Supreme Grows Up

Anyone even remotely interested in menswear has experienced the unique and often confounding experience of trying to purchase something from Supreme. About ten years ago, I was determined to buy a hunter green moleskin five-panel hat emblazoned with the brand’s iconic box logo. Like just about every other piece that dropped on Supreme’s website that week, it sold out in an instant. So I had to go to the store in LA, where I waited in line in the hot sun on Fairfax with no idea of whether the hat was even in stock. Once I finally got inside, I found my prize—no thanks to the staff of brusque skaters who, ever since James Jebbia opened the original Supreme shop on Lafayette Street in 1994, have been famously unhelpful to interlopers. (As many hilariously scathing Yelp reviews over the years attest to.) 

Like many other young men before and after me, I loved every second of the experience. The Supreme business model was frustrating, but it was also brilliant at breeding obsession: the more you wanted something, the harder it was to actually buy it. 

These days, the experience feels distinctly different. A little over two years since Supreme was acquired by The North Face parent company VF for $2.1 billion, the New York label has started to resemble something that was once basically unimaginable: a regular fashion brand. 

This has manifested in ways big and small. As is standard in the rest of the fashion world, Supreme now has a public-facing creative director in Denim Tears designer Tremaine Emory, who started early last year. The once-rowdy scenes outside Supreme stores, where a generation of hypebeasts camped nearly every Thursday morning before new products hit the shelves, have also largely faded away—most Supreme stores now feature a lottery-based queueing system for drop days, and the NYC and LA have moved out of their compact original storefronts into larger flagships. 

Supreme’s store in Williamsburg.

Courtesy of Supreme

Of course, if Supreme is now arm-in-arm with the wider apparel establishment, it’s in no small part because the once-scrappy skate shop rewrote the rules of the game. Many luxury labels now release products through limited-edition drops, and our screens and cityscapes are now awash in unconventional fashion advertising and endorsements. (Whenever you see a fashion label burnishing its street cred with unexpected celebrity cameos, remember that Supreme has been putting up wheatpastes featuring anti-fashion icons like Neil Young and Kermit the Frog for decades.) 

Skate gear and streetwear has been fully absorbed by the luxury establishment, too, and the types of surprising and ambitious collaborations that Supreme does better than anyone else are an accepted part of fashion’s commercial logic. As Emory told me in Paris last June, “Every fashion brand is trying to do what ’Preme’s been doing for 30 years.” Emory was, somewhat ironically, in town for Supreme’s first-ever Paris Fashion Week party. Last month, the brand became the latest in a long line of brands to throw a party at the Chateau Marmont, the infamous LA venue of choice for luxury labels looking to rub shoulders in Hollywood.

Most striking, though, is how easy it is to actually buy Supreme gear these days. In early March, Supreme marked what is essentially Christmas for its most hardcore fans, collectors, and resellers when it released its seasonal collaboration with The North Face. The spring 2023 capsule included trompe l’oeil-graphic down jackets, pile fleece pullovers, and co-branded backpacks and other accessories. Matt Steiner used to run Supreme Saint, a personal shopping service of sorts that would use bots to help paying customers secure what they wanted from weekly drops. According to Steiner, North Face drops was a primo sales opportunity for Supreme Saint from 2016-2017, in the service’s heyday. (Steiner was in high school in South Florida at the time.)

“North Face was big,” Steiner told me. “Like, that was top three,” behind Air Jordan and Nike sneaker drops. As soon as the jackets dropped, Steiner’s bot (a computer program, really) would buy hundreds and hundreds of them faster than any regular human typing in their credit card information ever could—a lucrative hustle that was replicated in countless ways by people who arbitraged the limited supply of Supreme goods on resale sites like StockX.  

So Steiner was surprised when I told him that by Thursday afternoon, hours after the prescribed 11:00 am drop time, I could still add practically every product from the North Face collection to my cart. The stock-clearing bot swarm, in other words, had not materialized. “That’s crazy,” Steiner said. “That was never a thing. It would be like, there’s a huge problem with the website if they’re still in stock after five minutes.” 

The problem wasn’t with the website but, seemingly, with the bots. Supreme has been locked in an arms race with bot networks for years, introducing measures like Captcha forms and bot detection to stymie hypebeast hackers. Which didn’t always work: Steiner stopped running Supreme Saint in 2017 not because he could no longer outsmart the website, but because there were too many rival botters. 

But Supreme appears to have finally triumphed when, earlier this year, the brand migrated its webstore to ubiquitous e-commerce platform Shopify, which touts strong bot protection services. These days, according to the team behind bot service Supercop, which claimed to be “ranked #1” among all Supreme bots when reached via email earlier this week, “there’s significantly less demand” for their services. “Supreme,” they continued, “specifically has made it a bit more challenging than just a regular Shopify store.” 

According to Supercop, Supreme’s best defense hasn’t just been technological. “People are much less likely to impulse buy a bot now that Supreme has sold out and is producing much larger quantities of goods,” the company said in its statement.

Supercop is speculating—nobody really knows how much of anything Supreme makes. But it stands to reason that, in an effort to refocus on their core customer, Supreme could be making more of certain garments, especially now that they can draw on VF’s supply chain expertise (the company also owns The North Face, Dickies, Vans, and Timberland). A Supreme representative declined to comment.

As Supreme expands into new markets like China (via a dedicated shop at Dover Street Market Beijing, which opened in November), the brand is certainly selling more box logo-emblazoned gear overall than ever before. According to VF, Supreme revenues hit $561.5 million for the year ending in March 2022; VF had been expecting revenues of $500 million. In 2017, that number was around $200 million. 

In another sign that Supreme is entering a new period of normalcy, this surge in sales has coincided with an apparent dip in the brand’s collectibility. By at least one metric, the value of Supreme goods on the secondary market, while still inflated, is trending closer to its actual value. According to Cynthia Lee, VP of Merchandising at major resale player StockX, the average price premium of Supreme apparel and accessories sold on the site fell from 67% in 2020 to 57% in 2022, while overall sales volume held steady. 

If Steiner’s experience is any indication, other people who helped shape the hype-driven secondary market have likely left the game now that Supreme has come down to earth. 

“I think it’s natural,” said Steiner, who told me he has noticed a sense of fatigue among the kinds of guys who probably own superfan collectibles like Supreme nunchucks. “I mean, even some of the biggest collectors that I’m friends with, like—it’s a real thing. You’re talking about a brand that releases something on the same day at the same time every week.” 

Steiner, who now works for the Brooklyn-based art and fashion collective MSCHF, has moved on, too—the last Supreme item he bought was from a Kaws collaboration in 2021. “When does it become corny to have, you know, my Supreme fire extinguisher, my silverware, my mug?” he said. 

Still, just before 11:00 AM on a recent Thursday morning, the scene outside Supreme’s Bowery store was little different than it has been in the past. The air was chilly, and about 50 people waited patiently in a line that stretched down the length of the store as tattooed Supreme employees loaded cardboard boxes full of clothes through the front doors. The novelty product of the day was a Supreme x Tamagotchi toy. 

As the store opened for business, I struck up a conversation with a student named Jordan as he joined the back of the line. Jordan, who was wearing a Bape hoodie, said he didn’t want the Tamagotchi—he was there, on his fourth trip in recent years, to thumb through the racks. “I just want to check out the drop and see what’s in store,” he said. Didn’t he know, I asked, that he could buy basically whatever he wanted online? “Yeah,” he replied. “But it’s cool to be able to hold the stuff in your hands,” Jordan said, “as opposed to buying it online.” For a certain kind of Supreme customer, some things will never change.

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