Supreme Hits the Sunset Strip

Supreme’s first brick-and-mortar store opened on Lafayette Street in SoHo, in 1994, well before the luxury shops and trendy restaurants moved in. So when James Jebbia, the brand’s founder, decided on a Los Angeles location, he listened to that same instinct to settle in an unexpected part of town.

Today, the same stretch of Fairfax Avenue that Supreme chose in 2004 is the city’s unofficial streetwear corridor. Its sidewalks are crowded with young men and women in baggy pants, hoodies and overpriced sneakers. Now, there’s Tyler, the Creator’s Golf Wang store, the Hundreds and the sneaker resale shop Flight Club.

But Supreme has left the building.

In February, the brand opened its 8,500-square-foot flagship on the Sunset Strip. It occupies the former Tower Records space, a store that, for decades, defined that particular curve of the street, and the music-centric milieu that grew around it.

The low-slung white building features the Supreme red box logo perched on top. Inside, the walls are dominated by hand-painted murals — a reaper from Josh Smith; Nate Lowman’s signature bullet holes — but it’s the 36-foot-wide, 40-foot-deep skate bowl suspended from an elevated deck that is the focus, a much larger version of what used to be in the Fairfax shop. In relocating, Supreme may no longer feel like David defeating Goliath so much as becoming Goliath.

The brand is no longer the cheeky upstart that appealed only to a small group of surly skateboarders, but a global enterprise with huge name recognition.

It’s hard to pinpoint when, exactly, the tide turned. It could have been around 2011 when members of the musical group Odd Future wore Supreme to a string of high-profile appearances. Or it may have been in 2017, when Supreme collaborated with Louis Vuitton — a full circle moment from when, in 2000, Louis Vuitton issued a cease-and-desist order to Supreme for using its monogram motif on a series of skateboard decks.

Or maybe it was the 2020 acquisition of Supreme by VF Corporation, a conglomerate that owns brands such as Vans and North Face. The deal valued Supreme at $2.1 billion — a staggering sum for a company that traffics mainly in T-shirts and snapback hats.

But to many, Supreme’s worth doesn’t start and stop at just the products.

Supreme is looking back on 30 years, and can be seen as an example of how to maintain an edge in the face of an industry that is increasingly owned by a few large corporations.

The brand was partly built on being the arbiter of a new playbook that has been widely copied by upstart labels and heritage brands alike. It essentially pioneered the so-called drop system: releasing a limited supply of products at a specific time and place, often causing lines to form in front of their stores that doubled as free advertising; the drops frequently sold out.

It also collaborated with artists, musicians and other fashion brands ranging from the high-end (Burberry, Louis Vuitton) to workaday (Dickies, Hanes).

“I still love the Fairfax store, but we were constrained by the space and outgrew it,” Mr. Jebbia wrote in an email. “I had been looking at the Tower Records spot for a long time, and similar to when we first went to Fairfax, we didn’t want to be in an obvious area, like on Melrose, or La Brea or Beverly Hills.”

Javier Nunez, 40, who worked at the Fairfax location, said that some people in the neighborhood told them they wouldn’t make it. He fondly recalled that the neighborhood was so quiet then that he would set up a garbage can in a nearby corner crosswalk to perform skate tricks.

Skate shops often serve as a headquarters of sorts, or a place to simply waste time. The Sunset Boulevard move echoes the one made by Supreme in New York in 2019 when it relocated to a flashier space on the corner of Bowery and Spring. To some, these moves represent a transfer from clubhouses to temples of capitalism.

“They still have skating very much at their core,” said Eugene Lardy, who runs the streetwear newsletter Street Night Live, “but obviously the brand has changed and evolved over the last decade.”

Mr. Lardy, 29, was first introduced to Supreme in 2008, and saw the brand as a conduit between the insular world of skateboarding and the broader culture. “I went through the phase where I thought they were selling out, like it’s becoming something bigger than something for hard-core skaters. It’s hard to see your favorite brand explode too much, and then get outside investment.”

“I get why people get upset,” Mr. Lardy said. “But I also understand the natural growth in a business cycle. You always want to continue to grow.”

Supreme is now old enough that it means different things to different people. “The clothing feels very separate from the skateboarding,” said Jack Bravstein, a skateboarder and writer in New York. For Mr. Bravstein, 22, a seminal moment was seeing the 2018 Supreme-produced film “Blessed,” by the director William Strobeck, which highlights the label’s in-house skateboarding program. “They’re still pushing this aspect of edginess and creativity in their videos, which I think is the most important part of the brand right now,” Mr. Bravstein said.

“But you can walk into the Supreme store and never have touched a skateboard, or not know it was a skate shop,” he added. “So in that regard they killed it, as a brand. They know what they’re doing.”

All the talk that the brand is over is proof of its continued relevance, said Michael McIntosh, the founder of Supreme Leaks News, a website and Instagram page that covers streetwear brands. That discussion, he pointed out, has been going on for at least a decade.

But as Supreme’s profile grows ever larger, there will be a certain cohort who remembers its humbler, rebellious days. For them, the shop on Fairfax didn’t just change the very character of a street, it also held a central place in their lives.

Sage Elsesser, an artist and professional skateboarder once sponsored by Supreme, grew up in Los Angeles and recalled that at the back of the store there was a door frame to the stockroom where employees and friends of the brand would mark their heights as they got older. When Mr. Jebbia was in town with his children, they too would record their measurements.

“I hadn’t thought about that for a long time,” Mr. Elsesser said. “I wonder if it’s still there.”

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