Supreme’s transformation from hip, downtown New York skate shop to global powerhouse has been nothing short of extraordinary. From humble beginnings in 1994 on the then unfashionable Lafayette Street, Supreme has become ubiquitous worldwide, its distinctive logo a signifier of edgy authenticity, cultural diversity and, now more than ever, must-have-it desirability. Inspired by the propaganda art of Barbara Kruger, that logo is the currency for a brand valued at more than $1 billion.
From 26 November to 10 December, Christie’s presents a curated online auction of the rarest and most sought-after Supreme collaboration pieces — ‘the best of the best’, as Head of Sale Caitlin Donovan puts it. The items range from skateboard decks produced by the biggest names in contemporary art to ‘exhibits’, in what author and cultural commentator Byron Hawes describes as Supreme’s ‘alt-design museum’. The latter includes short-run collaborations with heritage brands in hardware, homeware, sport, leisure, music and beyond.
‘Over the past 20-plus years, Supreme has gone from a brand servicing skaters who were often considered rebels, to becoming a highly respected, highly sought-after collecting category in its own right,’ says Donovan.
‘It was the first of the streetwear and “hype” brands to forge the path to an entirely new market and audience of collectors,’ she adds. ‘Supreme has been a cultural lightning rod. Through supply and demand it has transformed young male retail shoppers into secondary market collectors and connoisseurs.’
As well as selling T-shirts, hoodies and decks that change hands for dizzying sums, Supreme has put its stamp on a quite bewildering array of products. ‘From a cultural perspective, it makes sense,’ states Hawes. ‘If you think about these objects through the lens of Duchamp and his “Readymade” series, they are cultural pieces, art pieces.’
Noah Davis, a post-war and contemporary art specialist at Christie’s, agrees: ‘Seeing the Supreme box logo stamped onto utilitarian items like bolt-cutters, basketballs and harmonicas is like Duchamp famously scribbling “R. Mutt” on a urinal. Anything is fair game, and once it’s been anointed by Supreme it becomes elevated, collectible — to some, even holy.’
Supreme might not present itself as a cultural arbiter in the same way that a museum self-consciously does, yet its flagship store in downtown New York feels like a cathedral for youth culture. ‘In the same way that the MoMA does for modern art,’ insists Davis. ‘The really impressive thing is how organically, seemingly effortlessly, this has happened.’
So what is its secret? ‘Our formula is, there is no formula,’ Supreme’s founder James Jebbia famously once said. Hawes, who has authored two books on the Supreme phenomenon, smiles: ‘Maybe he was alluding to the broader point that Supreme cannot be put into one box. They never did anything accidentally. It was always very articulated.’
Supreme and the ‘Artist Series’ skateboards
As Byron Hawes says, ‘Nobody looked at a skateboard before Supreme and saw a canvas waiting to be utilised’. The company released its first deck — the Copyright — in 1998, and its first ‘Artist Series’ deck in 2001. Since then the artists who have designed boards for Supreme represent what the writer describes as ‘a veritable who’s who of contemporary art’.
‘The artists chosen by Supreme indicate that the brand never saw skate culture as narrow,’ Hawes says. ‘To do four decks with Peter Saville, the guy who designed the album covers for Joy Division — that’s not the specific culture people would have associated with a downtown New York skate shop. The same goes for George Condo and Christopher Wool.’
The connection with a street artist such as KAWS or a young, downtown New York artist like Nate Lowman might seem more obvious, although KAWS, like many of those the company has worked with, did not have the profile he enjoys today when he designed his first Supreme decks in 2001. The decks designed by Wool, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Marilyn Minter, on the other hand, demonstrate that Supreme ‘saw parity between all these different aspects — and recognised how they would coagulate’.
Much of the credit for the ‘Artist Series’ must go to James Jebbia’s long-time friend and collaborator, Neville Wakefield. The British curator has organised exhibitions at Mary Boone and MoMA PS1, and is the founder of the Desert X art fair in Palm Springs. As Hawes explains: ‘Jebbia credits Wakefield’s savoir faire and exceptional taste with many of the artist decks, particularly in the early years, when a major artist working on a skateboard with a small shop in New York seemed almost laughable, until they consistently got it done.’
Noah Davis sees skate culture and art as sharing ‘the same kind of potential for anarchic creative freedom as rap and punk music’. This isn’t to say that all art is free reckless, or even dangerous but, according to the specialist, ‘the art that is rhymes well with the spirit of skate culture, which is equally about the balance of independence and community, risk-taking, expertise and performance.’
‘These are serious pieces of art,’ insists Hawes. ‘There’s a lot to be said for putting them under glass, keeping them, and watching them appreciate. They are a crystallisation of high meets low — expository rather than assimilatory.’ In other words, quintessential Supreme.
Supreme’s ‘alt-design museum’
In the preface to his book Art on Deck: An Exploration of Supreme Skateboards from 1998-2018, Byron Hawes makes the point that ‘the collective history of creativity is awash in homage, responsivity, reactivity, and outright theft’. Noah Davis puts a slightly different spin on it: ‘when Supreme does its Duchamp thing with an object, it becomes sanctified.’
Supreme has been collaborating with brands for over 20 years, taking a considered, highly curated approach to who and what it leaves its mark on. The objects, says Hawes, are ‘very specific and not really based on any theoretical idea of hype’.
They are also produced by heritage brands — the Coleman Mini Bike, the Spalding basketball, the Everlast Punchbag, for example. This attention to detail and authenticity feeds directly into Supreme’s brand values. Or, as Hawes puts it: ‘Supreme really does always choose the realest item in any given world’.
The online sale at Christie’s focuses on the most important and collectible objects and accessories. Certain objects, like the Stash Box Bible, are instantly identifiable as a Supreme piece. It speaks to the ethos of the brand: cheeky, clever and very well done.
One of the interesting things about the art world, of course, is that an object is worth precisely what anyone will pay for it at any given time. The secondary market for Supreme items is currently at fever pitch, fuelled by Jebbia’s appropriation of luxury brand tactics — cohesive branding, the stoking of hype, and a scarcity cultivated through ‘drops’ of items produced in small edition sizes — and the pervasive power of social media.
‘You look at the objects,’ says Hawes, ‘and you think, “Okay, it’s a fire extinguisher”. But nobody’s going to put out a grease fire in the kitchen with a Supreme fire extinguisher. These things are, essentially, sculptural entities.’
He likens Supreme’s approach to ‘DJ culture’, suggesting it is ‘remixing and mashing up all of these various, theoretically unrelated cultural signifiers to create a more cohesive whole.’ The Supreme brick is a perfect example.
‘Think about these objects as under-represented design objects, and the brick becomes the single most important industrial design piece of all time,’ he says. ‘But no one’s going to buy one Supreme brick and make anything out of it. It is a very cheeky, very subtle acknowledgement that these things are going on shelves.’
While many of Supreme’s collaborations might appear arbitrary, Noah Davis also recognises the sophistication that underpins them: ‘If you understand the lifestyle of skateboarding and its significant overlap with graffiti, especially in New York, then you immediately get the significance of bolt cutters (the street artist’s keys to the city) and fire extinguishers (hackable tools to create mural-scale tags by filling them with paint).
‘These things have that magical “if you know, you know” quality that is at the heart of why Supreme remains relevant and vital. They don’t care if you don’t get it, and if you don’t get it, you know deep down, you kind of want to.’
Handbags X HYPE featuring a collection of Supreme skateboards and accessories is open for bidding from 26 November