Supreme, Yamamoto languish in streetwear comfort zone

A few weeks ago, a rumor emerged that Yohji Yamamoto and Supreme were working on a collaboration, which was largely met with incredulity. In terms of audience and style, Yamamoto and Supreme could not be further apart. One is considered a legendary master tailor, the other a classic skate brand that in recent years has appealed primarily to people looking to conspicuously consume. The former is dark and experimental; the latter mostly sticks to standard silhouettes and patterns. 

Yohji Yamamoto is one of the two most important designers of the 20th century—the other being Rei Kawakubo—and has been working since the early ’70s on his brand of avant-garde fashion, a genre that he practically invented along with Kawakubo. Primarily black, oversized and irrespective of trend, his first Paris shows in the early ’80s were explosive because they were the exact opposite of what was popular at the time: Gianni Versace, a brand known for crudely gilded appliqués, imitation Greco-Roman art and screaming color prints. Since then, nearly all of Yamamoto’s collections have been ongoing explorations of that original design language. 

In 1994, James Jebbia started the streetwear brand Supreme to service New York City skaters with basic clothing, accessories and skateboards and it likely needs less of an introduction than Yamamoto does. 

The gap between them is evident in the awkward final product, which has lots of Supreme and very little Yamamoto. Both of their logos are plastered onto T-shirts, beanies, parkas, leather jackets, with some supplementary art by past Supreme collaborators: Sancheeto and Peter Saville (Saville designed print catalogues with Yamamoto in the ’80s and ’90s but is so entrenched in the world of music that it’s difficult to see him in any other context). It’s bizarre to see the world of gritty skateboarding and graffiti art combine with Yamamoto’s artisanal signature. The most Yamamoto this capsule ever gets is in its slight sartorial angle with a suit jacket and drawstring suit pants, as well as a button up shirt in black and white. One of Saville’s images is printed squarely across the back of these, with two tiny logos reminding us who came together to produce it.

From a design perspective, it’s all pretty boring—and it didn’t have to be. Although people gawked at the idea of Yamamoto “stooping” to the level of Supreme, his brands (plural, as he has a whole universe of diffusion lines) have a long history of collaborating with what could be perceived as low-brow culture: New Era, One Piece, Neon Genesis Evangelion, even the estate of Marilyn Monroe… And the results with these were often striking, or at least connected both aesthetics in a way that felt authentic and thought-out. Usually, these collections printed artwork from whichever intellectual property onto typical Yamamoto silhouettes, but of course, because the garments themselves were Yamamoto’s own, they were intrinsically elegant and creatively paralleled the identity of the lower-brow brand. And then there’s the Y-3 label, a partnership with Adidas whose debut of Y-3 in 2003 was one of the most groundbreaking moments in the marriage of high and low. Since then, almost any high-profile collaboration between fast fashion and haute couture owes something to Y-3 for having created a previously unimaginable bridge. 

But with Supreme, it seems Yamamoto allowed his signature to be printed alongside whatever graphic Supreme wanted. There’s no real reason to be surprised by this, but the compromise is disappointing considering how many interviews Yamamoto has done where he pronounces himself to be in constant movement against the grain. He has always rightfully declared himself an outsider, a pirate, and has always been one. And if we compare Supreme’s collaboration with the aforementioned Kawakubo— to be clear, a collaboration by proxy, as it was with one of her diffusion lines called Comme des Garçons SHIRT—it’s very clear that Yamamoto probably had no real input. Past CDGSHIRT/Supreme collections flipped the red and white logo backwards, placed polka dots atop camouflage prints, made t-shirts with plain front panels and wacky back panels and split the very structure of the T-shirt down the middle and across the back…In short, even though these were still fundamentally basic garments, there was a definite playfulness.

This is not to say that Yamamoto necessarily had to play with Supreme’s trademarks, but one would have hoped that his vision would interfere more with the brand’s comfort zone. When Louis Vuitton and Supreme came together in 2017 to copy and paste one logo on top of another ad infinitum, at least it was consistent with each brand’s past offerings. This effort between Yamamoto and Supreme is not quite as brain dead as LV’s, but it’s just as stale. 

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