Modern Mythology: Supreme
Author: Dom Rottman
A few years ago I went to a seminar about business and interview etiquette, which looking back was about 25% practical and 75% nonsense. Ideologically speaking I was in a different place then and didn’t look too much into it, but now with each passing day it grows increasingly absurd. We were asked to prepare for the seminar by answering some questions that were, again, largely nonsense; I don’t remember doing much if any of them. But in retrospect by far the most absurd–and dare I say, disgusting–question among them was “Which brands do you identify with?” The very idea that you could, should, even must sublimate yourself to a personless entity in order to fully manifest your identity and individuality is both repulsive and unintuitive. Not only must you seek out and potentially purchase your identity that is apparently held by an external business entity instead of being innate in your person, you must also, in contradiction, effectively share it in kind with the countless other customers of that brand. The value of your identity is apparently not yours to produce; you must buy it–if you can afford it, or imitate it in bad faith–from a limited selection of entities who proclaim themselves as arbiters of value, rather than value being self-determined or otherwise determined simply because it is a thing that a person wants and no more. So dire has this situation grown that the latter case, desire, is often confused with a subconscious acquiescence to the false, arbitrary value proclaimed by businesses as true value.
This phenomenon, this mythology of business being arbiters of value merely by slapping their logo on something is not only overwhelmingly prolific in capitalist society, it is self-perpetuating: The myths businesses create persist because they have the capital–and thus the power–to do so, and through perpetuation of a myth capital’s own power value is reinforced.
Nearly all businesses participate in this mythology to an extent though to greatly varying degrees. An argument could even be made that in a capitalist society firms are in fact forced to participate in this mythology regardless of any inherent quality or value in a product. There is one entity in particular which I would like to focus on, one that has become a master of this mythology, whose myth is of particular interest because of its unique, and I think detrimental, message: The brand Supreme.
In this so-called “branding mythology” a signifier of each myth, each business, is its logo. For Supreme, its logo speaks volumes. Its simplicity belies the brand’s name. No more than a simple white font in a red block, its only trace of extravagance is perhaps the font’s slight tilt. Nowhere are lavish, gilded filigrees, abstract designs, or uniquely stylized fonts; all the traditional marks of luxury in a logo are traded away to double down on the brute power of a brand being iconic. The logo’s nakedness thus puts greater comparative emphasis on the word: supreme. On everything with which it graces its presence, every hoodie, every laptop sticker, the red block smugly looks down on even the most grandiose and ostentatious designs of Gucci or Versace or Armani, regarding them as gaudy relics of a bygone gilded age of luxury. If it was ever said that Italian high fashion was at least honest in its lavish designs by making no attempt to hide its prestige and power that it owes to wealth, then the whole audience of haute coture from reckless consumer to penniless appreciator has been hoodwinked. Opulence itself was yet another veneer over the direct relationship of power and capital. Supreme’s logo, in its brute simplicity, reflects the reality of the word, and the word reflects the reality of the relationship it signifies: hierarchy, commanded and conferred by controllers of capital.
As the nature of hierarchy is such that only few can be supreme, so only few are able to identify with or wear the brand Supreme. Price has historically been the chief barrier to brand identification, and it remains a high one in Supreme’s case as well. Yet to be supreme, price is not enough. Exclusivity is taken to a new extreme. Nearly every product is produced in short runs for each seasonal drop. While there is nothing inherently wrong with limited production–indeed, other businesses might do well to not overproduce–in the case of Supreme, the small batches have the crucial effect of allowing for amplification of the false value Supreme is able to confer. This amplification is carried out by Supreme’s customers–and would-be customers, for those who cannot get the drop–to outstanding degrees. For one, there are the “hypebeasts,” who obsess to self-express through the products of Supreme and other like brutish, utilitarian streetwear brands. The ideal customer for any business, the hypebeast’s identity is one of bad faith; their chief act of identification is an act of sublimation to merchandise and brand in their fervent desire for a material product without their name, made by another. The more they sing the praises of the alleged quality–whether it is well made or not, it does not matter–of the limited, sacrosanct products of Supreme or whatever other brand, the less they become themselves and more a droning siren, amplifying the seductive song of false individuality and supremacy that Supreme sells. The hypebeast, though, if sometimes annoying, is more of a tragic figure than a sinister one. Misguided, their motives are banal and not their own, and rightly so, due to their misconception of individuality and identity.
But the nature of Supreme’s exclusivity in conjunction with the amplification of false value by hypebeasts gives rise to a second-order, material manifestation of this value as well as a reinforcement of hierarchy by engendering a group supreme to customers but dependent on the brand: the hucksters of the secondary market. This class of vampires who cannot even be bothered to produce a single atom of inherent value are able to perform godlike acts of artificial value manifestation that makes even Supreme itself jealous as an extractor of surplus value. Supreme’s reputation as a brand in conjunction with its limited production runs allow for these secondary market sorcerers to materialize the amplification of false value done by the hypebeasts and to an extent all of Supreme’s end customers into real capital. A thirty dollar shirt becomes a three hundred dollar shirt. A jacket the price of a new video game from triple-A developer becomes the price of the PC needed to run such a game on max settings. When the myth of Supreme in this way finally materializes, it seems that all but the hucksters lose: the customer’s self-deception, the false identity costs more–and thus with less money becomes less supreme–and Supreme, the original god who created artificial value out of nothing, has its own supremacy challenged by the demiurges of the secondary market who, while independently have less total capital to their name than Supreme does, are the ones who finish the creation by realizing the artificial value into capital and then seize it for themselves without having to worry about either the conception and construction of that artificial value or the whole production of inherent value in clothing.
In sum, the myth of Supreme moves as such: Supreme creates and doubles down false value in the power of its brand, stripping away even potential aesthetic value the old luxury had, Supreme’s customers, especially the hypebeasts, balloon this value to even more absurd levels, and finally the secondary market resellers realize this value into actual capital. Its message: to have identity is to be supreme, that in order to identify some must be subjugated. It does not matter whether the belief is that the one who identifies is the subjugator or the subjugated; a hypebeast can believe, falsely, that in buying and wearing Supreme merchandise he has won some sort of victory of being able to identify while others cannot, or he can recognize his subjugation to the brand and believe, even more falsely, that one must be subjugated to have the privilege of identity. What matters is that in either case the current reality of subjugation is seen as a necessary condition for the possibility of someone being able to realize identity.
It is no accident if another brand’s myth performs similar movements or looks similar to Supreme’s. Again Supreme did not invent this “branding mythology,” but only followed what was established by many other businesses long before them. What Supreme did, rather, was take the mythology to extreme levels and made it plain in absurdity. It perhaps owes its success to its embrace of this mythology and, making no attempt to add to or hide it, glorifies it before customers, reifying identity as a power game among–would be–individuals, and is then fully reified in a competition between the secondary market hucksters and Supreme itself to extract the most surplus value with the least amount of any value–inherent or artificial–at all.
When dealing with modern myths it is difficult and in fact rarely appropriate to assign blame–an intentional feature, in order for them to persist longer. But, lest people should receive unintentional, unjustified blame, it is at least important to recognize that in this case that a customer of basically anything is not necessarily acting in bad faith or perpetuating a myth by buying something from a certain brand, or anything with a brand at all. It is very much a case of intent in action. For example, when clothes shopping I pay a bit more attention to Ralph Lauren clothes because they tend to be of good quality. I know, however, that their name does not necessitate quality or value, and have no problem returning a garment or not buying it in the first place if there is an otherwise adequate or cheaper substitute. Understand, though, that there is a difference between me looking to buy a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and me looking to buy a similar Ralph Lauren polo shirt that has the pony emblazoned in the center, large and bright, rather than being content with the same shirt but with the pony no more than an inch high and above the left breast where it usually is. With Supreme, because of the multiple high barriers to acquisition of their merchandise and especially with their absurd prices in the secondary market (not to mention that on many of their products the logo looks quite garish), buying a Supreme product for its own inherent value as a piece of clothing or whatever becomes particularly hard to justify, thus why their own myth makes a good example of the larger branding mythology. This also implies that purchasing a brand’s products or services is a necessary but not sufficient condition for self-identifying with a brand, unless one is on yet another level of bad faith–though it is difficult to imagine someone would identify with a brand he or she does not regularly purchase from or cannot afford. The purchase or acquisition of a product, products, service, or services, is not enough to signify the sublimation and partial or ultimate loss of one’s identity to brand. Again, it is a case of intent in action, and how authentically one realizes and recognizes one’s identity.
All told, the pervasive branding mythology, especially in the fashion industry, misguides consumers on what identity is or ought to be as well as ways to authentically manifest it. Identity is far from an easy concept to grasp, in fact more difficult to comprehend then we usually take it for, and is therefore easily manipulated since we are so prone to take it so simply. Identity is curious because while the actions we take and the ways we choose to express ourselves manifest our identity to a degree, there is very much a part of our identity that is not up to us, a part that is made up by how we are perceived by others rather than expressions of our own accord. This latter part is a complicated and difficult reality enough to deal with, the last thing we need is misguidance on the part of our identity that we do determine, for even that may be too small than we take it for or hope it to be.