Supreme is the most popular streetwear brand in existence. It's also one of the most press-shy. There are countless editors right in the brand's hometown of New York who would probably etch the name James Jebbia into their chest in exchange for a Supreme editorial, but the super secretive and cultish brand rarely works with any of them. Instead, they tend to gift brand editorials to niche Japanese magazines. Titles like GRIND, SENSE, and WARP have all printed Supreme spreads recently—those three in particular are virtually unknown outside of Japan, where they are published.
W. David Marx, author of Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, adds that the publications aren’t that well known in Japan, either. “Honestly, they're not the most mainstream magazines in Japan,” Marx tells Complex. “If you come to Japan, it's not like, ‘Oh, of course, GRIND!’” And this is not exclusive to Supreme, either. Bape, Gosha Rubchinskiy, Comme Des Garçons, Saint Laurent, Y-3, and Balmain have all worked with at least one of three publications mentioned above, despite tendencies to be picky with Stateside outlets.
So, why would these powerhouse brands and labels take their editorials to a publication that may not be able to give them the same exposure a larger magazine can? Marx notes in his book that there are over 50 men’s fashion publications in Japan, compared to less than 10 in the U.S. This leads to magazines with a focus and expertise in a small area, deeming GRIND, WARP, SENSE, Clutch, and Lightning “very specialized publications.”
And while these magazines may not be on the same scale as more mainstream publications, they are very powerful in the industry they cover. “I would perceive them to be a cornerstone and institution within men's fashion,” says Eugene Kan, founder of MAEKAN and former Hypebeast editorial director. The most apt comparison is to targeted advertising. Instead of blowing its wad on the Super Bowl of magazine placements, brands are using magazines like WARP and GRIND to hit consumers it knows with certainty will be interested.
“Those magazines are very, very powerful,” Marx says. “Even if it's a niche magazine, it still has a certain number of thousands of hardcore readers across Japan who are going to absolutely go out and buy some of that clothing. So, you can think of magazine as mass media, but it's almost like a direct marketing mailer. You have these thousand people who are the biggest fans of whatever kind of niche fashion, and they're going to go out and say, ‘OK, this new Supreme thing just dropped, I gotta get it.”
Marx notes that the magazines hold such power in Japan, that whatever piece they feature instantly becomes the piece. “The day the magazine comes out, stores gets phone calls immediately like, ‘On page 20 of Popeye, I see this shirt, you have that in stock?” Marx says. “It drives sales absolutely directly with no friction.”
Marx says that Japanese consumers closely follow what’s in their favorite magazines, sometimes even to the detriment of the designer or brand. He notes that A Bathing Ape designer Nigo even used to complain in the ‘90s when a magazine would feature a T-shirt in black that also came in other colorways. The black colorway featured in the magazine would sell out in an instant, while other colors with the exact same design would sit on the shelf.
Brands who offer up their services and clothing to these Japanese menswear magazines also have nothing to lose in the digital age. It’s a win-win for brands like Supreme. The brand’s garment gets sanctified by the magazine and reaches it target consumer while maintaining an air of exclusivity, but the editorial will also inevitably be seen across the globe thanks to the World Wide Web.
“Blogs helped [these magazines] create awareness on a global scale,” Kan says. “Language is such a major deterrent to the spread of ideas, and blogs helped break this down significantly. You may not have been able to read the words of a magazine scan, but somebody taking something otherwise meant for physical consumption in a region is and was a big deal.”
Because it’s Supreme, blogs are more than happy to post the content that appears in these magazines. “What Hypebeast and these other blogs were doing is getting their hands on Japanese magazines that were basically unattainable, unless you were in Japan, and making these things be seen all across the world,” Marx adds.
Like Supreme, a designer like Gosha Rubchinskiy could take his services pretty much anywhere, but he’s chosen to work with GRIND. Rubchinskiy’s and Supreme’s decision to work with the likes of these magazines may speak to the differing ways publications operate in the U.S. and Japan. “Japanese publishers, in general, have a profound interest in going in-depth and analyzing all the meticulous details that surround movements and sub-culture,” Kan says. Meanwhile, American publications “will have, like, 10 pages of fashion content, and the rest is celebrity and working out and whatever,” Marx says. It speaks to a greater dedication to fashion and a more mature consumer that brands and designers know will appreciate their work.
Plus, as Kan points out, these more mature customers “translates into brand knowledge and also robust spending power.” Spending power, as we know, is the ultimate chess piece.
So, even if Supreme’s “great value to the world is that it just doesn't give a shit,” as Marx says, no one would doubt Supreme’s ability to make smart decisions for its brand. As the brand continues to grow carefully, you can expect them to also rely on the magic and power of Japanese magazines.