StyleA Love (of) Supreme
An interview with author David Shapiro about his novel Supremacist.
David Shapiro’s Supremacist tells the biting, sad, and mildly epic tale of “David,” a schlumpy, booze-and-pill-addled twenty something who, accompanied by proverbial hot friend Camilla, makes a pilgrimage to every Supreme store in the world. It’s not a book about the brand, except insofar as the main character is utterly consumed by it. David talks and thinks ceaselessly about Supreme, whether he’s bungling the most cursory human interaction, going into withdrawal, or passing out in a garbage-strewn alley.
Much of Supremacist takes place in Japan, where the culture shock is nearly instantaneous. But David seems fundamentally out of joint except when it comes to Supreme. It’s his guiding light, his happy place, and his white whale rolled up into one. He’s largely aimless, if not completely lost; this trip is the only thing in his life that resembles purpose. David sits in front of the stores for hours, even days, sometimes making only minimal purchases. And he chases the meaning of Supreme desperately, as if trying to locate a little bit of meaning in his own life.
While Supremacist isn’t a comprehensive history or journalistic survey, it still offers some of the sharpest thinking on record about the enigmatic brand. The narrator goes to great lengths to try and understand not only why Supreme matters so much to him but also—with a great deal of accuracy—exactly what makes Supreme Supreme.
GQ: This probably isn’t the most relevant question in the world, but it’s one I have to ask: How much of Supremacist is autobiographical?
David Shapiro: I generally say that any aspect of the narrator that’s positive is wholly reflective of me in real life and any upsetting or disturbing aspect is the fictionalized part. A reader could vastly overestimate the degree to which this is autobiographical. But I did go on a trip to every Supreme store in the world before they opened the Paris store.
But the narrator goes way beyond just being a Supreme enthusiast. Did you have to invent that aspect of him?
That would have taken more imagination than I have! I love Supreme; most of the objects photographed in the book are mine. At earlier times in my life, I’ve thought that a band was really cool, or an author’s work was really worth thinking about, or a movie was really worthwhile. That’s the kind of connection I have with Supreme. I mean, I also understand with some remove that it’s just a clothing brand. But Supreme it is a significant thing in my personal life.
So was it cathartic to write a book putting that out in the open?
One way of identifying the narrator in relation to myself is that it’s some small aspect of myself that’s been blown up to be the entirety of a character. I was really infatuated with Supreme and I thought that if I could examine it fully and completely dive into it by visiting every store, then I could exorcize the demon of it. I’d come back from the trip, write the book, and not be interested in it after. I could say everything I wanted to say about and then it would bore me.
Do you know how the company feels about the book?
I haven’t heard from them and I wouldn’t expect to. They generally don’t acknowledge any public presentation of the brand other than their own. When Drake or Justin Bieber wears Supreme, they don’t recruit them as models. Part of their appeal is that stance: “We just make clothes. Nothing to see here. Just making a good product.” It would be strange to me if they emailed me saying they liked the book. It would detract from some of the mystery.
How about the cult of Supreme on the Internet?
I’ve made hundreds, maybe thousands, of teenaged enemies on message boards. There’s a general current of “you are why Supreme is getting less cool … you nerd, you’re not a desirable association for the brand to have.” Another aspect of Supreme—and this is what reminds me of the way I felt about bands in high school—is that you have your personal relationship with it and other people’s performance of their relationship of the brand interferes with your special one-on-one relationship with it.
I imagine the brand itself may feel a similar way. They go out of their way to associate with interesting people of all stripes but none of them are losers in the way the narrator is. But there are people who like the book. I get four-page long emails from teenagers in Belgium that are like “I live for Supreme. I can’t talk to anyone else about it. You understand.”
Why didn’t you just write a straightforward book about Supreme?
The only authority I have comes from understanding my own history with it. There are people posting on Hypebeast right now who know a ton more about it than I do, and these are people I learn about it from. The atmosphere of Supreme fandom is competitive and completist. I wouldn’t feel comfortable presenting myself as an authority and then not recognizing the source of the graphic on a T-shirt from 1998.
Maybe, but there’s a lot of fairly obscure Supreme stuff in here.
I’m seen many instances in which they make a product that sits on the shelf and then two or three later it becomes extraordinarily expensive on eBay or Grailed. It’s like people realize that what seemed like a minor product at the time actually contained a really clever idea. Like the leopard sweater vest from last season. I don’t think it even has a visible logo; it’s just a sweater vest. But I think that’s the kind of thing that will becomes really expensive because resellers don’t buy it. So everyone who does buy it wants to wear it and there doesn’t end up being a large supply of it among resellers.
An interest in more understated or less popular item is not so different from the instinct that drives someone to wear an obscure band’s T-shirt. It demonstrates some knowledge and interest outside of the box logo. That’s part of the appeal for me. I want to stand out as a wearer.
How many people do you think understand Supreme this super-conceptual level? Does it even matter?
It wouldn’t surprise me if the vast majority of Supreme consumers just identify it as a cool brand. But I think people also recognize that they make really interesting and intensely considered products. Supreme means a lot of different things to the people who wear it. I don’t know if a lot of other people have the same kind of unified theory of Supreme as I do.
I know that people “getting it” matters to the brand. “Guerilla Fashion: The Story of Supreme”, Alex Williams’s big New York Times story from 2012, talks about how he has to go back to Supreme three times to convince them that he gets it, that he knows they’re not just like Etnies. So while Supreme doesn’t necessarily want to be thought of as high fashion they don’t want to be seen as just a skate brand.
So what sets Supreme apart is its integrity?
One thing that drew me to Supreme initially was that I’d walk by their store and they’d be blasting music, creating an atmosphere that seemed designed to repel consumers. They leave a lot of money on the table for resellers. I wouldn’t say “they’re not in it for the money” because that’s their profession, but in a way, they aren’t. They’re in it to make something intriguing and subversive. And they wouldn’t mind being recognized that way, as opposed to just being a company with a logo that Drake wears.
Could you write this about any other brand?
Apple. And that’s it.