Thomas Helgert is a retired tax accountant. At age 68, he’s been on the hunt for streetwear for three decades. When his passion windsurfing took him around the world, he found out about brands like Stüssy, A Bathing Ape and – ultimately – Supreme. The latter became the love of his life – second only to his wife Brigitte, who’s been with him for 43 years.
His collection of shirts and memorabilia is literally uncountable. Yet he insists that he’s not a “collector” because he’s wearing any shirt on any given day. He never sold a single shirt and never will. He has no social media account and no particular interest in any type of “scene”. His interest in “hype products” hasn’t waned a bit.
Thomas, let’s start by introducing yourself to our readers.
My name is Thomas Helgert and originally I’m from the town of Tirschenreuth in Bavaria, right on the border to the Czech Republic. I grew up and learned how to ski there and ended up in a downhill ski racing squad. The town is really in the middle of nowhere, but I began venturing out into the world when I was around 16, taking trips to Munich to buy stuff, like new ski gear, with money from construction jobs.
You mentioned that you ventured further around the globe when you got into wind surfing?
Yes, when I was around 30 and living in the town of Bonn, I got into wind surfing as one of the first people here. This was in the early 1980s and nobody was into it yet. I had a Nash board! So I surfed around Europe at spots like Sardinia or Tarifa and also spent considerable time, up to three months, surfing on Hawaii – waves around 5 to 6 meters –with my wife.
When was your first exposure to streetwear?
Right around that in the 1980s, I don’t remember exactly when, we witnessed the change from “surfwear” with brands like Billabong to what we now call “streetwear”. The first piece I had was a Stüssy shirt. Nobody had that back home! So when I came back with one of the tees, it really caused quite the stir.
One look at your shirt collection is enough to say that Supreme stands above any other brand for you.
My heart belongs to Supreme and I’m almost crying when I think of it. Just because of what it means to me and because it’s no longer what it used to be. Back in the 90s, I would go on these mountain bike tours around New York and one time ended up in front of the Supreme store. All the skaters were hanging out and I went inside to check it out. I was instantly fascinated and knew that this was going to be the hype!
What made you fall in love with Supreme?
I can’t even pin it down. Perhaps it was the lettering. Perhaps the design of the store, the atmosphere … The entire flair was different. And whenever they had an event later on, people would line up on the street. I was instantly hooked. Let’s not forget, I’ve done lots of extreme sports in my life. And five or six times it almost killed me. One time an avalanche hurled me 20 meters through the air and against a tree. In Hawaii they had to get the helicopter to rescue me after swimming in six meter waves. I was out there for several hours. As crazy as it sounds, Supreme was always there, always in my heart.
You mentioned that you never had to line up at releases, is that right?
No, I knew the guys and they always let me in. They knew they could trust me because, I guess they liked me and I was no reseller. So they just waved me through when something was going on, “Thomas come on in and have a look around.” That was a slight advantage (laughs).
You also admitted that you weren’t always up to speed on the latest drops, but ended up scoring some hot pieces anyway, like the Heineken Dunk.
Sometimes that was the case. The Heineken Dunk was one one where I had no real idea what it was. Later I realized that it was really limited, but Heineken never really came to mind when I looked at the star. There were around 500 to 600 people outside and I had no clue they were all here for that shoe! I did get the shoe nevertheless and straight out the door, the first illegal reseller rolled up, offering me $200 extra and a dinner. Back then, the rule at Supreme was: “one shirt, one man!” Afterwards, the illegal resellers changed it to something like: “one bag, dollars!” It was no longer about the individual identifying with the brand, it became a gigantic business.
The funny thing is that on the same day, were invited to this party in NYC by our friend June, now a famous singer in Japan. All the heads were hanging out and I was rocking the Dunks. As it turned out, I was the talk of the party and everyone was asking about the guy with the Heineken SBs. And that was me – Thomas from Sankt Augustin.
You’re 68 years old and retired. Did your fascination with Supreme slow down over the years?
It hasn’t slowed down but it’s different. Now the collections are structured entirely different and it doesn’t interest me in the same way. But I will never lose the fascination with Supreme as a whole. And I’ve never given away a shirt, never in my entire life! You’ve seen how much Supreme I have. It means so much to me but I only do it because I want to wear the shirts. I wear all my stuff on a daily basis. It’s part of my lifestyle. All my pieces have gone through life with me. They were with me in every situation.
Does your heart bleed when Supreme is taking a different direction and releasing products with Louis Vuitton, for instance?
No, they are really just appealing to a different audience, one that simply has the money. Now they’ve done a pinball machine, no idea how much that thing costs. But someone who can go buy a Porsche can also purchase their pinball machine. And if he has an apartment or home on that level, he will get it. But that’s a different direction and it’s okay, because it has to progress, somehow.
Recently a new shirt came out and I lined up in LA for my young friend back home. And I’ve never had to get in line before. Afterwards I was so happy that I scored this shirt for him, I almost cried. It was the Akira shirt with the print on the back. I got it in XL for him and he was so happy. But that’s the kind of guy I am. I also like to share.
Speaking of sharing, are you also on social media?
No, these are just my own things. I do like to go out into the street and wear my stuff and my “holy” pieces. Sometimes people literally chase me with money in their pockets to buy a shirt or a shoe. People from all around the world. Japanese always say “Utsukushi kutsu!” Wonderful shoes! It makes me happy, but I never let anyone take a photo.
And the interesting thing is, you don’t live in LA or New York or Tokyo but in a small town in Germany. Do your neighbours have any clue what you are wearing?
Nobody gets it, no way. But I like it like that. In Cologne it’s different, they will approach me and call me “Mr. Supreme” and stuff, especially in the summer. Most of the time, these tend to be very young people, though, around 17.
Your professional background is completely different and you’ve spent 45 years working for the German tax authorities. But you did wear Supreme to work all the time, right?
Yes, I wore Supreme every day, except sometimes, when I would put on an Alife T-shirt or something like that. But 90 percent of the time it was all Supreme. That’s how people knew me. There really was no dress code. When it had to be formal, like for high-profile cases involving upper managers from automotive companies, I would pop on a navy dress shirt from Supreme or something.
What do you think of the campouts these days?
Recently I was at Supreme in LA on Fairfax and the line didn’t start right in front of the store, but a bit down the street people were lined up for almost a kilometre. It was really the line for Supreme, since the police don’t allow lines right in front of the shop anymore. I don’t criticize it, I think these folks are young and it’s great they’re doing it.
Recently we are noticing a trend of people of a riper age dressed in Supreme and other hype stuff for Instagram. What do you think of this phenomenon?
It’s absolutely not my cup of tea, but I wouldn’t criticize it. You can’t really know the motives behind it. Perhaps they are really into it and proud of what they have. These are often people who don’t have Porsches to blaze across the Autobahn, but they identify with this thing. I accept it.
We actually met on the train and you’ve mentioned that you like public transport for that reason, because you can meet people.
Yes, you can meet interesting people everywhere. I find the conversations exciting. And that’s how I’ve obtained so much information around the world. I was always on the leading edge, just by talking to people. “Thomas go there,” they’d say, “Thomas, here is something new!” All the people in that scene, although I was never part of it, they pointed me towards new things to check out.
So even without Instagram, your plan is to keep doing your thing and keep traveling?
First I’ll hit the slopes skiing next week, and then I’m off to New York and LA Then we have to see. Perhaps I’m traveling to Oman soon, people say it’s nice.
This is a shortened version of our interview with Thomas. The full story appears in SNEAKERS MAG #38 – Released in April 2018