business of Fashion look at the Supreme brand. The article was taken from German magazine 032c and BoF posted it in two parts (one & two). The article is certainly complimentary towards Supreme, which was nice to read and quite refreshing that it wasn’t riddled with snide comments and critisism.
I don’t class myself as a ‘cult’ follower of Supreme and I don’t see the brand through rose tinted glasses, on the other hand I’m not a hater at all and I have a lot of respect for the way the brand has been managed over the years. But this article seemed to divide and rile readers, bringing out the passion in them.
The artical follows Supreme’s rise and rise, giving us an insight into the brand and the guy behind it. My only problem with it (and it’s not really a problem) was that I don’t think it really got stuck in to look at the reasons behind why the brand has been so resiliant against the ‘brand cycle’. I belive it is a mixture of luck, strategy and restraint. I’m hoping I can demonstrate my reasoning as a support for the 032c artical, but with a focus on what I find most interseting about looking at a brand like Supreme.
The American skate scene has always petered along in the background and has walked the line between underground and mainstream. I think it helps that there are a number of different ‘tribes’ within the scene as a whole which has made it fractured enough to never have propelled it into the limelight.
Jebbia was in the right place (New York) at the right time (early nineties, when the skate scene was experiencing a certain resurgence). However this in no way makes the brand. What followed was a series of good decisions and also a lack of complete greed which propelled Supreme to its current cult status.
There are a lot of brands that have been founded in the right place at the right time. Stussy is one of these. What I believe separates Supreme from Stussy is the level of commerciality that they deem acceptable in order to stay credible.
I love Stussy. It has a rich history, a genuine story and a strong and loyal customer base which is what most brands would kill for. This is pure speculation but I can’t help but feel that there is someone there who isn’t (or wasn’t) satisfied with what they had achieved. What ensued was a series of poor commercial decisions that bastardised the brand and made it too accessible. It is still a premium brand and it still has a solid future but it’s miles apart from Supreme in this respect. The recent flood of collaborations (the Fred Perry collab being, for me, a particularly ill conceived decision, the Comme shoes were pretty bad too) and printed tees that don’t feel considered, have set my alarm bells ringing. They seem to want to appeal to everyone but at the same time I feel this might have alienated some of their really loyal customers, it’s a classic case of commerciality vs credibility and in this case credibility seems to have been popped on the back burner in favour of raking in the cash (that said, they try pretty darn hard, they create some really nice content online and are involved in projects that some brands can only ever dream of).
Supreme is so different in this respect. They have such a limited distribution and the BoF piece talks of customers not being able to touch stock, queuing round the clock and keeping the real gems in the back so that ‘those in the know’ can ask for them. Supreme are still giving the impression to consumers that this is really ‘aspirational’ stuff, for those engrossed in the culture that Supreme epitomises, never mind that should you not want to put up with the superior shop assistants and all of that tosh, you can buy it online pretty easily. It’s as accessible as any brand if you don’t have a burning desire to be one of only 100 or 1000 owners of a certain t-shirt.
The point I am trying to make is that Supreme has had the opportunity to be as ‘big’ as Stussy, Fred Perry, Vans or Dickies –they all have roots in a popular sub-culture, but in remaining more low-key and unattainable they have actually become much bigger in status and stature with their tight knit target audience than these other huge brands.
The way that Supreme has chosen to be more commercial is by cutting costs in production but cleverly countering this by offering limited runs and exclusives. Instead of grumbling that the quality has gone down, just don’t buy it any more. That’s what happens to most brands, they get big and greedy and flood the market with cheap merchandise which is exactly why the brand cycle exists and is so true and predictable for so many brands. They screw themselves because they are a victim of their own success, how fast it takes affect depends on just how greedy everyone gets. Customers desert a brand in search of the next because it has become too accessible and too low quality. The reason people grumble about the quality of Supreme is because they still want to buy it. It’s still a status brand which is highly desirable on many different levels, whether it’s for the 15 year old kid that saves up for a plain white tee with the iconic branding or the ‘connoisseur’ who wants the rare pieces to flaunt in front of envious friends. I really think there is something to be said for this. It shows a combination of self restraint, creative direction and business strategy which means that Supreme has escaped the cruel grip of the brand lifecycle….. thus far.
Time will tell whether this strategy continues to work for the brand or whether they are going to have to react to developments in technology and consumer sharing which could almost lead to the bastardisation of the brand without any wrong move from the Supreme team. So what would I do in their position? Keep distribution super tight, keep up the limited runs and smaller scale collaborations and watch their ‘product placement’, because for every hip young kid who buys in to Supreme having seen Tyler the Creator wearing it at the MTV awards or plastered over Hypebeast every fortnight, there will be a hip 20-something who decides that’s enough and they don’t want to continue buying into a brand that a 15 year old is coveting. However a brand is at the mercy of its customers and so many have learnt this the hard way over the years (Cristal champagne being my all time favourite case study that makes me chuckle with glee), and if the kids run away with this one, it’s going to be nigh on impossible for Supreme to do anything about it. There will be lots of people rubbed up by Supreme’s sheer arrogance and superiority that may be wishing this fate upon them, but for some reason I think they’ll be waiting a very long time.