What a time to forget the hype community

By Greg Bruce
Illustration Sunflowerman

On the corners of Prince and Lafayette, a passerby could barely inch onto the sidewalks without weaving around security guards scolding teenagers, catching the screeches of Indy trucks slapping sidewalks, and, naturally, getting their whole fit judged instantly by the tourists, tweens, downtown cool kids™, and Grailed resellers, all of whom are perched in an assembly-line, waiting to be fed into a lionizing red box logo.

If the Soho cross streets didn’t give away this emblematic site of a retailer consumer chain of consumption, then let’s forgo waxing poetic about the most hyped brand ever and be as forward as its t-shirts: This was the once-renowned and, now, too-big-for-its-bogo (and butt of many a streetwear joke) shopper journey at Supreme. You’ve probably heard of this religion-of-a-brand that publications can’t seem to not name drop.

The past few years saw the lines at Supreme locations across the world extend into the baldly visible apex of experience consumerism (if waiting in line deserves to be called that!), thereby solidifying a new community of those who wait on the line. The new Supreme community, with its curated feed and update news, wasn’t necessarily tapped in on the Mike Kelley collaboration because they loved his artwork or what he accomplished with Sonic Youth, however. They were most likely not heading into the actual store with the intention of purchasing and thereby supporting Supreme’s small selection of affiliated brands (like Humble and Quartersnacks) because, well, for superficial reasons: despite the co-sign, they aren’t inscribed with the Supreme brand name and have little surface-level flex value.

It begged the question: Had one of the most recognized brands in the world sell out? Did it matter if it did because, eventually, everyone sells out in America, so isn’t the joke on us?

No, they’d rather buy red velvet Oreos. Or bible stash boxes. Or resin paperweights with actual cash inside of them. Continually, we surprise ourselves with our love of the ugly or off-beat. It must be hardwired in us, this mistaking of beauty with kitsch. With more and more of these novelty offerings—both equally unconventional and knickknack-esque—it begged the question: Had one of the most recognized brands in the world sell out? Did it matter if it did because, eventually, everyone sells out in America, so isn’t the joke on us whether we’re in line or not?

Sure, Supreme gets a lot of flak, especially and rightly so for its Barbara Kruger bootlegged banner. But maybe we’ve pointed our finger of hype-hatred at the wrong beaming, red target—it’s really a segment of clout-fuelled cornballs that have spoiled its cool, because it only takes one mall grab for judgemental skaters everywhere to be pissed off when they see red box logos. It’s the incorrect sort of “S” blazoned across the chest; no heroes, you’d wager, wear Supreme. Even so, I concede my complicitness because I’m not the woke jawn savior here to save the herd. I’ve had my fair share of trips to Soho-past but I’ve managed to venture past the lines, and have seen the light—which is in the form of subtler shops around the city run by bros and buds.

Even if it wasn’t their initial plans, Supreme accelerated streetwear, particularly, their business model of (potentially) accessing insiderism through shopping. Don’t worry, though, Supreme isn’t the end-all be-all; there are plenty of other clubhouses under the guise of menswear boutiques to flock to. And this may be a blanket statement, but here’s the hype-othesis: Every contemporary brand has learned something from Supreme and one could probably connect the dots if they had to.

In 2010, while Soho was busy building La Colombes on every block, a small boutique up the road in Noho was beginning to open its doors. Hidden beneath a staircase, camouflaged by the rush of Equinox goers on Bond, is C’H’C’M’. Existiting on its own Bermuda Triangle of retail space, C’H’C’M’ is a walk-in, chop it up shop. It’s as much a hideout for sartorial know-it-alls as it’s really just a store to kick the shit.

Once I could finally find it (it really is like a dugout), I would make the effort to head down into what seems like a bunker, and from time to time would talk with one of the employees there, Ilya. While we acknowledged whatever new shipment just arrived and gassed up what Adsum has been doing over in Greenpoint, we also talked about LA breakfast tacos, the best bánh mì spots in NYC, how COVID-19 was going to turn the U.S. inside out, and The Wire, kind of, since I never finished the show and ended up just watching pivotal scenes on YouTube (my apologies to all the purists).

Recounting my favorite stores also means recalling the conversations with the workers and customers there. I’ll remember going to Adsum’s new Williamsburg store because it’s where I learned the news about Kobe Bryant's tragic passing. Behind Adsum’s counter was Marcel, showing me CNN’s landing page, already dedicated to the devastating and unbelievable details. I’ve sat at Westerlind a handful of times on their fuzzy, Swedish ottomans—that are more like beanbags—and spoke with Joe, an associate of Westerlind, about happenings around town, signet rings and gems (his dad’s a jewelry designer), and how much we both admire C’H’C’M’. And, I’ll always say what’s up to Jennings when he’s at Noah, the clubhouse on Mulberry Street. (Tangential shoutout to Jennings for DJing TE’s Halloween party and playing an excessive, but wholly appreciated amount of Waka Flocka.)

Each of these shops are smaller environments filled with truly friendly people and good energy (a stark contrast to the notorious GTFO attitude of Supreme), and they’d all have pretty similar venn diagrams consisting of these elements. Especially this factor: these stores aren’t so blatantly lazer-focused on having people buy things. They’re open clubhouses with an amalgamation of interests ranging from French funk, Chances With Wolves mixes, maritime sailing, vintage basketball history, cult movies, coffee, local art, remarkable Japanese garments, and basically everything else you can pinpoint a fanatical culture.

More importantly, they’re all smaller businesses, like what Supreme used to be. But unlike Supreme, a crisis like COVID-19 is really threatening their livelihood. After all, a lot of them don’t have the venture capital or global audience and distribution network to ride out the crisis. Now, they’re unexpectedly getting ready to face the music when their stores open back up (if they do), with masks on and unboxed, deadstock hand sanitizers ready, of course. Saying shopping will be different sounds trivial at this point. The in-store presence and culture they’ve cultivated are at stake.

The heyday of Supreme—being featured in Larry Clark’s Kids, curating the boutique blueprint, inspiring numerous brands from previous employees like Chris Gibbs (Union), Angelo Baroque (Awake), and Brendan Babzien (Noah)—morphed into the hype machine way before the shop relocated to 190 Bowery, a few blocks from its original Lafayette nucleus but a world away in terms of import. And its wider community became more like the mainstream that Supreme was long secluding itself from because it got all the right attention (remember Odd Future?). It’s not the brand’s fault, it’s just how years of community building can crumble into a circulating joke conflating the brand with the community.

Supreme isn’t lamenting its glory days as a clubhouse of underground aesthetes, nor is it waving a flag for coincidentally creating the “drop culture” that everyone mimics now. But, in part, this led to the new group conditioning: a Pavlovian effect on drop days among Middle America’s hypebeasts to refresh browsers incessantly, for retail frontrunners to pitch geodome tents (it has to be a geodome or just go home) and thus-branded lawn chairs to camp out, and for the world’s modern entrepreneurs to unleash their bots to cop, hunt, and bring back the resale dollars while the StockX projection is still hot.

If at first unintentionally and then deliberately so, Supreme shaped “hype culture” following its brand image and retail model. Once exclusivity equated to some form of success, the lure of the box logo spread. Where Supreme goes, the serpentine line of buyers follows, and not because they’re asked to. The most susceptible followers, who have become more devout to the clout and are willing to overpay for the world’s dying medium, will even burn their jawnz for either shock value or to destigmatize the sanctity of the brand.

Obviously, there’s no formal statement that Supreme recognizes its seven letters as so sacred, so hallowed (except for when you attempt the most playful bootlegging of their designs). But the forums, the Instagrams dedicated to drop updates, and the plethora of omnichannel shoppers have led others (ahem, hi) to think rightly that Supreme is the brand and the community we love to dunk on. If we could hope for anything out of this crisis, it would be that we could forget the growing horde of hypebeasts, who have made people even remotely interested in jawnz, grimace and squirm. Yet, the lesser-known, lowkey, "if you know you know" communities—like the one at C’H’C’M’ and its kin (not Kith!)—could be the ones we end up not even getting to, well, know.

Although shopping can feel morally iffy during a once-in-a-century pandemic, or any crisis for that matter, people with the means to will tend to (a dilemma, Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times pointed out). But, sadly, sometimes those sales go to the wrong places, like how the online sales for H&M in the UK grew almost a third from March 6th to May 1st, according to Business of Fashion.

So, if you’re scrolling online sales and looking to (digitally) stimulate our once great economy, then I’d suggest supporting the locals so that their–our, really—lowkey communities can have a place to come back to.

Shops I recommend that aren’t tormented with bots or have horrid lines IRL: