KNOWLEDGE REIGNS SUPREME
Everyone loves to gossip, and watching beef unfold digitally is an undeniable pleasure. Spectating on Splay back in the day or witnessing Superfuture rumour mongering and being a voyeur to some TMZ-esque talk of Downtown scandals was entertaining. Long before that, I liked the litigious post-exodus angry Steve Rocco era of skating, where Simon Woodstock could seemingly be erased from being through legal threats from a man who once worked those first amendment rights to the absolute limit.
The streetwear and men’s style blog realm frequently has slow news days — that means closer looks, a GQ photoshoot, another generic lookbook or a teaser for a summer blockbuster. So it’s understandable that the recent Supreme and Married to the Mob legal talk, claim and counterclaim has been dissected in order to get that precious traffic. I’ve been a little perplexed at the amount of people rooting for MOB in this situation though, painting a curious picture of the oppressed women against “the man” dwelling in his vast box logo covered corporate headquarters, because that’s not the case.
I respect Supreme a great deal for their ability to stay relevant and capabilities for keeping it thorough — that’s not to say that everything they put out is relevant to my interests, but they’re operating on so many channels right now that the old GAP for skaters summary is fully deaded in favour of a bigger picture. So I can understand why they’re trying to stop a trademark. If someone tries to jack your logo with a dose of witless misogyny at the end, you’re probably going to get a bit litigious — it’s a case of battling direct appropriation re upped to make some quick cash. Was Barbara’s name mentioned when the original Supreme Bitch shirt was put together? I wouldn’t know, but it only ever seems to get thrown around when things get negative.
Get popular by doing things well and schadenfreude is an inevitability at any perceived stumble. The problem with not talking too much is that it breeds assumption. Googling Supreme will bring up a mass of message board lore. Mythmaking is an inevitability, like the tale of Shortypop being paid off for the box homage (contrary to the occasionally distributed cheque image, that apocryphal payoff never happened) or Supreme not having the Supreme trademark, which dates back to a remark made in an Interview piece — since then they’ve obtained trademarks. Part of having a trademark is that you’re obliged to defend it — failing to defend it can result in losing it. Then there’s America’s right to common law trademark ownership. So what’s the big problem here?
Supreme have recently filed an answer to the counterclaim from Married to to the Mob and it makes for more interesting reading. Married to the Mob has put out some strong work solo and alongside KAWS, ALIFE, Colette and Nike (those Chanel references on that shoe are homage done very right) over the years. A female-centric streetwear brand is still a part of the market that could be taken by someone willing to be as fastidious as the luxury lines we like to ape, but it’s a market that has only been partially tapped. The Supreme Bitch tee was funny nine years ago for its “is it or isn’t it?” collaboration status (see also, Zoopreme) back in the Retail Mafia era when the online hype sector seemed significantly more niche than today’s big numbers and mass appeal. As its own line, it’s just a Supreme bite, eating off of the Supreme brand’s popularity. If you’re granted one loose collaboration, are you allowed to make a ton more on your own several years later and go to get the trademark for both labels?
People can raise the Barbara Kruger reference all they like (for she is the queen of Futura Bold Oblique and the key influence on the Supreme logo, though Paul Renner deserves a mention for creating the typeface in the first place), but when the majority of bland brands drop that font into a rectangle, they’re riffing on Supreme — if the assumption is that Supreme was entirely built on a bite then it’s worth taking one of those tiresome trips back to 1994 and recalling that the aesthetic of the brand and its pick of reference points was something very different when it debuted. That logo future proofed the brand and acted as a (probably inadvertent — over analysis is rife when you don’t give too much away) visual manifesto of sorts with regards to Supreme’s appropriately Downtown merger of skate and art.
Kruger is an artist, while Supreme trade in clothing, accessories and skate hardwear. MOB deals in clothing and accessories too, so their appropriation is something very different. The Levi’s Red Tab device was also an inspiration (later the subject of some legal issues over its inclusion on denim) on Jebbia’s pick of that red box — it’s an effective logo created on the back of plenty of retail experience. In 1994, plenty of skate gear and store branding was doomed to go wild with the graf letters or bigger-is-better literalism. That’s why they’re not around any more. It was some fortuitously out-the-box but in-the-box thinking.
I’m surprised that nobody has started bleating about the SUPREME in a red box Powell Peralta tees and stickers circa 1990 from the days when Billy Valdes was on the squad (who went on to join Menace alongside Supreme family member Javier Nunez and design for Stüssy and X-Large too). But nobody seems to remember that because we’d started to stray toward the new wave of street-orientated companies by that point that helped build Supreme in the first place.
Supreme has traded in the flip — that’s undisputed. But when the cease and desists or lawsuits came in, there was no righteous web rants or pseudo “Attica, Attica!” rabble rousing. LVMH, Levi’s, Coca-Cola and Calvin Klein and the rest weren’t the subject of us against them fury. All parties came to amicable agreements that even led to future projects in a more official capacity. Nobody claimed it was a Class War issue or elitism. If Condé Nast came a-calling over Eustace Tilley’s appearance on cotton, the matter would have been dealt with without a battle speech. If Supreme had ignored a warning and attempted to trademark an image of Tilley engaging in a sexual situation or wielding a weapon, then there would have been a court case.
The longevity of Supreme has been down to a professionalism and approach that treats it like a world-class brand. That requires a certain cold efficiency. The hand-wringing hustler thing might be effective in the short term but it’s a 24-month hype life at best. 19 years is a long time to survive and it’s not down to fluke — the shouty blogroll brand approach is the spirit of the 2005 era when everyone had a formula and worked that formula again and again until the screenprint faded to a blank. Supreme’s decision to put the red box logo tee on ice around six years ago to avoid the one trick pony pitfall was a smart one. After the hype is gone, the bitching begins.
Back when Married to the Mob was married to FUBU (and I’m not gloating because I know the feeling of the corporate water down and fake promises pretty well), it seemed to slip off the map a little. 2012 was the year when the flipped logo became quick cash again and it was good to see SSUR get some money (after all, their weed trefoil flip in the 1990s has made a lot of loot for street corner vendors shifting adihash shirts) with the sudden burst in COMME des FUCKDOWN popularity that sparked some discussion on the subject. A lot of people have been getting some internet shine from bringing Canal Street to the digital realm lately. The COMME flip was smart (even if you’re too familiar with it now) as is the Channel Zero Chanel one, while the currently popular Brian Lichtenberg Hermès/Homiès and Céline/Féline shirts and sweats at least display a second’s contemplation over coffee in their execution. Nobody at SSUR would be crazed enough to attempt to trademark Comme des FUCKDOWN though, because it would end badly and contains much of the parodied logo within it.
Supreme Bitch? Not so smart. It’s a one-shirt deal in terms of appeal. It includes the Supreme name in it as a standalone and it makes the aforementioned Zoopreme rip seem downright cerebral in its wordplay, and sure as hell makes the old I like the pope, the pope smokes dope tourist staple of old seem like a satiric masterpiece. It seems more like a hop on the brazen bite bandwagon to get quick cash rather than playing the long game of brand evolution. Contrary to the counterclaim that Supreme turned a blind eye to seven years of Supreme Bitch, in the answer, it’s mentioned that it returned after a six-year absence with a little more detail on the discussions that took place:
(From Supreme’s recently filed answer to the counterclaim) “107. Counterclaim Defendant denies the allegations contained in Paragraph 107 of the Counterclaim except admits that it filed a litigation seeking damages and injunctive relief and further admits that in 2004, James Jebbia understood that McSweeney would be making a onetime sale of only a t-shirt bearing the words SUPREME BITCH and design. (See Exhibit 3 true and correct printouts of Counterclaim Plaintiffs’ lookbooks which show that Counterclaim Plaintiffs offered for sale SUPREME BITCH t-shirts in 2004 and 2005 and then not again until 2011. These lookbooks support Jebbia’s understanding that McSweeney did not offer for sale the SUPREME BITCH t-shirt in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 but instead had a one-off, limited production in 2004-05.) Counterclaim Defendant admits that Jebbia first became aware of the re-release of SUPREME BITCH items (which had now been expanded to include a coffee mug, a knit hat, a cap, a mouse pad and a beach towel) in December of 2012 when he saw photographs posted online of pop artist Rihanna wearing a SUPREME BITCH hat. McSweeney had not sought approval from Jebbia for either the re-release of the t-shirt or the expansion of the SUPREME BITCH product line. At that time, Jebbia also received inquiries concerning whether the SUPREME BITCH items were affiliated with or made by Supreme. At that time, Jebbia also first learned that McSweeney had filed a trademark application for the SUPREME BITCH mark (see Exhibit 1 showing application for word mark was filed on January 1, 2013) and that she was selling the branded items through national online retailers such as Urban Outfitters and Karmaloop. Shortly after receiving these calls and learning this information, Jebbia personally reached out to McSweeney who assured Jebbia that she would cease manufacturing and using the SUPREME BITCH Logo and agreed to provide information about her inventory. While Jebbia waited for that information, and in complete disregard of her representations, McSweeney filed a second trademark application to register SUPREME BITCH in a design form that wholly incorporates the famous and distinct SUPREME Logo (see Exhibit 2 showing that the SUPREME BITCH design application was filed on March 1, 2013). Thus, Jebbia did not “sit idly by for nearly a decade” but instead acted shortly after he learned of the re-launch and expanded use of SUPREME BITCH by the Counterclaim Plaintiffs, received customer inquiries and learned of the trademark filings. Jebbia also tried to avoid litigation by amicably discussing his concerns, personally with McSweeney and not through lawyers, that would have allowed her to not only sell her remaining inventory but also to use “SUPREME BITCH” in a design that was distinguishable from the SUPREME Logo.”
Playing the misogyny card and shouting about free speech and feminism suddenly is a little trite. If Barbara found herself sighing to see a red box housing the output of hefty average basket values after her stabs at consumerism, to see her cited in a case where Bitch equals empowerment must have been a real eye-opener. The Want me, Hold me, Fuck Me, Hate me Kruger homage is interesting too. Throwing down the misogyny card because Supreme used Terry Richardson, Tera Patrick and an extract of Courbet’s L’Origine du monde is made moot by the imagery cited in Supreme’s response documents — Cunt, Cunt, Cunt? Bitch Better Have My Money? Bitches Get Stitches? Will Fuck For Chanel? Come on. It’s fun, loud, shock factor gear, not some profound statement. Skateboarding as a boy’s club? Nothing new and a strange thing to be discussed in a court of law.
Much of the current court documents talk about MOB as the female Supreme, but a swift Tumblr search reveals that a lot of ladies like to wear (frequently fake) Supreme gear, regardless of its gender intent (Supreme’s answer also discusses Kate Moss, Lady Gaga and Chloe Sevigny’s recent involvement).
Misogyny is a heavy allegation — in a world where Malala Yousafza is shot for attending school, depicting a common-sense legal response to a novelty t-shirt as an act of oppression seems like a bizarre, tasteless bid for some P.R. What would Emily Davison or Marilyn French have made of this? Care to get Gloria Steinem or Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim to chime in on the power of a Will Fuck for Chanel shirt? Does it fit into a second-wave, third-wave, or some fourth-wave of sex-positive feminism? Dining off the work of a male-owned brand without a particularly smart subversion feels like the antithesis of feminism.
(From Supreme’s recently filed answer to the counterclaim) “121. Counterclaim Defendant denies knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of the allegations contained in Paragraph 121 of the Counterclaim. See Exs. 4 and 5 reflecting offensive merchandise offered for sale by Counterclaim Plaintiffs which plainly degrade and marginalize women rather than send a feminist message. The merchandise reflected in Exhibits 4 and 5 use shock value phrases that are not feminist but rather statements 6 that objectify women and perpetuate negative stereotypes (i.e. “Will F*ck for Chanel” and “Want Me Hold Me F*ck Me Hate Me”).”
It’s a prevention of one big mall grab. Just as the infamous truck clutch is derided, James Jebbia has disregarded the prospect of real Supreme being stocked in a shopping centre alongside perceived market rivals several times before. Avoiding the box logo’s spread beyond a controlled distribution has been beneficial. Married to the Mob is hunting that Urban Outfitters dough though, and that could dilute what’s been carefully steered over two decades. Why can’t Supreme Bitch operate without the box logo?
Through a favour turned into some spurious excuse to build a brand by alignment, not only is this case trying to place the Supreme Bitch as some kind of semi-official work, but it misleads idiots into thinking that Supreme is on sale at Karmaloop and does a spot of brand dilution in the quest for somebody else’s contact credibility and the dollars it entails. Letting too much slide isn’t the actions of a well-run company — it’s the actions of a fly-by-night streetwear brand that ends up wanking for change. That’s why the industry is paved with “whatever happened to?” chat about companies that were killing it before falling off and disappearing into the abyss.
Shit maybe I’m wrong and this will end up being made into a Silkwood or Erin Brockovich style flick in a decade’s time. This case has given publicity to a brand that had it going on, but it reeks of manicured nails clawing at a past glory in a competitive marketplace. “Because right now, it’s about more than just a t-shirt!” shouts Leah’s official statement and rallying cry. Yeah, it’s about mouse mats and mugs too. I’m keen to see Married to the Mob return to the status it had in 2008 without building the business on a novelty knockoff and fortunately, Supreme is also about more than a t-shirt after almost two decades (otherwise maybe they’d be scrabbling for attention too right now) — that’s why kids are still queuing for it.
If anyone out there is looking to copy anything from Supreme, steal the work ethic.