It's late afternoon on a recent breezy Friday, and Val Caruso is sitting outside Supreme, the streetwear and skate store he manages. Lanky guys rolling down Fairfax Avenue on skateboards lean down to slap his hand, and someone cruising by in an Audi hollers his name.
Meanwhile, a young customer tugs the shop's door handle, but it's locked. "Already closed," Caruso tells him, even as a cluster of sweaty boys can be seen inside enjoying Supreme's in-store skate bowl, which occupies a good half of the space. The subtext is obvious: Although it's open to the public, Supreme is also something of an exclusive club.
The same can be said of Fairfax Avenue itself these days. Only, the hip-hop-influenced shops along the traditionally Jewish corridor that stretches roughly from Melrose Avenue to Third Street are having a hard time keeping the hordes away.
Supreme, along with other clothing stores like Diamond Supply Co. and the Hundreds, specialize in limited-edition sneakers, hats and other garb favored by skateboarders. In the last few years, they've turned the Fairfax District into a serious tourist destination, particularly for the young and trendy. The area also has become dotted with art galleries showing the work of street artists, and with restaurants where it's tough to get a table, such as Animal.
Teens and 20-somethings descend on the strip from all over the United States, Europe and Asia, not just to shop but for another L.A. tradition: celebrity sightings. In particular, they're hoping to snap a photo with a member of rap collective Odd Future, or at least spy leader Tyler, the Creator hanging out in front of the group's own pop-up store, called OF. Located near Fairfax's intersection with Oakwood Avenue, it specializes in tie-dyed T-shirts, expensive hoodies and even signature skate decks.
In fact, the local hip-hop crew — which became a worldwide phenomenon in 2010 — is largely responsible for the Fairfax District's blossoming, thanks to its hanging out there and wearing Supreme attire in the crew's videos. But Caruso echoes the complaints of many local employees who aren't enthusiastic about all the attention: The street's now "attracting Hollywood," he laments.
Indeed, an Adult Swim show starring Odd Future, Loiter Squad, has filmed here, and TMZ often is lurking, as evidenced by its "star tour" vans that creep through and harass the famous.
Caruso, who is 29 and handsome, is guarded, protective both of Supreme's image and the longtime skaters who've made the spot a second home. Other streetwear shop workers won't speak on the record but tend to complain about an increased police presence — which makes openly smoking weed harder — and about their gear being scooped up en masse, presumably to be flipped on eBay for a profit.
Tyler himself has been blunt regarding the tourists: "Stay off Fairfax you are not welcomed we don't fuck with you," he tweeted last month. "I blame myself for the [outsiders] coming to the block in the past year and a half, I'm fucking sorry. ... Some niggas just wanna be seen over there, not 'cause they wanna shop, just 'cause it's a 'scene' to them."
The underlying fear? That an area whose claim to fame is being exclusive and cool might be neither before long.
Fairfax Avenue has certainly been hip before. Canter's Deli came to the street in 1953, attracting celebrities from the nearby CBS television studio, and its bar was a favored hangout for Guns N' Roses in their heyday. More recently, a café called Nova Express featured experimental music and performances, and beloved venue Largo hosted music and comedy on the avenue before relocating to La Cienega Boulevard in 2008.
Before the stores specializing in skate- and streetwear came in, "bored high school kids were running up and down this quiet, Jewish neighborhood," says Kid Ink, a local rapper who attended nearby Fairfax High.
Those teens became the clientele for spots like Supreme, which arrived on Fairfax in 2004 after debuting in New York City a decade earlier. The creation of New York–based James Jebbia — who partnered with Laguna Beach entrepreneur Shawn Stüssy of the popular 1980s fashion line Stüssy — Supreme expanded beyond clothes to sell collectible skateboards designed by artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.
Caruso was one of the Fairfax store's original customers and began working there a few years after it opened. It immediately became a hangout for kids headed to skate parks, he says, and was a welcome respite from the chaos they found elsewhere. "Growing up in L.A., it's easy to get caught up in gangs and trouble," he contends.
Diamond Supply Co., the Hundreds and Dope Couture followed, and nowadays all have major skateboarders or rappers endorsing their lines. It was Tyler, however, who tipped the balance by brandishing Supreme's snapback hats and T-shirts, which are characterized by simple designs with the brand's blocky red-and-white logo. As Tyler told GQ earlier this year: "That was the only store in the area at the time that sold skateboards, so we'd go in there and buy boards, and I just gradually became friends with the guys who were working there."
But the collegial atmosphere that characterized this not-long-ago era has changed, says Diamond Supply Co. manager Sean Lyles. "You have a lot of outsiders from different states," he says, "people who wanna squeeze in and take photos. It's not a family thing like it was before."
Since Supreme has only two stores in the country — and because it produces limited quantities of its items — customers buying in bulk present a problem, says a different Supreme employee. It's not fair to a kid who's saved up to buy the latest limited-edition sneaker to be beaten out by an Internet hustler who's just going to jack up the price online.
Odd Future's unofficial photographer, Brick Stowell, met the group members on Fairfax a couple of years back. His shots — which have the grainy look of '90s-era point-and-shoot cameras, complete with time stamps in their lower right-hand corners — largely compose their 2011 book, Odd Future: Golf Wang.
He's as much a part of the Fairfax scene as anyone but doesn't necessarily think its burgeoning popularity is a negative thing.
"Three or four years ago it was just a hangout. [Now], record executives, bloggers, photographers, artists all go there 'cause they know they'll see other artists. People won't admit it, but you go there to be seen and to see other artists. It's not bad, it's just different," he says, adding that he'll sometimes stop by the block if he's looking for one of his buddies, rather than call him.
But Lee Spielman, who works at OF and is the lead singer of hardcore punk band Trash Talk, wants to make it clear to outsiders that the community remains insular. If you're interested in applying for a job at his store, for example, well, you're probably out of luck.
"People bring in job applications," he notes with a smile. "We just tear 'em up."