The Supreme Court: A Definitive Judgement On A Divisive Brand

David Turner rules on 'Supremacist,' a new book about every cool kid's favorite brand

“I would say Supreme is a long-term conceptual art project about capitalism, consumerism, property-as-theft, corporate destruction, ideas like that,” writes David Shapiro, the author of the recently released Supremacist (Tyrant Books). He’s pretty far up his own ass. His book is ostensibly a travel memoir: Shapiro’s quest to visit every Supreme store in the world (except the Paris location, which he plans to visit later this year). In reality, Shapiro’s mission is to intellectualize and justify the brand’s existence, a snake eating his own pretentious and nonsensical — if well-dressed — tail.

Back in 2013, Shapiro wrote a piece for The New Yorker that focused on a Chinatown Supreme reseller and the community involved in flipping the brand’s clothing. He included a seemingly small detail: Supreme employees were sometimes holding back stock for friends. That little nugget was spotted by the community loyal to the brand, and they began to pester managers about hoarding precious products. Soon thereafter, Shapiro visited his last New York City Supreme location. “The manager escorted me to the door,” after identifying him as the writer, he explains. “I left and never came back.”

That particular moment didn’t sever his connection with the brand; if anything, it set in motion a far more personal journey to understand why he and so many others are invested in Supreme beyond the checkout counter. Unsurprisingly, with Shapiro’s shaky ground with the brand after his article, the book was written sans Supreme’s approval.

The New York City–based streetwear clothing brand was founded in 1994 by James Jebbia. Prior to Supreme, he worked at numerous early NYC streetwear stores, including the first New York City Stussy store. Supreme’s reach, in the last decade, has grown to include the broader fashion world, pop stars like Justin Bieber, and the man who intersects all those worlds: Kanye West.

Recently, the cult director Harmony Korine shot a Supreme ad featuring Gucci Mane upon his release from prison; in the past, they’ve partnered with artists like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, while also collaborating with brands as big as Nike and Hanes. Though they’ve done a number of these collaborations, there is still a buzz when they tap another brand, so even a special pair of Air Max 98s — not 90s or 95s, 98s — can cause a few head-turns.

This limited availability paired with that rigid and authoritarian aesthetic continues to provoke desire in its diehard fans. Racked recently created a digital zine devoted to the brand; Naomi Fry, for the New York Times, wrote about wearing the brand while identifying as well outside of the young, male target demographic. The assumed cool and cult of the brand is taken as a given in pieces like these, a reputation that is not so much earned as it is unchallenged. Shapiro spends much of the book surrounded by those who aren’t "in," and thus, according to him, needing to adopt his convictions.

That singular, beloved aesthetic vision is hardly their own: their iconic red-and-white logo, for starters, “borrowed” from the artist Barbara Kruger. In 2013, after decades of keeping it to herself, Kruger responded by saying: “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I'm waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.” Supreme, for the most part, avoided legal recursion for such practices, and in kind they don’t often seek legal action against companies that rip them off. In 2013, Supreme sued Married to the Mob for their “Supreme Bitch” line of merch, citing the volume of their merchandise as a threat to the purity of the Supreme brand, despite Jebbia not objecting to the brand’s initial production in 2004. So, the Supreme that Shapiro and his ilk love is one that can make men camp out for days for a new drop, while improperly using the artistic style of a feminist artist, and only sues when their name is attached to a derogatory female diminutive: With every layer of unintended irony, this brand becomes less an ouroboros than a collection of snakes accessorizing their own tails.

Supremacist follows Shapiro and his friend Camilla, a former college classmate similar to Shapiro in many ways (aimless, bored, twentysomething) as they journey to various Supreme locations: Los Angeles, Japan, London. The idea of visiting all these stores isn’t exceptionally enticing to Camilla as much as a month-long getaway from the New York winter. Even with those modest expectations, the trip quickly devolves into a drunken or sleeping-pill-induced trudge from store to store, with Shapiro touching the fabrics, contemplating buying a Supreme-branded hammer, and simultaneously pushing away and pulling in Camilla, who barely endures his presence throughout the journey. The strained relationship between Shapiro and Camilla dominates much of the book, lest one thought an elaborate history of Supreme was going to be woven into the narrative. The structure — he fucks up, she’s cold, he fucks up, she warms up to him — becomes repetitive quickly. Her arms-length distance to Shapiro feels appropriate. Even as the reader, there’s a sense that he really wasn’t joking when he mentions that the only thing he valued over Supreme was his parents. Every connection he makes is filtered through Supreme, and though that’s the mission he’s set upon, it creates a limited world. “The only thing I’d noticed about Los Angeles so far was that more of the billboards there seemed to be for movies and TV shows than the billboards in New York,” Shapiro writes in one of the few details given about Los Angeles during his stay. He clearly holds many thoughts about the world, but this trip puts him so out of his element that he withdraws back to touchstones that remind him of home.

Supreme, to Shapiro, is just an extension of New York City. Once out in Los Angeles, he tells Camilla he’s never been outside of the state of New York for longer than ten days (a fact stated with no second thought about his lack of worldliness) before he begins an oft-interrupted history of Supreme to his disinterested friend. But that detail is seen again and again throughout the book. Most of his strife can be chalked up to homesickness and ignorance, rather than fully existential pressures. This book takes Shapiro on his longest trip away from home for a brand defined by nostalgia for that very hometown. He goes halfway across the world to get a new experience, and then is turned off by how much it isn’t New York City.

Not even a Supreme-branded red flag could have have provided enough warning for how badly his trip to Japan goes, home to the majority of Supreme’s retail locations, even after he says his only real reference of Japan is Lost in Translation. When they arrive, their AirBnb host tells them that “Supreme doesn’t mean the same thing to people here as, I imagine, what it means to you. There is no counterculture.” Shapiro, so obsessed with underworld connotations of certain Supreme objects, fulfills this prediction: He cannot handle the thought of it being so readily accepted in Japan. That Supreme means New York City, and a hyper-specific kind of ’90s New York City that never really existed, means nothing in Japan. Their AirBnb host mentions how the United States might perceive a strong cultural difference between a Supreme and Ralph Lauren, but in Japan, where the cultural subtext is diminished, such brands can become interchangeable. Even the niceness of a McDonald's throws him off balance: “It was cleaner than the bathroom in my apartment.” A small moment, but that a fast food bathroom couldn’t meet his expectations reinforced how Japan — home to the most Supreme stores in the world — couldn’t possibly fit into the views he had projected onto the brand. For the entire trip, Shapiro feels out of place, except for the brief stay in London — New York’s international kin — which unsurprisingly pulls him in, just because, he notes, everything isn’t so fucking clean.

Shapiro readily admits the imagined New York City of the past is in his head and that he’s searching for a faux-nostalgic twinge. His eyes never allow him to see Supreme without a hometown bias. That Shapiro traveled the world to seek out the same garments shows his personal devotion to the brand, but even he admits the brand doesn’t support such devotion. Supremacist wrestles with that contradiction, but still doesn't know, when faced with that red logo, how to just say no.