Samsung in China has announced a surprising new collaboration with the hyped skate-and-fashion brand Supreme.
There’s just one small problem: The company Samsung said it’s working with evidently isn’t Supreme—or at least not the original Supreme founded by James Jebbia that helped pioneer streetwear’s spread through fashion and created hugely popular collaborations with labels such as Louis Vuitton.
The company revealed the supposed partnership during a launch event for the Galaxy A8s, streamed via the official Samsung Mobile account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social-media platform. In the video, at the point when about 18:18 remains, the Samsung and Supreme logos flash on screens behind the stage as a Samsung representative talks about Supreme establishing a presence in China. Two men, allegedly CEOs of Supreme, join him on the stage and talk about plans for a giant Shanghai flagship store and a runway show next year at the city’s Mercedes-Benz Arena.
But as commenters on Weibo noted, the brand wasn’t the real Supreme. “Samsung must have been fooled by this man and his knock-off brand,” read one comment reported by Jing Daily.
Supreme also issued a statement, after sites such as Engadget and Hypebeast picked up the story: ”Supreme is not working with Samsung, opening a flagship location in Beijing or participating in a Mercedes-Benz runway show,” the brand told Hypebeast. “These claims are blatantly false and propagated by a counterfeit organization.”
Exactly what led to the situation isn’t entirely clear. Samsung has not replied to multiple requests for comment.
An executive at the company pointed to the brand actually being Supreme Italia, a company that Supreme in the US has bumped heads with before. Though Supreme has long had protection on its name in the US, each country is effectively a separate jurisdiction when it comes to trademarks. Another company, International Brand Firm, has “been quickly and quietly amassing rights in the Supreme name and logo in many countries where Jebbia’s Supreme had not previously sought trademark rights,” The Fashion Law recently explained. One of its licensees has been doing business as Supreme Italia, resulting in legal fights as Supreme in New York has sought to shut it down.
As Engadget pointed out, Samsung China’s digital marketing manager, Leo Lau, said in a Weibo post, which has since been deleted, that it was Supreme Italia, not Supreme US, Samsung was working with. “Supreme US doesn’t have the authorization to sell and market in China,” the post said. “Whereas the Italian brand got the APAC (except Japan) product retail and marketing authorization.” APAC refers to the Asia-Pacific region.
Update: Samsung issued a statement in a post on Weibo: ”Recently, Samsung Electronics announced at the launch of the Galaxy A8s that it will cooperate with Supreme Italia in the Chinese market. We are currently reevaluating this cooperation and we deeply regret the inconvenience caused.”
Without Samsung offering more information, some questions will remain unanswered, such as whether Samsung really knew it wasn’t working with the original Supreme. It’s also not certain who holds the rights to the Supreme name and logo in China. The whole episode illustrates some of the difficulties foreign brands face when trying to protect their names in the country.
To even assess whether there currently is a definitive owner of the “Supreme” name and logo in China is difficult and time-consuming, according to Matthew Dresden, an attorney with the firm Harris Bricken, which regularly works with international companies on legal issues in China. Well over a hundred applicants, going all the way back to the 1990s, have filed for trademarks in China using the name “Supreme,” and it’s possible that China might not allow for protection of a descriptive word like “supreme.” It would be like trying to trademark the phrase “the best.”
It’s quite possible, though, that the original Supreme doesn’t have rights to the name. “The laws [in China] say you can’t file a well-known trademark,” Dresden explains. “That works in theory, and rarely works in practice.” Many brands that are well-known within another country or within a field try to rely on this part of the law only to find that they aren’t known enough in China for it to apply. Michael Jordan, for example, despite his global fame, had to fight for the right to use his own name in China for years. Supreme certainly isn’t famous enough in China for that protection, and in such cases it’s more often a matter of who registers the name first.
It could be perfectly legal for Samsung and a Supreme other than the original to collaborate in China, using a name and logo indistinguishable from the one Supreme in New York uses (itself basically a knockoff of the work of artist Barbara Kruger.) Though who owns the rights may not even be the main issue. It could look bad for Samsung to partner with a company that many may see as using a legal loophole to get around trademark law, especially now with international attention on it. “This ‘big collaboration’ might never see the light of day,” Dresden says.
This story has been updated with Samsung’s statement.