A new novel out today unpacks the skate brand’s cult appeal – its author dissects its relationship with consumerism, New York nostalgia, and masculinity
I’m a girl, I can’t skate, and I have never bought anything from Supreme. (Last week I took a quiz designed to test knowledge of the brand – it told me to keep shopping at Zara). Of course, I’ve been aware of it, and the kind of fevered fandom it generates – I’ve watched with mild bewilderment as a male friend got excited over a pack of three plain white Supreme t-shirts; I’ve wandered into the New York store out of curiosity and observed the men shopping there with an anthropological fascination; I’ve questioned the way their logo appropriates the typography of one of my favourite anticapitalist feminist artists. But I’ve always been aware that I am not their target customer – this is one (boys’?) club that doesn’t really need me queueing up outside its stores for the latest Thursday morning drop.
Out today, new novel Supremacist by NY-based author David Shapiro is an in-depth exploration of the brand (and those who worship it) like you’ve never read before. After the narrator – also named David Shapiro – discovers his girlfriend is cheating on him with a presumably more attractive and far cooler man who works at Supreme, he develops an obsession with the company, spending $15,000 of his inheritance money on what might seem to be pretty useless products. “Every item in the store that I might have wanted, I already had,” he says. “Things I didn’t even like. I didn’t have any control over it.”
With a prescription drug problem, alcohol addiction and seemingly disinterested love interest in tow, the narrator goes on a trip to every Supreme store in the world – as Shapiro himself did, using the money from the publisher’s advance to fund the trip. He buys Supreme Post-Its “from the white guy in Odd Future” in LA, and picks up a branded hammer in Fukuoka, Japan – all documented with polaroids throughout the book. He cycles through the history of Supreme and collaborations, and details his theories on how it functions, not as a money-making clothes company, but as a “long-term conceptual art project about capitalism, consumerism, property-as-theft, (and) corporate destruction”.
The book is as much an analysis of Supreme’s position in culture and commerce as it is a story about millennial obsession, insecurity, and ennui. Which makes it sound depressing – but it isn’t, really. You should buy it for every Supreme-worshipping fuccboi (or girl) in your life, or, if you are one of those, for every sceptical person like me you’ve ever pulled into a store to wait while you thumbed at the t-shirts, sweaty beads of desire forming on your brow. Here, Shapiro discusses Supreme’s ability to not sell out even if its clothes do, its inherent discomfort with consumption and how it can represent a kind of idealised masculinity to those who buy it.
The narrator shares your name – how much of this story is true?
David Shapiro: Outside of the realm of my writing, i.e., in my professional and personal lives, I live under a different name, which is not David Shapiro. The character's name is already made up. All aspects of the story that reflect positively on the narrator are true reflections of myself in real life – everything upsetting, troubled, or that otherwise reflects poorly on the narrator is fictional. But I did go on a trip to all Supreme stores in the world during a three-week winter break from school, before they opened the Paris store.
Where did the idea for the trip come from?
David Shapiro: There’s a Supreme North Face map backpack that is like a map of the world, and there’s an area in it that just says Supreme, it’s like an ocean or something. When I saw it I guess it occurred to me that it would be a worthwhile trip, and I also wanted to explore some relationship I have with Supreme. I wanted to go on the trip and thought the way to pay for it was by selling the idea of the book.
How did you first encounter Supreme?
David Shapiro: I went to college in Manhattan and I used to walk past the store, and whenever I did they were playing extremely loud and aggressive music. It seemed like, not only was it was not designed to woo customers in, but it was designed to make people inside uncomfortable and leave. The first thing that struck me was that it felt like a store that didn’t seem to be that interested in commerce – they weren’t really looking to do business or to sell to people. I walked past it for a long time on the way to class, and I guess I never thought I was eligible to buy or to wear things from it – I could buy something there, but then everybody would know that I was a big poser. In an obvious way, I am not entitled to wear Supreme, I’m not a teenage skater or have an image like theirs. I think they would prefer if people who look like me and otherwise are like me just really didn’t wear their clothes that much.
What does Supreme represent to you?
David Shapiro: What I think is really romantic about the brand is that, for Supreme, New York in 1994 is like the end of history – everything that came after was incidental. New York in 1994 was a moment of some grit, and some life, that I think maybe the brand is of the view that that has been washed away in the ensuing time. I think that for me – I was only 6-years-old back then – it’s a romantic vision of a time that was wilder or nastier than my own. I think that’s what the ultimate appeal in Supreme is, to me. It’s like a time capsule.
How can it maintain that past-era authenticity when it’s such a huge company, now with a store in Paris?
David Shapiro: I think the brand exists sort of in a bubble – its fans and the attention it gets has changed a lot, but the product they make speaks to what I’m saying. The Paris store doesn’t exactly, and there are a lot of other aspects of the brand’s public presence that don’t speak for the romantic aspect. But that’s not really in their control – there is nothing more that the brand could do to be unsalesman-like, unless they stopped putting up the wheatpaste posters or something. In some idealised way, I think the brand is like, ‘We keep our heads down, we make quality products and that’s what we do’. And the phenomenon isn’t part of the brand’s perception of itself.
“(Supreme) make products that are really fascinating. They’re aggressive and subtle and beautiful” – David Shapiro
Why do you think it inspires such obsessive behaviour?
David Shapiro: Primarily because they make products that are really fascinating. They’re aggressive and subtle and beautiful. I think the prices are fair, somewhere between fair and low. One of the most interesting aspects about is that they seem content to leave a lot of money on the table – they could sell all this stuff for like twice as much, three times as much. Like the punching bag that came out last week. It was an Everlast leather heavy bag for $388 dollars online, plus like 50 bucks for tax and an extra $40 for shipping because it weighed 70lbs. I was like ‘That’s a lot, I don’t think that I’m going to do it’, and now it’s on eBay for $5000. I think some aspect of the DNA of the brand is that it’s uncomfortable with consumption. With the logo taken from Barbara Kruger, ‘I shop therefore I am’ – it’s disgusted with consumerism, but it’s a clothing brand. And I think the discomfort that the brand has with its consumption is the same discomfort that I feel myself. Being a consumer is ugly… there’s something innately disgusting about it.
Supreme might seem to be critical of consumerism, but it is still a profitable brand that plays on people’s desire to define themselves through purchases...
David Shapiro: That gets to the tension of it, and what I think is so interesting about it and somewhat conscious within it. I think it’s part of its DNA that it feels the same kind of dissatisfaction with consumerism that I know that I do… or that people do.
The narrator discusses how Supreme fans are engaged in this ‘hierarchy of sneering’ at each other – can you explain that?
David Shapiro: It’s basically the idea that there’s a certain internal ranking of one another among Supreme customers – those who understand it more and are greater participants in the culture that Supreme touches are kind of sneering at everyone who is a lesser participant in the brand. It goes all the way up to the brand in a way… everyone involved is a customer, and being a customer is like a position of need and desperation and I think that that relationship is more evident relating to a brand like Supreme and for whom there is real desperation.
The thing I enjoyed the most about the book is that it’s a book about Supreme but it’s also about masculinity and male insecurity. The narrator says he will never be part of the ‘fraternity’ of Supreme. I think the reason that some women might feel alienated from it is that it is this ‘fraternity’, it can seem like a very male world. Men buy Supreme to impress other men.
David Shapiro: Yeah, it’s men’s only! I mean, it’s a men’s only clothing brand. I don’t know how men would dress for the benefit of women… would it be like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever? With an unbuttoned shirt? I mean, I agree with what you say, but I don’t know that there’s anything I can add to that.
So what do you think Supreme tells us about men today or masculinity today?
David Shapiro: You wouldn’t be the first to attempt to get from me to rundown of the Supreme customer. Maybe we just say the brand puts forward a different iteration of masculinity or some essential quality that may not be matched in its customers.
Why did you decide to have the narrator become Supreme-obsessed after he discovers his girlfriend is cheating on him with one of their employees?
David Shapiro: Would I be doing my book a disservice by explaining how I came up with the idea? In a way the idea that you’re getting that the Supreme holds some extreme promise of a fulfilled masculinity. I guess that explains why the narrator becomes interested in Supreme after he learns of his girlfriend. It’s like almost outdoorsy in an urban way, it’s like it has some eternal masculine quality of ruggedness, but also whatever modern masculine aspiration of refinement. But I don’t know to express my understating or relationship to it in a better way than I did in the book.
“I think the discomfort that the brand has with its consumption is the same discomfort that I feel myself. Being a consumer is ugly…there’s something innately disgusting about it” – David Shapiro
How far do you think that the narrator’s insecurity fundamentally drives the journey that he’s going on?
David Shapiro: Doesn’t one’s fundamental insecurity drive almost everything? Without insecurity why would you get up in the morning? That’s the fundamental motivating quality of my life. I can’t speak for everybody but what happens to one of us happens to most of us, right?
Do you know what Supreme thinks of the book?
David Shapiro: I have had some interaction with James Jebbia, the founder – he is not a fan or admirer of my writing in any way. He has been pretty open about expressing his displeasure with it, and that covers magazines stories and stuff that I have written before. I don’t know if he has read the book, I told him about it and he replied to another part of my email with no mention of the book at all. I guess beyond that, I can imagine why the book would be somewhat disconcerting for them because it’s like an entity that is so rigorously self-defined, and has for a really long time. So for a person to examine it in the way the book does, however good or bad that examination is, it’s something that can be uncomfortable for a brand that’s secretive – here’s like, some fucking dweeb writing a book that contributes to a much larger public sense of the brand. Into the void comes some fucking nerd. I think it’s something that I can I understand they would not be thrilled with.