Podcast #4: How Supreme Connects Art & Commerce

Podcast #4: How Supreme Connects Art & Commerce

“The Chanel of downtown streetwear.”
- Business of Fashion

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When James Jebbia arrived in New York from London in 1983 he had, in his own words, “no training in anything and no loot.” He applied for a job at a Soho boutique called Parachute and, lucky for us, he was hired. Jebbia spent five years at the store learning about retail, but like most of us blessed with the entrepreneurial spirit, he eventually started to feel stuck and wanted to work for himself. So he began his own venture, a flea market on Wooster Street, with his then-girlfriend, Maryann.

Around the same time, Jebbia began going back to London regularly. It was on these trips that he was inspired by the “cool and unusual things for young people” at smaller stores like Duffer of St. George and Bond. He recognized that no one was offering that type of thing in New York, so in 1989 he decided to open a shop, Union, featuring English brands that were hard to get in the U.S. He also carried an upstart brand from the West Coast, Stussy, that exploded in popularity and changed everything for Union. When Union got a shipment of Stussy it would sell out instantly, so Union basically transformed into almost a full-on Stussy shop. Through this success, Jebbia befriended the brand’s founder, Shawn Stussy, and they decided to open a Stussy-branded store on Prince Street in 1991. The store saw its own share of success, but soon after its opening, Shawn became disillusioned with the direction of his brand, resigned, and decided to sell his shares in the company. With the future of Stussy unclear, James Jebbia decided to break out on his own once again. He found a vacant storefront with cheap rent on Lafayette Street—then a neglected part of town— and decided to open a store selling what he referred to as “skater stuff.” He called the new store Supreme.

Why did he open a skate store? Well, for years he’d been going to fashion industry trade shows like A.S.R. and Magic, and the only thing that excited him there was the skate stuff, which he described as “powerful and raw.” He didn’t know of any good skate shops left in the city, so he thought that could be a good direction. Jebbia was also personally into the skater graphic decks, tees, and sweats, so he decided to make that the center of his merchandising. What he didn’t know at the time was that the stuff he found so personally appealing would become his brand.

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While Jebbia may not have written a business plan or had grand aspirations, he did have a very clear vision for what he wanted his store to be: “It needed to be an authentic skate shop that hardcore skaters would appreciate, but just as importantly a shop that people who didn’t skate would be intrigued by. And that’s pretty much how it went down.” Jebbia knew what he didn’t know, and in this case he knew he wasn’t a skater, so his first and most important hire was Gio Estevez. It was Gio who hired most of the team at Supreme, and he brought in people he knew and trusted: his fellow skaters.

Gio’s team legitimized Supreme, and from the first day the store was swarmed by the New York skate community, generating immediate and genuine authenticity. The store’s layout helped, with an open central space allowing skaters to enter on their boards. Sales started off slow, with Supreme acting more as a hang-out for skaters than a retail shop. Had Jebbia been shortsighted, he might have killed that vibe, but instead he embraced it because he knew having the skater community would lead to everyone else becoming customers as well. He was humble and smart enough to let his team and core group of skaters take center stage. This fostered the brand’s organic growth and enabled him to stay behind the scenes and focus on what he was best at: curating great product (or, as he says, finding “good stuff to sell”).

Jebbia’s vision and patience paid off. When Supreme started becoming popular, the skaters always came first and everyone else could wait. And since then, that’s what everyone else continues to do. Twenty-plus years after their quiet opening, huge lines and crowds are the expectation at Supreme. Moreover, now customers line up and gather not only at the Lafayette Street store but at ten additional Supreme locations, six of them in Japan and the rest in Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Brooklyn. Not only has Supreme collaborated with an eclectic selection of the world’s best brands, including Nike, Air Jordan, Comme des Garçons, Vans, Clarks, North Face, Hanes, Levi’s, and White Castle, they have managed to turn skateboards into collectable works of contemporary art.

Supreme has released skateboard decks featuring the work of some of the world’s most recognized, relevant artists, including Ryan McGinness, KAWS, Larry Clark, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, Nate Lowman, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, John Baldessari, and Rammellzee. Why would artists whose work sells for millions of dollars make a $150 skateboard design for Supreme? Well, according to Jebbia, “If the project is really good and feels like a good fit, your approach is sincere and you’re not trying to screw anyone over, people are quite open to doing things, no matter how large or established they are.”

At Supreme they do things their way, with little if any concern for how the rest of the fashion industry operates. Instead of releasing their new collections all at once, Supreme releases a small number of items at a time, usually somewhere between five and fifteen. The “drop,” as they call it, occurs online at 11 A.M. local time in America, the UK, and Japan, typically selling out in minutes. While many people believe this strategy is about building hype, the truth is that short runs of product were actually born out of not wanting to saddle their business with excess inventory. The strategy was discovered, not manufactured.

As a result of this strategy, there’s now a huge secondary market for Supreme. Do a quick search of Supreme on eBay and you’ll understand. The skateboard decks they created with artist Damien Hirst that sold for $150 each in limited quantity are now on sale as a set on eBay for $10,000. And on a recent visit to a consignment sneaker shop in New York, I spied multiple basic-colored jersey sweatshirts with the Supreme logo selling secondhand for five times the retail price less than a month after they were released. There was even a members-only website called Strictly Supreme, where brand zealots traded rumors and merchandise, and invitations to join were almost as hard to get as the clothes themselves. (The site has since shut down and the majority of online reselling has moved to Facebook and Grailed.com.) Once again, this wasn’t the result of some contrived marketing strategy; instead, it came out of an obsessive desire to serve the needs of the business and the customer. Says Jebbia: “The most important thing for us is having great products in the store that we hope people will like, that they buy, that sell out, and we keep it moving.” Meaning it’s far better to make less money but be sold out than to take on excess risk just to increase your short-term profits.

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Most businesses have the goal of getting as big as possible. Supreme, on the other hand, strives to remain underground and boutique, growing only when they deem it will enhance the brand. As style writer Glenn O’Brien put it, “Supreme is a company that refuses to sell out.” But why? Well, first off, because it wouldn’t be authentic to who they are, what they do, and what they’re into. For instance, when asked why they wouldn’t expand into women’s wear, Jebbia simply replied, “It’s not what we know.” And that’s all they’ve done—manifest an authentic reflection of their core beliefs with unyielding discipline.

Supreme is a reflection of Jebbia’s life experiences and passions. It just happened that his passion for “cool and unusual things for young people” was in harmony with the global youth movement that his brand has come to represent. Supreme continues to succeed on a massive scale because they have the discipline to focus their resources on creating great products rather than over-expanding.

Or, as Jebbia puts it, “Staying true to what you do best has played a major role in our longevity. I would like people to see that we’re a small, independent skate company that has done our own thing, in our own way, over many years, and will hopefully continue to do so.”

Art, Commerce, and Authenticity

On the surface, art and commerce aren’t clearly connected; if anything, they seem at odds with each other.

Art is the expression of human creativity and imagination, which produces works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty.

It’s emotional.

Commerce is the activity of buying and selling, particularly on a grand scale. It’s black and white: either a purchase is made or it isn’t. It’s practical.

Prior to the industrial age, commerce was all about fulfilling a need. For example, you need to eat food for sustenance. Therefore, I’ll sell you a piece of bread or a glass of beer to satisfy your need. This transaction had no art—one person had the bread or the beer, and the other had the money to pay for the sustenance to survive.

But as time went on, art crept into the equation. There were no longer only one, two, or three entities selling bread or beer, there were dozens, then hundreds, and eventually thousands. And the ones who sold the most made it about more than just fulfilling a practical or commercial need. They took it personally, infusing human creativity and imagination—a/k/a art—into the creation and sharing of their bread or beer.

For example, Wonder wasn’t the only industrially produced bread in 1921; it was the only one that was “enriched” with vitamins,pre-sliced, and inspired by the “wonder” of the International Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Speedway. Anheuser-Busch wasn’t the first brewery in the United States; it was the first brewery to truly benefit from communicating the advantages of pasteurization, extensive beer bottling, and refrigerated rail cars through advertisements and giveaways such as bottle openers, calendars, and corkscrews. One of these advertisements was a lithograph by St. Louis artist Cassilly Adams. Over a million copies of the print, Custer’s Last Fight, were distributed, and it’s known as “one of the most popular pieces of artwork in American history.”

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The infusion of art into commerce continues in the modern market. Just think how many artisanal bakers and craft breweries pop up and spread this concept every day. And in our new age, art is more powerful than it has ever been.

Why? Well, as we explained earlier, the ability to reach customers is more cost effective than ever—therefore the intangible and emotional elements have become the key differentiating factor. There are plenty of places to purchase a great spicy tuna roll, but there’s only one Masayoshi Takayama. According to his website, “Masayoshi Takayama’s appreciation for food started at a young age, growing up working for his family’s fish market in a town of Tochigi Prefecture, Japan. From his early years of delivering fresh sashimi to neighbors on his bicycle, to prepping and grilling hundreds of fish courses to cater weddings in high school, his relationship with food has always been a way of life.” That’s the beginning of a story that makes Takayama’s sushi different and special—that makes it art. And that art is what induces people to pay $600 per person in his New York restaurant for a chance to try it.

Despite our efforts to be practical and logical, humans remain emotional beings, and we all crave meaningful emotional interaction with other humans. We don’t just want meatballs, we want Grandma’s meatballs; we don’t just want a smartphone, we want to Think Different; we don’t just want to go to any old amusement park, we want to go to the Magic Kingdom; and we don’t want water, we want artesian water from Fiji. The story, the experience—that’s what is critical to creating, and the emotional connection established through that art is what drives commerce in the contemporary market.

Like Ian Schrager and James Jebbia, creators must deeply believe in what they’re manifesting in order for others to believe. Today’s term of choice for this conviction is authenticity. Walk into any boardroom nowadays and you’ll hear executives asking how they can make their products or services more authentic. The challenge is that there’s no way to be authentic without actually doing something that’s genuine. You must believe in what you’re creating and sharing with the world. Authenticity is exactly that—the point at which you manifest your deep beliefs into something tangible. Therefore, in the modern market there’s more value than ever placed on the level of belief that creators have in their creation.

The art world gives us a perfect example of this. When artists start out, no one knows who they are or what they do. Despite this, they start manifesting their vision. A painter begins painting and sharing those paintings with the market. Maybe she sells a couple at a low price, or maybe she can’t sell any. So what does she do? Somehow she begins to share the story behind her art. Why does she paint? Where did she come from? What’s her inspiration? What’s the meaning behind her work? Why does she need—not want, need—to paint? And over time people hear her story: some connect with it and others don’t, but the ones who do connect, who see a reflection of themselves in her story, become her tribe. Maybe eventually she gets a gallerist, manager, patron, or publicist, and they share her resonant story with even more people, growing her tribe. Then what happens? Though the paintings are the same, by combining the work with an authentic, resonant story, our painter magically creates value and demand for her art grows.

The value of story—of creator reputation—was vividly demonstrated in a social experiment conducted by the street artist Banksy during a 2013 New York residency. This is an artist whose work has sold for as much as $1.87 million at auction. Banksy erected a street stall on a sidewalk bordering Central Park and had a vendor sell his prints for sixty dollars each. He then posted a video of his experiment. Footage from a hidden camera captures some of his most iconic images displayed on a table. Tourists and locals meander by. His first sale doesn’t come for hours. A woman buys two small works for her children, negotiating a fifty percent discount. Around four in the afternoon, a woman from New Zealand buys two more. A little over an hour later, a Chicago man who “just needs something for the walls,” buys four. With each sale, the vendor gives the buyer a hug or kiss. At 6 p.m., he closes the stall, having made $420. In June 2015, one of these stenciled prints, Love Is in the Air—an image of a masked protestor throwing a bouquet of flowers—sold for $249,000. How much of the value of Banksy’s art is tied up in his name, his global brand?

Visual art is a compelling illustration of the power of story because art serves no practical purpose. Its value doesn’t grow because more people need paintings, like we need shovels after a blizzard—it grows because people connect with the artist through the art. The combination of the work and the story make them feel, and when that happens, people take action to satisfy their emotional need—in this case, desire—by buying and sharing the art.

And it’s occurred this way since the beginning of time, except now the art—the intangibles—have more power than ever before.

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