This week Supreme announced its latest collaboration with Clive Barker’s iconic 1980s horror film Hellraiser. While on the surface level they seem like a good match, upon closer examination there are more similarities to this partnership than one would initially think.
Released in 1987, Hellraiser is writer/director/artist Clive Barker’s directorial debut and is based on his own novella, The Hellbound Heart. The story of a man, who in search of Earth’s ultimate carnal pleasures, opens a gateway to hell through an exotic puzzle box. The film’s most famous image is that of Pinhead, a humanoid monster with a tattooed grid all over his head and nails hammered to the skull at each intersection. It’s as horrific as it is stylish and undoubtedly left a lasting impression on horror-addicted youth at the time of its release.
Supreme of course needs no introduction. They’ve collaborated with a near infinite number of brands, bands, artists and so on, but Hellraiser is a much closer fit than first meets the eye. Here’s why.
This one is pretty obvious but worth mentioning as it’s not just the cult popularity they share, but a similar trajectory. From small beginnings to decades-spanning international appeal, both Supreme and Hellraiser’s success stem from the fact they never aimed for mass popularity, yet ultimately got there through authenticity and a clear vision.
Clive Barker conceived the novella that would become Hellraiser as a response to how unsatisfied he was with the previous two movies that were based on his books, with the aim of directing this one. Working with a measly budget of $900,000, the studio informed him it would be a straight-to-video release. However three months into filming they realized the film’s potential.
The rest is history, as the film opened to a wide release and earned close to $15 million at the box office, forever immortalizing the nightmarish Cenobites and their leader Pinhead onscreen. It’s worth mentioning that he is not actually called Pinhead – Barker named him Priest, later elaborating his title to Hell Priest. Pinhead was a nickname the crew used during filming that fans adopted, while Barker himself never liked the sobriquet.
Shock tactics are intrinsic to both the film and the brand, and while that’s often true of both the horror genre and streetwear, not all successfully pull it off. Hellraiser’s erotic-meets-horror angle wasn’t common in the genre and censors couldn’t quite make sense of it. In order to meet MPAA ratings the film had to lose a lot of gore and tone down its extremely subversive sexuality, with Barker famously detailing a spanking plot line they had to drop as well as editing down Frank’s consecutive buttock thrusts to two, as three was deemed obscene. The film’s disturbing yet naff dialogue is legendary, with “Come to daddy” forever cemented in our brains.
Similarly Supreme hasn’t shied away from controversy, with strong sexual themes and vulgarity regularly on offer from the New York brand. Whether through collaborations with erotic artists including Nobuyoshi Araki, Toshio Maeda, MR. and countless others, or through their suggestive photoshoots, many of which were shot by Terry Richardson, Supreme have courted obscenity since day one.
James Jebbia grew up in England before moving to New York as a young adult, ultimately founding Supreme in New York in 1994. The skate shop-turned-brand is undoubtedly American in its sensibilities, despite his British upbringing.
And while Barker’s novella is set in England—which he found an integral part of the story—the meddling producers demanded the film’s setting to be changed to the U.S., requiring multiple characters’ voices be dubbed into American accents, resulting in an oddly vague setting. This adds clunkiness to the film but ultimately the story works and in keeping with the American horror tradition, fits its adopted homeland perhaps even more than the UK.
Depending on who you ask skateboarding might not be a fringe subculture anymore, but back when Supreme’s original location opened its doors skaters were not exactly a welcomed crowd. Jebbia explains his interest in the scene: “I always really liked what was coming out of the skate world. It was less commercial—it had more edge and more fuck-you type stuff.”
Similarly Barker found himself frequenting S&M clubs in New York and Amsterdam, drawing inspiration from the scene in multiple ways, which he explained to The Guardian years later:
“The look of the Cenobites, such as the pins in their leader’s head, was inspired by S&M clubs. But I was emotionally inspired by them, too. On S&M’s sliding scale, I’m probably a 6. There was an underground club called Cellblock 28 in New York that had a very hard S&M night. No drink, no drugs, they played it very straight. It was the first time I ever saw people pierced for fun. It was the first time I saw blood spilt. The austere atmosphere definitely informed Pinhead: ‘No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering!’”
Horror is often downgraded as a genre that only teenagers like and until more recently, streetwear had a similarly negative connotation as something immature. Neither was seen as high-brow or intelligent. To elevate ideas that are seemingly so base and unsophisticated in the general opinion takes a real visionary. Of course not everybody can appreciate the level of thought and self-referential insight that goes into a Supreme collaboration, or how a lewd and twisted bit of dialogue can go on to influence artists as diverse as Aphex Twin years down the line.
Barker’s refusal to turn Pinhead into a caricature of a monster—slow, dumb, comical—is what makes the film so chilling. Producers wanted him to follow in the style of Freddy Krueger or Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees, but Barker stuck to his guns. “My argument was that Pinhead hailed back to a much earlier tradition of monsters, primarily, obviously Dracula who is very articulate, very aristocratic…I don’t find dumb things terribly scary – I find intelligence scary, particularly twisted intelligence.” Every horror villain with psychological prowess that has followed since has Pinhead to thank.
Another oft-borrowed motif of the counterculture, religious symbology as well as the occult is widespread at this point. However, both Hellraiser and Supreme’s sardonic approach is what differentiates them from many. Rather than simply glamorizing blasphemy, both offer subtle yet intelligent satire on the topic. From Supreme’s Bible stash box and Andres Serrano Piss Christ collab, to Hellraiser’s Frank giving his famous “Jesus wept” line, both subvert religion with more depth than the standard upside down crucifix.
Signs of the occult also feature prominently in Supreme’s back catalogue as well as the movie, serving as the perfect contrast to all of the church merch.
At the core Supreme is a brand about desire. Its business model of creating higher demand by keeping stock low, while consistently and increasingly delivering revered artist collaborations since its early days has been lauded countless times. For customers, this element of desire entails getting their hands on stock and for Jebbia it’s the desire to keep turning out something fresh and original, and undoubtedly the wish to continue expanding on the brand’s enviable list of collaborators.
Hellraiser’s roots in sadomasochism don’t need much explaining, while the film’s basic premise comes from the idea of wanting. When Frank feels he’s exhausted all sensory pleasures the world can offer, he attempts to push the limits further by seeking out an exotic puzzle box that can offer an extra-dimensional realm of sensory exploration, only he doesn’t expect it to be so bleak.
They’re two very different ways to look at the one topic, but there are undeniable similarities in what both represent.
To reduce Supreme to simply a hype machine doesn’t do justice to Jebbia’s decades-long business acumen. By now Supreme has proven it is much more than a clothing brand; it is a dynamic enterprise that encompasses skateboarding, fashion, art and more. Most importantly it’s Jebbia’s refusal to rest on the brand’s laurels that is the reason for its success. He explains: “We’re making stuff we’re proud of, not doing stuff to stay alive. I don’t think enough people take risks, and when you do, people respond—in music, in art, in fashion.”
Hellraiser is by no means a slick film. For all of its groundbreaking storytelling, special effects, and unique marriage of eroticism and horror, there’s cheesy dialogue, stilted acting and not-quite-believable gore. But ultimately the film took a huge gamble on what a horror film could be and it paid off. Over 30 years on it’s still one of the best in the genre and continues to influence artists due to its timelessness and avant-garde ideas.