When one thinks about streetwear, one of the first brands that come to mind is Supreme. It is one of, if not the most, famous streetwear and skating brand in the western world and has been around since 1994. Founded in New York by James Jebbia, which started of as a brand that caters to the skateboarding, hip hop and youth culture, in general, has become a billion-dollar world-famous company. It is also known for its collaborations with world-renowned brands such as Nike and Louis Vuitton, the latter of which gave the brand newfound fame and clientele that it otherwise would not have.
Its logo is simple yet striking: the brand’s name in white against a red box. What many people don’t know is the origins of said logo. Barbara Kruger is an American contemporary feminist conceptual artist whose work was popularized in the 80s. Kruger grew up in a lower-middle-class household then attended Syracuse University, the School of Visual Arts and Parsons School of Design. At Parsons, she took courses with graphic design and art director Marvin Israel and photographer Diane Arbus. Despite never finishing her fine arts degree, she was able to land a job with Condé Nast Publications through connections and quickly became chief designer at Mademoiselle. As a young woman working in the male-dominated art world, Kruger drew inspiration from movements including second-wave feminism to create her poignant work. Sources of inspiration included artists such as Magdalena known for her large-scale textile pieces, and John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, photomontage artists who respectively created antifascist and feminist work in pre-WWII Germany. From her choice of the artist, it is evident that Kruger’s art is motivated by her discontent with the establishment, be it capitalist or patriarchal. In the late 70s and early 80s, she arrived at her now signature style, which often critiques capitalism and patriarchy through word/image juxtapositions that draw inspiration from graphic design, photomontage, Russian constructivism, conceptual art and poetry, among other forms. Said signature style consists of her placing the white Futura Bold Italic font in a red box on top of a pre-existing image, often from various advertisements, serving as a seemingly obvious critique of the image.
Although Jebbia has never stated Kruger as his source of inspiration for his brand’s now illustrious logo, the uncanny resemblance is an automatic giveaway. What I find most interesting about Supreme’s appropriation of Kruger’s work is the fact that they have taken the work of a feminist and anti-capitalist artist and profited off it, thereby promoting the same institution against which she protested so publicly.
In 2013, Supreme hit Leah McSweeney of the brand “Married to the MOB” with a $10 million lawsuit for copyright infringement after McSweeney did a parody of the brand’s logo as “Supreme Bitch.” Just try and ignore the crippling irony for a second as what is most important in this was Kruger’s response. As Complex covered the story, they naturally wondered what the artist’s thoughts on this situation were, and to their questions, she responded in an email:
“What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.”
- Kruger’s response to Supreme via a blank email with a Microsoft Word document attached, the file name “fools.doc.
In addition to this badass reply, Kruger recently made other statements against the brand. In November 2017, Kruger created a performance art piece in the form of a drop, in collaboration with the skate brand Volcom. People paid $5 to be able to buy clothes and skateboards embellished with the artist’s work. This was a direct criticism of Supreme as they are known for their occasional drops that sell out almost immediately and have hundreds of people lining up outsides stores for hours on end, some even waiting overnight. She also plastered various skate parks across New York City with her art and created limited-edition Kruger-branded Metro Cards.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of streetwear enthusiasts not only have no idea the origins of their beloved brand’s logo but also just don’t give a shit. I find it quite shocking that this isn’t common knowledge because it should be. While Kruger is well revered among the art world, her work has been unable to attain the mainstream “clout” that artists like Murakami and Warhol are privy to. It is because of this that so few people are aware of James Jebbia’s blatant theft of her work and also why she is never credited for Supreme’s fame.
The misappropriation of her work serves as a conversation starter for artist-designer collaboration, and why artists should be given credit where credit is due. Alas, this is a conversation for another day.