What Designers Can Learn from Supreme—Brand and Cult

Inspiration for designers to go beyond the logo.

By: Julia Makhalova

In 2017, branding has become a company’s ethos, pathos and logos. It defines everything, from marketing to HR to product policies. A logo is not just a representation of some company’s business, not or even their values, but a symbol of the tribe of a like-minded Us. It is the time to design not simply a symbol, but an experience. Don’t believe me? Ask Supreme.

Supreme is not a brand—it is a cult. Supreme serves a mediating function between a need of self-transcendence and its fulfilment. Originally inspired by American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s Supreme Box Logo, it embodies the main principle of her work: “I shop therefore I am.” Standing for the current underground culture in the world of Kardashians, Supreme parades the foolishness of the above-ground culture before itself.

Intentionally or not, Supreme asserts its philosophy in a religion-like narrative—rituals, temples and prophets.

Supreme rituals, like those between clergy and worshippers, are weekly commitments. Every Thursday morning, Supreme holds its service in their 10 stores’ locations. It reveals 5 to 15 new items, creating huge lines of pilgrims down and around city blocks. To feel the energy of the Supreme underground devotion: imagine an Apple store, way less white and way more nihilistic.

While collaborating with the world's biggest brands, Supreme also baptizes them. Levi’s, CDG, Nike join the church of underground elite. They understand that they add foolishness to the planet, yet seek the blessing of “cool” by Supreme.

Supreme temples are more than retail stores; they are a space to witness and experience. Its item curation and interior design underwhelm, which creates an atmosphere of solemn courage to engage with silenced narratives. For example, currently New York SoHo location is featuring the printouts of the gunshots on its walls, acknowledging the context of recent social conflicts. Supreme’s Martin Luther King T-Shirt is one of the many example of Supreme’s strong stand on political challenges of the generation.

Supreme prophets are those who share Warhol’s attitude to modern context. They are found even in outdoor prints with designs as simple as it can possibly get. Look at the poster for half a second and the voice it talks in is immediately recognized. It is very condensed, the same way as street art is. As a result of their effortless brand efforts, Supreme followers can feel they are “buying a work of art and piece of history.”

Like all good cults, Supreme also has a rational, market appeal. It is a very liquid asset. The majority of its items can be resold, often with 300% mark up. As follower Frank Yu comments,  “Supreme is all about resale value, even if you do not intend to sell.”

The Supreme brand is, most of all, authentic. It defines itself organically. Supreme was founded by skating legends who, by living their stories of rebellion against the mainstream’s values, already knew what they stood for. Supreme did not need to consciously create its identity as a result. Creators write their own stories and values into the Supreme brand strategy bible. It is not just a community, not just a brand, but a new reality, with Supreme as its gospel.

Supreme started with a story, rooted in the attitude of the creators. That narrative channeled those values into its brand strategy. So don’t think about brand creation an exercise in graphic design and aesthetics. Thank instead about brand-building as storytelling—channel the attitude and values of the creators (it might be you) into a meaningful visual representation, and then find the tribe who shares that vision.

Julia Makhalova
Julia Makhalova is a global brand strategist and researcher based in New York. Julia worked in France, China, Russia, and the USA, understanding and amplifying people’s motivation with brand stories, brand architectures, positioning, and designs. There is a good chance that—being an art junkie—Julia is, at this very moment, at a Bushwick underground performance, drawing inspiration from the beauty of others’ stories. That, or eating melon ice cream.