Last Thursday morning in lower Manhattan, the sun was high above the Supreme store. I joined a group of eager shoppers waiting for the brand’s latest drop: a collaboration with the thrash metal band Slayer. The initial reaction to the line has been mostly tepid. The metal trend in streetwear is, in my opinion, a bit overdone — in three years, the influence of metal aesthetics in pop merchandise has worked its way through Kanye’s Yeezus tour all the way to Forever 21’s Justin Bieber line — but in the last decade, Supreme has worked with bands like Bad Brains, The Clash, The Dead Kennedys, and Public Enemy on lines that honor their musical heroes, so it could be said that they come by this trend semi-legitimately.
The new collection is mostly made up of shirts displaying iconic Slayer photos, the images largely repeated and abstracted with the band’s logo — perhaps as an acknowledgment that this style is overexposed. Supreme isn’t cynically co-opting the metal scene, exactly, but this collab isn’t anything too major, if the atmosphere at the release was any indication. The mood was low-key — jovial but quiet, with people mostly talking among themselves. At one point, a white mother who was standing in line with her son stepped out to survey how long the wait seemed to be. Once she was a safe distance away, a teenage girl quipped, “I bet she's a Trump supporter.”
This was capitalism at its most comical, the recent election results hovering over this group of consumers who were united only by their shared interest in wearing Supreme as a form of cultural capital. Who in this line had voted for Trump, and could we tell just by looking at what they bought? No. We could only guess based on our limited fields of vision.
Last week, Supreme used their Instagram account to make a surprise announcement, one that had nothing to do with clothing or collaborations: They pledged their support for Hillary Clinton with the hashtags “imwithher” and “fucktrump.” Public reaction was swift and negative. Fans were upset to see their beloved brand taking such an overt political stance — seemingly any political stance. One Instagram commenter wrote: “Thought supreme had an anti establishment bent? Illegal business control America.. So let’s vote hillary? Not like it matters she’s Already been selected anyway [sic throughout].”
This isn’t the first time Supreme has publicly leaned left. In 2005 the brand released “Fuck Bush” stickers, which still, a decade later, stands out as one of their most overtly political commentaries. But what was unexpected in the Clinton post, it seems, was a positive endorsement rather than a critical repudiation, as Supreme’s default political tone leans far closer to purchasing a pin that reads “Eat the Rich” than explicitly pushing its customers to vote.
Supreme wasn’t the only sportswear line to develop a political dimension recently. Sara Germano, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, tweeted a quote from New Balance’s VP of public affairs, Matt LeBretton:
New Balance: "The Obama admin turned a deaf ear to us & frankly w/ Pres-Elect Trump we feel things are going to move in the right direction"— Sara Germano (@germanotes) November 9, 2016
He was speaking in terms of corporate interest and not championing Trump’s rhetoric, but that’s little comfort for people bracing themselves for the realities of living under a Trump presidency. Germano reported that the social media backlash was intense and focused: Some people set their shoes on fire; others tweeted their dismay.
After that, LeBretton backtracked — sort of. He told BuzzFeed News that the statement was “correct in the context of trade, not talking about larger geo-political anything.” New Balance prides itself on making its goods in America and has opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership at every turn; as Forbes pointed out, they most likely would’ve supported Hillary Clinton if she'd been elected, as she had recently spoken out against the TPP as well.
thank god new balances were antiblack to begin with— touch it (remix) (@vidalwuu) November 10, 2016
new balances look like racist shoes. so.— HEAVILY SPOOKY!! (@sammie_scottie) November 10, 2016
The racist Trump trolls are in my mentions talking about "Don't boycott New Balance shoes cause' they are made in America". But the truth is pic.twitter.com/KgBIb8t1rb— Tariq Nasheed (@tariqnasheed) November 11, 2016
The company also put out a brief official statement that neither addressed the controversy nor firmly disputed any of LeBretton’s comments.
Keep in mind that this lukewarm and half-assed pseudo-response happened within 24 hours of the election results. To many consumers, there is no acceptable way, no matter how tacit, to align a company with a president-elect who represents hatred against a large segment of the American people. And there’s no going back, either — since Clinton’s concession, Supreme has not said anything one way or the other. These political half-steps hint at how a company leans, but they don’t work for real change or push ideas forward. Sure, consumers can “vote” with their dollars, but that’s a thin gesture in the face of the retail industry’s increasing normalization of a Trump administration.
Once I reached the front of the Supreme line and got to the store, it was business as usual. I browsed the racks, picked up a beanie, and quickly made it through the checkout line. The teenager who had joked about the Trump supporter made her way through the packed store, passing by the mom she’d made the comment about. The sun went down on another day and another purchase.