Supreme is a different sort of fashion company. Some people would call Supreme street fashion, some would call it skater fashion, but really it’s beyond classification. They make clothes and accessories, but they also make skateboards, and the skateboards are collected like art. In fact, they’ve put out skateboard decks by artists such as Larry Clark, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, Nate Lowman, and most recently, Damien Hirst. Their shoes and other products are collected as fanatically as art. Sometimes when a new item comes in, customers line up on the sidewalk for 24 hours, sleeping on the street to be among the lucky few who are able to buy it—there’s a big secondary market for Supreme stuff, in part because it is produced in only very small quantities, but also because Supreme has just two shops in the U.S. (one in New York and one in L.A.), five in Japan, and they sell to a very limited number of other stores, like Hide Out in London and Colette in Paris.
Supreme’s founder James Jebbia was in on the first wave of skater fashion, partnering with Sean Stüssy. When Stüssy left the business, Jebbia opened up Supreme in 1994 in a small storefront on Lafayette Street in downtown New York. Fifteen years later, Supreme is at the pinnacle of populist youth fashion. It’s as big as it wants to be in New York and L.A. and huge in Japan. It’s got a renegade eye, outlaw good taste, and a sort of cult following that lives on the razor’s edge of fashion, art, and sport.
GLENN O’BRIEN: So how is the recession treating you?
JAMES JEBBIA: Our business is really good. We didn’t plan for a financial crisis, but we were
already working hard, trying to make really good product, and we’ve always tried to keep our prices as reasonable as we can.
GO: We’re seeing an interesting moment in the marketplace. I think it’s a time for new values. I think some of these empty luxury brands are going to disappear.
JJ: I agree. I don’t wish for anybody to go out of business, but I think there are far too many things in New York that really shouldn’t be here. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for more than 20 years, so three or four times I’ve been through things where it’s like, “Wow, it’s a tough time.” Ever since September 11, I’ve been quite conservative in what we’ve ordered. We’ve never really been supply-demand anyway. It’s not like when we’re making something, we make only six of them. But if we can sell 600, I make 400. We’ve always been like that—at least for the past seven or eight years. For every season, we put in a lot of work to try to create exciting stuff. So it’s not like in these difficult times we’re going to suddenly pull up our socks—we’ve always been busting our asses every single day to try to get it right.
GO: Was it like that in the beginning?
JJ: Not really. We opened in 1994—
GO: That was during an economic downturn, right?
JJ: Yeah, but we did good in that environment . . . It was really a different time. I had the Stüssy store right here on Prince Street, but Sean Stüssy, the designer, didn’t know whether he was going to do it for that long. He’d made a ton of money, and then I think he decided to retire. So I thought, Shit, I’d better be doing something else, too, because I don’t want to count on this. I’d always loved what went on in skateboarding. I’d never skated myself, but I loved the graphics—I really liked the rebelliousness of it. And a lot of kids who worked for me skated, but it seemed to me that there were no skate shops around. So I was like, “Okay, cool, maybe I’ll do a skate shop.” It cost me, like, $12,000 to open the store. Rent was two grand. It was like, “Hey, if we do five grand a week, then great!” We didn’t really do any business at first, but we did okay. I really liked all of the hard goods—the decks, the wheels, the trucks. But all of the clothing that the skate companies put out was crap. These companies had to sell to a wide range of people, and a lot of them were very young. When people think of skaters, they think of, like, the 12- or 13- or 14-year-old kid. But in New York, it was the 18-to-24-year-old hardcore kid who wasn’t wearing any skate stuff. They’d wear a hat or whatever, but they wouldn’t wear the clothing,because it would fit badly and was bad quality, and skaters want to look good and pick up girls. So we slowly started making our own stuff. It was a time when it was a lot easier to do that kind of thing. It was easier to make a sweatshirt in Brooklyn, or do these hats locally, because you could get nice things made fairly easily. And because we didn’t have to worry about appeasing a 14-year-old kid in a mall, we spent a lot of time trying to make the right stuff. We didn’t dumb it down—we only made things that we really liked. I feel like kids in New York appreciated that, and after a while we got a bit of a following in Japan and in Europe, and we’ve just kind of done it the same ever since. We’ve kept on that same mission of just being a small company, but really trying to make our product as good as anybody else’s and concentrating on what we can do well. That’s why I’ve appreciated you as a customer. A lot of people dismiss what we do. They think, Well, it’s skate, so it’s got to be, like, big baggy pants, cap backwards, big chain . . . They don’t understand that just because skating is the culture we’re working in, it doesn’t mean that we can’t make good things.