The History of Supreme's Battle with 'Supreme'
The streetwear giant has spent years failing to stop an Italian company from bootlegging its brand.
Photo by Jake Lewis
This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
In early December, as Samsung launched its latest smartphone, the telecoms company decided to throw another announcement into the mix: Samsung China would be collaborating with Supreme. One small thing, though: the link-up was not with Supreme New York, but with "Supreme Italia"—a company that has been legally ripping off the original streetwear brand for years.
For much of the past two years, the company behind Supreme Italia, International Brand Firm (IBF), has shipped products across Italy, and even set up a similar operation in Spain. All this has happened alongside a constant legal battle with Supreme New York—a dispute that, if anything, has seen IBF brand grow stronger as they expand globally. So successfully, in fact, that they're not looking to be called Supreme Italia or Supreme Spain, but simply: Supreme.
Legal fakes are a relatively new problem across the fashion industry. The term describes when a business registers a brand in a given country before the original brand can do so. From there, they can sell almost identical products using almost an identical marketing strategy as the one used by the original brand. Unlike counterfeiting, the goal is not to replicate the original product, but rather to impersonate the entire brand itself.
In Supreme's case, back in 2015, parent company, Chapter 4 Corp, missed out on registering the brand before IBF successfully trademarked "Supreme Italia." However, Supreme New York is not the only streetwear brand to be hit by legal fakes. The first case goes back to 2013, with Boy London Italia. The only visible distinction here is that the eagle in the brands' respective logos is facing the opposite direction.
In 2017 came Pyrex Original, a rip-off of Virgil Abloh's Pyrex Vision, as well as legal fakes of Kith, Thrasher, Vetements, and Palace.
These fake brands, unsurprisingly, are a lot easier to get hold of than the genuine articles. Supreme famously sells its products in limited numbers only, in stores in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Japan, and via its website, in drops where the majority of stuff sells out within a couple of minutes. Palace is similar, Boy London and Thrasher sells predominantly through their own websites and Pyrex Vision doesn't even exist anymore.
Meanwhile, the legal fakes are available in your friendly neighborhood shops, sometimes tricking the retailers themselves into thinking they are shifting originals. In Italy, legal fakes are so widespread that they are basically considered originals.
Many of the fakes seem to come from Barletta, southern Italy, where Supreme Italia is distributed by a company called Trade Direct Srl. While many fake brands are now available, Supreme Italia's strategy is unique: The brand is actually trying to replace the original, explaining why the legal case has dragged on for so long and attracted so much attention, and why some are calling it a "global battle for the control of Supreme."
Production of Supreme Italia began in 2015, in Barletta, about a month after Supreme New York first tried to register its trademark in Italy. Supreme Italia made its first official appearance in stores on January 14, 2016, when Trade Direct Srl promoted it in Florence.
However, it wasn't until Supreme heads on Instagram started questioning the legitimacy of Supreme T-shirts with a much larger logo than normal that Supreme Italia started attracting international attention, and the controversy began.
At first—possibly because of the limited availability of the original and the fact that Trade Direct presented themselves as distributors of famous international fashion brands—many prominent retailers and clients didn't realize that Supreme New York and Supreme Italia were different brands.
In 2017, Chapter 4 sued Trade Direct Srl and IBF. They had some initial success: In April of that year, the Court of Milan ruled that the Italian brand breached "unfair competition" laws and ordered IBF to temporarily stop trading. Also as a result of the ruling, the police raided several Supreme Italia warehouses—the largest raid taking place in San Marino, where 120,000 Supreme Italia products were seized.
Then, in May of 2018, Supreme New York tried to trademark the brand across the European Union, but a decision on that from the European Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) is still pending. Meanwhile, the Court of Trani in southern Italy has ruled in favour of Supreme Italia, ordering the release of some of the seized products.
Meanwhile, in Spain, the IBF-owned Elechim Sports SL registered a trademark for Supreme Spain, making it illegal for Supreme New York to operate in the country. Supreme Spain soon launched shops in Madrid, Barcelona, Ibiza and Formentera. Last October, the Catalonia Court in Barcelona rejected a preliminary injunction requested by Chapter 4 against Supreme Spain.
By that point, news of the partnership between Supreme Italia and Samsung had started to leak, including IBF's plans to expand into China and even make an appearance at the next Shanghai Fashion Week. Soon after that, IBF announced that it had registered the brand "Supreme" with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WPO) in Geneva for the entire Asian market, which they claimed meant they could now sell Supreme products in China without having to qualify it with "Italia" or "Spain", though a registration with WIPO does not necessarily mean a company has the trademark rights to a brand.
Unsurprisingly, Samsung's announcement didn't go down well with the original Supreme. Supreme NYC issued a statement explaining that it is neither working with Samsung, nor about to open a flagship store in Beijing. "These claims are blatantly false and propagated by a counterfeit organization," the statement read.
IBF replied through Supreme Spain's Instagram, explaining that the "Chinese company working with Samsung and other commercial ventures is an official partner of our company International Brand Firm Ltd, proprietor of registered trademarks including Supreme Spain and Supreme Italia and of the trademark Supreme in several countries across the world through WIPO", and reserved the right "to take measures with the relevant authorities against the slanderous claims made by Chapter 4."
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Then a post appeared on Samsung's Weibo page that seemed to put a stop to everything: "Recently, during the launch event for the Galaxy A8s, Samsung Electronics announced a collaboration with Supreme Italia in China. We are currently reconsidering and we are deeply sorry for what has happened."
However, it's still unclear what the exact state of the collaboration is, as IBF is carrying on like nothing has happened, saying the following day that "the opportunities announced today are seen as concrete opportunities for the growth and expansion of the brand, given our commitment to continue this journey."
The journey in question will allegedly see the opening of 70 legal fake Supreme stores across the world. The next is expected to be in Belgrade, but more important is the news of two large flagship stores in Beijing and Shanghai, giving the fake Supreme an opportunity to compete with the real Supreme for the Asian market.
IBF are so confident, they've even started attacking Supreme New York about their limited releases by claiming they want to put an end to the "injustice" and fight against "legally ambiguous phenomena that encourages reselling... promoted by so-called YouTubers or fake streetwear gurus."
Samsung collaboration aside, it's unclear what Supreme NYC can now do to stop the growth of the legal fake Supreme, which now holds the right to use the original brand name while selling to billions of people across Asia.
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A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the EUIPO ruled against Supreme's Europe-wide trademark application.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that IBF had secured the trademark rights to 'Supreme' in Asia through the WIPO.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Japan was the only Asian country where Supreme could operate.