Supreme Speak: A Conversation With David Shapiro, Author of 'Supremacist'

The author reveals his thoughts on the brand, its subculture and his relationship with Jebbia.

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Odds are, if you’re reading this site, you may or may not already be familiar with David Shapiro’s work. He’s written about Chinatown Supreme resellers Unique Hype for The New Yorker and the resellers who tore down and flipped the Neil Young posters wheat pasted all around NYC’s SoHo neighborhood. Shapiro also previously released a novel, You’re Not Much Use to Anyone, based on his experiences as an NYU graduate stumbling upon viral success when his blog attracts the attention of The New York Times and the White House.

Supremacist marks Shapiro’s second full-length foray into semi-autobiographical fiction. This time around, the fictionalized narrator embarks on a streetwear odyssey: David and Camilla, a collegiate friend who could care less about streetwear, travel the world, visiting every Supreme store in the world. Along the way, Shapiro’s narrator explains his obsession with the downtown streetwear imprint, while delving into substance abuse and Freudian collection fetishism, among many other things. The book also features photos of dozens of Supreme pieces that factor into the plot. The book’s only promotion is a poster of the cover wheat pasted all over Lower Manhattan—much like those Neil Young posters Shapiro previously wrote about. Similarly, reading a book with Supremacist emblazoned on the cover in public requires a similar attitude needed to pull off a sweatshirt that reads “Fuck You We Do What We Want.” The homage and respect for the brand’s output runs throughout — it is thoroughly and obsessively researched, to say the least.

The primary conflict within the novel is Shapiro’s unrelenting wish to understand Supreme; to get it. The book has been described as a “love letter” to the brand, but the love is, for the most part, unrequited. Shapiro writes about how he found himself unwelcome at the NYC flagship in the novel after the brand’s staff caught wind of his The New Yorker piece and he told HYPEBEAST of a particularly heated email he received directly from founder James Jebbia after the Neil Young article made the rounds online. The lone glimpse that Shapiro receives into the brand’s inner workings is a blunt and honest conversation with — spoiler alert — Jason Dill, who clues the narrator into a minimal amount of insider info. Largely, however, Shapiro finds himself iced out, distanced.

Shapiro sat down with HYPEBEAST to talk about his process writing and selling a book about Supreme, his grails and favorite pieces, and how he thinks the book will effect his relationship with the streetwear brand. Shapiro says: “I would never expect Supreme to say that they liked something that I wrote but I would like to feel that they understood that what I was doing.”

[Editor's note: The following has been condensed for the sake of brevity and clarity.]

How did you go about making this subject accessible?

There’s a long section at the front of the book that explains various angles of interest about Supreme and as I was writing it and editing it, it occurred to me that there was a large chunk of text that might be boring if someone wasn’t interested in Supreme or to that point had decided that they weren’t interested in Supreme. I thought about interspersing that conversation throughout various parts of the book and I decided not to because it didn’t seem neat. I figured it would be better to do one dump of information and then get back into the story.

I don’t know if the book is what people will expect, if they thought it was a history of Supreme. The publisher is in his late forties and he was not familiar with Supreme at all and now he’s into it. Now he recognizes the logo.

So you brought in a new generation?

Yeah, I wanted to work with someone who was not familiar with Supreme. He published stuff that I had liked before, but I figured he would be a good litmus test of the book itself and I preferred that he went in not knowing about Supreme at all.

Was that a hard sell?

I had to demonstrate the devotion of Supreme fans and the magnitude of the phenomenon for him to believe that this would be a book that people would be interested in buying. It was a thing that he hadn’t heard of, and he’s heard of many more things than I have. But other than demonstrating the popularity of Supreme in various [levels], it wasn’t really a hard sell because I didn’t pitch it the way a convention book would be pitched with a proposal and a sample chapter. It was done when I gave it to him. I also thought that after I wrote it, if he doesn’t like it I should probably skip publishing it entirely. I trust his taste but I also thought it [was] important for it to be experienced by someone outside the phenomenon of Supreme. I didn’t envision doing any more writing at the moment… maybe later that would change, but that’s not my career. I didn’t try to sell it; if he wants to publish it, he can do it. Otherwise, probably skip it. It wasn’t an easy sell or a hard sell.

This book is a very breezy read, how deliberate was that?

I felt in writing it a similar way to how I feel when I talk about Supreme to someone who isn’t interested in it. If you can just let me finish getting this thought out, it will become interesting to you. In writing the book and writing in general, I always feel some desperation to keep the reader turning the page. The reader does not owe it to me to finish the book, I have to earn it. In a way, not much happens, but a lot happens: the characters go to a lot of places. I want it to feel like it moves quickly.

A book that you finish is a good book and a book that you don’t finish, isn’t. If you make it to the end, it’s good enough. It’s a short book — if someone finishes it, that’s the highest compliment that can be paid to the book. If they don’t, I should’ve done it differently. The chapters are short and I wanted the reader to feel like they were reading quickly; that it was moving quickly and they were moving quickly through it. I know that attention is a scarce commodity, even for me when I read, and reading a book is like a demand that’s more significant than a tweet. I’m aware in writing that a book competes with Snapchat and Instagram and everything, so that’s why I want it to be digestible.

I was also conscious of making it a sad book. In some ways, it’s an upsetting book. If I had more time, I would’ve made it a less upsetting book. I’m worried that will hurt the book, somewhat, but at the same time it’s what I wanted to do. A Supreme product is not desperate to sell itself to you and I don’t want to feel like I have to sell the reader on the book, also. No salesmanship.

It would be dispiriting if the book came out and Jebbia emailed me and was like, “You still don’t get it. You’re an asshole, go home.” But it would almost be worse if he emailed us like, “We love you, man. You nailed it!” It would make Supreme unappealing, in a way.

It’s a short book — if someone finishes it, that’s the highest compliment that can be paid to the book. If they don’t, I should’ve done it differently.

Do you think it’s better for the brand’s appeal to remain somewhat unspoken?

Part of the appeal of Supreme is that it means something different to the people who consume it. I understood Supreme differently five years ago and I will understand it differently five years from now. The book is sort of a stop along the way of how I understand it.

You wrote about how your New Yorker article affected your relationship with Supreme — how do you see this book affecting your relationship with the brand?

I think that they’ve gotten used to being covered and for a brand that is so careful about its own presentation so I don’t see how my relationship with them could get any worse than how it already is. Although I can imagine they would be somewhat flattered by the extreme effort that obviously went into this and simultaneously annoyed that it exists. I would never imagine that they would like it but I would hope that if they ever saw the final, printed copy that they would appreciate the degree of effort that went into it. I don’t have any relationship with them other than generally feeling unwelcome and some distance. I’m not who they want to be associated with. And that’s sort of what the book is about: I’m an unwelcome customer and a lot of people feel like unwelcome customers and that’s what makes it appealing. They don’t want your money, they don’t want your attention.

But you observe that it’s a deliberate sense of aloofness. Whereas the conversation with Jason Dill…

He’s just a nice fellow! I think that attitude comes out really strongly in the designs. I think every design is a reference to something and part of the fun of it on their end is that they don’t care if you get it. They know it’s there and it’s intended in large part for the consumer not to get it.

But as much as they don’t care if you get it, they invite you to try and understand it.

I think the brand understands itself to be a curator of what it finds interesting or remarkable and that runs through what they make in general.

For lack of a better word, you compare Hypebeasts to monks and otaku. Where do you think that devotion comes from?

The instinct to collect. There’s a moment in the book when a character suggests that the narrator has a Freudian collector instinct and I think the brand plays into collector fetishism. The same thing that would drive someone to collect records or any collectible. The desire to own all of it and attempt to understand all of it. Also, the idea that one could own enough Supreme stuff to be a cool guy—the kind of person who they want.

There is an older brother quality — Supreme guides you through the parts of the world that they think are important and worth paying attention to and it’s not just trying to sell you what they make, but the ideas that they think are worthwhile.

A lot of this almost feels like a guerrilla reaction to Supreme.

We’ve been very careful about that issue. We own every single image in the book. We wouldn’t use images that they own. The wheat paste ad campaign was the only way that we could conceive to advertise the book. Their poster ad campaigns are iconic, obviously, because they’re careful and particular, as they are with everything that they make. I would not want to seem disrespectful to something I respect so deeply.

The Amazon description compares the box logo to a crucifix, but this novel also reads like a unrequited love about a skate shop on several continents. Was this intended to be a love story or a pilgrimage?

It’s about a difficult relationship, like many people do, and I wanted to capture that. I didn’t know what would happen before I went. I didn’t know exactly what it was gonna be, but I’m guessing I had some idea.

There’s a lot of this based on a road trip.

In books that I’ve read where the line between the author’s real life and the text of the book is blurry, there is an added dimension of interest in reading the book thinking “Did this really happen?” Parts of the book are true and some are entirely fictionalized. We wanted to use the photo of Dill and I for that purpose.

What’s your most treasured and coveted Supreme piece?

The Supreme North Face Denali fleece. It’s an ordinary North Face fleece, but with the dual branding on the sleeve. The tan and blue — whatever that color way is. It reminds me of kids I went to high school with. It’s really plain.

I feel like their collaborations are a seal of approval. They understand what is beautiful — whether it’s the [Braun] calculator, they’re saying “this is just right” and there’s something unexpected in that to me, when it’s the North Face fleece. It’s something I associate with high school girls in UGGs at the mall on the weekend. For Supreme to remake it and put their seal of imprimatur on it and say “this is just right.” That is something that I want, but haven’t bought. It’s like $1,000 USD.

What’s your favorite piece?

The Hermés-referencing ashtray is my favorite because when I saw it and the reference was explained to me, it introduced to me the idea that everything that they do is connected to something else. It was the first time that I recognized that it was the brand’s way of saying that they admire something else and the idea that part of their project is conveying to the rest of the world what they consider worthy of thought and interest and admiration. It added a dimension to my understanding of the brand that I didn’t have before; the idea that their project is curatorial and that in making a product they’re not only telling their consumers that the product they’ve made is worthwhile, but that something that came before them is worth thinking about and paying attention to. There is an older brother quality — Supreme guides you through the parts of the world that they think are important and worth paying attention to and it’s not just trying to sell you what they make, but the ideas that they think are worthwhile.

Like a gateway brand.

I understand the brand to be close to a record label or a publisher, where they put forward the things that they think are interesting.

Do you think there’s a point where people outgrow the brand?

I think people will continue to be interested in it as long as Supreme is as careful as it is about what it does. It is what it is because it is this precise and when I first starting thinking about writing the book, I hoped that the bubble of interest wouldn’t burst while I was working on it; but the magic is in its consistency.

I read that you had taken a break from writing after finishing your first book and a screenplay.

Yeah, after I finished the first book I was really convinced that I would never write a book again, but only because that’s not my career. It takes a long time. I remember saying in a bunch of interviews [after the first book came out] that I would never publish a book and if I said that again now, it’d probably sound stupid but I don’t have plans to follow this up.

I think people will continue to be interested in it as long as Supreme is as careful as it is about what it does.

What about this subject made you want to write again?

I didn’t wanna write another book after my first novel because I didn’t think I would have any more ideas that were book-length. When I don’t have any ideas I find it difficult to conceive of a time when I will have more ideas. Maybe later in life I would write a book. Then I realized that a trip to every Supreme store would be a good basis for a book.

I also felt like my interest in Supreme was something that I couldn’t control. It was a thing that I thought about all the time, talked about all the time, and I thought that if I wrote a book about it and got everything out that I wanted to say that it would be cathartic in a way and I could put my interest in Supreme to rest. Like how you could cure arachnophobia by sitting in a room with spiders all day. If I immersed myself and focused on it, I would become bored by it and cure my obsession. I will have spun my wheels hard enough to lose interest in it, eventually. The combination of having the idea and going all out on Supreme on my terms, then I would vanquish my obsession with it. Like I’m 27; it’s not becoming to be obsessed with a skateboarding-inspired brand and it’s time to move on with my life and that the book would give me license to do that.

And did it do that?

I don’t know. I always talk about it and think about it and I don’t know yet, but it’s enough already in my life.

Supremacist drops on July 5. Pre-order it here.

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