Every Thursday, we dig up a favorite piece from the archives and bring it back to life. Today, we're highlighting an interview between James Jebbia of Supreme and Glenn O'Brien that appeared in Interview Magazine in February 2009. If you haven't read it, consider this a blessing.
Supreme was a major player in the streetwear scene by 2009. In fact, even writer Glenn O'Brien, who interviews James Jebbia here and is nearly twice the age of most of Supreme's customers, is both a fan of the label and understands its importance. In this rare sit-down for Interview Magazine, the two talk about Supreme's beginnings, why the brand is so popular in Japan (and how it became so in demand), and the importance of developing a signature aesthetic. There is also a moment where O'Brien recalls back to his first time visiting a Supreme shop.
"I don’t wish for anybody to go out of business, but I think there are far too many things in New York that really shouldn’t be here. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for more than 20 years, so three or four times I’ve been through things where it’s like, 'Wow, it’s a tough time.' Ever since September 11, I’ve been quite conservative in what we’ve ordered. We’ve never really been supply-demand anyway. It’s not like when we’re making something, we make only six of them. But if we can sell 600, I make 400. We’ve always been like that—at least for the past seven or eight years. For every season, we put in a lot of work to try to create exciting stuff. So it’s not like in these difficult times we’re going to suddenly pull up our socks—we’ve always been busting our asses every single day to try to get it right."
Jebbia says he opened Supreme in 1994 because there weren't any real skate shops around that made good-looking clothes.
"II’d always loved what went on in skateboarding. I’d never skated myself, but I loved the graphics—I really liked the rebelliousness of it. And a lot of kids who worked for me skated, but it seemed to me that there were no skate shops around. So I was like, 'Okay, cool, maybe I’ll do a skate shop.' It cost me, like, $12,000 to open the store. Rent was two grand. It was like, 'Hey, if we do five grand a week, then great!' We didn’t really do any business at first, but we did okay. I really liked all of the hard goods—the decks, the wheels, the trucks. But all of the clothing that the skate companies put out was crap. These companies had to sell to a wide range of people, and a lot of them were very young. When people think of skaters, they think of, like, the 12- or 13- or 14-year-old kid. But in New York, it was the 18-to-24-year-old hardcore kid who wasn’t wearing any skate stuff. They’d wear a hat or whatever, but they wouldn’t wear the clothing,because it would fit badly and was bad quality, and skaters want to look good and pick up girls. So we slowly started making our own stuff. It was a time when it was a lot easier to do that kind of thing. It was easier to make a sweatshirt in Brooklyn, or do these hats locally, because you could get nice things made fairly easily. And because we didn’t have to worry about appeasing a 14-year-old kid in a mall, we spent a lot of time trying to make the right stuff. We didn’t dumb it down—we only made things that we really liked. I feel like kids in New York appreciated that, and after a while we got a bit of a following in Japan and in Europe, and we’ve just kind of done it the same ever since. We’ve kept on that same mission of just being a small company, but really trying to make our product as good as anybody else’s and concentrating on what we can do well. That’s why I’ve appreciated you as a customer. A lot of people dismiss what we do. They think, Well, it’s skate, so it’s got to be, like, big baggy pants, cap backwards, big chain...They don’t understand that just because skating is the culture we’re working in, it doesn’t mean that we can’t make good things."
Jebbia believes it's important to keep an eye on what's going on in fashion, but to stick to what you do well.
Glenn O'Brien: "Well, I stopped in eventually because I was in the neighborhood. I’m probably the age of your customers’ fathers and I must have walked by Supreme a thousand times before I ever walked in. But I guess I saw something in the window and I thought, 'Gee, that looks good. Maybe I’ll go look at that.' Then I immediately realized that both the quality and the concept were great. The khakis or the jeans that I have from you is stuff where I’m like, 'Why didn’t I buy three pairs?' A.P.C. is also like that—there’s an independent mentality."
JJ: "Definitely. I feel like A.P.C. has done a great job of really sticking to what they do. They keep an eye on what’s going on in fashion, but it’s always rooted in a ’60s kind of French style. Our stuff is pretty similar each season, but we keep an eye on what’s going on, and it’s always fresh, and there’s always, I think, a sense of the early ’90s to it. That era is definitely a big influence running through everything we do—that was a really special time. And since we started back then, I think it’s fine for us to always look to that era and get a lot of influence from it. It’s not nostalgic—it’s more like it’s a part of us."
Jebbia says he chose the name Supreme because it sounded like a good name for a retail shop, but wasn't intended to turn into a brand.
JJ: "Supreme wasn’t meant to be a brand. I just was like, “Hey, that’s a cool name for a store.” But it’s become a problem since it’s become a brand because we don’t own the name. It’s a good name, but it’s a difficult one to trademark."
GO: "Interview is kind of like that. Somebody has an Interview out in Russia now. But you also have a great logo, so that probably makes it easier in a way."
JJ: "Yeah, it does. That kind of thing used to bug me more. I know there are other Supreme shops in other countries, but after a while, people know what the real thing is. With Supreme, there were no grand plans—with the name, with the store, with anything. It all just evolved. These days, it’s a lot more difficult to do that. You’ve got to come out with all guns blazing right away or you don’t stand a chance. Whereas when we first started, there weren’t blogs ready to shoot us down the day we opened. We were given time to make mistakes and grow."
Despite Supreme's success in Japan, Jebbia explains he didn't target that audience. Instead, the Japanese found Supreme.
JJ: "Yeah. Do you go to Japan much?"
GO: "I used to go a lot. I’m dying to go back."
JJ: "I go maybe once a year and I always get inspired. I think what happened was, right when we were starting, there was a little scene building up in Japan. There were a few new Japanese brands starting up for young people. Now, they don’t need any more product out there, but if it’s something that’s legitimate, then I think they’re very keen to embrace it. So our eyes were never on Japan. It was more like—"
GO: "They found you."
JJ: "Yeah. We never pandered to the Japanese customer. We still don’t. It’s more like we’re just trying to make stuff for that real pain-in-the-ass, picky New York kid. And I think that the kids in Japan could see that and say, 'Okay, yeah, that’s legit. There’s nothing else quite like that going on.'"
GO: "Japanese connoisseurship is so interesting. There’s this great, educated taste. Last night, I was lying in bed with my wife, watching the football game. She was on her laptop and she said, 'The Japanese are ruining the ceramics market!' I said, 'What?' She’s really into modern design, and I guess a lot of the modernist stuff she collects has gone through the roof because the Japanese are buying it now. She said, 'Our plates have gone up five times in price!'"
JJ: "What I find in Japan is that there are certain people who have a lot of influence. So if there’s somebody, say, like, Nigo or Hiroshi [Fujiwara]...This isn’t dropping names, but if those guys are into, like, [Jean] Prouvé furniture, then it’s going to become popular. They really do have people there who influence society, and if those people deem that they love something, then it becomes this big thing. These Japanese collectors know what they’re buying, though, from denim to records to stereo equipment...They’re very smart."
Click here for the full interview.
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