Kimye’s 3-year-old daughter, North West, appears to have outgrown her penchant for pink fur coats and replaced them with Supreme, Palace and Thrasher threads instead. But when a toddler whose parents pulled in more than $68 million last year is hailed as a style icon for wearing hyped-up skate logos, it raises the question: Does mainstream interest mean these labels have lost all connection to their anti-establishment origins?
Depends whom you ask.
“Whack prices for a whack collab. I get they’re LV but for that money I’d rather buy a lot better and cooler shit,” was one angry Redditor’s response to Supreme x Louis Vuitton, a surprise collaboration unveiled earlier this year at the French luxury house’s Fall 2017 fashion show in Paris. Cheapest item on the rumored price list: a $200 bandana.
“Ugliest, most uncreative collab I’ve ever seen,” another commentor agreed. “Eat your heart out, hypebeasts.”
Supreme stans weren’t the only ones getting hot under the collar. New York Times’ critic Guy Trebay went so far as to call the collection “the fashion version of a murder-suicide.”
“Nothing is more lethal to cred than a sellout,” he wrote in his review. “Certainly, there will be those who find it essential to possess a piece of Supreme for Louis Vuitton. Odds are they won’t be the passionate die-hards who line up outside Supreme’s Lafayette Street flagship in Manhattan on Thursday mornings, waiting for the latest unhyped product to drop, the very consumers who keep the brand’s cred alive.”
Menswear site Highsnobiety argued another angle: “Now that Supreme has opened two European stores in London and Paris, it makes sense that they would commemorate being a true global brand through participating in one of fashion’s most-anticipated shows.”
Supreme is no stranger to collaborations with unlikely suitors. It’s teamed up with everyone from the MTA (on branded MetroCards) to Brooks Brothers (seersucker suits) to Hanes (basics). It’s not even the first time the brand went high: Comme des Garcons has been a recurring collaborator since 2012. But this linkup came as a particular shock because back in 2000 Louis Vuitton served Supreme with a cease-and-desist letter after the brand released unauthorized skate decks emblazoned with the luxury label’s iconic monogram.
Skip forward to today and the 23-piece Supreme x Louis Vuitton collection features a skateboard and carrier emblazoned with both sides’ branding in a not-so-subtle wink to that slap on the wrist—and a $66,500 price tag.
So, did Supreme sell out by choosing to work with its one-time enemy? Is Louis Vuitton simply looking to boost its cool by pairing with a cult label that has legions of devoted followers? Have we reached peak streetwear? The short answer: it’s complicated.
“I love it,” said Jeff Staple, streetwear designer and founder of Staple Design, a creative consulting firm based in New York City. “To me it’s like when the graffiti artist that was once arrested for tagging on the museum walls is now invited for a solo exhibition. It’s the ultimate ‘getting one over.’”
Jacob Sawyer, online marketing manager for legendary London skate shop Slam City Skates, shared that sentiment. “It’s an incredible marketing move that has generated love and hate. Both of these reactions mean you’re doing something right,” he said.
At first blush, Supreme seems in stark contrast to the world’s most valuable luxury brand. But once you get past the initial shock, the collaboration makes sense.
In 2015, a WeConnect market study valued the global streetwear industry at $75 billion, up from Reuters’ $60 billion appraisal in 2011. Streetwear’s influence has even snuck into the luxury market: a recent study compiled by Bain & Company assessed luxury denim and sneakers are each $3.2 billion markets, while down jackets and backpacks are $2.2 billion each.
All in all, Supreme has a lot more in common with luxury powerhouses than most streetwear afficionados would like to admit. A feature titled “The Rules of Attraction” in the March 1995 issue of Vogue even compared Supreme to Chanel, though back then the most expensive item the skate store stocked was a $66 Ben Davis construction worker’s jacket.
Truth be told, Supreme has come a long way since opening its first shop in 1994, selling skate decks, hardware and clothing from brands like Spitfire, Zoo York, Independent and Shorty’s. T-shirts, hoodies and baseball caps adorned with the store’s now-iconic red-and-white box logo once made up a minimal portion of its merchandise. Today it’s the other way around.
Sure, Supreme still carries other brands, but its own goods are in such high demand that most of the “passionate die-hards” lining up on release day are hired by resellers looking to flip the pieces at a massive markup once they sell out. See: Grailed, a high-end resale site, where listings range from a couple hundred bucks for a Supreme T-shirt to $3,500 for a Supreme x Comme des Garcons polka dot hoodie.
That’s because demand far outweighs supply and making short runs of product keeps it exclusive, which means that people who get their hands on that instantly recognizable logo feel like they’re part of a private club. According to “The New Spirituality Report,” a survey released last year by marketing agency Protein, 86 percent of consumers choose brands because of the identity they’re associated with.
For example, shoppers who buy entry-level luxury goods like wallets or sunglasses because of the status they symbolize, or someone toting around their lunch in a shopping bag from Bergdorf Goodman or Barneys.
“Wearing the brand is like a badge of honor,” Staple agreed.
Supreme may have started out as a niche skate brand, but it’s evolved into something with much broader appeal. Today its fans range from street-smart teens to millionaire musicians to models. And it’s not just Supreme. London-based skate brand Palace, founded in 2010, has been spotted on the backs of Drake, ASAP Rocky, Jay-Z and Kylie Jenner.
“Both brands have enjoyed mainstream interest because what they are doing on a regular basis is interesting,” Sawyer said. “But Supreme and Palace’s connection to their anti-establishment roots can’t be lost—it’s integral. Both businesses support teams of real people vital to the skateboarding scene. No matter what they pump out, this is the foundation.”
That being said, Google searches for “Thrasher clothing” have been steadily rising since Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Ryan Gosling and other big names stepped out wearing merchandise from skateboarding bible Thrasher (much to the irritation of editor Jake Phelps who accused them of appropriating skater culture).
“The Thrasher thing is pretty crazy,” Sawyer agreed. “We had Thrasher clothing on sale when the first Slam City shop opened in 1986. But Thrasher T-shirts can’t really get corny. The mag has existed forever and goes from strength to strength. Skateboarders will be repping Thrasher stuff in another 30 years.”
Then there’s Thames London, A Bathing Ape, Billionaire Boys Club, Anti Social Social Club, Bianca Chandon, Gosha Rubchinsky… The list goes on. All sought after by skaters and stylistas alike, all selling high-end hoodies and tees for way above the average price point of more mainstream stores like Zumiez.
In fact, these brands are more likely to be seen at Dover Street Market, alongside Thom Browne, Raf Simons and Rick Owens, or at Union LA, where Nike and New Era share shelfspace with Marni and J.W. Anderson. Even Kith, the sneaker and streetwear empire famous for its in-demand collaborations, has a shop-in-shop inside the Bergdorf Goodman’s Men’s Store on New York’s Fifth Avenue, selling co-branded styles as well as originals.
“Supreme, Palace, Thames and Bianca Chandon all have very real ties to skateboarding. It is at the core of their DNA and that’s no secret. This is why they appeal to skateboarders,” Sawyer explained, adding that they appeal to non-skaters because the clothes are supported by an authenticity that people gravitate toward.
“But then there’s the group that looks at this group and just rolls their eyes,” Staple said. “It’s like, you’re eating Cup-a-Noodle soup, sharing a loft in Brooklyn with five other people and are wearing head to toe Gosha. Hope that gets you somewhere, buddy.”
It’s little wonder, then, that Louis Vuitton isn’t the only high-end label taking its cues from the streets for Fall 2017: Dior Homme showed bucket hats and wallet chains; Lanvin went ‘90s with oversized plaid shirts peeking out from under anorak jackets; and Dries Van Noten added his own spin to logo-driven dressing by printing the names of his fabric suppliers on sweatshirts. And that’s just menswear. Urban-inspired looks for women also turned up at Marc Jacobs, Rag and Bone and Baja East.
“Palace and Supreme cleverly reference clothing and styles skateboarders reappropriated years ago and fashion’s needle is hovering over the ’90s right now. Not a bad place to be,” Sawyer said.
Musicians are even cashing in on the trend, offering streetwear-inspired styles that are as coveted as pieces from established brands. Kanye West’s “Life of Pablo” pop-ups last year drew crowds of people all eager to get their hands on hoodies, hats, graphic T-shirts and jackets, most of which were just cheap Gildan Activewear items featuring iron-on artwork.
But not everyone can afford to shop at Bergdorf, stand in line all night to cop the latest limited-edition release or pay resale markup, so are dedicated skate stores seeing a change in clientele? Are less hyped brands benefiting?
“Every phenomenon brings a new group of people to the shop, whether this is for Silas, Nike SBs, Palace T-shirts or this month’s Thrasher must-haves,” Sawyer shared. “One good thing is obviously some cash flow but we have definitely gained some new customers whose loyalty has outlived whatever the flavor of the month is.”
The hype won’t last, of course. Hood by Air, an experimental label that gained notoriety for its gender-fluid high-end streetwear, recently announced that it would be going on hiatus for an indeterminate amount of time, effective immediately. The news wasn’t all that surprising: it followed the cancellation of the brand’s Paris Fashion Week show in February as well as Helmut Lang’s hiring of designer Shayne Oliver.
It’s not easy to sustain a cult-like following in the manner that Supreme has. Twenty-three years since first setting up shop, the brand has cemented its presence with 10 stores globally, six of which are in Japan. Time will tell if today’s streetwear upstarts will survive once high-fashion’s love affair with grit inevitably gives way to glamour, but Staple is certain that those with skate at their core will endure.
“High fashion actually doesn’t really care about the culture. They’re just minting off it,” he said. “So when the next trend comes around like ‘military’ or ‘punk’ or ‘goth,’ they’ll just go back to that. We’ll still be here long after they’re gone though.”