How has a skate brand built up a global cult following?
The three Cs of Supreme success
- Control of supply with limited drops of product for which there is huge global demand
- “Cool” cult status created though a lack of engagement with mainstream media channels and trade shows
- Collaborations within fashion, pop culture and celebrities set the bar for the rest of the fashion world
With its headline-grabbing collaborations, cult-like following and consistent sell-out products, Supreme might be one of the biggest brands in the world right now.
Launched in New York in 1994 as a small underground skate shop by publicity-shy James Jebbia, a British-born, US-based skateboarder, it has quietly evolved from an insider secret to a mysterious holy grail of cool cachet among skaters, streetwear fans and international fashion followers alike – its typographical bold red logo is instantly recognisable.
The Supreme empire now spans 10 stores around the world: New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris, as well as six in Japan.
Hundreds of websites, forums and social media pages are devoted to discussing the brand and its launches, while a controversial secondary market has sprung up around it. Consumers buy and resell items at hugely inflated prices – there are more than 40,000 Supreme pieces listed on the streetwear resale marketplace Grailed, for example, a bomber jacket said to have been originally sold at €3,000 (£2,735) is priced at $20,000 (£15,000).
Collaborations with everyone from big brands and niche labels, to pop culture icons, artists and celebrities – most recently a link-up with global luxury brand Louis Vuitton for autumn 17, which debuted on the catwalks of Paris Fashion Week – set the bar for the rest of the fashion industry.
And while its signature “box logo” T-shirts – well made and reasonably priced at £36 – remain a key item and collectors’ favourite, its ever-broadening product range continues to bring consistent sell-out success.
“For me Supreme is and always will be successful because it’s cool,” says Kristopher Babet, brand consultant and former menswear buying manager at Urban Outfitters. “It was set up by cool guys, in a cool place and works with cool people. It’s cool product, with cool references, that’s worn by cool kids. It [also becomes] a way for people who are not cool to feel like they are. It’s bought cool, implied cool and there are a lot of people out there who want that and are willing to pay for it – no matter the price.”
While this “cool” is impossible to bottle and replicate, there are several elements that have contributed to Supreme’s stealthy ascent to global success, and remaining “cool” 20 years after launching.
Its retail strategy has certainly helped feed the hype around its products. First, the brand is all but silent, eschewing interviews, limiting advertising and consistently sticking to its own independent plan – it never exhibits at trade shows and it is only officially available via its own stores and website.
Although not new, it has also popularised the system of product arriving at structured times or in “drops”. It creates two collections a year, but these are spaced out in weekly deliveries online and in store – now dubbed “Supreme Thursdays” – with new releases every week at 11am Greenwich Mean Time.
“The fashion system is changing and Supreme know that better than anyone else. The limited drops are what keeps it relevant,” says Silas Adler, founder of Danish menswear brand Soulland. “No one is better at this than Supreme.”
“I am fan of what Supreme has created from a business perspective – how they changed the retail landscape,” adds Stavros Karelis, founder of London designer store Machine A, a neighbour of Supreme’s store on Peter Street in Soho. “They’re not waiting for the passing trade to support their business – they control what they need to sell, when they need to sell it and from which locations.”
What is more, despite its popularity and ever-growing demand, an air of exclusivity is maintained as another significant factor. Although never officially labelled as “limited edition”, each item is sold in seemingly small numbers and, most importantly, once a style has sold out it rarely reappears – only a handful of items are restocked.
“The limited nature is a great marketing tool,” adds Karelis. “It makes a simple T-shirt unique. And that is very difficult to achieve in this age and time.”
A similar strategy is proving successful for other brands, particularly relaunched luxury houses Gucci and Balenciaga, both of which also produce a constant stream of new products and fresh styles, but limit stock numbers to create an appetite for items in a cycle of short supply and high demand.
At Supreme, this has helped build a frenzied desire for its products, prompting its cult-like customers to camp outside its stores days in advance and online stores to crash under digital traffic. Products sell out not in weeks, days or hours, but often in minutes and sometimes seconds. Last month, a black T-shirt featuring a photograph of the rapper Nas sold out online in the UK in 18 seconds, while all six colours had gone in 53 seconds, reports fan site Supremecommunity.com.
“This strategy creates demand and this is the key,” says Darren Skey, founder of Nieuway sales and consultancy agency, and former head of menswear at Harvey Nichols. “They limit the releases to ensure pent-up demand,” says Darren Skey, founder of Nieuway sales and consultancy agency, and former head of menswear at Harvey Nichols. “It engages the consumer and creates a heightened buzz around what is going to be next.” Skey says he encourages the brands he consults to adopt a similar approach, as “the modern consumer wants newness – they want constant seduction from a brand”.
The brand dominates resale sites and apps such as Grailed and Depop, and even luxury marketplace Vestiaire Collective. Supreme is resold at hugely inflated prices, while the market for counterfeit products is also growing.
Another element of Supreme’s success is its approach to collaborations. These range from a plethora of fashion labels (everyone from Nike, The North Face and Levi’s to luxury labels Comme des Garçons and Louis Vuitton) and lifestyle brands (including Braun, Budweiser and Fender) to pop stars, artists and cultural icons (such as Damien Hirst, Kate Moss and Kermit the Frog), setting the pace for collaboration across the rest of the fashion industry.
As fashion consultant Skey notes, these different link-ups bring another element of constant, and often unexpected, newness to the brand, while also putting Supreme in front of new audiences that helps it “transcend age groups”.
It is rare that you see the same brand worn at skate parks and the front rows of international fashion weeks – worn by young shoppers to older luxury consumers, but that is the power and crossover of Supreme, thanks largely to its smart use of collaboration.
“The collabs are the key to keeping the brand fresh and top of mind. Constantly re-establishing [its] links to different subsections of consumers is a master stroke,” adds Skey. “They have no boundaries when it comes to collaborations. Sometimes the most unexpected is often the best. Who would have really thought Supreme would actually collaborate with Louis Vuitton?”
A way of life
The brand’s collaborations have also helped the skate brand evolve into a true lifestyle offering, adding new and different products to its range with integrity, and often an element of humour. As well as clothing, it now sells everything from Supreme-branded guitars and chopsticks, kitchenware and calculators, and even a much-hyped – and sold out – £28 Supreme clay house brick.
“Collaborations have taken Supreme from in-the-know favourite to global mega-brand. It’s hardly been a failure for them,” comments Nick Paget, senior menswear editor at trend forecasting agency WGSN. “Supreme sums up the success of the culture of the collab. It’s the extent of these ambitious projects that industry commentators look to when they’re expecting the [collaboration] bubble to burst. What skater needs a [Supreme x Louis Vuitton] trunk for their skateboard that costs nearly $70,000 (£54,000)?” he says. “But that bubble is looking pretty intact for now.”
Whether it is smart product delivery, constant newness, unexpected link-ups or an interesting take on supply and demand, there is no denying Supreme’s success – both in terms of building and maintaining hype around a small brand, and turning it into a global cultural phenomenon. Essentially, it is selling lots of clothes that consumers cannot get enough of.
As independent retailer and Machine A founder Stavros Karelis concludes: “Supreme are very connected with their customer, having quite possibly the most loyal audience. That is something that I do admire as an entrepreneur.”