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Why a CFDA nomination signals the end of anti-establishment Supreme

Recognition might be long overdue, but Supreme’s transition into the fashion elite leaves a funny taste in the mouth

Last night, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) announced the nominees for its annual CFDA Fashion Awards, probably the most prestigious fashion award ceremony in the world. The shortlist features a number of familiar nominations. Marc Jacobs received a nomination for Womenswear Designer of the Year, while Raf Simons and Virgil Abloh were nominated for both the Menswear and Womenswear awards, for example.

There was, however, one name on the Menswear shortlist that was surprising for a number of reasons. James Jebbia, founder of Supreme, received a nomination for Menswear Designer of the Year, presumably for his extensive work at the iconic New York skate brand for the past two decades. On the one hand, the nomination seems long overdue – looking at the current fashion landscape, the influence that Jebbia and his brand have had upon contemporary style is undeniable. But there’s one problem.

James Jebbia isn’t a fashion designer. In fact, beyond maybe a t-shirt here and there in the early years, it’s unclear whether he’s ever designed a piece of clothing in his life. Jebbia opened the now infamous Supreme store on Soho’s Lafayette Street in 1994 after managing Union’s NYC store, and then the Stüssy flagship, and has since worked with numerous creatives – most notably Brendon Babenzien and Angelo Baque who, until recently, headed up the brand’s Creative Direction and Art Direction respectively.

All of which leads us to question why the CFDA felt it was necessary to nominate Jebbia for such an award. And when the direct justifications for such a nomination (e.g. being a fashion designer) are absent, you’d be forgiven for concluding it’s something more symbolic. Twelve months after Supreme broke both the internet and the real world with its Louis Vuitton collaboration, it seems like the fashion establishment is looking for a way to authenticate Supreme as one of its own, and for a brand whose favorite slogans include anti-authoritarian phrases like “Fuck ‘em” and “Go to Hell”, it leaves a funny taste in the mouth.

Had the nomination come in the years preceding the Louis Vuitton collection, one might have received it differently. Supreme’s star had been on the rise for several years already, and to be given an accolade after twenty years of quietly influencing menswear design, it would have signified a typically-insular fashion industry recognising the impact of one of its “outsiders”.

But to nominate the brand in 2018, in the wake of a collaboration that cemented Supreme as part of the mainstream, news that some of the brand had been sold to a multi-billion dollar asset management group, and the overall impression that Supreme was entering a new chapter in its story (read: cashing in), makes this seem less like a celebration of the brand as it does just another day in the establishment rewarding one of its own.

Put simply, the Larry Clark days are over, lads. Over the past few years, as streetwear has morphed from the fashion industry’s scrappy younger sibling to the cornerstone of contemporary fashion design itself, the culture of hype that informed so much of Supreme’s reputation has morphed, also, into something more grotesque. The markup charged by resellers on coveted pieces has crept up from 100%, to 300% and beyond, and the relatively-underground community of Supreme fanatics who would line up outside Dover Street Market London has become an entire youth culture, with entire families lining up for hours to spend thousands on the latest gear. 

Supreme’s ascension and acceptance into the upper echelons of fashion has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, no person who remembers when they first fell in love with Supreme could be unhappy seeing the brand get the recognition it so clearly deserves after such a long time. On the other, it’s a process which has seen the brand’s magic formula subsumed into the fashion ecosystem to a point that the two are now virtually indistinguishable.

Streetwear culture, like sneakerhead culture, is informed by the concept of luxury through exclusivity. It’s not that the product is necessarily expensive or luxurious, just that it’s limited. It wasn’t about showing off your wealth, but your connections – your ability to get hold of something that others couldn’t. But in 2018, in the wake of that Louis Vuitton collaboration and the absurd inflation of resale prices, Supreme has fallen victim to one of the same things it originally rebelled against – people buying product (and lots of it) purely as a show of wealth.

“Supreme’s magic formula (has been) subsumed into the fashion ecosystem to a point that the two are now virtually indistinguishable”

The very real culture that Supreme is built upon has been replaced by “the culture”, a bland, vacuous phrase that various chancers borrow when trying to bolster their work with some sort of caché. If anything, the tragedy is that the magic formula that Supreme has employed successfully for all these years hasn’t changed at all – they’re still knocking out collection after collection of culturally-grounded, slick, stylish but ultimately irreverent clothing that people want to wear, whether they’re 15 or 51. It’s the world around them that has transformed irrevocably, and they’ve fallen victim to its conflation of price, value, culture and cool.

Round that off with the common perception that the vast majority of industry award ceremonies are rarely anything more than the establishment congratulating itself, and it’s difficult to feel too overjoyed about James Jebbia’s CFDA nomination. This isn’t about the fashion industry celebrating Supreme and the man that made it one of the most important fashion labels of the past three decades. It’s about the fashion industry patting itself on the back for finally “getting” it. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether Jebbia will actually show up.