What the Fashion System Can Learn From Supreme-Style Product Drops


Why Supreme's product drops keep us hungry



While high fashion debates the merits of ‘see now, buy now,’ streetwear brands like Supreme ‘drop’ product on a weekly schedule that’s more like a feed than a traditional fashion cycle.

Most people with knowledge of the streetwear market are familiar with the concept of a “drop,” a controlled release of new product at a clip that’s far faster than the traditional fashion cycle and designed to drive consumer excitement with a stream of constant newness. It’s one of the reasons lines at Supreme stores tend to snake around the block every Thursday morning, when the company releases new items. Supreme, which is vertically integrated and controls the vast majority of its distribution, creates seasonal collections, but drops new product in weekly batches. These drops generate so much interest that entire forums are dedicated to celebrating purchases and guessing which particular pieces will sell out first. What’s more, on the first “drop day” of a new season, traffic to the brand’s website can spike by as much as 16,800 percent, according to Samuel Spitzer, who leads Supreme’s e-commerce operation. E-commerce has become an important part of the business and while Supreme does not disclose sales figures, Spitzer says that on drop days “we get a very, very high rate of orders per second.” According to Chris Gibbs, owner of multi-brand retailer Union Los Angeles, the system of “drops” stems from a cluster of Japanese streetwear labels, including Hiroshi Fujiwara’s Goodenough, Nigo’s A Bathing Ape, Jun Takahashi’s Undercover, Hiroki Nakamura’s Visvim and Shinsuke Takizawa’s Neighborhood, which all set up shop in the backstreets of Tokyo’s Harajuku district in the early 1990s and were, themselves, inspired by the DIY methodologies of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s legendary London store Sex, as well as Fujiwara’s involvement in the International Stüssy Tribe. "You want to try to give customers a sense of consistency and create excitement" “Japan’s streetwear is very retail-based. They’re thinking about the end consumer at the very beginning and all throughout the process. They’re thinking what the retail price is when they’re looking at the fabric,” says Gibbs. “That culture and that market is more organised from my experience,” adds Ryan Willms, who handles marketing and art direction for Stüssy’s North American operation. “There’s just so much product releasing at all times that you want to try to give customers a sense of consistency and create excitement,” continues Willms. “People are a lot more aware and the customer just demands a lot more now. I think they just want more product more often.” In addition to delivering new items every week, brands like Supreme and Palace, a London-based streetwear label, keep distribution tight and quantities limited, undersupplying demand. Together, the strategy generates excitement and encourages customers to constantly re-engage, creating a kind of consumer ritual. For Brendon Babenzien — previously the design director at Supreme, who, after a 10-year hiatus, relaunched his label Noah in October 2015 — the decision to embrace weekly drops was rooted in practicality. “We’re small. You don’t want to have a tonne of stuff at once. This is just an honest, genuine way to do business: Here’s what we need now, let’s put it out and let’s continue bringing product in throughout the season when it makes sense.” At a much larger scale, Stüssy has made a concerted effort to drop new product on a weekly basis, but Willms says the process is not without its challenges and requires close coordination with suppliers. “We see from the outside Supreme does a good job, but I’m sure behind-the-scenes they’re scrambling around to get some of those things done on time as well,” he adds. “Brands like Supreme and Palace don't follow the same seasonal calendar as high fashion brands at all,” observes James Gilchrist, general manager of Comme des Garçons USA and Dover Street Market New York, which stocks both brands. “Actually, their approach makes a lot of sense compared to the way high fashion brands are currently delivering.” As Gilchrist points out, traditional fashion deliveries are structured around far fewer, bigger shipments. "You don’t want to have a tonne of stuff at once... Let’s continue bringing product in throughout the season when it makes sense." Gosha Rubchinskiy, a buzzy brand operated by Comme des Garçons, has fused the traditional delivery schedule with something closer to how streetwear brands like Supreme operate. “This was just how things naturally developed; it was not an intentional part of a strategy,” says Gilchrist. “Gosha does a fashion show and is a wholesale business, so he has to work to that calendar and the collection is separated into deliveries in the showroom that govern when certain things will drop. However, the distribution and the quantities produced are very tightly controlled and limited in a similar way to Supreme or Palace.” Rubchinskiy also makes exclusive product for Dover Street Market that is released throughout the season, further fostering a sense of newness. But Gibbs says Rubchinskiy’s delivery schedule isn’t that different from the rest of Comme des Garçons’ labels, which are typically delivered in four batches throughout a season. As a result, he’ll rarely order from Rubchinskiy’s fourth delivery, since by the time it ships to Union, the store has most likely already begun marking down product. Gibbs says the drop model works better for vertically integrated businesses, as piecemeal delivery of a collection can be challenging for both multi-brand retailers — which pride themselves on maintaining a carefully calibrated merchandise mix — and brands that depend on wholesale distribution for a significant chunk of their income. But like Rubchinskiy, Los Angeles-based designer John Elliott, who splits his label between a core line of basics and a seasonal collection that gets shown on the runway, has adopted a hybrid approach. Elliott ships his core product — including t-shirts, knitwear and sweatpants, which comprises 60 percent of his business — to department stores on the traditional calendar, but also does a healthy direct-to-consumer business based on weekly drops via his own e-commerce site. On Mondays, Elliott’s website is updated with pieces from his seasonal collection. On Thursdays, higher volume items like t-shirts, hoodies and sweatpants are released in new colours. Traffic to the site increases by an average of 60 percent on “drop days” over other days, says the company. “For us it’s a result of probably three things,” explains Elliott. “One would be cash flow, two would be the fact that we produce 90 percent of our stuff in a really small factory in Los Angeles and the third would be that if we were to drop all at once, our customer would choose some big winners and probably pass on some stuff.” The approach also means Elliot can drop product like coats and heavier knits when it’s more seasonally appropriate, he says. In addition, the system allows the label to shine a new light on different items each week, which has helped to boost sales for non-core categories like denim. What’s more, Elliot feels weekly drops lend themselves to a strong marketing narrative. For each drop, the label shoots a new lookbook, then delivers each of the featured items, a process that requires a lot of planning with regards to production schedules and purchasing. “The most value is in showing a collection, telling a story and giving your customer a taste of what’s to come.”