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An hour before Supreme's store-opening party in San Francisco took place last Wednesday, a Korean college student named Thai—who is wearing a black Supreme Creeper T-shirt released last season—is asking anyone, and everyone, within the vicinity of the store if they're on the list to get in. He eventually bumps into POKER, a prolific San Francisco graffiti vandal who was invited to the party and is rolling a cigarette by a parking meter directly outside the store. The second Thai finds out POKER's on the list, he starts tweaking like a junkie, begging POKER to hook him up with a box logo T-shirt marking the store's opening. Calmly, POKER tells him that he probably has to come back when the store officially opens tomorrow. Thai doesn't seem disappointed. He's still geeked out that he met someone who's considered a friend of the brand.
"I think that it was only a matter of time for Supreme to open up in San Francisco, and I think it's a great time now because there's a lot of money in this city,” POKER says. "A lot of disposable incomes will cater to that. But there are also strengths by staying true to the core community of skateboarders, which is really important."
Two years after Supreme received a $500 million investment from the Carlyle Group, released a groundbreaking collaboration with Louis Vuitton, and had its brand valued at $1 billion, it refuses to stop presenting itself as the small skateboard shop that opened on Manhattan's Lafayette Street in 1994. Instead of opening in an untapped area where there's a hungry market for Supreme, such as South Korea or mainland China, it made a move that tips its hat to San Francisco, a long-time skate mecca that helped shape the culture that gave rise to the store itself.
"You gotta remember that back in the day, New York City wasn't popping. So a lot of us migrated out here to actually get it going," says Maurice Key, a Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, OG who rode for World Industries and is closely affiliated with the original Supreme skate team. "Frisco is the epicenter. You had cats like Henry Sanchez, Mike Carroll, Jim Thiebaud, Coco Santiago, and Ben Sanchez. All the original heads out here who made it hot made us want to drive and build our scene up in New York City, too."
This September, Supreme closed its original store on Lafayette St., a tiny shop that was originally a clubhouse for New York skaters in the early ‘90s but merchandised in a way that elevated a simple graphic T-shirt by displaying it as a perfectly folded garment on a slanted wood board. As a brand, Supreme values cultural capital more than anything. If it wanted to, it could likely open up right next to the Louis Vuitton and Gucci stores in San Francisco's Union Square. Instead, Supreme chose a location on Market Street, a thoroughfare that leads to Embarcadero and Pier 7, plazas that served as incubators for technical street skating and have been featured prominently in some of the most influential skate videos of the last 30 years.
All the original heads out here who made it hot made us want to drive and build our scene up in New York City, too. -Maurice Key
Supreme's second store opening in two years arrives during a tumultuous period for San Francisco's skateboarding community. Earlier this year, Jake Phelps, the long-serving editor-in-chief of San Francisco-based skate bible Thrasher, passed away at the age of 56. Just blocks away from the new Supreme store, Pablo "P-Spliff" Ramirez—a member of the popular San Francisco skateboard crew GX1000—was tragically killed by a dump truck while he was skating this April. The brand officially announced its San Francisco store opening with a two-page ad, featuring a photo of Ramirez, in the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. The night before the store's opening party, it premiered William Strobeck's newest film for Supreme, Candyland, at a nearby bar frequented by skateboarders.
"I fucked with Supreme for a long time. Now that they're coming into San Francisco, and seeing them start sponsoring city fools, that shit makes me happy," says Jake McDermogt, a 21-year-old skater whose friends work at the new store. "It's cool to see their culture is kind of expanding over here. Also, just putting my friends on is what's tight to me. Seeing them in Supreme videos and ads is what's cool."
The store's opening party on Wednesday night was a who's who of skateboarding and the subcultures that surround it. Kunle Martins, better known as the iconic New York City graffiti tagger Earsnot, walked around the space holding a plastic bag from Blick Art while wearing a leather Supreme vest customized with a IRAK patch. Southern California skate legend Jason Dill strolled around the store in a black coach's jacket tagged by Earsnot. Typical of Supreme stores, the San Francisco location boasts a skate bowl, wallpaper by the artist Weirdo Dave, and sculptures by Mark Gonzales. Outside the store's wall-to-wall storefront windows, Supreme fans hoping to buy the San Francisco box logo shirt stared enviously at the party going on inside.
But Market Street isn't like Los Angeles' Fairfax Avenue, where in 2004 Supreme opened its only other West Coast store. Before Supreme created a retail boom in the area, Fairfax was a quiet Jewish neighborhood filled with bakeries and delis reminiscent of old-school New York. Market Street has long been established as one of San Francisco's main commercial stretches, and Supreme sits just two blocks from large chain stores like Old Navy, Levi's, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdales. Next to its storefront is a Chai tea cafe, while techies can be seen shuffling in and out of a WeWork building less than a block north.
Still, the stretch of Market Street that now houses Supreme is a far cry from post-gentrified East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Supreme opened its last store before San Francisco two years ago. Supreme also sits on the border of the Tenderloin, a historically downtrodden neighborhood in downtown San Francisco where gangs still openly push drugs and, less than half a mile from the store, homicides have occurred recently.
“This is a completely different Market Street from when I was a young kid,” says Sanders Hootsell Jr., a 46 year-old San Francisco native who says he was once a homeless drug addict who lived in the Tenderloin in the 2000s. “Crime is not as prevalent. You still have mental illness and drugs addicts out here but they still are in transition of cleaning this up totally.”
Supreme’s San Francisco location was leaked in a way that was unheard of in the brand’s history. In April of 2018, Instagram accounts posted photos of a letter that Supreme sent out to locals, which invited them to learn more about the store at a community meeting. Many neighboring businesses declined to be interviewed about the store’s presence, with one telling me it was simply too early to even comment. But the juxtaposition between Supreme and its next door neighbor Hospitality House, which runs a 40 year-old community arts center that gives free art classes and studio space to the homeless, is difficult to not notice.
People come and camp out for Supreme? These [homeless] motherfuckers are already camped out in front of the store.
“Hospitality House welcomes new neighbors, and we want to make sure that community artists are valued as community assets,” said Hospitality House’s Executive Director Joe Wilson in a statement sent via email. “We strongly disagree with any attempt to restrict artists' access to our Community Arts Program, and our gallery storefront space welcomes passersby to support the work of local artists.”
The grand opening of Supreme San Francisco last Thursday was a bizarre theater act of obsessive brand loyalty and capitalistic entrepreneurship. All set on a stage showcasing glimpses of urban poverty and Silicon Valley wealth. It felt extremely different from the subcultural wonderland that was the store’s opening last night where, for at least one night, Supreme felt like a clubhouse for the world’s coolest and most authentic outcasts rather than the epicenter of consumerism. But on Thursday resellers in Louis Vuitton denim jackets chased down kids willing to offer them $1,000 for their San Francisco box logos, steps from the store, other locals sat on dirty sheets spread on the sidewalk, selling everything from bottles of shampoo to MacBook Air chargers. There were even more people peddling junk on the sidewalk around midnight, shortly after the store's opening party the night before.
"It doesn't matter how I feel about it," one skater, who wished to remain anonymous due to his friendships with store employees, says of Supreme's newest location. "It's about how the people around me, on the corners, and the people that sleep on the streets feel. People come and camp out for Supreme? These [homeless] motherfuckers are already camped out in front of the store."
However, the days of camping out for Supreme have actually ended a while ago. Nowadays, you won’t ever see a Supreme drop reach the levels of chaos seen during events like the great 2013 Nike Foamposite riot. The official line in front of Supreme San Francisco did not block the entrance of the Community Arts Center and made space for pedestrians to walk by. The insane lines that were once as iconic to Supreme as the store's own logo have quelled ever since the store implemented a line registration system two years ago. Now, instead of being the first customer to line up in front of the store on Thursday, it’s about being fast enough to register online for a random spot on the line.
Every Tuesday at 11 a.m., sign ups open on Supreme’s website and spots get filled up for all its store locations within a minute. The next day, Supreme sends anyone who received a spot on line a text message that asks you to confirm your place on line. The place you get, and the time slot you are given to arrive at the store, are completely random. Paulo, a 29-year-old college student who lives 30 minutes away in American Canyon, California, got a text message from Supreme that told him to arrive at 1011 Market St. at 10:45 a.m., was given spot No. 2. The person who got spot No. 1? According to Paulo, it was supposedly some girl in Washington D.C. who decided it wasn’t worth the trip. Paulo was officially the first person to shop at the Supreme San Francisco store.
“When I got to the checkout page, it glitched and said I registered for a drop at the New York store. When I got the text from Supreme, I just typed ‘Yes,’ regardless if it was New York or not, because I'll take that hit,” says Paulo, “The next day, I got spot No. 2 and I was just so happy.” Paulo picked himself up a San Francisco box logo, which was already going for $1000 on StockX, and some other items for his homies waiting outside.
Although the official line for registered customers was orderly, the street was crowded with people, who were unable get a registered place on line. Supreme does not let anyone who didn't register a spot on line to shop in its stores on Thursday drop days. Yet, those facts did not dissuade a crowd of hopefuls who were loitering outside of the store like Jason Marlow; a 39-year-old from Denver, Colorado who buys all his Supreme on an iPhone app, and still flew into San Francisco on drop day despite not having a registered spot on line. “I'll take anything if they let me in. Might as well gamble,” he tells me as another customer begins to viciously argue with a Supreme employee right in front of the doors of the store.
“Angelo said he got me! I came all the way from New York to be here!” screams a middle aged man in a Supreme New Era fitted and Stone Island joggers, who is also angrily shaking a bottle of boxed water like a baby rattle, in front of a stern looking Supreme employee. The employee gives him a stone cold look and tells him that his team never makes mistakes. After two more attempts of begging to shop at the store, he eventually leaves and looks like he’s about to burst into tears.
Unlike others who got a rare opportunity to shop at the store on opening day, Paulo, who has been collecting Supreme since 2008, is planning on keeping his rare box logo. Nearby, an Instagram reseller named @dillon_dropz, tells me he has “workers” on line who are going to fulfill 15 pre-orders he received for the San Francisco box logo. He has been in the resell game for four years and says that he has invested $20,000 into the drop today. He says buying Supreme in-person today has only gotten easier.
“The signups have made it pretty effective for newer consumers of Supreme to get products for retail,” he says. Dillon used to go to school in New York City and remembers when Supreme first tried rolling out in-person sign ups three years ago for hyped drops like box logo hoodies. What ended up happening with that system, was that hypebeast teenagers nearly trampled each other to get inside a handball court to get their name on a list. “If you take the park sign ups for example, or the three day camp outs people used to do at Supreme Los Angeles, prior to these online signups, you really had a select group of individuals controlling the resale market.”
Supreme is still a skate shop and it’s undeniably the most successful streetwear brand of this day and age. But only time will tell how much longer it’s subcultural bearings can keep rolling and support the brand's own weight.
“Supreme is true to its roots because all the original heads are still here. We still associate and have that bond through Supreme,” says Maurice Key. “But it's also not because it's popular right now and it's the shit to have and wear. If you don't have Supreme now, you're not cool. It wasn't like that back then.”