Noah hits the UK
Top image: Brendon Babenzien, founder and creative director of Noah.
Last year, Brendon Babenzien launched Noah, a menswear retailer on Mulberry Street in New York. It’s at this leafy downtown boutique, filled with preppy-urban-staples that the former Supreme creative director is cleverly bridging the gap between streetwear and buy-for-life clothing.
A key figure on the skate-surf circuit, Babenzien has been in streetwear since 1994, when he moved to Miami to help his friend Don Busweiler with influential street wear brand, Pervert. In 1996, Babenzien headed to New York where he immersed himself in the skate scene and landed a job at Supreme. Along with Supreme’s founder, James Jebbia, he helped transform the cult brand into a globally recognised label with unlimited street cred.
But for Babenzien, Noah isn’t just about street cred, it’s about running an ethical business that prides itself on promoting sustainable practises. A reflection of Babenzien’s roots in Long Island, Noah celebrates life by the water, music and skating but strives to operate on a scale where it’s feasible to monitor manufacturing processes and make choices that consider the future of the planet. Now stocked exclusively at Dover Street Market in the UK, we sat down with Babenzien to talk about skate culture and what it means to run an ethical business today.
Nazanin Shahnavaz: Let’s start from the beginning, how did you originally get into designing clothes?
Brendon Babenzien: From the beginning! That’s a really long time ago. To really simplify it, my interest in clothes began at my first job. I worked at a surf-skate shop and when you’re young and into skateboarding, by default there’s this style component that goes with it. Style has always played a really important role in skateboarding and when you have a job at a shop, which dictates locally what people are wearing, it’s inevitably going to enter into your bloodstream. I was lucky because at a very young age I was given the role of buying for the store, so I would go and look at the brands and decide what would be sold. So, that’s really the origin of it all. Then the people around me, my friends, I had a really good friend who started a brand in high school and it became this really important brand and is still legendary – it hasn’t existed in a long time – but I worked with him a lot and that’s when I learned a little bit about design. I didn’t know anything technically, but I understood the thought process behind and that led me to go into Supreme, where I learned almost everything from a practical position, you really need to know how to put together a group of clothing that looks reasonable. Obviously music played a huge role in my life too.
“Style has always played a really important role in skateboarding and when you have a job at a shop, which dictates locally what people are wearing, it’s inevitably going to enter into your bloodstream.”
NS: Yes, there are lots of music posts featuring the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Fun Boy Three on the Noah Instagram.
BB: The Cure is by far my favourite. Music has always played such an important role in my style choices, those things all go hand-in-hand. If you’re into skateboarding there’s certain music that you might listen to, depending on where you’re from and who you’re friends with. That’s kind of where it all stems from, but skateboarding was probably the biggest influence, without me even realising it. It all started there, skateboarding got me into surfing, it took me through a certain style aesthetic then it brought me to the water, which opened up a whole other world.
“There’s been enough time to allow the evolution of skateboarding to get to a point where all the things that came before have merged to create this really incredible culture.”
NS: What are your thoughts on skate culture today?
BB: In some ways skateboarding is far worse and in some ways it’s far better. It’s obviously much more commercial now, but that doesn’t mean everyone who is skateboarding is commercial. That just means there’re aspects of it that reach a larger audience. There’re still a lot of people who just care about skateboarding and they are the real thing and they are incredible.
NS: How has skateboarding evolved?
BB: There’s been enough time to allow the evolution of skateboarding to get to a point where all the things that came before have merged to create this really incredible culture. If you were a skater in the 80s, vertical skating was really popular, the skateboards were bigger, the wheels were bigger, so the tricks were a little bit different. In the 90s, boards got smaller and wheels got smaller and skateboarding got incredibly technical and as a result things slowed down. Now, we are at this place where they are combined – kids are going fast and really big and doing technical tricks all at the same time. So there’s this incredible evolution that’s occurred and that gives skaters the ability to do stuff on a scale that we’ve never seen before and that’s pretty exciting to see. I can no longer participate at that level but watching it is really fun.
NS: Do you think those developments have influenced clothes and style too?
BB: These days, if you are young, skateboarding influences your style without a question, it’s just how it is. Skateboarders have always – in my opinion – been the coolest kids anyway. They were just a small minority and now there’s a lot more of them, they are more visible and have a bigger influence. They are kind of running the show these days.
“There’s this incredible evolution that’s occurred and that gives skaters the ability to do stuff on a scale that we’ve never seen before.”
NS: It’s interesting how mainstream that minority has become.
BB: Yes, but in and amongst that big mainstream culture of skateboarding there are people, groups and companies that are really only about skating and the money doesn’t mean that much to them.
NS: Why did you leave Supreme?
BB: I’d been there a long time and I think it was just a natural progression. It wasn’t anything specific, more a lot of different things all at once. It was my age, the desire to do things a little bit differently, to do my own thing and to create my own culture – not so much visually to the public – but behind the scenes with how my business operates. I was having a daughter and I felt like I needed to produce products in a different way for the future.
“I had the desire to do my own thing and the desire to create my own culture – not so much visually to the public – but behind the scenes with how my business operates.”
NS: What do you mean produce products in a different way?
BB: That comes down to manufacturing and also, how we utilise the company to talk about certain things. We manufacture all our products in Italy, Japan, the US, Canada and we are trying our best to produce things in a more ethical way. The people in these factories get paid well, they have a nice life, they are in countries where there are reasonable environmental laws and all those things matter to the future of the planet. So, that’s what I mean when I talk about creating a business that thinks about its choices.
NS: Noah existed in 2002 and you relaunched again last year – why was it the right time to give it another go?
BB: The first time round I was young and inexperienced to be honest, I did it for a kind of passion with very little understanding of how to run a business. In a way it was a blessing in disguise, I now have more resources to run things properly and the brand is what it’s meant to be, because I’m a little older and I know what I want to do and how I want to do it.
NS: How has your outlook changed?
BB: I have more compassion for people and a better understanding of how our processes affects the world. When I was younger I probably just more concerned with just having cool stuff and being cool. That’s not the case anymore, cool doesn’t enter the conversation. We have what we do first and if people think that’s cool then great. But let’s not pretend to be cool. The attempt is to make a great product, offer a good service, do it in the right way and hopefully continue to enjoy the things that inspire the clothing like surfing, skating and running, because if we’re not doing those things the brand doesn’t mean anything, it becomes empty. It’s a vehicle for me to enjoy my life the way that I would like to and hopefully the people that work with us have that opportunity too.
Noah is now available exclusively from Dover Street Market London in the UK.