Louis Vuitton x Supreme, if you read the fashion press, is a mallet hammering down hierarchies between streetwear and high fashion. In a conversation held by the website Highsnobiety,1 ‘influencers’ from various outlets discuss its populism: ‘Two masters of branding have come together to… satisfy such a diverse group of customers.’ Its historicity: ‘It will become a reference point.’ Its subversion: ‘The old rules don’t apply anymore and this is the definitive proof.’ Dissenters, too, describe the collection as a meeting of worlds, concluding that the two vastly different collaborators overestimated their ability to merge. ‘Nothing is more lethal to cred than a sellout,’ writes the New York Times.2
It’s the same narrative typically generated by fashion collaborations: Can you believe X is working with Y? we ask, re: Juicy Couture and Vetements, Christopher Kane and Crocs, Gosha Rubchinskiy and Kangol. In 2017, the collaboration has become as common as the collection. It generates unfailing press, both critical and laudatory. In both scenarios, interest tends to hinge on the brands’ differences, on the inherent edginess of uniting them. In the case of Louis Vuitton and Supreme, the story is that the former brings to the table old-world prestige (and high prices), the latter irreverent youthfulness (and fans rabid enough to pay them).
Yet it’s worth asking: how different are Supreme and Louis Vuitton, actually? They are worn by the same celebrities.3 They are sold in the same shops.4 And they both communicate primarily through logos, reinforcing the notion pervasive of late that brands, even more than craft and design, create objects of desire.
Looks-wise, Louis Vuitton x Supreme is a copy-paste. Wallets, duffels and backpacks are virtually unchanged from their, in some cases, decades-old silhouettes; they’re spottable thanks to the word Supreme in limb-size font. Other pieces – skate decks, denim jackets, trunks – stamp the skate company’s logo atop the Louis Vuitton monogram, with the artistry of a teenager pasting an unrequested bumper sticker on his mum’s BMW. When Supreme knocked off Louis Vuitton in 2000, the results were more complex than this: those skate decks tweaked the century-old monogram, swapping out the LV for a dollar sign. Now, the two logos keep safe distance. If the old decks deconstructed logos, the new ones reinforce their sanctity.
The original decks didn’t make much money: two weeks after they were issued, Louis Vuitton sued Supreme,5 and unsold inventory was supposedly incinerated.6 This bit of streetwear lore fuels the narrative that there’s something subversive and daring about the new collection, too. The collection is ‘not dissimilar to that 17-year-old bootleg,’ writes Vogue.7 The denim looks ‘like something you might find on Canal Street rather than Bond Street,’ notes Dazed.8 Kim Jones, Louis Vuitton’s designer, encouraged the comparisons. ‘It’s tongue-in-cheek, a bit Dapper Dan, you know? That’s what things are now,’ he told the publication.
Dapper Dan is the Harlem tailor who, in the 1980s, turned bootlegging into an artform, creating custom outfits for rappers and sports stars and eventually getting sued by the luxury brands his designs were besting. When it was founded in 1994, Supreme had more in common with Dapper Dan than Louis Vuitton. Its red box logo was an appropriation of an artist, Barbara Kruger, who herself worked with found images from advertisements. Throughout the Nineties it was known for its irreverent ‘logo bites,’ placing stickers across Calvin Klein ads of Kate Moss, selling T-shirts that aped the branding of Patagonia and Courrèges.9 As Supreme grew, these were replaced by official collaborations with Vans, Nike, the Muppets, Playboy. The company began to sue others for copyright infringement, as it had once been sued.10 Its logo – created as a commentary on logos, worn as an emblem of a wry attitude towards corporate fashion – now served the ur-logo’s original design function, pioneered by Louis Vuitton in 1896: to mark authenticity and protect against intellectual property violations.11
This use of the logo makes sense when you consider how much money is at stake. Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy’s annual revenue in 2015 was €35.7 billion.12 Supreme is a privately held company, whose earnings are not subject to public disclosure law, but it has ten stores in five countries and fans willing to wait in line every single week when new products drop. The collaboration is priced accordingly: cell-phone cases are reportedly retailing for between €200 and €300, backpacks and bags between €1500 and €3000, trunks for $68,500.13
Dapper Dan closed his shop in the 1990s. Though many of the brands he knocked off now reference him, none have invited him to do an official partnership, he told me when we met a few years ago in New York. In one sense, this is surprising: It was Dap, after all, who invented new techniques for working with leather and fur, who created couture-like pieces that rivalled the craft of Louis Vuitton’s own artisans.14 But it’s Supreme who has most in common ideologically with the luxury brand. Its logo projects status and power. By wearing it, you align not with a person, but with an abstract and impersonal entity. It is, by definition, corporate.
Fifteen years ago, fashion collaborations followed a formula: high-end designer trades cache for cash with a mass-market retailer.15 Today, they come in all shapes: lateral (Canada Goose and Levi’s), cross-industry (Moschino and Barbie), mainstream-underground (Converse and Comme des Garçons). Often, these garments are mashups, refreshing brand aesthetics through the juxtapositions of familiar silhouettes, patterns, materials. In an era of increasingly ephemeral trends, where brands of all price points churn out hundreds of garments a year and where creative exhaustion is rampant, it’s perhaps unsurprising that designers are eager to find a kind of cheat code, a quick and easy hack for attention.
It’s also perhaps no surprise that, as the collaborations pile up, some of the buzziest versions take a meta-stance, commenting on the phenomenon while benefitting from it. Vetements, for instance, took the collaboration concept to its logical extreme, with a Spring 2017 line consisting solely of co-branded items with companies like Juicy Couture, Hanes and Dr. Martens. Shown in a department store during couture week, emphasising business instead of craft, the pieces felt like anti-couture – a clever in-joke. Similarly, Louis Vuitton x Supreme draws on the latter’s lingering anti-establishment aura, its legacy of satirising precisely the kind of consumer branding this collaboration typifies, to make appealing bags that might otherwise be seen as the luxury versions of totes from a well-sponsored conference.
In many ways, it’s an old story. Fashion has always preferred its capital and wealth obsession with a side of radical chic. But perhaps there’s something contemporary about the collection, too. In the world outside fashion, corporate power is at a heights never seen before, infiltrating art, media and politics. In November, the U.S. elected its first brand as president. His logo is his name, and it’s been used for decades to make money through reality TV shows, real estate projects, and licensing deals. Like Louis Vuitton x Supreme, Donald Trump x America is a collaboration which serves up corporate power with a side of outsider populism. And, like Supreme x Louis Vuitton, it promises to generate lots of money, at least for some.
Alice Hines is Vestoj’s online editor and a writer in New York City.
2 Chainz; Odell Beckham Jr.; Kylie Jenner ↩
Dover Street Market ↩
See: http://www.imgrum.net/media/1292882430637713806_1647796372 and https://www.reddit.com/r/supremeclothing/comments/2nm9oe/info_on_patagonia_supreme_box_logo ↩
‘She’s trying to build her whole brand by piggybacking off Supreme,’ Supreme’s founder, James Jebbia, told New York Magazine, of Leah McSweeney, whose women’s skate line made goods printed with the phrase ‘Supreme Bitch.’ The logo, McSweeney said in court documents, was meant to ‘parody and comment critically upon the Plaintiff’s use of the term SUPREME in connection with its misogynistic and highly demeaning “boy’s club” attitude and line of skateboard street wear.’ See: http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/supreme-2013-5/ and http://www.complex.com/style/2013/05/supreme-court-the-12-greatest-moments-of-supremes-legal-battle-with-leah-mcsweeney/105 ↩
S Bonvicini, Louis Vuitton: Une saga française, Fayard, 2004. In 1895, the luggage company’s original ‘Damier’ checkerboard pattern was copied. The next year, Georges Vuitton, the son of the house’s founder Louis, designed a more complex monogram – the one still in use today – in order to ‘dissuade’ imitators. ‘Ironically, it would become the most copied design in the world a century later,’ writes Bonvicini. [my translation] ↩
See: https://www.instagram.com/p/BPcxeOTA1_Z/ and http://www.highsnobiety.com/2017/01/25/supreme-louis-vuitton-prices/ ↩
Dapper Dan is interviewed in Vestoj’s On Masculinities issue. He was also a storyteller at Vestoj‘s Storytelling Salon at MoMA PS1 in 2015. His story can be viewed here, at minute 34:20. ↩
Isaac Mizrahi for Target in 2003; Karl Lagerfeld for H&M in 2004. ↩