By now you’ve probably read the news that Supreme is suing NYC-based women’s streetwear brand Married to the Mob for $10 million for trademark infringement. Starting in 2004, MOB has been selling a flip of the Supreme logo that reads ‘Supreme Bitch’. Brand founder Leah Sweeney explains that the flip is a little jab at the male-centric streetwear scene and brands that she believes perpetuate it. Unfortunately, recent events have turned the relationship between MOB and Supreme sour, and the New York skate brand has decided to litigate.
People have come in on all sides of the debate to decide who’s in the right. Some have accused Supreme of hypocrisy in the light of their own logo being lifted from artwork by Barbara Kruger. Others have criticised Sweeney for making a logo flip such a focal part of her brand’s collections. Whatever your own opinion might be, there are definitely a lot of arguments on either side.
First off, it’s true that the Supreme Bitch has been around for nearly a decade. It’s widely known that back when Supreme founder James Jebbia ran the Union Store in NYC he actually stocked the t-shirt and gave it his ‘approval’.
So far, so good, but 2 months before the lawsuit was filed, Sweeney upped the game by trying to register the ‘Supreme Bitch’ design as a trademark. This is where the controversy has erupted, and people are now debating over whether Supreme had any right to do so, or whether Sweeney took it too far.
Firstly, it’s worth addressing the issue of the logo itself. It’s true that Supreme lifted the concept for their logo from Barbara Kruger’s conceptual art. While it could be argued that Kruger has the right to come after Supreme for whatever reason, one thing worth remembering is that, in nearly twenty years, she hasn’t done so. Most artists are more concerned with their own artistic endeavours than the business world (in case you hadn’t noticed, Kruger is particularly that way inclined), but there’s also a respectable level of self-awareness within Supreme’s appropriation that people would do well to bear in mind.
Secondly, Kruger is an artist, not a businesswoman, and a hugely influential one at that. Supreme aren’t the only people to have used some form of the ‘red + white + italics’ combination to sell a product (Ding! Obey. Ding! EMI. Ding! Diesel. Ding! Colgate etc.), so either all of these brands are ripping off Kruger’s work (for all the good her message would do them, right?), or it could be that Kruger’s art incorporates a visual aesthetic which has proven to be effective in the mechanisms that she is critiquing, time and time again. To put it another way, Supreme probably flipped it knowing Kruger’s work serves as an ironic archetype for effective branding. Hey, we’re buying it, aren’t we?
It’s also been argued that Sweeney isn’t the only person to have done this, so it makes little sense for Supreme to come after MOB. Zoo York – who have strong ties to Supreme going way back – have their own ‘Zoopreme’ flip that, as far as I know, was never an official collaboration but approved by Supreme’s people. As for the infamous Shortypop, their story remains as dubious as ever to me, but evidence would suggest they sorted something out with Supreme politely and quietly. Why the change of heart?
There was an interesting article posted a few years back by Greg Akselband talking about Supreme’s own history of logo re-appropriation. The article covers some good points about Brand Dilution – wherein a brand’s ‘power’ is weakened through association with other products – and Tarnishment – wherein the brand is presented in a negative or unflattering light.
The article goes on to explain that many of the brands who have been flipped by Supreme in the past such as Eveready Batteries and Morton Salt have gone without litigating against Supreme because there’s little risk of the respective brands’ products ever being confused – Morton make salt, Supreme make clothes, and a t-shirt with the Morton Salt girl will make you think of Morton Salt.
Otherwise, there might be little danger of the original brand’s reputation being damaged. In the case of Supreme’s copying of the red Levi’s tab, it might be risqué on Supreme’s part, but their product is of a high enough quality and the red Levi’s tab is distinctive enough that, again, people would think of Levi’s if they saw it.
Taking this back to the Supreme / MOB issue, it sheds a bit more light upon the issue. While it is true that Supreme lifted their logo from original artwork by Kruger, it is without a doubt that the brand has spent twenty years crafting an unquestionably recognisable brand with a hell of a lot of brand power – ‘World Famous’, anyone? Supreme’s red Box Logo has become their trademark, in both legal and cultural terms, and closer examination of the MOB flip must surely make a few points.
Sweeney’s flip quite clearly makes direct nods to Supreme. It’s driving thrust is the idea that it’s the red box logo with ‘Bitch’ suffixed on. That being the case, it’s hard to have any doubt that Sweeney doesn’t agree that the brand has a huge amount of power within streetwear, and it’s that which she is jumping off. That being the case, it’s hard not to believe that diluting the Supreme brand with her own is an integral aspect of what she’s trying to do – ‘It’s streetwear, like Supreme, but for girls’. So, in effect, what she’s trying to do is register a trademark that makes use of a trademark. The ‘Zoopreme’ flip, however, never had the same problem. Why? Because Zoo York never tried to register it as an original work of theirs. Why? Probably because Zoo York has a solid enough trademark of its own. Shots fired.
Regardless, this definitely causes all sorts of issues from a legal standpoint. In trying to register a trademark that makes clear use of another trademark, it might then be possible for Sweeney to make infringement claims against all types of Supreme flips by claiming that it actually infringes on her trademark. I’m sure James Jebbia was more than happy with people like Sweeney & Mark McNairy doing flips on his logo as long as they didn’t try to register them as actual trademarked designs. If you’re asking me, it’s like writing your name on another kid’s exam paper. Come on man, be serious.
Sweeney took it a step further, also, by trying to assert that she wished to make a trademark of the design, which has spent the past 9 years as a satirical flip. It would be interesting to find out whether Russ Karablin’s ‘Comme des Fuckdown’ flip has had any of these problems, especially considering his recent success. A quick browse on the SSUR website doesn’t show any copyright assertions anywhere, however.
Sweeney wishes to defend her right to ‘utilize parody in [her] design aesthetic’, but nobody’s actually infringing upon that right. Jebbia let her do it for nearly a decade. It’s the fact that she’s trying to assert a satirical piece as an original trademark that’s fucked it up for her. If it’s satire, what’s it satirising? And if it’s satirising a brand, then it isn’t fucking original. Go home and do some proper designs. Bye.