Almost 25 Years Later, Supreme Is Still a Skate Shop
As skateboarding has morphed and followed (sometimes unfortunate) fads over the years, there’s something comforting in the consistency of Supreme.
The Supreme shop on Lafayette in 2000 during a screening of the Alien Workshop video 'Photosynthesis.' Photo by Yuri Shibuya
On Tuesday night Supreme premiered "BLESSED", their second full-length skate video by William Strobeck. The film was a follow-up to 2014’s " cherry", and the spacious Village East Cinema on Second Avenue was packed. The crowd in the double-decker theatre, made up of New York City skate locals, pros, artists and pals of the brand had a palpable energy. Strobeck has a reputation for holding his footage close to the chest before a video is released (he says he wants to create the vibe of getting a VHS tape in the mail), and true to form only a handful of people, excluding the skaters in the video, had seen what he has been working on for the past two-and-a-half years. After taking the mic at the front of the theatre, calling all the skaters up for thank-yous, and mentioning the lasting importance and memory of Dylan Rieder, a legendary skater and part of the Supreme family who passed away in 2016, the lights went down. Then, for the next hour-and-a-half or so, the crowd lost its collective shit.
Supreme is a brand that received the 2018 Menswear Designer of the Year Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, has collaborated with haughty fashion houses and artists like Louis Vuitton and Damien Hirst, sold a part of its business to a multinational private equity firm, and last year was valued at one billion dollars. It's hard to imagine any other label in a similar position having either the ability or the desire to pull off a legitimately good skate video. But Supreme is unlike any other brand, and despite its widespread success, skateboarding remains central to its identity.
The shop is a wildly exaggerated version of your local skate shop. It is an art gallery masquerading as a skate shop, or maybe a skate shop masquerading as an art gallery, complete with rotating installations and that iconic television display playing mostly skating nonstop in one form or another, like an eternal flame, for almost a quarter century. But at its most basic it is simply "a skate company that started as a skate shop in New York", as the former pro skater Todd Jordan, who currently manages skate-related stuff for the brand, told me.
The first video that Supreme put out was a 16-minute black-and-white short by the artist Thomas Campbell, called A Love Supreme, set to the eponymous song by John Coltrane. It featured Peter Bici, Gio Estevez, Jones Keefe, Mike Hernandez, Quim Cardona and others skating through the streets, mixed with grainy footage of kids hanging out and living life in New York City. It’s a beautiful little film that would feel equally at home projected on the wall at PS1 or inside a skate shop. While the videos were some 20 years apart, A Love Supreme, "cherry" and now "BLESSED" compliment each other nicely, and that type of through-line from the beginning to the present day can be seen in the company as a whole.
When it opened on Lafayette street in 1994 in what was an old office space, Supreme immediately became a skater hangout, thanks in no small part to its first employee, Gio Estevez, who was deeply plugged into the tight-knit New York City skate scene. Its founder, James Jebbia, who owned a shop called Union before working for Stüssy, had a deep appreciation for the aesthetics and general vibe of skateboarding, but he didn’t know the ins and outs of an industry notoriously suspicious of, if not outright hostile to, outsiders. By taking a backstage role and letting Estevez run the front of the house, he gave the shop the space to take on a life of its own, animated by the young skaters and misfits who treated Supreme like a second home. "The thing that really legitimised the store," Jebbia said in an interview for the 2010 Rizzoli book Supreme, "I think, was the people who worked there, not me [...] The store was swarmed with all of these skaters because of the crew who were working there."
Those “classic” days of Supreme with Harold Hunter, Jefferson Pang, Ryan Hickey and others have been well documented, and that period has earned its rightful place in skate history. But in the years since those early days, as the lines grew longer and the box-logo became a status symbol, it was easy to wonder whether the hype surrounding the streetwear side of the business had replaced the brand's dedication to skateboarding. When I met up with Jordan, Kyle Demers and the artist Weirdo Dave, three of Supreme’s main dudes (“no one really has titles,” Jordan told me) at a dingy bar in the West Village, I asked them about that perception.
Dave, who works with the design team and has had a number of collaborations with the shop under his moniker Fuck This Life, said the LA store is proof that Supreme is still at its core a skate shop. “Nothing has ever changed,” he said. “You go to the fucking gas station, you get a 12-pack, you walk it over to the shop, you fucking hang out, crush beers… It’s always like a fucking shooting gallery of crazy, like-minded people… And that’s, like, true to the tradition of any skate shop.”
And it’s been that way for quite a long time. In the same Rizzoli interview, Jebbia talked about the atmosphere in the shop during those early days. “The store was swarmed with all of these skaters […] I’d been used to Stüssy and Union, where the people who were in the shop were actually in the shop to buy something. But at Supreme they just hung out.”
And while it’s obviously true that Supreme has expanded its customer base since those times, it’s also true that looking back through the product lines over the years, they have maintained a precise and uncompromising aesthetic that continues today. The insides of the stores themselves have also looked almost eerily similar over the decades. Pristine, bright, lots of right angles and pops of colour, and, most importantly, a highly curated selection of skateboard decks hanging on the wall. “I look at them as the most successful skate shop ever,” Chris Nieratko, co-owner of NJ skateshop and VICE contributor, said when I asked how he viewed the brand. “They play it like a real elitist skate shop owner would. They’re like, ‘Hey, we’re not carrying your whole line, we’re only carrying Jerry Hsu’s board.’” As skateboarding as a whole has morphed and followed (sometimes unfortunate) fads over the years, there’s something comforting in the consistency of Supreme.
“There’s always been a skate team,” Demers, who handles a lot of Supreme's brand management, told me. “But now it’s actually a fully thought-out skate team with videos, and now we actually have skaters that have turned pro. We’ve always made clothes. But now instead of just a couple T-shirts and sweatshirts, it’s a full blown line. It’s not necessarily changing, we’re just doing more."
On a rainy day in early November I went to William Strobeck’s East Village apartment to chat about "BLESSED" and "cherry". While he has been filming skateboarding for over 20 years, and captured the salad days at Philadelphia’s Love Park in the 90s, "cherry" was his first feature-length video. When the video came out in 2014, it immediately put to rest whatever doubts might have lingered in some corners of the skateosphere about Supreme. All black-and-white and full of a crew of largely unknown skate rats, alongside Supreme staples like Jason Dill and Mark Gonzales, hauling ass around New York and LA, it was like Strobeck had taken all of the most exciting things about skateboarding, thrown them into a blender and spit them out on-screen.
The video came about after Demers, who had been friends with Strobeck since their teenage years, saw a short video Strobeck shot featuring some of Supreme’s skaters. “I did a Transworld part with all of them,” Strobeck said, “and the last minute of it I went out with Dylan [Rieder] to film with him and Alex [Olson] and [Jason] Dill because they were out in LA. When that came out, Kyle hit me up and he was like ‘Hey, would you like to try to do this commercial? We got this kid Tyshawn Jones and Dill’s in town. Do you want to try to go out with them for the weekend?’ And I was like fuck yeah.” The video they shot was turned into a 51-second short called “Buddy” that served as a kind of proof of concept for "cherry". “For some reason, I just felt the vibe of that kind of… it really stoked the owner out,” Strobeck told me. “I felt like it fit what Supreme was."
At the time, Tyshawn Jones – who this month is on the cover of the skateboard bible Thrasher – was just one in a crew of kids hanging out around the Supreme shop, and Strobeck, like most of skateboarding, didn’t know who he was. “It’s perfect that they proposed Tyshawn to me because I didn’t know [him], but obviously I know Dill, and I felt like their dynamic worked so perfectly. So from that point on it was like ‘Let’s try to do a full-length.’"
With a few notable exceptions, like Coliseum’s P.J. Ladd’s Wonderful Horrible Life, skate videos made by shops, as opposed to hardgood companies, are generally thought of as second tier. Most big-name pros like to save their best clips for their board or shoe sponsors, leaving their shop video with the leftovers. But with "cherry", Strobeck and crew delivered a shop video full of raw power that could hold its own next to anything else out there. The kids in the video were young young, in their early teens, and skated with a kind of urgency that brought to mind staples from decades past like Dan Wolfe’s Eastern Exposure 3 or Alien Workshop’s Photosynthesis (which Strobeck filmed a lot of).
Complementing those new guys were killer clips from the more established of Supreme’s ranks, and through it all, in "cherry" as in "BLESSED", the overwhelming vibe is of a tribe of dudes who are having a really fucking good time. The skateboard world noticed, and "cherry" catapulted Tyshawn and the other kids in the crew, like Ben Kadow, Sean Pablo, Aiden Mackey, Sage Elsesser, and Nakel Smith onto the radar of the broader skate scene. The group of kids and the video had such an impact on skating that after its release skate shops around the country reported a spike in their Converse sales, the shoe of choice for some of the kids in "cherry", according to a Jenkem article.
But undoubtedly the thing that made "cherry", and now "BLESSED", so special was the alignment of all of these people existing at the same time and being in the same scene, ping-ponging between the shops in New York and LA.
"They are just naturals at this whole thing," Strobeck said of the kids. "It just seems like it was meant to be, because Sage [Elsesser] and Aiden [Mackey] and those guys and Nakel [Smith] and KB [Kevin Bradley] were all hanging out at the store [in LA]. For some reason they found that store, you know? It wasn’t like I came there and was like ‘Hey, these skaters are sick. Why don’t you come down to the store?’ I showed up there and those kids were in there smoking weed and kicking it in the back and just could go grab a board off the wall, you know?"
“We had kind of three very cool, important skate generations all hanging out around the shop and the brand at the time, and it felt like we had to make a video,” Demers said. “Like not necessarily wanted to, like we have to document this. Because, like, Gonz and Dill, these guys are getting older but they’re still giving it their all, and then we had dudes like Dylan and Alex who were in their prime, and then all these young kids. It just seemed like if we don’t make a video right now, no one is going to know this was even really happening.”
If "cherry" was an introduction to the current Supreme scene, "BLESSED" is a check-in, four years later. The kids have grown into themselves both literally and figuratively. They are physically larger, less awkward, and their trick selections are both creative and at a higher level. And while I was sworn to secrecy regarding the stuff actually in the video until its release, I can tell you that it is very good and will make you want to go ride a skateboard with your friends. And that, at the end of the day, is the ultimate goal of any skate video.
In 2018, it can be tempting to think of Supreme as defined by lines and a clientele far removed from skateboarding. But the fact of the matter is Supreme has been doing the same shit for almost 25 years. They are a shop that has a hyper-defined sense of identity, and one gets the feeling that it’s very fortunate that what they were doing caught on, because if their taste had sucked, their unwillingness to compromise would have remained, and they would have ridden the train into the ground. This is as true for the care and quality in their skate videos as it is of the clothes in their stores.
“It’s really just staying true to the voice that you fucking started on,” Jordan told me at the bar. “It doesn’t take a genius to know what’s good… When you have an understanding of what’s good and you know you do and you find like-minded people that know what’s good, you just kind of keep doing that. And I think that’s what Supreme figured out very early on.”
Toward the end of my chat with Demers, Jordan, and Dave, I asked them if they get annoyed by the perception, among some, that Supreme has drifted away from skating and that "cherry" was an attempt to realign themselves with the community. “I think for all of us, it’s off our radar more so than it is the people who are talking about it,” Jordan told me. “Because we go into the office every day and talk with a bunch of people about what’s the latest fucking video on Thrasher. Like, literally everyone we work with, we’re talking about mostly skate shit. It’s kind of weird sometimes. I was far more detached from skateboarding before working at Supreme than I am now [...] Skateboarding is just what makes our world go round. It’s what we look at, it’s what we talk about, it’s what we reminisce about. Yeah, it’s where our hearts are at, for sure.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.