The New York We Fuck With
The Life and Times of Aimé Leon Dore Designer Teddy Santis
- Interview: Thom Bettridge
- Photography: Jay Gullion
Teddy Santis was born in the cruel yet nostalgic culture-factory of New York City. His brand was as well. When the construction of the Second Avenue Subway Line threatened to close his family’s diner on 89th Street, Santis started thinking about alternative career options. The result was Aimé Leon Dore (ALD), a brand that creates smart and effortless menswear dipped in the milieu of 90s rap.
When I met Santis, he was holding court at a NoLiTa pop-up commemorating ALD’s recent pick-up basketball tournament. The store was marked by nothing more than a sun-bleached pair of Jordan 4s hanging above the door. Inside, Santis treated me to a tour of photographs on the wall, pictures of his childhood effects taken in a sparse, almost archeological, style: a worn leather basketball, a Sony Walkman, two black beepers, a stack of cassette tapes, an array of Krylon spray paint canisters. They read to me like cave paintings pointing to the origins of what we now call “streetwear,” a phenomenon that Santis argues was born in New York City, just like himself.
The other day I was drinking at some yuppy bars in this neighborhood, and all they were playing was Mobb Deep, Nas, old Jay Z, A Tribe Called Quest. And I thought to myself, “Is 90s NYC rap the new elevator music?” As someone with a brand rooted in this New York aesthetic, how do you get yourself out of these cliches?
For us, the number one thing is to be honest. I really am from Queens. I really grew up listening to Mobb Deep, Nas, and all of them—these guys whose sound still resonates with me and everything I fuck with. It’s very hard to understand that era of music and of the city if you didn’t live through it. Lots of people are trying to represent that New York vibe, but if you don’t really represent it, people can see right through it. We’re representing that era through product, we’re doing it through visuals, and we’re doing it through film, but we’re not trying to recreate it. Like, why can’t I enjoy watering my plants and listening to Tupac? Why can’t those go together? All our stories are rooted in that era of realness and authenticity—it’s either you fuck with it or you don’t. It’s not a short-term trend kind of thing. I'm a big believer that streetwear really is New York. It was invented here.
Why do you think streetwear happened here —what is it about this place?
I think it initially started with kids not being able to afford nice things, which forced them to create their own vibe. You had to be creative and be connected to the culture and have your ear to the street to know what’s accepted and still cool, even though it’s not luxury or expensive. I would come to SoHo and figure it out with $50. Though I think the real birth of streetwear was probably 20 years before my era. Run-DMC came through and were rapping and wearing these shell toes—if you look at that transition right there, that point marks the birth of kids saying, “‘Yo, I’m going to wear kicks without laces, and I’m going to wear a hoodie and bomber jacket and a fedora that shouldn’t be together.” Other parts of the world have done great streetwear, like Tokyo, where Americana is done better there than it is in America. But streetwear-streetwear, I believe comes from here. It was birthed here, and it will never shift too far from that. Certain people might not even know they have incredible style, and they do. Even on the basketball court. I grew up playing ball all my life. It’s a huge part of our brand and my whole style. Pick-up ball in New York is like nowhere else in the world. It’s its own society. As terrible as it sounds, if you show up to play ball in Queens looking like a dweeb, you’re not going to play. I don’t care how good you are.
You're not going to get picked. The whole court is like a giant runway.
We just did this Thank You Mike basketball tournament and the goal was to represent pick-up basketball in New York in the winter. Because pick-up basketball in the winter is the most amazing style ever—the thermal tights, the shorts, the hoodie, the cut-off stuff, the beanie. I feel like it’s kind of what my brand represents as far as the way we style things. The inspiration comes from that.
If you take a magnifying glass and let the sun shine through on one thing, it’s eventually going to burn
Well, there are no locker rooms outdoors so you have to be able to play sports and then go hang out with your friends, maybe go to a party after without being able to change clothing.
If you go to parks like West Fourth, the dudes that go there have incredible style. But they don’t know they have incredible style. It’s beautiful.
It's interesting because this neighborhood context that gave birth to rap and sportswear and streetwear was very much a local phenomenon, but one that is now completely networked. The kids who were once taking the train to SoHo or meeting their friends on the courts are now on their phones learning about contemporary art and architecture.
That’s the kid I’m trying to get to, the kid who cares about being educated and understanding things that are more than a fashion brand. That’s the kid who I believe is the future’s loyal consumer, not the kid who’s running around wearing Kanye merch. For me, Ralph Lauren is the perfect thing. I discovered Ralph when I was 15 and I'm 30 now, feeling the exact same way. If anything, I feel more connected because they keep educating you and showing you things that put you outside the comfort level of a polo or an oxford.
In the 90s, brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger accidentally played a huge role in streetwear.
The truth is that the hood was paying their bills for a long time and they never acknowledged it.
The thing about a brand like Ralph Lauren is that it’s really a fully immersive world. There’s a Ralph Lauren polo, but also Ralph Lauren wallpaper and hand towels, his ranch and his car collection. Is creating this type of world or atmosphere a part of your brand?
I want my brand to be known as one that touches beauty and real life in all its aspects—one that tells stories through these experiences. The biggest goal for me right now is to create a vibe and a platform for a kid who wants to continuously evolve, but with the same values. If I had to try and build a certain lifestyle like Ralph did, it’s about staying true to what we really represent, which is: We’re from New York.
But what is New York? It’s a completely moving target. Everyone likes to complain about gentrification, but New York is gentrification. From the moment the city started as an idea.
New York is constantly going through change. A few years ago, we went through this five year stint of the whole Americana vibe in New York where motherfuckers were walking around in like Red Wing boots and trucker hats and these fucking plaid shirts and deer heads on the wall. Some people just didn’t fuck with it at all. The majority of those people are people who came from my neighborhood that were just like, “The fuck. What is that?” Then streetwear came through again, and fucked shit up. And it’s still fucking shit up. I’ve had this conversation so many times about how often New York becomes “re-gentrified” or whatever. But at this moment in time, the truth is that it’s just not cool to be cool anymore.
I feel like men’s fashion in particular is subject to these types of tragic trends. There’s very little middle ground between being completely basic or a total fashion victim.
I feel like in the last five years the whole menswear market got really fucked up and oversaturated to the point where you have $1000 sneakers on the market. But that’s just going to die quick, because who is going to buy $1000 sneakers all the time? With us, you have this component where maybe a kid will come in and buy a white tee with a Phillies Blunt image, but then you have a guy who is a bit older who is buying a $1000 coat. With the kid, we’re educating and giving back to culture. And with the guy, we’re telling him, “Yo, we know how to make you look good and we’re making a really good product.” If you look at our styling, it’s very unforced, but it’s strong. We can style a guy in a fleece jumpsuit with timbs, a beanie, and a Canada Goose jacket, but we can also put someone in a merino turtleneck, a one-button topcoat, and cool sneakers. It’s the same exact guy for me.
You and a lot of other designers in your generation are totally self-trained. You never went to fashion school, or worked for a big house in Paris. What kind of references did you have to hold onto when you were starting out?
I built my own personal archive growing up—from brands like Ralph Lauren to Nom de Guerre. Nom de Guerre for me was one of the biggest inspirations behind my brand. They made it okay to go and buy a pair of dunks, to wear them with a pair of trousers, a knit, and a wool zip-up. And it was completely cool. I really am a product dweeb. I grew up loving product. There was also Supreme, who birthed our whole streetwear culture. They’ve done a ton for New York. For someone like me who was born and raised here, I definitely owe a lot of respect to that brand. Even though I love travelling—I have a ton of respect for places like Paris, Tokyo, Copenhagen, Milan, and all these places that inspire my style and my design—at the end of the day, the core value of what we represent is that we are from here. If you take a magnifying glass and let the sun shine through on one thing, it’s eventually going to burn. And it’s really hard holding it there for so long until it does. But if you do, you can build a vision that definitely wasn’t planned.
- Interview: Thom Bettridge
- Photography: Jay Gullion