By 3pm on June 29th, a raucous crowd of 150 young people had gathered at the corner of Surrey Street and the Strand in central London. Though few would have guessed it from their heavy-for-the-weather streetwear – down jackets, tracksuits, layered T-shirts, baseball caps and beanies – they were the cognoscenti. Although it was a full 17 hours before the official announcement, they knew that the shuttered shop front on this unremarkable block, situated between Somerset House and the Royal Courts of Justice, was where it was going to happen.
To most passers-by, it – the release of a collection of clothing made by two fashion brands working in collaboration – would have meant nothing. Yet to this excited cluster, the hundreds who would join them the following day, plus the thousands more who would line the streets (many having slept on them overnight) at similar pop-up launches in Tokyo, Paris, Los Angeles, Beijing, Sydney, Seoul and Miami, this event meant a great deal indeed. For they were about to witness the result of a union between the world’s most famous luxury brand, 163-year-old Louis Vuitton, and the world’s most famous streetwear brand, 23-year-old Supreme.
“This is pretty much uncharted territory,” said Martin Ologunja, 19 years old, from Hackney. “As a Supreme head, I was never expecting it to get into the high-fashion side. And I’ve got the utmost respect for LV.”
Richard Blackman, also 19, added that he had come because of a rumour on Instagram. He said: “I’m here for the culture of hype products. Supreme is a really nice fashion brand – a street brand – that most of us kids wear.”
Were they hoping to flip (resell, in street parlance)? “Absolutely!” said Alex Tarrant, 18: “I think the profits could be in the thousands.” Ologunja said, “One person said to me that resellers are the new drug dealers, but I don’t think so. I think resellers are the new art dealers.”
Just then, a bald and bearded American-accented man in a suit – a suit! – shouted for attention. We gathered around him. “Congratulations to you all,” he said. “You are the first! You made it! But the council and the police are adamant – nobody can loiter on the street, so if you do, there will be nothing happening here. There will be announcements on social media.” Slowly, and with some chagrin, we straggled down the pavement towards a Pret A Manger.
This curious scene was elegantly explained in economic terms by Adita Varavina-Grover, 18, who (exam results permitting) hopes to take up an offer to study at the London School of Economics this September. “The more limited the item is, the more stressed out people get. It’s like inelastic demand. Even if the price goes up the demand will always stay the same, because of all this hype.”
There were already rumours (there always are), but that hype officially began in January during the Spring/Summer men’s fashion shows in Paris. Kim Jones, who has overseen the menswear designs at Louis Vuitton since 2011, invited me to preview his collection the day before his show at his sprawling studio in the former headquarters of the La Samaritaine department store. His main collection, the exclusively Louis Vuitton stuff, was beautiful: a New York-artist-inspired wardrobe of loose-cut clothes in cashmere, vicuña, silk and denim which referenced Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol among others.
This was advanced menswear for PhD-level aesthetes, requiring a certain connoisseurship – luxury masculine geekery – to read and relish it in full. Scattered within it, however, were items with a much more direct message: baseball shirts and work jackets in light Japanese denim on which was a grid of tufted shapes – the famous LV monogram pattern interspersed with the word “Supreme” in larger sans-serif letters. The same combination was on sneakers, backpacks, holdalls and a trove of other accessories that ran from bottle openers and pen-knives to handkerchiefs and badges. There were even trunks – Louis Vuitton’s original product – including one designed especially to hold a LVXSupreme patterned skateboard.
Ah, the irony of that skateboard! In 2000, Supreme released a skateboard deck upon which was decaled Vuitton’s monogram pattern, but with the LV replaced by an S. It was blatant and shameless logo abuse. Two weeks later, after Vuitton threatened a lawsuit, it was withdrawn. Now Vuitton – the Paris label positioned at the top-most point of the pyramid of the world’s largest luxury conglomerate – was working with a vaingloriously named unluxury New York upstart that it once rightfully accused of copyright infringement. How come?
It was chiefly down to Jones. “Michael Burke, the CEO of Louis Vuitton, called me up one day and said, ‘Do you know the people at Supreme, because I’m really interested in the brand and would like to talk to its founder’, who’s James Jebbia, whom I know. So I said ‘You can get his number off me if we can do a collaboration with them!’ And we sort of started from there.” Work on the collaboration, he said, had already been under way for over a year. “In this world where everyone wants the new, new, new, it’s nice to be able to throw in something that’s completely fresh…all I’m trying to do is create customer excitement and create things that I enjoy.”
At Louis Vuitton’s show the next morning the rapper Travis Scott took his seat on the front row wearing a T-shirt bearing the Supreme white-on-red box logo and the LV initials. David Beckham wasn’t wearing the collaboration – he opted for Louis Vuitton proper – but said that his kids were “really into” Supreme. Kate Moss fondly recalled that in the mid-1990s Supreme once appropriated and repurposed (in Supreme parlance, logo-flipped) a fashion campaign she’d done for Calvin Klein. “Later,” she added, “when they’d made loads of money they paid me to do an ad.”
Out came the collection. Around Jones’s core of refined raffishness, those Supreme pieces were strung like scarlet tinsel. Online, websites that specifically cater to “streetwear” – sports, work and military-attire-based fashion labels – exploded in rapture. The rumours were true! Their beloved anti-establishment upstart and the world’s most famous, establishment luxury brand were expecting! By June expectation had matured to fever pitch.
Supreme was created by James Jebbia, who moved from Britain to New York in the 1980s, after stints running a wholesale fashion store and working alongside Sean Stussy – streetwear’s equivalent to high fashion’s Coco Chanel – in the opening of a Stussy boutique.
As an explicitly skateboarding-inspired label, Supreme has long harnessed the sport’s image as a rebellious, artistic and sometimes illegal passion. Its own logo is strikingly similar to graphic elements and fonts in the work of artist Barbara Kruger – an inspiration Jebbia has acknowledged. The Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein “logo-flips” are not Supreme’s only copyright infringements, but many of its collaborations are consensual.
These feed its retail operation – ten stores around the world plus a website selling goods with low production costs such as cotton T-shirts, maple skate decks and nylon jackets – which borrows much from high luxury’s business model. Each line is sold in strictly limited numbers. New goods are released in “drops” every Thursday, encouraging fans to queue every week to check out the new items before they disappear, perhaps for ever.
That has created a community of fans – most of them young, along with others who wish they still were – who have defined themselves as a tribe while waiting in line. And the policy of enforced scarcity has enlarged further the community of Supreme-lovers by creating a frenzied secondary market within which the goods are traded and speculated upon.
For Louis Vuitton, the value of the collaboration lies in those kids. For Supreme, the sight of its street-rat logo on one of the world’s most venerable and iconic luxury products, a Louis Vuitton trunk, represents a stratospheric status upgrade – as if Banksy were hung in the Louvre. To have its co-branded products both manufactured and sold by Louis Vuitton – yet under Supreme-curated conditions of hype – is one in the eye for anyone who reckons it is an all-mouth-no-trousers brand for suggestible kids.
At 10am on Day One of the sale, a queue of about 600 people stretched down the Strand and along Surrey Street. Martin, Richard, Alex and Adita were all there. Running the queue for Louis Vuitton was security specialist Lex Showumni. “This is my first experience with Supreme. I was told it was going to be crazy, a lot of people pushing and shoving, but we haven’t experienced that so far.” The Supreme faithful have their own, slightly dubious, process of queue-management based on attendance and standing. It mostly works, but some people were unhappy: a trader had left the head of the queue to withdraw £12,000 from an ATM. He returned without the cash having lost his number 1 spot; eventually, after some animated discussion, he slipped back in near the front.
Each customer was admitted to the store for 15 minutes and allowed to buy six items. Successful trophy hunters included Ari Petrou, with a flipped T-shirt (around £400), that he was definitely keeping. Jeremy Wilson bagged a coveted red-logo baseball shirt (£730) that he planned to resell.
Within an hour, three main secondary exchanges had been set up outside the official store: one in the Pret A Manger, the other beneath a tree, and the third next to a municipal toilet. One dealer, who asked not to be named, explained that he had paid ten people a set fee to get early places in the queue and would give them a cut of the resale value of anything they could get their hands on. “It’s business!” he laughed. Wodges of cash were exchanged and stashed in newly acquired Louis Vuitton bags.
One of the trunks, priced at £40,000, remained unsold while I was there. A young dealer agonised about whether he should borrow the cash and risk everything on it. Perhaps fortunately, it was way out of Martin Ologunja’s league. He emerged, disconsolate, with nothing. “A lot of the ready-to-wear is gone. No T-shirts, no hoodies, they haven’t even got a lot of the collection. Apparently Tokyo is getting the red stuff this week and we are getting the black. There was pretty much nothing I wanted.”
Would he return? “Definitely! I’m coming every day. I’m not ready to swallow this. I’ll be back!”