While it’s not clear how VF Corporation went about securing this deal logistically (did it contact Supreme or The Carlyle Group first with an offer to buy?) it’s pretty clear that this was not a spur of the moment decision on behalf of the American conglomerate. As the parent company of Vans, Timberland and The North Face (three brands that comprise
some of Supreme’s longest-running collaborations) VF Corp is intimately familiar with the New York brand—probably more so than any other third party.
If anything, it’s that experience that gives this announcement an air of, dare we say, predictability?
Perhaps LVMH had a shot in the “most likely to buy Supreme” category thanks to
that blockbuster Fall/Winter 2017 collaboration, but in hindsight, VF Corp should have always been seen as the frontrunner.
So now that we know where Supreme is headed, what happens next?
On the surface, a glance at VF Corp’s stable of brands doesn’t augur too well for Supreme from a “cool” standpoint. The vast majority would be best described as mall brands, with
Dickies, Napapijri and SmartWool being the most notable after Vans, The North Face and Timberland. The fact that VF Corp controls more than half of the American backpack market (thanks to its ownership of Jansport and Eastpak, on top of The North Face) speaks volumes to the fact that VF Corp excels at flooding mainstream channels with easily accessible and affordable goods.
There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s just not what Supreme is.
VF Corp buying Supreme does not portend the end of Supreme, much as some will surely argue, but it’s impossible to deny that we’re long gone from what the brand represented in the 1990s, 2000s and early-to-mid 2010s.
Since that Carlyle Group investment, it has seemed as if Supreme has slowly lost some of its juice. The brand still puts out a number of
objectively good pieces every season, but it doesn’t have the same cool factor it once did. The pieces sell out, sure, but the frenzy is definitely lacking. It’s hard to tell if selling out to private equity is the cause, or if James Jebbia simply cashed out at the right time, when he noticed that Supreme’s clientele had changed ever so slightly and the brand’s cachet was drifting away from its pinnacle.
It’s hard to see this new ownership announcement changing anything in that regard though. In recent years, there have been plenty of articles proclaiming the end of the Supreme era, but, by all accounts, the brand is as profitable and successful as ever; while I may no longer be the person buying a Supreme x The North Face jacket, there’s someone out there who still is. Does that person care that VF Corp now owns Supreme? I doubt it, at least and especially if VF Corp takes a hands-off approach.
As things stand, the indications seem to be that VF will be more of a silent partner, like The Carlyle Group was, with
VF Corp saying at the outset that Jebbia and his creative team will be staying on and maintaining full creative control over the brand.
While it’s easy to
say that, there are real questions about how VF Corp will insert itself on the business end.
VF Corp has made it clear that it will continue to let Supreme collaborate with “brands outside of the VF portfolio”; this is a good thing for a streetwear label that drives hype season after season thanks to its often offbeat partners and product drops.
The better question is: How will VF Corporation feel about Supreme collaborating with brands that serve as direct competitors to those within its portfolio?
Sure, something like
Supreme’s successful collaboration with Nike is unlikely to change, as VF doesn’t own a direct competitor to the Oregon sportswear giant (Vans is certainly a sneaker powerhouse, but it’s not intellectually honest to say its skate-lifestyle-focus is a rival to Nike’s athletic advancement-meets-sportswear focus).
The jury is out on whether VF Corporation will have a more subtle hand in steering Supreme’s future collaborations towards its own brand portfolio—and vice-versa. For example, Will VF Corporation push Supreme to work with Dickies
instead of Ben Davis? Will Vans continue to collaborate with a brand like Dime as opposed to sticking exclusively with Supreme?
VF Corporation brands have increasingly collaborated with one another and while Supreme already partners regularly with a number of the names in the VF Corporation roster, it’s fair to wonder if Supreme will take a new tact towards partnership opportunities—adopting a focus on VF Corporation sister brands first and foremost. It would be a shame if that turns out to be the case, because Supreme has been a prolific partner over the years,
working with brands both big and small.
Perhaps more importantly, though, will VF Corporation allow Supreme to remain a strictly “direct-to-consumer” brand? This is where LVMH acquiring Supreme would have made more sense, because the luxury conglomerate is used to growing businesses without sacrificing scarcity and without relying on wholesale. VF Corporation has made it clear that this partnership will—in part—see Supreme leveraging VF Corp’s
“global supply chain, international platforms, digital capabilities and consumer understanding.”
If Supreme gets to keep control on its distribution, then there’s no reason to believe that the brand will change in any meaningful way in that department. But, if a desire to quickly tap into VF Corp's "consumer understanding" means Supreme product ends up in PacSun, Journeys and Zumiez—it would be fair to say that this signals the end of Supreme as the cultural force we know it as today.
Do we think that Supreme will transform into a mall brand? Maybe—but not likely. As for the opening of new Supreme brick-and-mortar shops and an increase of drop day stock online? That feels like a foregone conclusion as VF Corporation looks to accrue enough sales to recoup on its massive investment.
Even with all that said, we know there’s little reason for VF Corp to want to change how Supreme does things. Despite its limited drop, direct-to-consumer approach, Supreme is, apparently, wildly profitable—forecasted to add a whopping $500 million to VF Corp’s revenue in 2021.
Supreme is definitely not broke, so why fix it?
In all likelihood, VF Corp won’t change much. It’ll leverage Supreme to polish off the rest of its portfolio—it’s a perennial moneymaker that can elevate the hype around a brand like Dickies or Jansport or whatever else ends up in the VF stable three years from now.
Watching how VF Corp’s competitors handle this acquisition may actually be more interesting than watching how VF Corp handles it. This deal has real potential to alter the fashion landscape because the fashion industry has tended to follow in Supreme’s footsteps. Acquiring successful, independent streetwear brands may be the next frontier in the apparel industry.
If that’s the case, then the race is on for conglomerates to woo the likes of
Palace, Dime or Aimé Leon Dore.