It’s late afternoon on a gray and rainy spring weekday in Manhattan, and Alex Corporan, longtime manager of the legendary skate-shop-turned-fashion-label Supreme, is sitting on a table in the back of the store, eating Chinese take-out.
Surrounded by stacks of product waiting to be priced or sorted, Corporan continues eating. The phone rings regularly. Shop teamriders are lurking around the store, and a few Japanese tourists are admiring some Supreme logo T-shirts and beanies. Those things are a hot commodity in Japan-even with the presence of three Supreme locations in Osaka, Tokyo, and Fukaka.
Clearly Supreme isn’t a conventional skate shop.
“It’s a fashionable skate shop,” explains Corporan. “And it’s pretty amazing how it turned out, because who would’ve ever thought?”
Supreme first opened its doors in Manhattan in 1993 and now boasts the three stores in Japan, a flagship at its original location in Manhattan, and Supreme gear is sold at Union in Los Angeles. No one ever anticipated that the shop would birth such an international following.
Corporan explains that in the beginning, support for the shop came mainly from local skaters: “They were out there and representing it (Supreme) every day. We had a big slew of close friends, and it’s all them who promoted it.” Corporan says that the shop’s popularity has grown to a magnitude they’d never imagined. “It’s still friends doing it. But people caught on to it as a trend to wear Supreme stuff. It’s the hot stuff in the streets now.”
You’d think that in order to win such widespread appeal, the shop must have had the marketing budget that new clothing designers and labels dream of. However, in Supreme’s case, it’s the furthest thing from the truth. And that’s where the label gets its street cred. “Our marketing came mostly from the streets and from our friends wearing the clothing,” says Corporan. “Everybody wearing it-that was our marketing.”
Supreme has an in-house design team that handles the entire clothing line (which is limited to men’s apparel and ranges from hats and T-shirts to fleece and button-ups), and Corporan says all of the items sell well. Sometimes the shop gives away some promotional women’s clothing items. He says, “We don’t do kids’ (sizes), either. We’re just going to stick with men’s for now.”
Sure, the success of Supreme as a clothing label might have more than a lot to do with great timing-after all the shop came about when no one else was offering the look, image, and attitude Supreme had. Beyond that, some of the company’s success might have to do with the fact that it’s owned by the same guy who owns Stüssy apparel. “But it’s all separate-we’re run independently,” explains Corporan.
Still, there’s the question of how a skate shop turns into an international fashion label. Asked to explain his theory on the enormous popularity of Supreme in Japan, Corporan smiles: “Japanese people just happen to like a lot of street culture, and Supreme just happens to be one of the hot items in the streets.”While there are three stores in Japan, Supreme product is also bought and sold fairly regularly on eBay. Corporan says that of all the walk-in clientele at the Manhattan location, 40 percent is Japanese tourists. The remainder is composed of 50-percent locals and ten-percent from other international tourists. What’s also interesting is that hardgoods comprise roughly 30 percent of the shop’s inventory, and of the remaining 70 percent that is softgoods, half of that is Supreme label items-the most popular items being T-shirts, sweatshirts, and caps. Corporan adds that the softgoods-to-hardgoods ratio in the shop has always been as it is now: “It’s because (since the shop’s earliest days) people wanted to wear the Supreme gear-the actual logos.”
In fact, Corporan says that approximately 80 percent of the shop’s total sales are from Supreme clothing and about twenty percent from hardgoods: “All of the other clothing brands are just in-between.” And he says their reason for carrying other skateboard brands is simple: “We’re a skateboard shop-so (we carry other brands) to support all of the other companies that make the industry.”
Corporan attributes the large percentage of Japanese tourists shopping at the Manhattan shop to the fact that prices are significantly higher at the shops in Japan. He adds that the Japanese stores only sell Supreme clothing-no hardgoods. “I think it (the Supreme logo) offers them (Japanese customers) an urban identity-to be a part of New York.”
Shop Team, Local Scene
Supreme takes pride in the fact that its shop team has been solid since day one-Akira Mowatt, Charles Lamb, Ryan Hickey, Rob Campbell, and Taji Haameen. Past teamriders include Jones Keefe, Peter Bici, Justin Pierce, Mike Hernandez, and Rob Carlyon. “That’s our team, but then we have our family-everyone we grew up with, all of our friends,” says Corporan.
Aside from being a big hangout spot for local skaters, the shop employs four full-time staff member and one part-timer, and contributes to the local scene by holding video premieres. It’s also the shop most frequently visited by traveling pros.
In addition to its team and video premieres, the Supreme flagship in Manhattan is known for its creative displays-and the shop makes an effort to maintain this. Corporan explains, “After the change of season, the shop closes down for a couple of days to put out new product, paint, clean up, and make it all look fresh.”
Supreme doesn’t have a Web site and never has. Corporan admits they receive regular queries about a Web site, but Supreme product sells so well in the store that having an online store hasn’t been a priority.
Asked what someone from another city would have to do in order to get their hands on Supreme product, Corporan nonchalantly replies, “They would have to fly here.”
Well that, or eBay. In fact, the demand for Supreme gear is well-represented in the online eBay marketplace, where Supreme products ranging from hats and T-shirts to the limited-edition Nike Supreme Dunk shoe have sold-in some cases for hundreds of dollars above their original retail prices.
While Nike Dunk sneakers selling for hot cash on eBay isn’t really breaking news, the point is that Supreme is the only skate shop the mega shoe company has made a sneaker for. Asked what its motivation for doing a limited-edition Nike Supreme Dunk shoe was, a spokesperson for the company responded: “It’s a mutual respect that both companies have for each other.”
The hype around the shop hasn’t gone unnoticed by non-skateboard media either. The Paper magazine Web site (papermag.com), quotes: “Basically, this (Supreme) is the shit when it comes to anything skateboard-related in New York-actually, worldwide. Supreme always has the freshest, newest, bling-blingiest in skate gear, shoes, videos and especially decks-their display is more exciting than many neighboring art galleries.”
A Supreme Role
Corporan admits that Supreme created the role of a boutique shop in skateboarding and says the future vision for Supreme is to keep on growing as time passes. “New York and beyond, and wherever it takes us,” he says. “We admire every shop out there for their support of skateboarding. FTC is the example of a West Coast shop that has achieved the same popularity among skateboarders.”
Corporan is also able to admit that while everyone makes mistakes along the way, mistakes can be positive if you take them as learning experiences. He was unwilling to give an example of a mistake that Supreme has made over the years, but does say that he attributes the shop’s popularity to specific timing: “The timing of everyone that was on the scene then (in 1993)-it was (the) apex of the New York scene then.”
Today, on account of the shop’s NYC roots, Corporan says Supreme has a huge advantage over other shops in the city for getting things like video premieres. His reasoning? “Because we’re the biggest established shop in the city.”
The shop’s su
ccess stands as a model or inspiration for many other shops throughout the world. And to them, the advice Corporan offers is simple: “In times like these, keep the support strong for each other, and keep people happy.”Supreme, 274 Lafayette Street, New York City, New York, 10012. Phone: (212) 966-7799.