A Tale of Two Streets: Supreme vs Madhappy
Conventional branding turned inside out for the new age
I’ve long admired how streetwear brand Supreme has built a brand centered around hyper-exclusivity and downtown cool, to the point where consumers are willing to camp outside their stores and crash their websites.
Supreme has managed to create and foster a community with unparalleled brand loyalty, even as retailers in this saturated market have tried to cash in on the streetwear trend. What started out as a niche category has been pulled into the mainstream, through collaborations with luxury brands and celebrity endorsements.
While Supreme has commanded a valuation of $1B with its partial acquisition by The Carlyle Group, it is likely to face some challenges to staying true to its values given the tradeoff between growth and scarcity in the current market.
As Hasan Minhaj points out in his deep-dive into Supreme, “fans are fickle, hype is fragile.”
Enter Madhappy, a new streetwear brand with a vastly different spin on the community aspect of Supreme. Unlike Supreme, Madhappy is built on a platform that is the opposite of exclusivity. Its products are not what it sells but what it stands for: the clothes serve as an entry point, naturally shareable products built around the three anchors of community, experiences, and content. These three elements are immune to the fading of hype and are resilient to the ever-growing competition in streetwear.
What is Madhappy?
Madhappy was founded in early 2017 in Los Angeles by two brothers, Noah and Peiman Raf, and their two friends Joshua Sitt and Mason Spector. They set out to create a brand all about positivity and optimism, to bring together a community built around mental health.
Starting with just a hoodie, hat, and t-shirt, the brand expanded its apparel to include a permanent collection as well as limited collaborations that are dropped biweekly and sell out instantly—in fact, there’s a resale market for these items.
In addition to selling online, Madhappy has opened several pop-up stores, including ones in New York, Miami, and even Aspen. Its organic growth has attracted the attention of traditional celebrities and TikTok stars alike from Gigi Hadid and Cardi B to Addison Rae and Charli D'amelio. Its success has garnered the attention of LVMH, one of the largest luxury goods conglomerates in the world which in turn led to their investment in Madhappy (LVMH’s first investment in a streetwear brand).
Similar to Supreme, Madhappy has adopted tactics of product drops, collaborations, and celebrity endorsements. But there the similarity ends. The brand is built on the value of inclusivity: being cool is not about being in the know but about having open conversations, not about what you own but how you feel. And the Madhappy brand extends well beyond apparel to represent a lifestyle that is accessible, attainable, and relatable.
I’d argue that by leveraging commerce to build an inclusive community, experiences, and content—the diametric opposite of Supreme’s exclusive brand strategy—Madhappy is building both a brand and a movement with the potential to become a bigger cultural force than Supreme will ever be, with assets that Supreme would not have brought to the table if rumors of its acquisition by LVMH had been true.
Let’s take a closer look at the three strategic areas where Supreme and Madhappy differ so greatly: community, experience, and content.
“The longevity of the concept of streetwear comes when we all collectively own the exact space in which we operate.” – Virgil Abloh, designer for Off-White and LV
The success of streetwear brands like Supreme and Madhappy largely stem from the cultivation of a community but the way these two brands have built their tribes is very different.
Owning something from Supreme is a signifier that you belong to an exclusive community that shares a cool identity stemming from its edgy, exclusive, countercultural roots as a skatewear brand. It also indicates that you were able to acquire a garment from a retail store, not an easy process, or had the means to purchase one through a resale channel.
Madhappy takes the opposite stance. Rather than limiting membership to the community via intentional scarcity, they openly invite others to join. From slogans that read “So Sorry! No Wifi” and “Local Optimist” to the bright colors of their apparel, the intention of their messaging is to spark conversations and bring awareness to the brand, and also to foster a personal sense of positivity and joy when wearing each piece. Rather than selling you the brand, Madhappy wants you to experience it for yourself, giving new meaning to wearing your heart on your sleeve.
This principle comes across not only in its aesthetic but also in its approach to releasing products and collaborations. While all great streetwear brands create some element of exclusivity by maintaining scarce supply (a tactic that Supreme has taken to the extreme), Madhappy has deliberately tried to keep the brand inclusive, even as some of its collections and collaborations are exclusive. By maintaining a permanent collection of classics that persists year round, Madhappy can continue to build a large community of fans.
And on the collaboration front, whereas Supreme partners with global brands (including Oreo, Nike, and North Face) and cultural icons (such as Takashi Murakami, Kate Moss, and Kermit the Frog), Madhappy has taken the grassroots approach, partnering with local businesses that form a part of their community, which they call “The Local Optimist Group.” Some of these businesses include Apple Pan, one of LA’s oldest continuing operating restaurants, Jon and Vinny’s, one of LA’s most popular Italian restaurants, and Colette, one of Paris’ most beloved retailers. Madhappy’s collaborations with these local icons all tie back to the promotion of optimism: while based on local reach, its appeal is very much global. Think global, act local.
This local partnership strategy is of course cheaper than a global approach, but paradoxically builds community: you’re an insider if you’ve been to or know of those establishments. You’re drawn to buying their apparel so you can share your story with others, while Supreme relies on the existing popularity of the partnering brand to drum up fanfare. Although local in nature, I would argue that the resonance, sentiment, and meaning behind wearing a Madhappy collaboration runs much deeper than wearing a collaboration by Supreme.
Madhappy’s approach to partnering with local businesses differentiates the brand from other streetwear brands while marking the partnering businesses as a safe space for the community to wear, talk about, and embody the brand. Every new business Madhappy partners with then becomes a hub from which to spread its mission of positivity and optimism.
“Both Tommy and Ralph are my inspirations because they were able to build a world and that inspires me. I want to have a bigger impact on people’s lives than just the products they are buying and that’s why I think the experiential portion of what we do is what will separate myself from those who inspired me.” - Ronnie Fieg, owner of Kith
Although a great deal of shopping is done online now, brands leverage their physical store experience to engage with consumers and foster brand loyalty. This is especially the case for streetwear brands, whose target customers are Gen Z and millennials who value authentic and unique experiences over simply consuming for the sake of possession. For these customers, brick-and-mortar stores are a central hub for connecting with other people like them. Whether that’s waiting in line to be admitted to Supreme or attending a workout class at Madhappy, people are treating streetwear stores as a hangout spot so as to connect, be seen, and feel part of a movement. Madhappy has taken that concept and elevated it to another level by not only opening temporary stores but also extending the experience well beyond buying merchandise.
From a strategic perspective, Madhappy’s reliance on pop-up storefronts provides a great deal of flexibility and builds community organically. From a practical perspective, they’re not locked into long-term leases; at a broader level, they’re able to enter new cities, partner with local businesses and charities, and expand their community one pop-up location after another. Although they generally leave a city after a few months, they’re able to keep conversations going by relying on the local community to introduce the brand to new people. And a portion of the proceeds are donated to mental health organizations or local charities, continuing to foster an ever-growing community.
And with their pop-up stores, their intent is not to simply push transactions. Unlike Supreme, where the in-store experience is actually quite customer unfriendly yet memorable (another post for another time), Madhappy’s pop-up stores are positive and experiential in the truest sense of the word.
Madhappy accomplishes this through their signature “____ makes me Madhappy” wall, an opportunity for people to pick up a pen, reflect on their mood, and share something personal in public. Importantly, Madhappy also provides strong programming, including exercise classes, group meditations, mental health discussion panels, and even a three-day meditation training. All of this is intended to create a welcoming environment in which to experience positivity: the clothes just happen to elevate and complement the experience.
Whereas other stores want you to leave remembering the brand you came for, probably a fleeting memory given the saturation of the market, Madhappy wants you to leave feeling a certain way, with the memory of an experience that will stay with you forever.
“We hope to cultivate a content-first approach to spreading the Madhappy mission: to build a more optimistic world.” - Madhappy
One of the things I most admire about Madhappy is their in-house creation of online content, a strategy other streetwear brands have not pursued. Traditionally content has been used as a marketing channel, in publications or e-commerce sites (i.e. Highsnobiety or SSENSE respectively), for the sole purpose of driving sales. To do this both authentically and effectively for individual brands, however, you need to first build a community of fans for which you can then leverage content to guide them to products they will love, whether that be physical or experiential.
Supreme has followed this traditional strategy via their lookbooks, a visual representation of their products, which they release only a few days before launch; unsurprisingly, attention to these lookbooks is short-lived, quickly fading after the items are available for purchase. In contrast, Madhappy’s content goes well beyond the clothing and appears across digital media channels, which provide a platform where content is maintained, continually strengthening the brand and serving as a resource to foster positive attitudes and mental health.
Rather than featuring only their products, Madhappy’s in-house content includes an online publication called the Local Optimist featuring personal stories, interviews, and toolkits on mental health, as well as video documentaries highlighting the process of producing their garments. During the quarantine, they’ve continued to produce content, including live Instagram Q&As with celebrities and influencers addressing mental health, as well as a “Mental Health Daily Challenge,” in which they compile their community’s input to foster open and transparent conversations around mental health.
By treating content as a first-class citizen, Madhappy gives customers a fully end-to-end brand experience, bridging the gap between their online storefront and their offline experiences. And by creating their own original content, Madhappy is able to bring the brand to life, painting as more than just the products but a community of real people, real stories, and real connections standing behind the brand and its principles.
While it’s unlikely that any other brand will replicate Madhappy’s unique approach, I would argue that its combination of community, experiences, and content represents the future of online brands. These three factors have elevated Madhappy to the brand it is today - selling out instantly, donned by celebrities and influencers organically, and succeeding in authentic collaborations and partnerships.
As we’ve seen, the highly successful Supreme built its reputation on selling products that were exclusive, while Madhappy is promoting a lifestyle choice built on inclusivity. And where Supreme has built its trendy brand on hype, Madhappy has centered its brand around positivity and optimism. And where Supreme has largely stayed in its lane of streetwear products, Madhappy has evolved to leveraging its streetwear products to drive an increasingly rich mix of community, experiences, and content.
If streetwear becomes less popular or the hype circus that Supreme exemplifies fades, expect Madhappy to remain a strong cultural force, because the need for safe, honest, and transparent conversations around mental health will never fall out of fashion.