profiles

The Mother of Streetwear

OG Ma’s Unique Hype Collection is outfitting hypebeasts around the world.

Photo: Chris Shonting

“Can we take a picture?”

OG Ma (translation: original gangster mother) had been hearing the question all day, but finally, this time, it was coming from her last customer of the night. On this Thursday in January that was Anton Roxas, who had traveled to New York City all the way from the Philippines for this very moment. He came to Ma’s shop all dressed up for the occasion in a red Supreme cap, Giants football jersey, and a sherpa-lined denim jacket.

Ma put his look to shame. Hypebeasts only dream of a fit like hers. She wore a Supreme Araki rose hooded sweatshirt, Nike Mercurial sneakers that were designed in collaboration with Virgil Abloh’s Off-White, and a Louis Vuitton scarf wrapped just so, with the LV monogram positioned right below her chin. She later told me that all three of these very rare grails (translation: the rarest and most coveted streetwear items) were gifted to her by her loving customers. “They like me!” she said. “They ask me, OG Ma, what do you want?”

And she likes her customers back, so Ma indulged Roxas’s request and guided him to stand in front of a wall Supreme bumper stickers, bordered by a collection of signed $100 bills from rappers like Playboi Carti and Juice WRLD, all addressed to her. Roxas, beaming next to her, raised the Supreme shopping bag that carried his latest purchase. But we weren’t at Supreme. We were at Unique Hype Collection, a reselling shop that primarily trades in Supreme clothes and accessories from previous seasons as well as the items from current seasons that sell out the moment they’re put up for sale. OG Ma stood next to her newest customer, crossed her arms, and just barely hinted at a smile.

Ma is petite and delicate, her English is limited (we spoke through a translator at times) and she wouldn’t tell me her age (she’s reportedly in her late-50s), but Ma dresses like a hypebeast and she thinks like a hypebeast and she acts like a hypebeast — only she is not a teenage male. The effect is kind of like if one day, all of a sudden, Post Malone decided to get ripped and dedicate all of his Instagram space to extolling the skin-care virtues of Vitamin C serum; surprising and intriguing.

Unique Hype has been open for about 12 years, satisfying Supreme lovers’ demand for the brand, which is often just too great for the supply. But Ma always has supply. This is why, even as stores working off similar reselling concepts have proliferated around the city (Stadium Goods, Flight Club, CopVsDrop) and new e-commerce reselling start-ups continue to pop up online (Grailed, StockX) Ma’s remains the premiere destination. Unique Hype is the standard bearer and OG Ma is its mythical leading figure.

“Everybody like that,” Ma turned to me and said of the photo shoot once it ended and another satisfied customer walked out the door.

OG Ma, born Lam Xie, moved to New York City with her two sons from Shenzen, China, in 1992. There, she had received a business degree. Here, her son Peter became obsessed with skate-inspired fashion, especially Supreme, and he started collecting. In 2006, he decided to open a shop in a small space he found in the basement of a Chinatown mall on Elizabeth street. He asked Ma, his very supportive mother who was working as a babysitter at the time, to act as his day-to-day manager. She went all in.

When Unique Hype first opened less than a mile away from the original Supreme Soho store, collecting streetwear was still a relatively new idea. There were online forums for streetwear enthusiasts, but it was a niche subcultural interest. Today, the frenzy around the brand is so extreme that lines form regularly just to enter the store. On Thursdays, the day Supreme releases new product, the store only allows in customers who had previously signed up for a raffle and were given a specific shopping time slot.

But Peter, who is now in his 30s, was prescient and he had a talent for flipping goods. In a 2013 New Yorker article about the shop he boasted about selling everything from copies of the Daily News from the day President Obama was elected for a more than a 200 percent markup to green tea KitKats and, of course, Yeezys. OG Ma told me that when they first opened the shop, they also had a second store where they sold Yu Gi Oh and Pokémon cards and anime Funko figurines. In the very early days, the mother-son duo were throwing all of the fads at the wall — it just happened to be that Supreme stuck.

And so did Ma. At first, talk of Unique Hype traveled through word of mouth. Peter’s obsession and insight into the scene brought in like-minded Supreme collectors, but so did the shop’s first neighbors. In its original basement location, Unique Hype and the card shop were next door to arcades where local kids would hang out after school. While there, they’d often stop by the tiny, overflowing clothing store. If they were in Peter’s other shop buying collectible cards, he would point them toward his collection of rare caps and tees. When they arrived, there was Ma sitting behind the counter.

Photo: Chris Shonting

“I ask [them], why call me OG Ma?” And she laughed as she explained, “Because, they tell me, I know everything: OG Nike SB, OG Supreme, Kaws, KidRobot — OG everything.” And it’s true, she has a historian’s knowledge of early streetwear releases and fascinations. As we sat together in the store, me in a Supreme canvas folding chair, her on a stool, she listed off early Nike SB releases, which were some of the first sneakers ever to garner hype and sell out instantly. There was the Pigeon, famous for being the first shoe to cause a riot in the streets, the Nike SB Heineken, which now goes for as much as $1,500, and the Nike SB Tiffany, which were designed in collaboration with the skate shop Diamond Supply Co. Not only did this Chinese woman in her 50s know about every single one of these sneakers, she also owned them.

Ma quickly became the face of the brand. In 2014, when the rapper Wiz Khalifa showed up to the basement shop, the first celebrity to stop by, he took a picture with OG Ma for Unique Hype’s Instagram. When Travis Scott came in, so did he. A few months later Kylie Jenner arrived at the shop with roses for Ma. The pictures from back then are more subdued. She dressed in a turtleneck, blazer, and black slacks, not quite the fully realized clout machine she is today.

Since its founding in 1994, Supreme has grown into a company valued at over $1 billion and Unique Hype, symbiotically latching on, has grown with it. Now when Gigi and Anwar Hadid come shop, Ma doesn’t even feel the need to take a picture with them. She’s past that. Together in the store, she walked me over to a case of Supreme accessories and pointed to a Kermit the Frog figurine wearing a Supreme box-logo T-shirt, “I’ll tell you, this is OG. Everything is OG,” she said. Supreme released the Kermit figurine in 2008 for a retail price of $24. Back then Ma sold it for $28. Today, it goes for $400.

After first moving to a bigger store within the basement complex and outgrowing that too, in 2017 OG Ma moved Unique Hype right across the street into a space where there’s room for more than ten customers to roam. Even still, on the day the shop opened a line of almost 50 people waited to get in. On big release days, that continues to happen.

To satisfy her growing clientele, this November Ma opened an e-commerce website and a second showroom for priority clients. Whereas in the main store she won’t sell certain rare T-shirts to just anyone, if you’ve made it into the showroom, you’ve known her long enough, and shopped with her long enough that Ma considers you a real Supreme fan. She knows you’re not just a rich 12-year-old with thousands of dollars to spend, so she’ll sell you her more coveted items; the ones she holds close.

But not always. Especially not if it’s her last of anything. There’s a glass case in the store filled with the rarest T-shirts, including those gifted exclusively to friends-and-family of Supreme (Ma has her ways), and Louis Vuitton collaboration leather wallets and sweatshirts that customers can come gawk at, but that simply aren’t for sale. “The people come in and say, wait, everything’s not for sale? This is not a store, this is a museum.” She added, “Someone asked me, OG Ma I have a lot of money I pay a lot, will you sell? I say, I don’t want money. I don’t care. This is the last one. I want it. I like it.”

Ma says that the resale business has gotten more difficult as the rest of the world has learned of the increased value of Supreme items. Everyone and their brother now wait on line at the store and rush the website on release days to buy inventory just to resell it later that night, which brings down the overall value. But Ma’s playing the long game here and won’t compromise on her mark-ups. While other small-time resellers don’t have the resources to hold onto inventory, she’ll slowly stock up on full seasons worth of Supreme goods.

In 2013 her son Peter said the store was bringing in seven figures, but today Ma, running the whole place, won’t share a number. Unless the whole streetwear bubble bursts, though, she’ll be fine. This week, Sotheby’s auctioned off a full collection of Supreme skate decks, every single deck the brand has released since 1994, for $800,000. She, too, has that kind of inventory.

So I asked if the brand has even been in touch, possibly even to buy some of her archival product.

She smiled and whispered, “I don’t know.” She doesn’t need to say, really. The answer is obvious.