Lost at Sea with Noah

Creative Director Brendon Babenzien Returns to His Long Island Roots

Interview: Thom Bettridge
Photography: Benedict Brink

The flagship store for the nascent brand Noah is an unassuming bungalow on the corner of Mulberry Street and Delancey. Its interior looks the living room of a tree house designed by a camp counselor who has good taste in antiques, with quaint displays centered around an inviting leather club couch. This is the citadel from which Brendon Babenzien is quietly performing menswear alchemy: uniting the formerly disparate lifestyle categories of streetwear and buy-for-life.

I sit in the back of this store with Babenzien, where he speaks to me surrounded by his young team. Behind him, a graphic designer is toying with an image of a battleship blasting off its cannons. When I ask the designer what he learned about designing graphics during his tenure as design director of Supreme, he replies, “It’s hard to say. At a certain point, everything we did immediately sold out.” Casting off on its own, Noah takes the skater vision of Supreme into much more open and complex waters. The ocean, for Babenzien, is a key to understanding his brand. In an industry where yesterday’s surfers are today’s creative directors, the egalitarian, DIY vibe of coastal living has become a tonal lingua franca. In another sense, the ocean points to the ethical underpinnings of Noah, which prides itself on promoting sustainable practices.
Returning to his hometown, Babenzien and his Noah team took a weekend road trip around the liminal spaces of Long Island accompanied by photographer Benedict Brink. He spoke with Thom Bettridge about his roots and how to design with meaning.

Thom Bettridge: Noah seems to have a very wide client base. You could say it’s streetwear, but a bro who’s into Vineyard Vines could also get down with a Seahorse hat.

Brendon Babenzien: That’s my life. I grew up on Long Island, skating and surfing with the weirdo kids, but then I went to high school and played sports with people who are now the Vineyard Vines guys. I never separated those worlds. They all kind of coexisted in a strange way. Particularly when you’re talking about people who live near the water. There’s this weird dynamic between working class—the clammers, or the guys who drive the ferries—and then the people who have money and who own the beach houses. They actually share a lot of the same likes, loves, and culture. No matter where you go in the world, people that love the water have a lot in common regardless of their financial situation.

Did you grow up surfing and skating?

I’ve been skating since 1976. Crazy, old school—Logan Earth Ski skateboards, RoadRunner two wheels, ACS skateboard trucks—like way back. You skated, you surfed, and you snowboarded.

Surfers and skaters have always been very entrepreneurial people. And you see it a lot in people in your generation that are starting brands.

Surfers were completely counterculture, and skating is one of the most creative things out there. These kids are inventing shit on a daily basis. And board design and art go with it—it all just comes from the people skating. It wasn’t outsourced.

Also because you’re not allowed everywhere, so you have to make your own shit. You have to start your own t-shirt company if that’s the way you want to look.

Yeah, it’s a super DIY culture and incredibly creative. Nobody was making anything specifically for these cultures, so they had to do it themselves.

What was the moment for you when you realized you wanted to work on brands that were representing this culture?

Before I knew I wanted to make clothes, I knew I liked clothes. It sounds so corny. But I was 13! At 13, clothes mean a lot to you because it’s an indicator of who you are. At that point you’re still not able to speak intelligently about what you believe. You’re just this half-human, and pure emotion. At the time, my choices were based on trying to express individuality more than anything else. I wasn’t going out of my way to look like everybody I hung out with. I didn’t really give a shit if I wasn’t supposed to wear a pink floral shirt when I was 13 years old. I was going to wear it anyway.

Like, this isn’t punk—

My friends weren’t even punk. The kids I met that were into skating were from elsewhere. Where I’m from, the kids were pretty normal, you know, baseball and football. I played lacrosse. But I might have been the only one in my whole fucking school who surfed. Most of the kids I skated and surfed with were from elsewhere.

And how did you meet people like that before the Internet?

I worked in the surf shop in East Islip—Rick’s Surf Shop. So I met everybody.

Is that where you grew up?

Yes. You know how there’s the city, and then there’s the Hamptons and Montauk, and then there’s everything in between? I lived in the everything in between. You can see my house from Sunrise Highway. I grew up behind a used car lot on the service part of the highway. I used to skate at the Shell gas station, because they had painted curbs. I did everything there. I threw a lacrosse ball against their wall to practice, I skated their curbs, and at night when there was no traffic on Sunrise Highway I’d do fucking wall rides on the dividers because they had a little bank at the bottom.

I’m curious what the design process is like for you. Especially with graphics.

The process is really simple. It’s more about the fabrics I love. But with t-shirts, the graphics represent something culturally. I set the goals very high for us, because we have to be funny, clever, and intelligent. They also have to relate to us, because I’m not setting out to necessarily be aggressive. 

“Skating is one of the most creative things out there. These kids are inventing shit on a daily basis.”

But do you think that’s grown up, or is it just something different?

Different. But what we’re discovering is that there’s this whole layer of stuff that we can fuck with that no one else will touch. Like, look at this pelican t-shirt. That was from a weird old shirt that we found. And it’s a fucking pelican. How tough can a pelican be? But then when you see this red, it just looks kind of demonic and crazy. It has a toughness to it naturally. And it’s a sea bird.

Pelicans always remind me of that scene from Scarface. And they’re actually pretty fierce.

Exactly. We found what can be useful and aggressive and still be us. But you have to be able to look behind the curtain and see more. You can’t pull behind the curtain of a graphic and see nothing there. Then it just looks good, but there’s no reason for it.

Freud once said that a good joke is like a priest who marries bad couples. I feel like a good t-shirt is about putting things together that don’t quite fit.

There will be the occasional literal graphic from us. For example, the Long Island graphic, which basically means: “I’m from Long Island. Let it get the bad rap. I love it, fuck you.” We’re sending a message to all those kids out there from the suburbs. We’re saying, take a good look at where you’re from, because whatever you go on to do in your life, that place made you. It’s where you’re from, and there’s probably a lot of cool shit there if you stop and look around. If you’re always looking outside you might miss what’s right in front of you. Like a great skate spot. Or your neighbor down the road who’s about to record an album in his garage and he’s great but nobody knows. So that’s what that t-shirt’s about. But it’s a very literal translation.

It seems like all the people you would call “The Establishment” today are just repping where they’re from or what they’re about. You even see it with someone like Raf Simons, who is constantly referring back to be being a teenager in Belgium. It’s about getting rid of shame and embracing the teenage experience.

Take the major cities in the world, like New York and L.A., and consider the kids who grew up there. They’re automatically cool. They have that New York and L.A. thing that goes with being raised in the city. They’re so cool that oftentimes they’re lazy. It takes the kid from the suburbs to take those cool ideas and really expand on them. Because they have a drive that a city kid just doesn’t need to have. Like, hardcore music is all fucking suburban kids. The suburbs take things further.

Men’s clothing for so long was just a uniform. I do this job: I wear this. I’m part of this gang: I wear this.

I skate: I wear this clothing.

And now the idea of men buying clothing is at the center of growth in the fashion industry, but it’s still in this awkward puberty stage. I feel like Noah is trying to move past that idea.

The thing about fashion generally is that by design, they have to claim something’s over to sell you something new. Everyone made fun of pleated pants. But there’s a million ways to wear them. They were great in the 80s. So the concept of claiming something is over is silly, because when it comes to actual style choices, people should have the freedom to wear what they want. Noah doesn’t exist in the fashion world. We don’t care what the fashion world does. We’re just a corner shop.

There’s a lot more democracy in what you’re selling.

Way more democracy. The Internet has made everything democratic. We wouldn’t be here doing what we’re doing if it wasn’t for the website, the online sales. We can sell to everyone, all over the world, from right here.

And it’s funny because you’re kind of hacking these mass-produced designs from the past, and creating a new spin on them.

Because they’re really good ideas. But I think where design may fall short is in textile marriage. We’ve gotten to this point that is very one-sided. All they want is a look. They’re not as interested in the function of it, lasting or working. I need that.

Or even what it feels like, because people are buying it online.

I would hate it if this shirt didn’t feel the way it actually feels.

“The suburbs takes things further.”

It’s interesting how this buy-for-life idea is inevitably tied to history by design. Like, how do I build something that’s going to be around in 40 years? You have to look at shit that’s 40 years old.

It’s funny, because I buy a lot of vintage, but I don’t buy collectible vintage. There’s no point. Buying a leather jacket from 1945 is not my thing. Instead I buy weird stuff from the 70s and 80s. But they were making good stuff in the 80s. These things are 30 or 20 years old and the fabric has held up, no stitches are loose. I want somebody in 20 years to be looking at my shirt and thinking the same thing. What’s interesting is that we have people coming in and saying that they still have a jacket they bought from me 14 years ago.

What team is this varsity jacket going to be for?

It’s not for a team. It’s got this “N” on the front. It has to be a real thing, because I struggle with the fake stuff. So this cross-country component makes sense because it’s real to me—I run almost every day. I have a few things I will use over and over. For example, I’ll use Saint Michael on occasion as the team component. It will just say Michael.

Everyone needs a patron saint to look after them.

Yeah! Not that I’m super religious, but I’m a fan of Saint Michael. I’ve got tattoos with him coming out of the clouds.

I think that the reason streetwear has fascinated so many people is because it’s fundamentally about repping for an identity. And it feels like these non-street ideas you’re playing with still utilize that notion.

We reference running, we reference the water, we reference skateboarding, and we can only do that because everything we talk about is truly a part of what we do here. I’m never going to do a mountain climbing collection, because I don’t climb mountains.

And mountain climbers don’t play. If you don’t do it right, somebody is going to die.

And people reference it as a cultural thing. And they can do all these cool graphics and stuff. We wouldn’t do that. Everything we do is real. But it’s also diverse. Which is cool, because you can have kids coming in here and hanging out together and buying shit, and they wouldn’t look like they belong together. It might all make sense in the store, but when you put it on individuals—like, one kid buys a Long Island t-shirt, another kid buys a Crooked Love tee, or a Straight Edge graphic. They’re never going to look the same.

It’s all tapping into something post-subculture.

We definitely talk about the breakdown between ages. The barriers are fading. But it’s interesting, because I wear a top like this to work every day, but I also have a tuxedo for when I need it. And weirdly enough, if there’s a situation to wear a suit, I’m happy to do it. It’s fun. But I’m starting to see this whole culture of dudes that like really dressing up on a daily basis, like crazy dressing up.

Like pocket square type shit?

They’re really doing it. And it’s interesting because I’m not sure yet if I think it’s cool or not. I haven’t decided. Because they look good, but then it’s so fucking impractical. Is that really who you are? Are these clothes really you, or are you trying to project something? And these are some questions I have. I haven’t made any firm decisions yet. I may never decide anything.

I feel like that returns to the idea of the nautical universe of the water being a place without division.

The entire Noah office is a mix of unexpected personality traits or interests. Things you wouldn’t expect. And that’s perfect for us because we’re encouraging the thing that’s weird. Whatever your shit is, cool. Be it. If you like insects, study insects. That’s how it goes, whatever that means in the grand scheme of the business. And how the clothes end up, how the store looks and feels, how we present ourselves, how we talk about it—it all stems from that core thing. Be yourself, this is who we are, and if you want to participate in it in your own way, cool.

“I’m never going to do a mountain climbing collection, because I don’t climb mountains.”

  • Interview: Thom Bettridge
    Photography: Benedict Brink
    Models: Brendon Babenzien, Amir Abdellah, Corey Rubin, Auriel Rickard