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supreme: built from the inside out

When Supreme first opened it's doors in downtown Manhattan way back over 20 years ago in 1994, it appealed instantly to a core group of "rebellious young New York skaters who became the store's staff, crew and customers" (supremenewyork.com)

And over the past 20 years, Supreme has evolved to be 9 stores in key markets around the globe, from Japan (6 stores with 3 in Tokyo), New York, Los Angeles and London (UK). What has really taken off with the Supreme brand is it's ability to stay reasonably priced throughout its infancy to aggressive growth (jeans have been steady at about $150 and hoodies at about $200). And considering this growth, it begs the question:

Is it still possible to be an authentic brand staying true to your roots while also being mindful about profits, growth and revenue?

In some ways it reminiscent of Red Bull in the early 2000s - rebellious, dangerous, exclusive - and it's reflective in the people who endorse the product. One of the key differentiators for Supreme is the chosen celebrity endorsements, for example at one point Tyler the Creator from Odd Future was selected (http://youtu.be/XSbZidsgMfw) to most recently and the reason to propagate this article, the legendary Neil Young (below).

Self-prophesied, Supreme states that it has three commitments: style, quality and authenticity. The key word that I think is reflective of what the brand itself represents to its end consumer is authenticity.

Style and quality are for sure critical, but are arguably the table stakes as a niche/specialized clothing retailer. But what does authenticity mean? For a brand like Supreme - absolutely everything.

What enabled Supreme to create such an aura of authenticity is its brand building - and I don't mean branding as external marketing/advertising - I mean through it's internal focus on key stakeholders. The business was created and managed by skaters, who were (and still are) young, stylish, entrepreneurs (aka filmmakers and musicians). These same people who ran the store weren't trained in the arts of urban clothing retail, they were the farthest thing from it. If someone walked in and rummaged through product and didn't talk-the-talk or walk-the-walk like a skater, they were pretty much (indirectly) escorted out of the store.

Point is, the store appealed to the exact same type of guy who worked there.

Supreme's branding is in it's culture and style, this authenticity transcends not just the colours and fabrics, but the imagery. And the celebrities who endorse Supreme are the personification of the evolution of the brand. When Supreme tapped into Tyler the Creator, that choice is speaking volumes about the brand on where it is and where it's going. By being hungry, different, young and fresh - represents what Supreme wanted to convey, and now today's brand message is more closely connecting with Neil Young, a renowned musician whose music is timeless and classic, and doesn't need any introductions regardless of social circles, just like Supreme.

If we remember in the 90s the success of another brand, Zoo York, the authenticity speaks to us not about delivering on the quality or style -but in delivering on a lifestyle. "I wear it so you know what I'm about" mentality. but the question ultimately arises, in a day where brands become identities,  where does this put Supreme? Like other "skater" oriented retailers like Vans, Huff, Stussy, or Hundreds to name a few that have already opened the flood gates to allow their product into more none traditional consumers. At least as of now, they haven't lost brand identity (and ultimately value). But the question reamains, how far can Supreme go to allow the brand to be diluted before it reaches that tipping point?

Well, I think they've done incredibly well thus far -and CEO and owner James Jebbia doesn't seem willing to jeopardize the brand image for anything. The key to any brand is to know your audience and to keep it authentic. The key to authenticity for Supreme is in people (employees, endorsements and customers), and the channels it sells its clothing, by controlling their retail channels (with some partnerships), and by engaging in limited runs, they can create enough new interest to grow their customer base but also keep their loyal customers loyal.

If you are happy making a product that people love, make good money that supports your life - what else do you want? The lesson by James jebbia is that success isn't defined how much money you can accrue, but how desired, loved and impressive your brand can be.

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