Class Culture carried by the Red Box Logo

New York. Sunday noon. It’s sunny outside. You’re walking around in a park, and you hear a sound of wheels rolling over a smooth surface. You walk over to see what’s going on and see a crowd of young people in an open area, gliding over the ground and doing tricks on the ramps on their skateboards. On their shirts, there is a bright red box with white letters: Supreme.

This logo is very recognizable to many of us in the world. Established in New York city in 1994 originally as American skateboarding lifestyle brand by James Jebbia, Supreme has shown immense popularization and become much more than a mere streetwear. The brand has grown to be a luxury. The brand’s success is often contributed to its simple yet bold design that can easily seem fashionable and cool and its marketing strategy that utilized celebrity’s fame and their “Kanye effect”. Today, when people hear the word “Supreme”, the skateboarding scene in New York is not what they imagine. They think about a long line of people in front of the Supreme store early in the morning, hoping to acquire the limited items they have been wanting for a long time. Those people are not only skaters. Many plan to resell those items for a better price, making the market even more competitive.

However, what many do not realize is that its popularity in the United States is incomparable to that of Japan. Out of only 12 Supreme stores in the world, half of them actually exist in Japan, a country smaller than the size of California. You may be wondering, why specifically in Japan? Why did they decide to concentrate it in such a small country? The answer lies in Japanese people’s consumption style mirroring Supreme’s business model.

Hi-chew Melon flavor only available in Hokkaido region in Japan

Although it may not be obvious, Japanese people are used to this business model. When you travel in Japan, you often see packages of food and souvenirs with a tagline, “only available in this area”. This is because of rich subcultures that exist in each prefecture that allows those items to be rare. Most of those items have ingredients or designs only traditional and authentic to the specific area, making it only buyable there. The scarcity of those souvenirs drive visitors to purchase those goods, sustaining the rural prefecture’s economy. Children in Japan are also suckers for limited edition toys that require competition. From premium Pokemon cards to plushies in claw grabber machines, there are many toys in Japan that require kids to spend their money and time.

The reason why there are so many limited editions in Japan has roots in the Japanese class culture. Even though the caste system was abolished in 1871, its aftereffects are still very much evident in Japanese culture today. The class culture is particularly visible in their conspicuous consumption. Conspicuous consumption is an expenditure of luxuries and unnecessary goods to demonstrate one’s wealth and power. In the example of limited edition souvenirs, having those items from a rural area shows that your family is wealthy enough to travel. A better example of conspicuous consumption is a luxury brand bag. On open class days in Japan where parents get to observe children’s typical school day, you will witness many moms with expensive brand bags from Hermes Birkin and Louis Vuitton. This is driven by their desire to show off their family’s class and culture.

Supreme website announcing a release of collaborative items with Nike

Now, how does Supreme’s business model mirror this idea? Supreme uses a so-called hype business model. Their limited amount of supply does not meet the overwhelming demand from the customers that it creates a competition. The competition will put customers in a hype, making them willing to pay extra money to get the items. They “drop” only two collections a year, releasing the items throughout the season. Prior to the drop date, they will upload their lookbook for the collection on their website and all forms of social media, especially Instagram, creating intense excitement among the customers. Those customers include celebrities and influencers who will post pictures wearing those Supreme clothes, making the brand a luxury like Japanese mother’s brand bags. Supreme also creates the hype through their collaborations with other popular brands, such as Nike, Louis Vuitton, and NorthFace. Similarly to their collections, they release the images of those collaborative goods on their website and social media. Those items are “made exclusively for Supreme”, creating the same effect that Japanese “limited edition” souvenirs create. Growing up in the class culture, fashionable young people in Japan are more likely to try and purchase Supreme items than in other countries. The result of this situation is the long line in front of Supreme stores in Japan, full of people ambitious to earn the limited items they have been craving for.

People line up in front of Supreme store in Harajuku on the day of drop

American reaction to Supreme is not as extreme as Japanese. The elite, affluent population in California and New York (which is where the Supreme stores are located) may react similarly to Japanese consumers. However, those stores are located only in 2 out of 50 states in the United States. Many people in the rural states have never even heard of Supreme, much less go out of their way to spend a lot of time and money to purchase them online. This shows that regardless of one’s nationality, anyone in the world with enough resources is able to access those limited items that are considered luxurious. To say it in different words, it is more difficult for people without the resources to access those goods, creating an apparent division between the elite population and those who are not. When you see the red box logo with Supreme letters on it, it tells a story of their wealth which differentiates them from those who are unable to wear them. Although globalization has helped brands like Supreme to reach more audiences in the world, they have also spread the idea of global classism alongside those luxurious items, creating a gap between the affluent and the rest.

The success of supreme in Japan is due to its business model’s appeal to the citizen’s consumption style there, which has a deep root in the history of class culture. While the design may be simple, Supreme as a brand symbolizes a bigger meaning there: the customer’s affluence to win the competition and acquire an expensive, rare item. While those pieces of clothing cross across the borders, they carry the symbol of socioeconomic status, generating a space between the elite and others.

Houston, Jack. “How Supreme Went from a Small Skateboarding Store to a Billion-Dollar Streetwear Company.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 17 Feb. 2021, www.businessinsider.com/supreme-fashion-brand-so-expensive-viral-skateboarding-2019-5.

“The Hype Machine: Streetwear and the Business of Scarcity.” BBC Worklife, BBC, www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20180205-the-hype-machine-streetwear-and-the-business-of-scarcity.

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Namiha Yasuda

Namiha Yasuda

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