GREATEST / Brendon Babenzien
The Noah founder catches up with Chris Gibbs to talk counterculture, creativity and redefining values.
Brendon Babenzien’s ur-urban design ethos is quintessentially informed by the streets of New York. From his days as a Downtown skater to his 14-year tenure as the creative director of Supreme, Babenzien’s work is synonymous with the countercultures of skate, hip-hop, surf and punk, forged during a grittier era of the city, back when “streetwear” was far from the household name and multi-billion dollar industry it is today.
Since its inception in 2015, Noah has quietly become a singular force in the industry, emphasizing inclusivity, quality and sustainable manufacturing with every release. In just a few short years, Babenzien has created a brand that is the ultimate expression of his personal interests, bridging the gap between streetwear’s urban origins and an outdoorsy way of life far removed from the concrete jungle. It’s the latter in particular that served as the starting point for Noah’s new ‘Mountain Goat’ capsule, a collection made exclusively for GOAT that ranges from heritage-inspired flannels to a reimagining of the iconic Wilderness Boot in collaboration with Merrell 1TRL.
Babenzien and Chris Gibbs, a longtime friend, founder of Union Los Angeles and legendary streetwear fixture, headed to Babenzien’s country home in Amagansett, New York for a conversation about streetwear’s subcultural origins, the shifting face of the industry, and whether “big” and “cool” can truly coexist.
Discover the full GOAT x Noah capsule collection here.
Our conversations always come back to streetwear and fashion, and how skate, hip-hop and basketball informed all of that.
What often comes up is the difference between now and then, and I'm not sure I want to go down that path. You just sound like a grumpy old man when you talk about that. But it's important to talk about how not just for you and I, but collectively, all those things play a role. The one thing I always recognized is that when our businesses were younger, style was informed by what you did. It came out of the stuff you were into externally—music, skating or whatever it was.
It's hard to believe now, but as a kid I was really into sports. I was the only Black kid growing up in a medium-sized town in Canada. I played basketball and there's a culture around basketball, so I started wearing on-court shoes as casual style notes. My fashion sensibilities were formed by what I did and in the early-to-mid ’80s, that was almost exclusively basketball and hip-hop. Hip hop and basketball were kind of one; they were feeding off of each other.
Streetwear came about in the late ’80s and early ’90s when there was a skating renaissance. The average street kid in 1989 was wearing Air Force 1s, a shoe heavily inspired by hip-hop and basketball. Fast forward two or three years, and kids were wearing Dunks.
To me, skate and its connection to things previously considered outside of the skate world came exclusively out of New York: skating in Jordans, wearing cargo pants, Hilfiger, Polo. Those were New York things.
Prior to Supreme and the kids around Supreme who had their own thing going on in New York, style was outside of the skateboard world completely. Skate style was surf style for the most part; a lot of pinks and teals. And then, I would argue, Supreme brought skate into a new space and influenced the rest of the skateboard world from that point forward.
Supreme was tapping into something that was already happening: The convergence of a hip-hop kid, who's a backpacker, who's got his graffiti book, with a punk kid and a skate kid, and all these kids meeting Downtown. They're all outliers in their own communities, but together they're these weirdos that are like, “Oh yeah, I fucks with you.” Streetwear grows out of the different places they're coming from, giving you this gumbo of urban, skate, hip-hop and basketball. Through this fusion of countercultures, we establish the baseline of the industry we now occupy.
But it wasn't an industry yet. It was a bunch of things bouncing into each other, all happening independently. And now it's an industry.
You go from the late ’80s, early ’90s [in counterculture] when people are sharing information, having fun and doing creatively what comes to them naturally, to having a multi-billion dollar industry built on that. But the more it becomes an industry, the less it becomes a lifestyle. Those two things: Can they co-exist? Is this new or is this just surf culture all over again?
It's the surf industry all over again, when it hit big and all of a sudden it became a massive industry. The guy who ran Gotcha, Mike Tomson, said, “Big is the enemy of cool and you can't be both for very long.”
Right now, though, big and cool are co-existing. How long can that last?
So this is interesting, big and cool. Cool is defined by what the population deems is cool, right? It's a value structure. This is my opinion; people can hate me for it, they can love me for it, I don't care: I think this country in particular has a fascination with wealth and success where anytime people make money, they are deemed as cool and interesting. If you’re a finance dude or the CEO of Coca-Cola, as long as you’re rich, people think you’re cool and interesting.
People are making money in different ways now, but everyone is still fascinated by wealth and celebrities, so those rich people help define what’s cool and interesting because people are drawn to them.
I look back at the beginnings of streetwear and it was counter to that. The people who were just living that life and being about it were cool. That's what made the industry interesting.
That's part of the problem now. Not for me, I'm not a kid anymore so it doesn't matter to me, but when the big system figured out and pretended to be cool or interesting to be on your side, only for you to understand that they're really not and you fall for it—then we have a serious issue, right?
The things that gave rise to popular culture today were at one point actually counterculture and driven by the youth. Unfortunately, as you get older, life takes over and your optimistic view of the world changes and you get pulled into all these other things that aren't quite as pure. What I'm saying is the thing that we're a part of isn't as pure as it was at its origin. Nothing ever is, right? Is hip-hop as a music form as pure as it was at the beginning or has the industry done something to it?
In the early days of what is now called “streetwear,” people were into basketball, hip-hop, skateboarding, music or clothes. People were on their own thing stylistically and they were doing it because they loved it. To some degree that's still the case, but there are definitely a lot of external things you're combatting at the same time, which you weren’t back then.
Counterculture is represented in a different way today. When we started, it was about going against pop culture. Now I would like to believe we've evolved and grown as our sensibilities have evolved and matured. I consider Noah to be one of the more conscious brands in streetwear. And I think, like you, I'm not trying to be anti-popular music anymore; I'm trying to be counterculture to the things that are destroying the world, politically and socially.
I've always felt like I've been at odds with society at every stage of my life. I thought when I was done being a teenager it was going to be over. And then I got to my 20s and it wasn't over. Then I thought in my 30s I was going to start to fit in and I didn't. And then I hit 40. I'm like, “Well, maybe in my 40s I'll feel like everybody else,” and I didn't. I'm about to be 50 and I feel like that's just the way my life is going to be, always at odds with the current stream of things and Noah reflects that.
We didn't like the way business was being done. We didn't like the way people acted in business. We didn't like what they did behind closed doors. We thought businesses should be used to help people or help the world in some way even if it's the smallest little thing you choose to do, like make a better product and encourage people to buy less shit and buy better, or donate money, whatever it is. So that's what we built.
You come here, to Long Island, on the weekends. Is that you needing to get out of the city to get back to nature?
Ultimately it's about getting back outside. You're in New York City where everything is happening musically, artistically, creatively, with food; everything is there. But you get in the car and in no time at all, you're upstate, you're out of Long Island, at the beaches. You don't even have to leave the city limits for that. I surf from Rockaway all the time. That's one of the most appealing things about New York: I get the best of everything. It's all here.
Earlier today you said something like, “When we get into nature, I think we’re trying to tap into our human nature.”
Because people are animals, we’re creatures that are part of the natural world. As much as I love being in New York and in urban environments that offer things like music venues and nightclubs, it’s all far from the natural order of things. We're always going to feel that call back. That sounds real hippie-dippy, and I guess to some degree it is, but my position is that we've gotten way out of balance with living in line with our nature.
All these great things we create for ourselves, like fashion, music, film and literature, the conversation always gravitates towards intelligence and how we have this intelligence to create these things. But we're not intelligent enough to prevent our own home from burning down. So it’s about understanding the reality of our human predicament. You can be into industrial music and go to clubs in basements, but still care about the planet and love going outside and seeing the sunset.
That's what streetwear gave me. When I look back on my love affair with streetwear, it's not really about style, it's not really about fashion. It's about not having to fit in one box. It's about being able to be.
When we started Noah, one of the objectives was to recognize that people are complex.
The idea that a brand might look at you as a runner and only a runner is so absurd. It's like, "Well yeah, but he might like classical music and dirt bikes at the same time.”
The reason brands or businesses reduce people to a specific identity is because it's hard to speak to more than one thing. But if you approach it honestly, then you can do it and people will respond.
I didn't think this was going to be a therapy session for me but you brought up a good point. Union has always been this: A union of all these different brands and where they all come together and live in harmony. As we've tried to start pivoting in representing who we are as a brand, we're not one thing. We are not even just a singular streetwear store.
This goes back to counterculture and what's acceptable, what's not and what you’re willing to do. You continue to choose to do Union, even if it's not easy as a business. You're passionate about it. Money's not the bottom line. That's why you do it, because you love it. That’s the difference.
Our economy is based on the idea that success is financial. We have to build in this idea of, “Are you happy? Do you love what you do?” Because you have a finite amount of time on this planet and if you don't love what you do, you're wasting your time. If you do love what you do, you’ve already won.
We're asking the wrong questions.
It's a value shift we need, and we need it not just as businesses but as consumers. We think about businesses and consumers as a partnership, so if we work together on it, we can provide a great product that they love. It’s like, “You actually got something from us that you care about and that you're going to have for a long time.” We want to build a positive relationship with our people, our friends and our customers. We want to help drive that shift in values and help change things for the better.