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I.T. Beijing Market is a polka-dotted glass cube of high fashion in China’s capital city. Racks of Thom Browne hang upstairs, an outpost of A Bathing Ape dominates the basement, and in between lives a wardrobe installation by Vetements, overflowing with oversized sweatshirts. The three brands, real and counterfeit, are the labels of choice for the city's fashion elite. Meanwhile, just one block away, one of the world's largest collections of authentic Supreme gear goes almost unnoticed. A 20-year archive of unworn merchandise, all in its original packaging and with tags attached, from box logos to boxing gloves, sits for sale in plain sight. Few but foreigners give it a second look.
“They don't know the brand,” says Hu Peng, explaining Supreme’s lack of recognition in the Chinese streetwear community. “They think it's called Super Me.” Hu, who's better known in China by the moniker Hood P, is Asia's foremost Supreme collector. Last summer he opened The Roots, his own personal Supreme boutique, in an understated, glass-fronted Sanlitun storefront that wouldn't be out of place in 1990s Soho.
Racks are stocked only with clothes sporting their original tags, and all things white hang in clear garment bags to keep them clean. Walls are lined with collectible skateboard decks — Kermit, Bruce Lee, Damien Hirst, Arabic, and box logos — and there's a homemade half-pipe leading up to the elevated registers.
Hu says Supreme suffers from a lack of brand recognition on the mainland, and the prohibitive market value of the gear limits interest to visiting celebrities and in-the-know Hong Kong tourists. Still, it remains Hu's one-man mission to represent and promote the brand across China with or without support from the Supreme team. (Hu says he’s been in contact with Supreme for years prior to his shop’s opening, but while the company knows about Hu’s ambitions, he can’t divulge their conversations.)
The Roots is his Field of Dreams leap of faith: He believes if he builds his own Supreme stores, eventually the brand may invest in the local market. And while Hu has never set foot in a Supreme store abroad — all his applications to acquire a travel visa have been denied, which isn’t unusual in China — he's already committed to opening a second location of The Roots in Hong Kong.
Hu Peng hadn’t heard of Supreme before 2006. The Hebei native developed a love of street culture after seeing the 1984 street-dance masterpiece Breakin' as a five-year-old. Later, he discovered streetwear through brands like Rocawear and Sean John while studying business management at Beijing's Tsinghua University, where he was a star basketball player. After graduation, he took an editorial job at a Chinese magazine focused on the NBA, and later was asked if he'd join the publisher's new sneaker magazine, Size, where he rose to senior editor.
His education in streetwear flourished during his time at Size, and he first learned of Supreme’s ties to the skater and hip-hop communities in the magazine’s pages. The brand came to symbolize authenticity to Hu since the people he idolized — skateboarders and rappers — were all wearing Supreme. He promptly commenced building his personal collection.
A year later, Hu founded a hip-hop magazine called LOOC — "cool" flipped backward. He published through 2010, when the government shuttered the magazine over content deemed immoral. During this time, he built a Supreme collection through Chinese and Japanese online auction sites that grew too large for him. He collected more than he could wear in a lifetime — today he values his collection at RMB$10 million, or US$1.5 million — but he got no pleasure out of reselling clothes online.
After years of unemployment, Hu sought to pick up where LOOC left off and create a real-world clubhouse for China’s independent hip-hop and skateboard communities. He also wanted a public platform to demonstrate to a cynical ruling class that “street culture is real culture and not just kids being bad,” he said. Still, the cultural climate in Beijing can be as toxic as the air today. President Xi Jinping, who assumed office in 2012, has worked to suppress the anti-authoritarianism of hip-hop. As The Guardian reported earlier this year, the Ministry of Culture regularly bans music it deems harmful to social morality, and Chinese rappers struggle to find venues to perform in because local police actively discouraging club owners from booking them. Those who find locations to perform in anyway have found themselves subject to investigation, harassment, and arrest.
It’s in this environment Hu believes Supreme can retain its value as a subversive currency. Despite the inherent risk, the shop’s popularity is on the rise. In September, streetwear model Adrianne Ho visited The Roots to borrow clothes for a shoot with GQ China. The A$AP Mob, in town for a performance, hung out one afternoon, and recognizable faces like pop singer Luhan, Hong Kong cinema star Shawn Yue, supermodel Sun Yichao, and superstar skater Xu Ying often drop in and linger on the Supreme x Undercover pillows that cover Hu’s couch. Still, Hu knows celebrity is fleeting, as are fashion brands, and more concerning for his business than cultural suppression is the fickle Chinese marketplace.
It's why Hu named his shop The Roots, to be an anchor for China's hip-hop and skater culture, even if his allegiance to Supreme doesn't catch on. "Supreme is the only brand that makes me think it's out to promote a culture, not just itself," Hu says. "I know fashion can change, but the roots of a tree cannot change, and I believe the roots of Supreme are the roots of street culture, and I want this shop to be the root of street culture in Beijing."