The first time I ever went to Supreme on Lafayette I was in fifth grade. It wasn’t a Thursday, so the store wasn’t packed to the brim. I left with a randomly chosen t-shirt to prove I had been there, and that was that. The next few years saw me going back a handful of times with various friends I don’t talk to anymore, sometimes buying, but usually not. I outgrew Supreme as I entered high school, and only gave it a thought again in 2017, when Supreme collaborated with Louis Vuitton. This, to me, was one of the core moments that represents the fashion industry’s shift away from artistic expression and towards a focus on consumerism that has been prevalent throughout the twenty-first century. Now this is not to say that LV and Supreme were artistically pure or even artistic to begin with at this stage in their brand’s history, but to emphasize an overarching view by companies producing clothes today that economic gain is all that matters. Months after the Supreme LV runway show in January, Supreme founder James Jebbia sold fifty percent of his company to the Carlyle Group for $500 million, a number undeniably inflated by the momentously talked about collaboration. People scoffed at this billion dollar evaluation, but fail to realize how overblown the brand has become. The structured, boxy t-shirts are replaced by softer, cheaper blanks, and the brand releases around twice as many designs per season with several hundred percent more quantity. But what this valuation really comes from is Supreme’s ability to be an undeniable part of the conversation whether you like them or not, and retain their cult following while still growing without falter.
In late 2020 Supreme sold again, this time to VF Corporation for $2.1 billion. This growth is astronomical, but what is really interesting about this deal was that they sold to VF Corp, not LVMH or Prada Group or Kering or another holding company that owns high profile fashion brands. VF Corp is more middle and low grade clothing companies, not “fashion” brands. The simple truth is that VF offered the most money, and James Jebbia and Carlyle took it. This was more important to them than being somewhere with other “fashion” brands, because selling out was always the plan. The first sentence on James Jebia’s Wikipedia page is correct: he’s a businessman first and fashion designer second. Everyone has a price, just look at Nigo selling 90% of Bape back in 2011. Business always comes before design in the fashion landscape today, the majority of people just don’t realize it. Do you think at the time of the LV Supreme collaboration it was LV artistic director Kim Jones’ idea? It wasn’t, it was LV Chairman Michael Burke’s.
Even clothing brands that aren’t necessarily “fashion” brands will totally 180 to get paid. For the past three years Arc’teryx has been the biggest trend as gorpcore continues to be worn by every dork who has never taken it to the actual wilderness. For a while Arc’teryx was aware of their clothing’s second life on the streets of soho, but ignored it, staying true to their roots and focusing on making functional mountaineering and climbing wear. But recently they announced a collaboration with the failing Jil Sander brand, another desperate move by the company to regain relevance, just as they tried with their uniqlo collaboration earlier in the year. This collaboration fundamentally makes no sense, and is just another interesting brand (Arc’teryx) succumbing to the allure of money from a more mainstream brand (Jil Sander). It truly sours Arc’teryx’s integrity, almost as much as when Guidi released boots for Alyx last year.
So where is artistry still left? Can you still find fashion brands without corruption? The brands that own themselves and were not bought by a large holding company remain true to their vision and relatively undiluted. Unfortunately, this is hard to come by, as when independent brands stay independent they often suffer from lack of business management, and eventually are forced to sell. This is what happened to Nigo with Bape, and recently what happened to Ann Demeulemeester. Brands need the balance of artistry and monetization of the artistry to be independently successful. Rick Owens remains strong in today’s landscape, arguably in a better position than he was even five years ago. He owns his brand outright, and operates within his limits with very established stores throughout the world, not flimsy rack space at department stores or temporary locations. His clothing has a healthy consumer base, and he is profitable while able to produce many more runway pieces than ready-to-wear garments. While yes, he definitely produces more sneakers than he used to, they are still the ridiculous horse and lamb leather embroidered uncomfortable monsters they once were, not cheap mass produced sneakers used only as money grabbers by the likes of Balenciaga. He knows what his consumers want and grows naturally, without making wild jumps to new concepts to attract new customers in bulk. In the fashion landscape today where you have brands like Jil Sander and Ann Demeulemeester having their namesakes not even involved in the company anymore, it is impossible to imagine Rick Owens the brand without Rick Owens the man fully involved and in control. I hope that I never see the headline that he sold his company and now there’s a new creative director. When Rick Owens decides to leave, I want all of it to go with him.
Unfortunately what I see in the Fashion industry is conglomeration. If it’s not money-generating collaborations like Louis Vuitton/Supreme, Arc’teryx/Jil Sander, Stussy/Dior, or Gucci/The North face (don’t even get me started) its outright absorption of brands into other companies. Oh look, this season Supreme is collaborating with Timberland, Vans, and The North Face? That’s all the same company now. Today I woke up and saw that Moncler bought Stone Island. Every brand is centralizing into a few enormous companies, and if they aren’t, they are being put out of business. Only rare gems like Rick Owens soldier on against this corporate takeover of the fashion world. Tune in Christmas 2021 when I will revalue where the fashion world stands.