Thursday, June 1, 2023

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    Supreme’s New Creative Director Is a Clue to How It Stays Cool While Getting Bigger

    There was a fresh face with a big title at Supreme’s new employee orientation this week: Tremaine Emory, the founder of No Vacancy Inn, a group just as likely to organize a party as drop a pair of collaborative New Balances, and his own sportswear label Denim Tears. Emory will be the new creative director of Supreme, working alongside founder James Jebbia while continuing Denim Tears. He’s the first major hire since Supreme was acquired by VF Corp (which also owns Vans and The North Face) and is therefore the man who will lead the brand into its big corporate future.

    Emory’s greatest challenge will be to keep Supreme’s cool—it’s air of fuck-you exclusivity—while it continues to scale up. VF Corp has made no secret of the fact that it bought Supreme on the premise it could get bigger. The brand is opening more locations in places like Milan and Berlin, and VF CEO Steven Rendle said on an earnings call in October that Supreme can eventually rake in a billion dollars in revenue annually (up from approximately $600 million this year), according to Business of Fashion.

    What’s exciting about Emory’s hire is the message it sends about Supreme’s intentions. Jebbia clearly doesn’t think the way to grow is sanitization, and Emory has a track record of partnering with massive brands and infusing them with political edge. His hugely popular collaboration with Levi’s uses jeans adorned with cotton wreaths to explore how the material is intertwined with America’s legacy of slavery. A pair of Converse he designed with the Marcus Garvey-inspired African-American flag were temporarily delayed after Emory demanded parent-company Nike address systemic racism before the shoes came out.

    Over the years, Emory has collaborated with everyone from Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, and Andre 3000 to Online Ceramics and Ugg. As Rachel Tashjian reported for GQ last year, Emory was already working as something like a consigliere for Supreme’s closest counterpart, Stussy. Now, he sits in one of the most powerful seats in the fashion industry. Previous creative directors for Supreme have gone on to launch their own wildly popular brands (Angelo Baque at Awake) or take the reins at mall-brand faves (Brendon Babenzian of Noah, who is now creative director at J.Crew).

    The question of how Supreme will manage to scale up while maintaining its cool has been obsessed over for years. In 2017, after the brand received an investment from the Carlyle Group, I posed the exact question: “But can a billion-dollar company still be cult-level cool?” The answer so far has been a resounding yes, and Emory is an auspicious hire. Here’s how he compared Denim Tears with Supreme in Esquire: “So like Supreme does every couple seasons, they’ll do like a Malcolm X whatever. My whole line is that. And that’s how I’ve come out the gate. It’s just, I guess, a civic or cultural zeitgeist. I’ve been pumping that message.” How does a billion-dollar brand remain cult-level cool? Pump the message.

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