1994 was a cultural golden year for New York City. In April, Nas, then a young MC from Queensbridge, released Illmatic, now widely regarded as one of the finest hip-hop albums of all time. In June, the Knicks made it all the way to the NBA Finals, taking advantage of a Michael Jordan-less Eastern Conference, and the Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in over 50 years. In September, The Notorious B.I.G. released Ready to Die, his own genre-defining debut. And, the same month that Illmatic touched down, a scrappy skate shop named Supreme threw open the doors to its first flagship on Lafayette Street in SoHo.
Though Supreme may have existed in a different world to Nas and B.I.G. in 1994 — no longer, of course, as Biggie’s estate collaborated with Supreme in 2011 and Nas appeared on one of the brand’s famed photo tees in 2017 — there was already a synergy brewing between the rappers’ sartorial flairs and the vision of Supreme founder James Jebbia: for all, the incomparable streets of the Big Apple served as fashion inspiration.
Nas was a classic New York City bruiser (at least dressing-wise) who opted for Timberland boots, Polo Sport fleeces and sneakers. Biggie had affection for hardy workwear as well, calling out “the red and black lumberjack [flannel] with the hat to match” on “Juicy,” but could usually be found dressed like a Hollywood portrayal of a drug lord: silk Versace shirts, impeccably tailored mobster suits, enough gold to make Scrooge McDuck blush, and, notably, vibrantly-patterned sweaters from an Australian knitwear brand called COOGI.
Before its blessing from Biggie, COOGI’s only association in pop culture was with the now-disgraced Bill Cosby, who’d frequently sport sweaters and cardigans from the brand on The Cosby Show. “If you weren’t Bill Cosby or a rich motherf*cker from Australia playing golf, [you didn’t know] about Coogi,” hip-hop stylist Groovey Lew once said.
But when B.I.G. — who, as the story goes, was introduced to COOGI by Walt G, a dapper club kid from Biggie’s Clinton Hill neighborhood — rapped “However, livin’ better now, COOGI sweater now” on “Big Poppa,” he instantly made COOGI an aspirational brand for a whole new demographic and re-drew the boundaries of who, exactly, could wear it, much in the same way that New York City’s famed Lo-Lifes gave Polo Ralph Lauren a new level of esteem by bringing it out of the country clubs and making it a status symbol in the streets.
While Biggie was introducing COOGI to an entirely new demographic, Supreme was rocketing to in-the-know fashion stardom. Before most clothing companies begin establishing a history of their own, they channel pre-existing history in a new fashion, drawing their source material from art, music or culture. What set Supreme aside, even in its earliest days, was that the brand wrote its own history instead of pulling from an established fashion framework for the sake of consumer familiarity. That independent spirit ensured that it always felt authentic when the brand did reference or collaborate. “A lot of people don’t understand that [Supreme is] a super-small group of people who are just working on their original idea: that Supreme is a skate shop,” artist Lucien Smith, a longtime associate of the brand, told Vogue in 2017.
Of course, this walled-off, attitude rocketed the brand to superstardom as there’s nothing that the fashion cognoscenti want more than what they can’t have (or don’t understand). In March 1995, less than a year after Supreme opened its doors and years before streetwear garnered mainstream status, Vogue contrasted the culture of the Supreme store to that of the Chanel flagship boutique on 57th Street and 5th Avenue, with the takeaway from their article being that Supreme’s following was every bit as ardent — if, at the time, not as vast — as Chanel’s.
COOGI was coming to define what ‘90s hip-hop style looked like, and Supreme was already reimagining what skatewear and streetwear could be. They may have been vastly different brands with vastly different markets, but they had one thing in common: they were defining the cultural zeitgeist for New York City in the mid-’90s, in both product and attitude.
At the same time that COOGI was outfitting rappers and fly guys and Jebbia was building Supreme into a powerhouse, current Supreme creative director and Denim Tears founder Tremaine Emory was growing up in Jamaica, Queens, soaking up hip-hop and street culture. Of course, he didn’t know that he’d one day be the creative director of Supreme back then — in his later teenage years, he didn’t wear it because, in his own words, he “didn’t skate,” and his main association with the brand would be buying it for his skateboarding younger brother — though he clearly felt the influence of COOGI on New York style. His Instagram post announcing the collection earlier this week simply reads “A love letter to the block,” and it’s not hard to picture a young Emory clocking what the fly guys on Archer Avenue were wearing.
Emory has previously said that he’s on the “hero’s journey,” finding knowledge and bringing it back to where he came from. That thirst for knowledge and wisdom has led him his whole life, from venturing into the Lower East Side as a teenager when he worked at Kate Spade to starting Denim Tears, his own brand, and becoming the creative director of Supreme. Now, that “hero’s journey” has led Emory to bring COOGI and Supreme together in a collaboration that’s so natural it’s frankly shocking it didn’t happen earlier.
NYC culture has long been at the core of Supreme’s design ethos, from early Patagonia flips that spotlighted the New York skyline to pieces inspired by the Polo Ralph Lauren Stadium collection beloved by the city’s Lo-Lifes and hoodies inspired by a wide range of Big Apple staples from Tompkins Square Park to The New Yorker. That’s not even mentioning the brand’s extensive work with the New York Yankees and ad on the cover of The New York Post. Those products and collaboration feel natural because encapsulating and translating the energy of New York City is, to this day, at the core of what Supreme does — and, thanks to Biggie, COOGI once played a very important part in that NYC energy. The Supreme x COOGI collection is a simultaneous blooming of those cultural roots, remixes of Supreme staples like study jackets and sporty basketball jerseys all made of custom COOGI fabric that bring ‘90s streetwear, skatewear and urban wear together in a hybrid homage to a golden era of NYC whose impact is still being felt today.
2023 is certainly not 1994, but, almost 30 years after each brand shook up the city in their own way, Supreme and COOGI’s collaboration shows that true cultural cachet will always stand the test of time, no matter how much the variables around it may change.
For more from Supreme, check out a list of the best Supreme x The North Face jackets.