In 1994, Ross Wilson, visiting New York from the UK, walked into the newly opened Supreme store. After chatting with the staff, and taking in an atmosphere that combined his beloved skateboards with a preppy take on clothes, he bought a T-shirt, a white one with the now-infamous red Supreme “box” logo, for $19, “as a souvenir”. It turned out to be the start of something much bigger.
Fast forward 23 years, and Wilson has a huge Supreme archive. He is selling 1,000 Supreme items this week and yet still has about 20% of his collection intact. The rest of the pieces will be online at The Idle Man from Thursday, with a corresponding exhibition of classic T-shirts and cult items taking place in the retailer’s London store over the weekend. Included in the sale are many limited-edition T-shirts, a North Face jacket “that everyone wants”, as well as a pair of Supreme-branded boxing gloves and a basketball.
Wilson, who works as a freelance fashion writer and a DJ, does not look like the average hypebeast – the name given to the young people who queue outside streetwear shops every week in the hope of scoring a piece of clothing from brands like Supreme. He is dressed in a black T-shirt, dark jeans and has a mod-ish haircut. Not for him the extreme branding favoured by a younger generation. The Idle Man project came about partly because the people buying Supreme have changed. “A lot of these kids were too young to buy these pieces, or not even born,” he says. “Even something from 2008, they wouldn’t have been into Supreme when they were five. The brand rarely reissues things, so it’s a chance to get a piece of history.”
Supreme, which has spent a lot of its 23-year history under the radar of mainstream fashion, is now in its sights. After limited-edition items such as a Kate Moss T-shirt or a Supreme branded brick led to moments in the spotlight, 2017 saw a shift. Once bootlegging the Louis Vuitton monogram in 2000, they collaborated with the fashion house last year, and these pieces are now on eBay for thousands of pounds. In October, it was announced that the brand had received investment from the private equity firm Carlyle Group, with it valued at $1bn. It’s a long way from the downtown, skater niche it started in.
Wilson believes this is all the much-deserved result of a long-term gameplan. “When they did the Nike collaboration in 2002, that was a real turning point,” he says. “A lot of people would have widened the wholesale network and opened up shops everywhere. But James [Jebbia, the founder of Supreme] did the exact opposite; he tightened the network, made it so you could only buy in Supreme stores and took the box T-shirt off the shelves to make it more desirable. He played the long game, basically. That’s what has given it the exclusivity, that’s the reason kids line up.”
The collector is not negative about the latest generation to join the Supreme cult. He says the resale culture – where those in the queues buy pieces specifically to resell them online, or wear once and then resell – has “damaged streetwear … But if I was 15 and had the chance to make £100,000 a week, I’d do it.”
In his sale, Wilson has been careful to price stuff based on an average, sourced through Supreme sellers throughout the world. The system is designed to thwart bots set up to buy pieces before people get the chance. Interested parties register through the website and add the pieces they want into their shopping basket. When the sale ends, the recipient of, say, those boxing gloves, is chosen at random. “I want people to buy these things and wear them,” says Wilson.
He certainly got his wear out of many of the pieces available, including a much-prized purple box T-shirt, which has become a collector’s item since it was worn by hip-hop group 36Mafia in a Supreme video in 2012. While it wasn’t put into production then, Wilson has an original one from 1999. It comes with caveats, however. “I cut the sleeves off mine and got it covered in bleach when I was cleaning the house one day,” he says. “It’s rare, but in that condition, I probably frittered away thousands of pounds. It does come with a story, though.”
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