Brendon Babenzien on Noah’s moral fibres
The man in front of Noah preaches responsible streetwear
Brendon Babenzien, the former Supreme creative director and founder of the ethical clothing company Noah, is drinking tea in a café in downtown Manhattan, talking about his early years growing up in New York.
“You’re a suburban kid,” he remembers, “you’re into skating and surfing, wildly influenced by California in the Eighties. But then you’ve got New York: hip-hop, graffiti, B-boy culture and break dancing, and that’s just as appealing to you. So, by the time you’re 16, you’re this kind of crazy mashed-up person.”
Babenzien grew up on Long Island. Now 48, he began skating when he was five. By 13, he was working at the local surf shop, and within a couple of years was in charge of the skateboard department.
The spirit of Noah is that youth and young manhood distilled. Babenzien designs clothes that reflect his interests and the subcultures he reveres, or was once part of. It’s perhaps best identified as a skate clothing brand, but influences come from all over: hip hop, sportswear, sailing, punk rock, Ivy League, Italian tailoring, workwear. It all congeals into a general vibe of unfussy, irreverent ease: panelled polo shirts in clashing stripes; floral rugby shirts; subtly witty logo T-shirts and sweats; sporty lightweight jackets in pale blue and mustard yellow; natty tailoring in corduroy and houndstooth.
Babenzien founded Noah in 2002, but it didn’t take — “it failed miserably because I didn’t really have any funding” — so he went back to Supreme, where he had worked previously. Having been part of the irresistible rise of the cult skate brand, he left again in 2015 and had another crack at Noah. Despite his stock in the industry, some people still weren’t convinced by the concept.
“To be quite honest, when we set out a lot of people said, ‘Well, you can’t be cool, stylish, somewhat affordable, responsible and ethical, and still edgy all at the same time,’” Babenzien says. “Well, of course you can, because that’s how we are. That’s who I am, who my wife is, who my friends are. Don’t tell us we can’t be it; it exists.”
A few years later and doubt has been firmly quashed. Babenzien and his team have created a brand that is distinctive and inclusive, appealing to preppy dudes, hype kids and skate rats alike.
Noah wears its ethics on its pastel sleeves too, ensuring its products are responsibly produced. The company claims all its clothes “are made in countries, mills and factories where tradition, expertise and human dignity take precedence over the bottom line”. More than that, Noah regularly mobilises its customers to take action themselves. Right now, Babenzien is lending his weight to efforts to block a frackedgas pipeline being built in New York.
“Noah has an inherent and deep-rooted integrity with strong values,” explains Dickon Bowden, vice president of Dover Street Market, where the brand is stocked, “and a touch of punk thrown in for good measure. People can feel this — they can feel that it is considered and real.”
Noah, you might argue, is a clothing brand for people who don’t like clothing brands. It’s not flash or faddish. It just makes good quality, cool stuff, and it has a conscience.
“I don’t dislike fashion,” Babenzien says, “but I don’t really care, either. If it’s good it’s good, if it’s not it’s not; I’m not bothered either way. When you take things that seriously, something’s lost. And then you’re a grown up.” Long may his development remain arrested.