The Reign of Supreme: Hype, Exclusivity and Pop Culture

This starts with Beyoncé. (As do most things, in actuality.)

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When Queen Bee posted this to her Instagram account on Friday, I realized we needed to discuss the streetwear brand Supreme. Supreme isn’t something I’d otherwise cover on this blog, primarily because it’s not a brand I would automatically associate with my readers, but when Beyoncé decides to wear something – it’s going to be everywhere. So turn on “Lemonade” – we’re going to learn about Supreme.

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Supreme is officially categorized a streetwear brand in the fashion community. It can be hard to describe because, technically, a lot of people utilize the concepts without really realizing it. The easiest way to understand streetwear is clothing that emphasizes comfort while mixing high fashion and budget brands, and also draws in various subcultures (like skateboarding, hip hop, etc).

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Examples of men’s streetwear fashion.

In many ways, streetwear is similar to contemporary mainstream fashion. What distinguishes it though is how it’s not mainstream. While you might see elements of streetwear brands being reflected in clothing at your local Target or Kohls, it’s not the same thing – streetwear prides itself amongst the wearers as being “exclusive.” As you’ll learn, these brands have such an insanely huge cult following, the consumers demand limited collections and scarcity. For them, it’s only cool if not everyone else has it.

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James Jebbia

In the case of Supreme, it was founded in 1994 by James Jebbia in New York City. He was extremely influenced was the skateboarding subculture in creating this brand – so much in fact, that when the first Supreme store opened in Manhattan in 1994, the clothing was placed at the perimeter of the building to allow skaters to move around the store on their boards.

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Jebbia is an American but he grew up in England. There are some definite British elements to Supreme and many of the celebrities that have been featured are from the United Kingdom. That being said, for the first ten years, the only Supreme location was its Manhattan store – a second location (Los Angeles) was eventually opened in 2004, with eight additional stores since developed in Paris, London and Tokyo.

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So how does a brand with only ten locations develop such a following?

Remember how we were talking about the exclusivity of streetwear? Supreme is the undisputed champion of it. The business strategy is simple: hype. Rather than releasing a full collection (like traditionally done in fashion), Supreme releases a select few items every week. The number of items can range from five to fifteen and is done by a “drop” (official release) in stores and online, typically on Thursday mornings. Since there is such a limited number of both product and store locations, the demand is huge and it regularly sells out almost immediately. The “hype” strategy has also resulted in Supreme being one of the most counterfeited brands in the world.

I managed to find a price list online of a recent Supreme drop and as you can see, the prices are a little high, but not too outrageous for a limited edition item. But because of the scarcity of this brand, they’ll likely sell for several hundred dollars more on websites like eBay.

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At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “Alright Sarah, that’s cool but I don’t really understand why Supreme matters. All you’re saying is this is a brand that some people really like and that’s it.

Here’s the thing about Supreme: it’s less than 25 years old and has already become one of the most influential brands in popular culture. While it might not be immediately recognizable to you, the companies that it has partnered with are: Nike, Air Jordan, Clarks, Dickies, North Face, Hanes, Playboy, Levi’s, Timberland, Comme des Garcons and White Castle. Famed photographer Terry Richardson has created most of the brand’s influential images – which have including the following models: Kermit the Frog, Lady Gaga, Neil Young, Morrissey, Kate Moss, Mike Tyson and countless others.

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What changed the game though was the collaboration with Louis Vuitton. Initially a rumor (which many people dismissed), it was announced at Louis Vuitton’s fashion show in January with the debut of several products. The limited collection was released on June 30 – and is, as you can expect, completely sold out and near-impossible to purchase.

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The partnership of a luxury fashion house like Louis Vuitton collaborating with a pop culture megaforce like Supreme is notable in many ways. Not only does it give Supreme long-deserved approval within the fashion community – it also allows Louis Vuitton to attract a new younger audience of streetwear consumers. Louis Vuitton has become “mainstream” in comparison to brands like Chanel and Hermes, so partnering with a company that manufactures “hype” and prides itself on scarcity allows Louis Vuitton to do the same thing – without running the risk of being labeled “snobby” or “elitist.”

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And when it comes to hype, who is better at it than Beyoncé? A superstar that just gave birth to twins earlier this summer and keeps her social media so carefully curated, featuring this collaboration in her Instagram video collage? I’d say all of these forces are working so perfectly together in this situation.

The only concern that I do have is with the marketing caused by Beyoncé and Louis Vuitton, that the demand for Supreme will explode to the point where scarcity is no longer an option. It’s way too early to tell (the events that I’ve been covering here are less than two months old) what impact this could have on Supreme’s “hype” strategy. But I do wonder if the bubble will finally burst and Supreme will continue to influence pop culture from the main stage, rather than the quiet (but loyal) side stages it’s grown used to.

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If you’d like to learn more about Supreme, these are four articles that I highly recommend. I think these are extremely helpful in understanding the level of brand loyalty that consumers have regarding both this brand and streetwear fashion, in general.

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Why Are So Many People Obsessed With Supreme? from Vice (link)

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How Streetwear Restyled the World from The Guardian (link)

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Flipping Supreme from The New Yorker (link)

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I Traveled to Every Supreme Store in the World to Understand the Meaning of Supreme from Vice (link)

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Freelance writer. Equestrian. Fueled by coffee. Lover of luxury fashion, college football and used bookstores.

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