“When did I first start thinking there was something else going on?” asks David Shapiro, the world’s foremost expert on the cultishly beloved, famously secretive Supreme. He says this in a hushed, appropriately conspiratorial tone. Then he takes a long, long pause. Finally, he speaks again: “Can I smoke?”
We’re in the back room of a dark Brooklyn bar on a Sunday afternoon. A massive storm is supposed to be appearing any minute, but right now sun beams are sneaking in and sinking into the bar’s heavy wood. Shapiro is a corporate lawyer who first found internet fame with his now-defunct Tumblr, Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. I’ve known him, casually, for a few years now. We’ve had pleasant beers in Brooklyn bars before.
He’s now written a new novel based on his own experiences traveling to every Supreme store in the world: the original SoHo shop in New York, the L.A. outpost on Fairfax Avenue, the one in London, and the six spread throughout Japan. (They opened the Paris one after he finished the book.) Cheekily titled Supremacist, the book is soothingly narrated in the flat-affect preferred by contemporary alt-lit. In Supremacist, a character named David smokes, drinks, pop pills, and has awkward sex. The most compelling elements, though, are his pilgrimages to the Supremes.
The stores are nearly uniform, and the character’s experiences are nearly uniform as well: David lovingly runs his fingers along the T-shirts; David purchases some small Supreme item, almost as an afterthought, or a sacrifice; David lingers for hours, doing nothing, soaking in Supreme. What the hell for? Well, OK...
Since its founding in 1994, by the now 52-year-old James Jebbia, Supreme has carefully and deliberately built itself above its skateboard origins and up into some higher realm. “List the most unimpeachable, above-the-law brands,” says Lawrence Schlossman, of the snarky, dearly-departed menswear site Four Pins. “The Chanel’s, the Hermes’s, the fucking Balenciaga’s of the word — list them. As far as all those storied houses are concerned, like, Supreme is there.”
Their rise began with two simple T-shirts. One was white, with a central red rectangle in which the word “Supreme” was inlaid (it’s now widely known as the “box logo.”) The other featured a shot of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, hovered over the brand’s name. The latter was obvious copyright infringement; presumably, Martin Scorsese did not sign off. The former was a more subversive tweak. The design for that original, distinctive, now-famed Supreme logo comes from a 1987 artwork from the feminist artist Barbara Kruger. It reads “I Shop Therefore I Am.”
Back in the bar, a calming cig later, Shapiro explained his early interest in the brand. “I was in college and I’d walk by Supreme a bunch of times,” he said. “They’d play, like, at near max volume, a whole Bad Brains album? I just thought I wasn’t eligible to wear it.”
Intrigued by its impenetrability — the elemental factor of anything ever considered ‘cool’ — Shapiro dug deeper. He began to notice, in the clothes, references everywhere: to NHL team logos, to the death's-head-moth motif in Silence of the Lambs, to a spare tattoo on a minor Pulp Fiction character’s neck. “And it made me realize that their project is curatorial,” he said. “It’s ostensibly a skate brand, but to see it as just a skate brand is to miss the glacier. They’re trying to show people what they’re interested in — what they see as important.”
“Supreme’s like, ‘Everything after 1994 is cheesy. Everything else is for the mall. We are standing in memoriam of something that does not exist.’”
He gestures to the cover of the copy of Supremacist laying on the table between us: it’s a photo of a fire-extinguisher, the Supreme logo running up its side. Along with a weekday pillbox, a wiffleball bat, and a keychain in the shape of brass testicles, the fire-extinguisher is an actual product Supreme has sold. “It’s their seal of approval,” he said, with incidental pride. “‘This is a thing that we think is beautiful.’”
A big part of Supreme’s idea of beauty is that classic imagining of pre-Giuliani, old-school, New York City cool: the exact kind of life captured so evocatively in the cult classic Kids. The film was released just over a year after Supreme first opened, and had characters in Supreme (gifted directly from the company). In later years, Kids breakout star Chloe Sevigny — on her own, an avatar of downtown cool — would become a kind of honorary member of the Supreme inner circle.
“I think, ultimately, it’s really romantic,” Shapiro said, of the brand's whole endeavor. “It’s like, ‘Everything after 1994 is cheesy. Everything else is for the mall. We are standing in memoriam of something that does not exist.’”
Before I read Shapiro’s book, all I could have really told you about Supreme was that it was vaguely ‘cool.’ And that’s something I had in common with many — most of? — the people that visit its stores. “I would say [Supreme wants] you to make of it what you think it is,” Shapiro said. “And for a lot of people that’s, ‘This is a cool thing that Drake wore in a video.’”
Here’s where it gets trickier, and a bit more interesting. Because Supreme also releases a good amount of product that is nearly mind-boggling in its inanity. Pocket calculators. Old Navy-esque flannel shirts. And, as part of their partnership with Hanes, white socks. Shapiro, the model Supreme obsessive, greets every product as a logic problem to be worked out: Why has this been given the honor of the mark of Supreme? Every once in a while, though — a portable camping chair? — even he has to throw up his hands in defeated bewilderment.
Shapiro sees the undefendable items as products designed not to sell. But it’s not difficult to see that he's hinting at something harsher going on.
Consider the fact that, even beyond its earsplitting soundtracks, Supreme stores are famously unfriendly shopping environments. (Last week in the New York store, thirty seconds after walking in, I see a clerk tearing down a woman in her late forties: "You got a stack of shirts right there! I'm not selling you another!") Remember the anti-consumerist origins of the original box logo. And be clear: Supreme’s ethos, its life-force, comes from the kind of coolness that is forever too slippery to grab hold of and define. Now, doesn’t that sound like the kind of place that would effectively trick its own customers into buying stupid shit? If that’s so, it would create two classes of Supreme shoppers: the aforementioned “I saw this in the Drake video” class, and the class that really “gets it.”
Shapiro is incessantly, endearingly defensive of his muse. He rejects the idea that anyone is being taken advantage of, or laughed at: he points out that, with the current demand for its product, Supreme could dramatically jack up its prices (that’s left for the legions of Supreme resellers to do). He insists that Supreme, ultimately, is not antagonistic. They are, rather, challenging us to understand them.
But Shapiro knows that this is a fine line to walk. “It’s paradoxical. A clothing company that thinks consumerism is disgusting. They took their icon from a feminist artist and put it on a T-shirt, the ultimate disposable consumer commodity. And they only make men’s clothing. You know, no wonder [Kruger’s] like, ‘What a bunch of uncool jokers,’” he said, paraphrasing the one public statement the artist has made about Supreme.
Another funny thing here: Shapiro has done a fair amount of journalism on Supreme, including pieces on a bustling Chinatown reseller and Supreme’s (nicely ironic, in Shapiro’s estimation) lawsuit against a copyright infringer. Completely unintentionally, this has won him the ire of the brand generally and James Jebbia, the founder, specifically.
Shapiro quotes from memory, and verbatim, an email Jebbia once sent him: “Do you write negative bitchy one-sided articles about everything, or is it just Supreme?” “I think he thinks my interest in Supreme has an antagonistic bent,” he explains. “That I think they’re, like, a fad, or a scam, or that there’s something unsavory about them, and if other people knew they wouldn’t buy it. I think he thinks I look down on people that wait in line.”
If Supreme is an art project, it’s one shut off to riffs or manipulations. It’s a closed loop, distant and chilly, its coolness is trapped somewhere inside, not to be touched. It seems obvious, then, that Jebbia would prickle at Shapiro’s attempts — in fiction or in journalism — to understand Supreme. The more you poke at something ineffably cool, the more effable it might yet become.
Four Pins’ Schlossman is an effusive fan of Supremacist, and he has a particular vision for the nexus between the book and the customers who line up outside Supreme store to swallow Supreme’s credo whole. “I really hope a bunch of young Hypebeast kids who maybe haven’t read anything since Catcher in the Rye in the 8th grade, or Twitter, pick up this book," he says. "And I hope it makes them very confused!” He laughs big. “If there’s one kid that happens to have an existential crisis through the vessel of this book that, to me, is amazing.”
As for Shapiro, his hopes for Supremacist are more intimate. “Part of the reason I wanted to do this book is to say, I’m not looking down at the people that wait in line,” Shapiro explains. “I am the people that wait in line.”
“My friend,” he says, now addressing James Jebbia, the Godhead, directly. “You’ve got me all wrong.”