Samsung became the laughing stock of China this week after it announced a product collaboration with Supreme on Monday.
Except it wasn’t that Supreme, the one based in New York known for its wildly hyped street apparel and once-in-a-blue-moon product drops. This Supreme is Supreme Italia, a legally established company that has the right to sell its clothing under the brand name in Italy, and now China.
The “real” New York Supreme, however, does not have the right to sell in China, but that didn’t stop the company from railing on the “fake” one.
“Supreme is not working with Samsung, opening a flagship location in Beijing or participating in a Mercedes-Benz runway show,” the company posted in an Instagram story. “These claims are blatantly false and propagated by a counterfeit organization.”
The two Supremes have been at odds for years. The original Supreme started in 1994 as a small skateboarding apparel shop in New York. Its brand of contemporary cool gradually caught on, and by the early 2000s, Supreme clothes became coveted for their limited supply.
That’s where Supreme Italia comes in. While the brand was catching on in the States, Supreme hadn’t entered foreign markets yet. So a group of streetwise entrepreneurs in Italy decided to register Supreme as a trademark there before the original Supreme could get to it.
(China has a similar first-come, first-serve system, where the company that applies for a trademark first gets to use it. That’s how a leatherworks company was able to legally sell a line of leather products called IPHONE—it got the rights to the name before Apple could in China.)
Earlier this year, Supreme in New York sued Supreme Italia, but the Italian court allowed the “fake” Supreme to continue operating.
Now, Samsung, which is trying to revive its sales in China, is getting flak for collaborating with a so-called counterfeit, and the electronics giant, which itself has been accused of copying Apple, is reconsidering the partnership. Chinese social media is rife with comments mocking Samsung for supposedly being duped.
There’s some schadenfreude in seeing Supreme, which built itself on borrowing and copying elements of street culture, blow up at a company that’s essentially doing the same thing.
Supreme’s design wasn’t very original to begin with. Its Futura logo is derived from the poster art of Barbara Kruger, who has been openly derisive of the company. (She once famously referred to Supreme as a “ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers.”)
So who’s being played here, Samsung or us? In China, where a class-conscious nouveau riche is always searching for the next hot luxury item, Supreme reigns as the king of cool. There are already tons of memes in China making fun of how the Supreme brand seems to be able to hype anything up.
In the eyes of the law, Supreme Italia is doing nothing wrong. But in the court of public opinion, it is getting flak from hypebeasts for not being the real deal.
As comedian Hasan Minhaj put it, Supreme is a “cultural phenomenon built on hype.” But no one company can monopolize hype. No one company can contain a good concept. When a small streetwear brand enjoys such cultural cachet, it will inevitably be consumed by its own success—and the messiness of international law.
Adapted from an essay originally published in the Goldthread newsletter. To get this and other great content first, subscribe here.