On Wednesday afternoon in October, Brendon Babenzian, a wiry, eager 43-year-old from Long Island, sat on a small wooden chair in his new store, Noah, on Mulberry Street in Manhattan. The store is comfortable, like a wealthy person's living room. It was set to open the next day. Babenzian had been the creative director for skate-inspired street style label Supreme on and off for about 15 years. He left in February to revive the brand he started in the early 2000s. The apple had not fallen far from the tree—the Noah store is four blocks away from Supreme.
All around Babenzian, workmen put the finishing touches on Noah: They fiddled with electrical sockets, scrubbed the windows, pleaded with Chase to get the credit card machine fixed. He stood up and walked over to a shelf, pulled a shirt off the rack, wrapped himself in it, and swayed from side to side. He described his mission: "How do I bring people ideas through a product?"
During Babenzian's time as Supreme's creative director, the highest creative position at a fashion house, the brand became the most intensely coveted men's clothing label in the world. The notoriously secretive company is owned by its founder, James Jebbia, who appears more focused on management than day-to-day product design. Quietly, Babenzian helped turn a little shop into an empire. He also pulled off a strange feat: selling millions of dollars of clothing steeped in anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist messaging to hordes of frenzied consumers. (Supreme can no longer sell certain sneakers at its store due to threat of a literal riot, and there's even a store that exclusively sells sold out items from the brand at an inflated rate.) Take, for example, the inspiration for the company's logo, which was inspired by a 1987 Barbara Kruger artwork:
In recent interviews, in preparation for the opening of his own clothing store, Babenzian has been fixed on one idea in particular: that the clothing you wear might not be crucial and, at worst, might distract from what really matters. "I'd like my customers to take away the idea that what they do is more important than what they wear," he told the New York Observer. GQ categorized his ideal customer as "[someone] who has a fulfilling life outside of buying new clothes." To Details, he said, "[Life is] really about going out and doing stuff. And being connected to the world around you, not just looking good."
Incidentally, the clothes do make you look good. They're simple but tasteful, ideal for gracefully aging former skaters who can no longer wear clothes that say "fuck" on them. They're for skaters or streetwear enthusiasts who've found more lucrative ways of living. Noah doesn't make, according to Babenzian, "bugged-out designs," i.e., the stuff Supreme puts out that gets its buyers called into the principal's office and asked to turn their shirts inside out.
I asked him if his store and philosophy was connected to the mindset that fuels the famous lines that form outside of Supreme each time new items are released. "Noah is a reaction to that—frenetic consumer behavior and the idea that you need to own so much stuff. But it's not just Supreme—it's society in general. It's the lines outside the Apple Store, the lines outside of restaurants. It's consumption being out of control."
He paused and thought for a second. "You know, there's a fucking incredible conflict going on here. I'm personally conflicted. Because I make clothes. [And sell them.] But the thing is, clothes are just an extension of what matters."
He paused again and looked around the store. "We're not trying to push tons of crap. If it appeals to you, buy it. But if you're buying it because VICE says it's cool, don't." (The clothing is cool.)
A few minutes later, he said, "Today, you can go online and find a million points of style. And society is swinging to a place where looking 'alternative' and 'unique' is more and more acceptable. But you look at people dressed like the icons of punk rock and their actions don't reflect that ideology. So how that person looks is kind of... bullshit. And then the opposite is true. Some guys who wear suits and ties have revolutionary thoughts and they put their ideas into action, but kids look at them and think, That's just an old man in a suit and tie. Consuming in and of itself isn't bad, but at a breakneck pace, completely blind, it is bad. When we consume in a certain way, we need to get smart about it. We need to do it better. We need to figure it out." Babenzian's paradoxical thinking almost seems to be channeling similar thoughts that fueled the style-cum-ideology "normcore." Noah is a clothing line that is dedicated to the idea that clothing doesn't matter that much, that consumption can be disgusting.
He led me around the store, stopping in front of an oil painting of an expanse of ocean. Above the waves were numbers. The numbers were recordings of the ocean's depths at their respective points. "I'm not a big-time art guy. There's a level of sophistication I think I might lack. But when I come across something I like, it's like a revelation." He looked at the painting. Like the clothes around it, the painting was about its own hidden depths.
I asked him what he was worried about regarding the store.
"There seem to be some really high expectations," he said, looking down with a hint of frustration. "I've been trying to explain to people that my past is my past. I don't have any money. I'm not a corporation. This is a small business, a family business. And all we're trying to do here is do well enough to have a nice little life. We can have a successful business without selling everything under the sun. We don't need to be filthy rich. But I guess I'm worried that, well, we won't even do well enough to have a nice little life. I mean, I have a wife and daughter. I need to make sure they're looked after."
He looked around the store again. "For every choice we make, it's a question of money. It's about greed. How much do you need? How much is enough?"
I asked him how much clothing he needs to sell to keep the store in business—the bare minimum.
He thought about it for a while. "About $20,000 a month," he said.
He continued, "There's something else that's worrying me, and it's something I don't know if I'll ever be able to fix. I don't know what to do about it." He shook his head. "I recently found out that PETA had outed Patagonia for buying wool from a company with farms where the sheep were being treated horribly. I mean, I watched the video and I was holding back tears. It was just brutal. It was atrocious. And, to their credit, Patagonia responded within a day. They dropped that company. But upon further research, I found that this sort of treatment could be common practice in the wool industry. And, I mean, Patagonia has the resources and the buying power to change their suppliers' practices, but for me, I'm too small. So, at the moment, I have no idea where my wool is coming from. I'm like, Do I not sell wool? I love wool. So I'm going to have to find suppliers who treat their animals in a reasonable way, or, you know, take it on the chin."
He thought for a second and added, "I'm not a vegan. I'm not going to stop eating meat. I would just like for animals to be treated in a reasonable way. We don't have to torture them."
I asked him what he wanted to do better at Noah, once the operation really got going. He wandered over to the T-shirts. One said, "JOCK O RAMA." Another, featuring a modified cross, said, "CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD." They were simple, clever adoptions of long-running, confrontational punk idioms. He picked up the "LESSER GOD" shirt. "It's about the underdog kid," he said. They were basic T-shirts that came in a few colors. "The T-shirt is an underrated vehicle," he said.
"I want to be stronger in graphics. I want to be really good at creating graphics that are interesting to wear and thought-provoking, but not preachy. The graphics Supreme puts out are fucking brilliant. No one even comes close. They're culturally relevant, aggressive, astute. Especially if you look around and look at what other companies are putting out. Do you see the kind of shit people are wearing?"
A few hours later, in the evening, Noah held its opening party. I spoke to Babenzian's wife, Estelle, who was sitting on the couch in the middle of the store. "As soon as we got together, I pushed him to leave Supreme," she said. She looked determined. "He's a thought leader. His ideas need to be expressed." It doesn't seem like his ideas were stifled at Supreme, but at Noah, they're not even filtered through a team—Babenzian is Noah's only designer. Estelle paused. "And when you get to a certain age, you can't operate under someone else's rules anymore."
Outside of the opening party, hundreds of Babenzian's friends, including the entire Supreme design team, came to congratulate him. The store was warm and homey, packed with skaters in their 30s and 40s and their significant others. Everyone seemed to be hugging. Babenzian held court outside. "I'm glad you guys are leaving—you take up a lot of space," he joked to a group of large men who were on their way out.
Most people wanted to buy something, not just look at the clothes. "Where the prices at, motherfucker? Where the bar codes? I'm tryinn'a buy some shit tonight!" said a guy who was chewing on what looked like a toothpick, but turned out to be a little stick. Babenzian, standing in a circle of guys, told him that the store wouldn't be selling anything until the next day.
The talk then turned to the design on the shopping bags, which Babenzian had left very simple. They had the Noah logo, but they were otherwise just brown bags. (They were referred to at the party as "low-key.") "It's just brown bags for now," Babenzian said. They fit the idea of selling to a customer who doesn't want to be seen shopping. The man he was speaking to nodded and said, "Yeah, men's shopping is a gross thing. It's a gross concept." He wore a perfectly died pair of jeans, an antique watch, and an unstoppable blue track jacket. He looked super cool.
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