“I Shop Therefore I Am.” Barbara Kruger made this statement in 1987, but it could just as well be applied to our lives as we know them today. Her iconic artwork combined the language of mass marketing with a subversive nod to consumerism, even as the hedonism of the decade’s stock markets headed towards major collapse. With its bold slogan and direct messaging, the piece offered a prescient reflection of the attention economy of the internet age that was to come.
Seven years later in 1994, a new streetwear brand was founded in New York by James Jebbia. He named it Supreme. The first Manhattan store employed extras from Harmony Korine and Larry Clark’s first film Kids, teen regulars from Manhattan’s skate parks, and secretly supplied clothing to the set. The staff slouched between the rails as they sold the t-shirts, skateboards and other branded apparel. With its understated air of cool detachment and carefully minimalist branding, Supreme was able to fully embody the youth culture that it still knows so well how to leverage.
At the heart of Supreme is their distinctive logo, white-on-red in Futura Bold Oblique font. It is immediately recognisable, and has been applied to everything from the store interiors and packaging to the apparel itself. Kruger’s own bold white lettering on red is never far out of sight when it comes to Supreme, although the artist herself long remained silent on the undeniable overlap. It is a visual language that has come to signify a push-and-pull tension between the two, and ultimately, between art and commerce.
The irony of a fashion brand repurposing an artistic identity first intended to decry the poor ethics of the industry is quite something to behold. That this is a label able to command hundreds of dollars for a single item speaks volumes of our dissolute times, when the obsession with the self reigns, well… supreme. We have each been cut loose from the tyranny of doctrine, whether it was self-enforced or dictated from above, and it would seem that is no longer cool to care about anything much at all.
“It is a visual language that has come to signify a push-and-pull tension between art and commerce”
Kruger applied her signature colour scheme of black, white and red to countless artworks during the 1970s and ‘80s, with slogans pasted onto found photographs. The phrases that she alighted upon ranged from the feminist (“Your Body Is a Battleground”) to the personal (“Love for Sale”), to the cautionary (“The Future Belongs to Those Who Can See It”). The Supreme logo buys into the simple immediacy of Kruger’s message and capitalizes on its subversive legacy, all while shifting hundreds of dollars worth of apparel to hypebeasts who are willing to queue for hours at a time.
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This weekend is your last chance to get the #BarbaraKruger streetwear and have it arrive in time for the holidays. Put your order in by Sunday, December 17 at midnight! Also, be sure to read the final interview from Barbara Kruger on her Performa Commission, now live on @dazedfashion. #Performa17 x @volcom
Supreme was reportedly worth $1 billion at the close of 2019, and now has twelve stores around the world. Kruger finally spoke out about the logo in 2013, when a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Supreme for copyright infringement against another streetwear brand and its usage of identical white-on-red lettering. “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of uncool jokers,” Kruger wrote, furiously. “I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.”
“The Supreme logo capitalizes on the subversive legacy of Kruger’s message, while shifting hundreds of dollars worth of apparel”
Instead of suing Supreme herself, Kruger took matters into her own hands at 2017’s Performa Biennial in New York. Here she sold a range of products, from skateboards to clothing; a custom red-and-white lettered subway pass was even created for use across the city. It could be seen as the closing of a loop begun decades earlier, when her screen printing techniques first enabled her slogans to be distributed via non-traditional means, from books to matchbooks to coffee mugs, and even shopping bags.
For Kruger, the medium has always been the massage. Bold, direct and immediately recognisable, her work communicates with the language of advertising and graphic design. The identity of her artworks is one that mirrors the tactics of the mass media. It is hardly surprising that Supreme, in turn, appropriated their own branding from this strategy. But it creates a bizarre hall-of mirrors effect, where style wins over substance. What remains of Kruger’s original message, and what exactly are we buying into? Supreme’s identity doesn’t say much at all, precisely because it doesn’t need to. Brand association is built through repetition and a clear logo. For most of us, just white-over-red lettering is more than enough.