Supreme x Nan Goldin: Are Hypebeasts Too Transphobic to Cop the Drop?
This week, the legendary streetwear brand announced a collaboration with the renowned photographer. But because the designs feature trans girls and drag queens, smaller-minded fans are shook.
Earlier this week, the coveted streetwear brand Supreme announced a collaboration with legendary photographer Nan Goldin on a capsule collection that features photos from her archive, put onto hoodies, t-shirts, jackets, and skateboard decks. It was released today. But the reaction from the hypebeasts—normally so eager to stand in line for hours in hopes of purchasing garments they deem “dope”—has been uncharacteristically unenthusiastic.
“This season Supreme working hard on protecting my wallet,” reads the top comment on the thread about the Goldin collection on the Supreme Reddit. “I’ll be avoiding this like the plague,” another user groaned. “Is this the most unpopular collab Supreme has ever put out?” a third wondered.
What had the hypebeasts so shook, so willing to abandon their undying fealty to the brand? Well, it’s worth noting that the iconic Goldin photos Supreme chose to feature depict glamorous drag queens and trans performers. “I did this for the kids,” Goldin told Vogue UK earlier this week. “To my mind, people have become so conservative, especially the millennials—it’s like the 1960s never happened.” The comment section of the Instagram post announcing the collaboration, which is teeming with distraught fuckboys spewing indignant transphobia, aptly proves her point.
To some Supreme fans, though, this sort of vitriolic reaction showcases everything that’s wrong with shallow devotees to the brand, who lack a nuanced understanding of the culture from which streetwear emerged. “The majority of fans worship the logo, and don't do much digging beyond it,” a longtime Supreme fan named Cote told me. “The hypebeasts that cover themselves in Supreme and pair it with Yeezys are driving down the brand and making it into something kind of gross.”
On Reddit, a user named Pinroll echoed this sentiment. “When Supreme is making something that is actually slightly edgy in this political climate through this collab featuring the LGBTQ community, instead of fake-edgy pieces that say ‘fuck the world’ or ‘666,’ some of you guys are ‘disgusted’ and think Supreme has fallen off the mark,” they wrote. “The response to this collab is what’s actually disgusting. To allude to the Say No/ACLU tee after Trump was elected, if you’re socially conservative, close-minded, or transphobic, please fuck off.”
Many of the more open-minded hypebeasts I spoke to said they admire Supreme for representing the LGBTQ community in this way. “It's definitely neat to see trans women get a voice, especially considering that Supreme is somewhat of a cultural phenomenon right now,” a man named Ross, who has been wearing Supreme for years, told me.
“It's great that Supreme is using its now global reach to show support for the trans community,” said another fan, who goes by mbnyc1118 on Reddit. “Given that they've always tried to showcase different parts of NYC's subcultures, I think it's a perfect fit. And it also makes me particularly happy because Supreme's customer base has recently grown to include... let's call them smaller minded people, and this is sure to challenge their beliefs.
“This is some serious next level subversive shit for their audience,” Cote affirmed. “The wildest thing to me about hypebeast culture is how conservative these teens are. Now that the brand is so massive I get the sense a lot of their fans are middle-class suburb white kids. Asking them to wear something that would get them in trouble with their close-minded friends or teachers is kind of crazy to me.”
It is crazy. Obviously, Supreme is mainstream now; though they began in the early 90s repping local skaters and are deeply rooted in that subculture, over the years they’ve grown to be huge in the fashion world, collaborating with major brands. Nonetheless, Supreme has also manged to retain their grasp on counterculture, and that’s part of their appeal.
That tension—between counterculture and mass appeal, especially as refracted through the mystifying lens of masculinity—has arguably come to a head with the Goldin apparel. “Maybe there was a point in history where Supreme's base mostly consisted of really eclectic and [well] read folks, and people active in the arts scene,” said Dan, a 24-year-old hypebeast from the DC area. “But now I personally think it's overrun by prepubescent children who want to put in minimal effort to be cool. Anyone who likes the pieces but can't bring themselves to wear it or appreciate it should gtfo, do something else with their lives.”
Of course, the fact that Supreme would work with Nan Goldin isn’t surprising. The company has been rather progressive and cool for a long time, and they’ve worked with a slew of renowned artists in recent years. Plus, skate culture existed on the fringes of pop culture in the early 90s, as did queer life, which makes the two cultures surprisingly well fit for each other. But while it isn’t controversial to skate anywhere today, it clearly remains troublingly taboo to rep a trans girl or a drag queen on your swag.
The deeper I dug into the world of street fashion fans, the more I was exposed to this divide between guys who view themselves as culturally attuned, who like Supreme both because it looks good and because it’s smart, and the others others—fashion guys who like Supreme because they like Supreme. Mike Hernandez is beyond any of that. He’s one of Supreme's original skaters, sponsored in Supreme’s landmark store at 274 Lafayette Street in Manhattan. In other words, he’s just a guy who used to be a skater who was there when Supreme began. As such, he sees the way in which a changing culture is reflected in what Supreme puts out into the world.
Hernandez told me he thinks this whole controversy is ironic, as he sees a clear parallel between skaters and kids in the club scene in the 1990s: As Hernandez and his friends were shredding Washington Square Park, the club kids were storming New York nightlife, and they were all ostracized from society, to a certain degree, because of the scenes they rolled in. “Drag queens and shit like that, gay people? Them motherfuckers been in the club forever,” he told me over the phone. “They’ve been in the mix forever, whether its art, fashion, whatever it is. They’re fucking prominent individuals in the mix.”
Hernandez finds it lame that Supreme took so long to pay homage to the LGBTQ scene that flourished alongside it, but he likes that they’re now “showing the fuckboy, hypebeast dude [that] these motherfuckers are relevant too. In that respect, it’s a good thing. It’s a positive thing.”
Hernandez says that fans of the modern Supreme should learn more about the brand’s roots, to know the history of what they’re buying into. “If you’re a fucking fuck boy who identifies [as] heterosexual, and you’re about fucking bitches but you’re in line waiting for the new Supreme x Louis Vuitton collaboration, or Comme des Garcons—fashion is immersed in [diverse] sexuality,” he proclaimed. “If you don’t recognize that, you’re a fucking idiot; you’re just passing judgement on somebody based on their gender identity. You’re a fucking idiot, in my opinion.”
Hernandez hopes that this collaboration might be eye-opening for people who “are trapped in their little box of what's socially accepted in their immediate hood.” “Big up if this helps them,” he said.
This general sentiment raises an important question about Goldin’s body of work. She has said that her work has been “misunderstood” as commentary on counterculture. While she and her friends—her subjects—certainly “don’t want to be part of normal society, I don’t think the work was ever about that,” she explained in an interview in 2000. “I think the work has always been about the condition of being human, and the pain, the ability to survive, and how difficult that is.”
This is a rather nuanced take on her own work, and that’s good because my work is a very complex story about hoodies. The inclusion of trans imagery on this major label from an iconic photographer may be seen as a significant step forward for trans representation in fashion but, at the same time, some critics of Goldin's work have argued that she can be seen as exploitative of her subjects, turning the viewer into a voyeur of their struggles. So there’s a whole separate discourse to be had about whether this collaboration is positive at all or just feeding into the objectification of trans aesthetics while overlooking the realities of trans lives (the subjects in Goldin’s photos were her friends, and many of them died of AIDS). Some trans people have spoken out about that on social media; others have defended it. Many recognize that this issue falls in a vast gray area.
In a way, by collaborating with this male-driven, mainstream skateboarding company that is predominantly followed by a cult of young, straight men, Goldin has an opportunity to share the lived experience of her tribe with people who might otherwise never have looked at an image of someone who transcends gender with any appreciation. As commercial as the collaboration might be, it still feels radical in terms of the representation of trans people in fashion; because it is sold primarily to straight, cis men, there may be an opportunity for Goldin’s friends—the family she found in the underground—to have their humanity acknowledged in a new medium, by a new generation that might have never known that these people were here once, that they were beautiful, and that they did whatever it took to survive the pain of existence.
“People will continue to be hateful unless they become more open minded about issues,” Ross told me. “If anything, this could attract more of the LGBTQ+ community to Supreme, as it shows they are more than the fucking RiceGum fuckboy kids that are associated with the brand now.”