by Yvonne Brown

The other night I was watching Hasan Minhaj on Netflix and picked up some fascinating tidbits about a staggeringly successful, globally influential company I’d never even heard of. In this show about the economics of streetwear , one of fashion’s hottest trends, I learned the brand Supreme is both super hip and maybe selling out.

Supreme, which makes t-shirts, hoodies and various accessories, originated in 1994 at a New York City skateboard shop. It caters to young males, highlighting skateboarding and hip hop.  Supreme’s website (link) says it has a unique identity and attitude that embodies young counter culture, defying convention, while offering quality and authenticity.

At the centre of the Supreme phenomenon is its box logo.Supreme often melds this logo with symbols from other popular artists and brands like Jackson Pollack, Nike, Levi’s, Louis Vuitton and Coke. This process of “lifting” or appropriating others’ work has long been a fixture of street culture. Supreme admits the concept for its basic red and white logo was taken from anti-consumerist artist Barbara Kruger “I Shop therefore I am” [photo]

Check out the cheeky lookbook Farmland Foods put together in response to Supreme hijacking their pastoral logo.Ironically the company that built an empire using other people’s work sues when it happens to them.

While Supreme’s business model is built around scarcity, last year the brand was valued at one billion dollars. That’s a heck of a lot of hoodies! Supreme releases a large number of different products, but only a relatively small number of each one. They don’t do big advertising campaigns or large scale press releases just short announcements on their social channels. Their message is then amplified across social media, especially Instagram, where celebrities, fashion-forward influencers, and collectors create an echo chamber of excitement. Once these items are released, some can sell out in a matter of seconds before emerging on resale websites, marked up 1,000% or more. (BBC, Capital)

“The beauty of fashion is that it’s conspicuous; everyone knows what you’re wearing, so if you’re wearing a scarce, fashionable product, you get the benefit of knowing privately that you own something scarce, but also the benefit of being able to show other people that you can own a scarce product. “ explains Adam Alter, the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

Alter was defining the hype beast and hype beasts are very critical of brands that compromise whatever cool essence they have sought to cultivate.

“Once a brand loses exclusivity, people shy away from it,” says Walter Harvin, editor-in-chief of Uncommon magazine, a publication for young artists in New York City.

And now we have the Carlyle Group, a huge investment banking corporation that buys and flips all kinds of companies for profit – the ultimate reseller.  Carlyle, who is involved in everything from donuts and hamburgers to oil drilling and fighter jets bombing Yemen  — not at all cool or ‘authentic’ – has quietly bought out roughly half of Supreme. It’s believed Carlyle will try to grow Supreme’s business quickly. When that happens, large numbers of ‘scarce’ t-shirts and hoodies could flood the market. Does that mean Supreme’s reputation will then collapse?

Maybe the Supreme/Carlyle collaboration isn’t a mistake in marketing or media relations, it will undoubtedly make its creators and purveyors a great deal of money in the short term. But it’s definitely looking like greed is all set to kill the golden beast. If you build your reputation on being hip and exclusive, selling out to a not-at-all hip, monster corporation may just kill your street cred and your reputation.

Mind you, if a middle aged lady like me is talking about it, Supreme has probably drifted pretty far from hype already.