As it launches at DSM, Brendon Babenzien discusses departing Supreme to create the socially-conscious Noah
On the corner of Mulberry Street in Nolita, the historic slice of downtown New York’s Little Italy, sits Noah, with a whitewashed façade accented with red and blue. The store is the home to Brendon Babenzien’s nascent clothing label, which he launched little under a year ago after leaving his post as design director of Supreme. The majority of product inside is made in places like Italy and Japan, a mix of sportswear, casual tailoring and graphic t-shirts, along with odd trinkets and gifts that Babenzien finds interesting. It is a cosy, inviting space, rugs cover humble wooden floors, there’s a leather sofa in a deep red hue and wooden shelving on which you might find an embroidered baseball cap or a pair of boat shoes in ocean-blue. Around a month or so ago, a man named Don Busweiler entered the store and asked to speak to the owner, but was told he was away on business. He turned and left.
Don Busweiler may not be a name you know, or many know, but there was a time when he would have been mentioned in the same breath as Shawn Stussy or Supreme’s James Jebbia. If he had continued with his brand Pervert – a subversive, Miami-based label that rose to prominence in the mid-90s – he probably still would be. He was not only one of the early originators of what we’ve come to know as “streetwear” – he was also one of the best. But at the age of 27, Busweiler gave everything away. He renounced all earthly possessions, cut off all personal connections and joined the nomadic religious cult known as “The Brethren”. Babenzien was in his early 20s at the time, having moved to Miami to work with Don, a childhood friend. For years his whereabouts was a mystery, even to his own mother, the group would travel from town to town doing good deeds and living off food found in other people’s garbage.
A couple weeks later, Busweiler returned to the store. It was the first time Babenzien had seen his friend and former boss in 21 years. “It was nuts, it was the craziest thing ever. This guy, in my opinion, was one of the most talented people that we’ve seen,” Babenzien says, deviating ever so slightly from his typically languid, Long Island cadence. “He was one of my best friends, he was somebody that was highly intellectual. It was crazy to see him – I mean, I cried when I saw him. I was like, ‘Damn!’”
“I think he had heard that I was going out on my own after Supreme,” with news of his departure coming in early 2015. “I think a lot of what he had seen over the years, bits and pieces over the distance, looked very superficial to him as someone who basically gave away everything he owned. But when I talked to him about what we’re doing and how we’re operating and the choices we’re making he was a little bit surprised.”
Babenzien grew up in the small seaside town of Islip, an unremarkable place somewhere between New York, the Hamptons and Montauk. He has spoken in the past about the democratising effect that being by the sea has, how those who own beach houses and those who scrub clams for beer money – like his brother Ryan did (he now owns a successful sneaker label) – would come to value many of the same things – a notion imbued in many of his creations today. At age of five he had begun skating, surfing soon followed. And by the time he was a teenager, he had landed a “cool” job in the local surf shop, Rick’s, which was where he first met Don. “I think I was 14 or 15, it was like two different crews of people from two different towns came together because we were into the same stuff,” he recalls. “We just became friends. He started going to high school and then he moved to Miami to go to art school, while he was down there Pervert took off.”
After a while, he invited Babenzien to join him and help work on his brand. Busweiler had opened a shop in Miami called Animal Farm – one of the first streetwear specific stores – and his wares were appearing on the likes of Janet Jackson and the Beastie Boys. The dream, however, turned sour for Busweilier and, for one reason or another, he then vanished. “It had become everything he hated,” his sister later told a documentary, describing it as the “corruption of his American dream.” The business continued to operate, but it lacked the direction and spark the Busweiler had provided. (Pervert was one of the first to place the work of artists such as Eric Haze on t-shirts and was sold in Keith Haring’s Pop Shop). Babenzien soon moved to New York, where his experience in product development earned him a job at a fledgling streetwear brand named Supreme. These were the days before the resellers and the snaking Thursday-morning queues outside the store. He left Supreme for three years in 2002 to launch the first iteration of Noah, before shutting it all down and returning to James Jebbia’s label where he was appointed design director. It was a false start that he put down to his own bad business sense and an element of youthful naivety but last year he left to once again launch Noah – and this time, to make it work.
When I speak to Babenzien, he’s in London a few days prior to launching a new space in Dover Street Market’s basement, complete with one-off exclusives. This was not something he had planned when he re-launched Noah little under a year ago, admitting that the response has exceeded his expectations. His wife Estelle has been in London for the past six weeks with their daughter visiting family and designing the exclusive space. She is also responsible for the homely feel of the brand’s New York outpost – a shopping experience intended to be the polar opposite of the daunting nature of Supreme’s stores, which have become renowned for their sometimes less than helpful staff. For Babenzien, Noah is a very different proposition than his former employer, with whom he remains great friends and on more than one occasion refers to as “the best” in their field.
That isn’t to say the Supreme association hasn’t helped – both in garnering press interest, as someone who has seen the inner workings of the most hermetic and aloof clothing label on the planet, and in gaining the consumers’ trust. But that trust is something Babenzien wants to earn, not through past glories but in what Noah does. “Quality is going to be our priority number one forever,” he says. “It’s never going to come a point where we say ‘Oh well... Let’s just switch manufacturing a little bit. Let’s buy a little bit cheaper fabric. I know it’s not as good, but we can make it cheaper and sell more.’” At the very core of Noah is a sense of responsibility – to the environment, to workers and to his consumers – which often comes at a premium.
This outlook is not cocksure solipsism, or even a challenge for others to be better – Babenzien admits that many would justifiably respond with "fuck you" if that were the case – but a desire to operate with a business that retains a conscience. Becoming a father has changed him, he admits. He was never the stereotypical skateboarding party kid – he has never touched drugs, or had a sip of alcohol in the past five years, and runs seven miles every other day – but with the added responsibility of looking after his 18 month old girl, Sailor, also comes the impetus to make changes to his life: “It was all there, I’ve known for so long our choices on a daily basis really mattered, whether it’s clothing or buying a bottle of water every day. I think once I had Sailor that was it, I could no longer just be aware, I had to kind of act.”
“Quality is going to be our priority number one forever. It’s never going to come a point where we say ‘Oh well... Let’s just switch manufacturing a little bit. Let’s buy a little bit cheaper fabric. I know it’s not as good, but we can make it cheaper and sell more.’” – Brendon Babenzien
That change of mindset also spilled into his business plans as he plotted the second coming of Noah. “I’ve always thought, one of the biggest things you can do to impact the world is how you do business, because if you think about it we’re all in business, we are all involved in commerce,” he says. “I was like, ‘Okay, if we’re going to build a new business, how are we going to live up to this idea that we can make the world a better place?’ We’ve only scratched the surface obviously, we’re a small company. Our first agenda was to work with better factories that employ people and pay them well, and give them vacation time. Factories where people are happy and healthy. The other component was building better product, things that will last longer so we’re not just creating throwaway stuff, you know?”
For Babenzien, this is his idea of “punk” – a term he uses often, but with some justification. As he sees it, how and what we purchase is new form of agency, a way of voting in a hyper-capitalist society where one is often defined by what they post, like and consume: “Basically everybody thinks of themselves as really unique and individualistic. It seems like it’s really cool these days, where people are their own entity right? But really, if you’re buying all this mass product – whether it’s your food choices, your sneaker choice or whatever – you’re not really doing it. Your clothing isn’t really telling the story unless your choices in clothing are telling the story. Looking punk rock doesn’t make you punk rock.”
Aesthetically, there is little “punk” about Noah, save for the odd reference – this season’s collection featured Straight Edge graphics traditionally associated with the hardcore scene. But with so many collections today increasingly feeling like a sensory assault or a puerile challenge to conventions of good taste, maybe Italian-made corduroy jackets and Scottish cashmere sweaters can be seen as “punk”. The clothes so far have been tasteful, with the occasional dash of exuberance. What Babenzien does is less about proportion and silhouette and more about fabrics and reference points. The result is diverse and devilishly tactile collections that span several demographics, from excitable hypebeast to discerning Art Dad.
Naturally, there are also graphic t-shirts – something that has been ever-present in Babenzien’s work. They range from tongue-in-cheek slogans like “Catholic School Girls Rule”, to altogether more serious matters. Last month, Noah released a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, with all of the proceeds going to the movement. To coincide with a launch, Babenzien wrote: “I know many people don’t think it is our place to voice our opinion on this matter. I disagree. Those of us with businesses who create graphics or speak to people through our various media channels have a responsibility to address these issues.” It was notable because it was unexpected; it was an issue that no other American fashion brand (with the exception of Public School) had really touched on – despite black culture being such a rich source of inspiration for so many streetwear labels. It also felt like a throwback to the much-mythologised early years of streetwear, something that Fuct, or Stüssy, or Pervert might have done. It was just a t-shirt, as Babenzien acknowledges, but it was indicative of a brand that not only had a voice, but a conscience. That is something which seems to be increasingly rare.
“Basically everybody thinks of themselves as really unique and individualistic. But if you’re buying all this mass product – you’re not really doing it. Looking punk rock doesn’t make you punk rock.” – Brendon Babenzien
There are no clearly defined plans for the future of Noah, Babenzien says, simply to get a little bit better each season, not necessarily bigger: “It comes down to greed, essentially. The decision I’ve made is this: If we reach point where I have to start making what I would view as bad decisions, then that’s as big as we get.” It’s a disconcertingly honest approach, almost quasi-socialist, I suggest. “Don’t let my mother hear you say that!” he laughs. “I still exist in a capitalist society, I’m still selling products, still selling things to people in a free market. I don’t really know what we are, I think we’re still capitalists, but we’re not obscene capitalists.”
Don Busweiler visits the Noah store on Mulberry Street about once a week now. “We just hang out. We talk about everything, you know: where he’s been, his beliefs, my beliefs, what he did. We don’t agree on a lot of it, but he’s still like a regular dude, so we can talk,” says Babenzien. A 21-year absence will take a toll on any friendship, but you sense the two do still share many values. Pervert was launched as a means of expression for Busweiler, a vehicle for questioning what he saw going on in the world, but ultimately led to him dropping out of it all together. He abhorred the greed and the superficiality of it all, and in his mind sought out a new way to affect the world in a positive, responsible way. That ethos doesn’t feel entirely dissimilar to that of Babenzien’s – with Noah, his proposition is that things don’t necessarily need to be made so cheaply, factory workers paid so poorly or that brands can ignore the very influential role they play in society. It is by different means and motivations that he has ended up thinking this way – but rather than setting himself adrift from it all, Babenzien has opted to forge a new horizon.