Noah's Arc: An Interview With Supreme's Former Creative Director Brendon Babenzien On A New Fashion Frontier

As I first walk into the flagship store for Brendon Babenzien’s Noah brand in the NoLiTa neighborhood of Manhattan, Babenzien is a little on edge. The store, beautiful in its design as it is, still smells of paint and there appears to be a credit card issue (that issue is now completely fixed). So Babenzien politely requests that we take a 15-minute recess and I poke around the store.

Staying true to the brand’s slight adherence to its beach community theme, the store stands out in the neighborhood full of high fashion boutiques with its white brick exterior and nautical logo on the glass door. Inside is something like a portal to Babenzien’s head. There is an old issue of High Times with John Lydon on the cover, a stack of records, and numerous trinkets and gadgets that would serve a variety of activity-based functions.

And then of course there are the products. Babenzien has cultivated an aesthetic with Noah; equally informed by beach community prep and skateboarding grunge; but these products have a malleability that could serve a variety of personal styles. They are also high quality and priced exactly in accordance with their qualities. A t-shirt is $48, a sheepskin jacket is $2,000. The whole point of Noah is that the customer is buying a product and not into a brand. Thus, you pay for what you get when you need it.

News launched that Babenzien would be leaving Supreme in February, and Noah was announced shortly thereafter. He is quick to say that he wasn’t unhappy at Supreme, but his daughter had just been born and that instilled in him a drive to start vocalizing his ideas about garment sustainability and smart shopping. Babenzien’s message isn’t all that different than that of say Vivienne Westwood: buy less, buy high quality, buy beautiful.

Babenzien is immediately disarming once conversation gets rolling. He has a mystical surfer guy vibe with a soft cadence to his voice that allows him to deliver philosophies without coming off as too heavy. He and I sat down at the Noah flagship to discuss the brand, sustainability, activity, and how style is everything and fashion is nothing.

Adam Lehrer: I’m really into the whole Noah concept, I grew up on Cape Cod.

Brendon Babenzien: Oh you did, nice!

AL: When I first read an interview about you, you were talking about growing up in a beach community and how that informs the brand.

BB: Did you see the reversal sweatshirt? That literally is from this memory that I had from the clammers working when I was a kid. They’d be out there in the middle of the winter and would be wearing these two-ply sweatshirts. They weren’t even wearing jackets really and they would be digging all winter. My brother would dig for clams just for easy beer money. And my version of that, or what I grew into, was surfing. You share this common experience [living in a beach community]: surfers, fisherman, and people that are just generally beachgoers.

AL: It’s a lifestyle.

BB: You all share this common physical experience: the look of the water, the smell of the water, the beach, the sounds that go with it. I’ve always loved how a surfer and a sailor doing different activities on the same body of water - they share food locations.

AL: There’s like six restaurants, four bars.

BB: I’ve always really loved that overlap. That’s an underlying constant in the brand, but it’s not a nautical brand. It’s one part of the culture. A one-dimensional brand recognizes how you’re going to work. Apple is Apple: it’s clean design. But I think with clothing, that’s influenced by culture, it can be limiting. I’m into a lot of things why can’t I express them all under one roof? If it’s from one voice, it comes off natural. Because we’re small, and the brand is singular, I think it works.

AL: Is that something you were maybe thinking about at the latter days of Supreme, that you wanted to express all the things you love as opposed to a few specific things: art music, skateboarding…

BB: Supreme already does that better than anyone. They throw all these cultures into one place and have it make sense. It wasn’t so much that they’re not doing it so I want to do it. This label is more about me growing up and my personal experiences. There are things that I wanted to say about how I see the world. The only way to do that is to put your own brand out into the culture, and to use your own words. I was only one of many people that went into making Supreme what it is, granted I was an important part of it. But it wasn’t just my voice. It was just time for [Noah], plain and simple.

AL: I’m really interested in how you talk about how the effort put into being fashionable can overrule having style. Does Noah have a specific customer or are you trying to make products that allow people to be who they are?

BB: It’s a really tricky thing. You make all this stuff in a really particular way but then you talk about people being individuals but then you are asking them to step into your box.

AL: (Laughs) Right.

BB: So for lack of a better word, it’s a fucked up situation! That’s one of the reasons that I talk about activities and what they do and what they think because that’s really the thing that gives rise to their personal styles. We’re not asking people to come in and be a “Noah person,” we’re asking them to be themselves and see if any of these products fit their lives.  If you want to run in these shorts or you decide this is the year that you’re going to buy a sheepskin jacket, and which one is it? Maybe it’s ours. Maybe it’s the Tom Ford one, I don’t know. But we really like the piece and we hope the customers can do their own things with it. So we aren’t really asking people to join this culture, it’s more how do we intersect with people.

AL: A lot of designers seem to say that they don’t buy into trends, but you’re really a trend averse designer, is that conscious or are you just trying to filter things into the world?

BB: I definitely get nervous with the designer term because I really don’t know if I am. I’m a glorified stylist: I don’t have any design training, and I couldn’t cut a pattern if I tried. I’m something else, but I don’t know what that is yet. The trend-averse thing, it’s not a thought. From the time I was 13 working at a surf shop, I’ve trusted my instincts. Sometimes that leaves you ahead of the curve. We try not to analyze it so much here. I’m not even sure we are trend averse. They are just clothes. But I feel like we sit really closely with the world and I’ve often thought that people that make things, whether it be fashion or television shows, are so closely related in their thinking. I’d love to think that we are ahead of something, but I really don’t think we are.

AL: One thing that I found interesting was that the spectrum of price points is vast, but all the products are priced exactly as they should be. A t-shirt is $45 or a jacket can go up to 2 grand. Is it important to you that the product always matches its price point?

BB: Yes. One of the things at the core of this, from the business side and maybe culturally, we produce garments that make sense and we don’t over-produce. Sometimes the price is really high because you are making a small quantity of a beautiful thing in a very expensive fabric. That is design to me. But a t-shirt shouldn’t be $200, I wouldn’t want to wear a fancy t-shirt. When you have a store, there’s an advantage to things not being ridiculously priced, because you cut out the wholesale component.

[Brendon walks over to the Noah store’s racks of clothing and motions toward a shirt] We have a cashmere shirt, and it’s expensive it’s $800.

AL: I felt it though, it’s nice.

BB: Oh, it’s incredible. If I was in the wholesale department, or I was in another brand that was in a position to buy that fabric, it would be $3,000. That’s a real thing.

AL: And I also think that brands like modern day Saint Laurent selling cut off denim skirts for 1200 dollars just to maintain brand integrity is sick.

BB: I have a hard time critiquing Saint Laurent because of all the “luxury brands” I actually think they are doing a pretty phenomenal job. The clothes are pretty normal.

AL: And that’s interesting because it does go into Yves’s philosophy of normal clothes made in the most luxurious of fabrics.

BB: There’s some stuff where you really see the rock n’ roll influence and maybe there are some people that couldn’t get it, but then they’ll have a coat that by most standards is pretty preppy.

AL: I think it’s more the styling that makes it look subversive.

BB: Yeah it’s incredible. My criticisms of the fashion world mostly have to with it pushing products on the public. Products that people might not be interested in after a year. That has to do with more of my personal consumption. If you buy my jacket you can wear it for 30 years, cool. If you buy something wear it once and throw it in to the back of your closet, we have an issue.

"We live in a fucked up world where there is no perfect answer. So what do I do? I make clothes, I understand brand culture, and I have things that I want people to see. So I open up the doors and communicate every aspect of the process. Focus on how style is style and you need not buy 100 things to look cool."

AL: What’s interesting though is that the people who aren’t smart about shopping buy so much shit, but people like me who do care about a quality product are going to trust you more as the person behind a brand, and they will want to buy Noah.

BB: You would hope. Styling is a huge component. There are things in this room that on one person might look really preppy but on another might look more mod or English punk or whatever. It depends. If I get a 50-year old guy from Naples and he buys this [double breasted jacket] he’s going to look Euro. But someone else could wear it and look like Shane MacGowan. That’s there the style component comes in.

AL: With Supreme, the only thing in front of the brand is the red box logo, has it been weird transitioning to someone who is in front of the brand, doing interviews, in some sense being the face.

BB: Yes (laughs). I’m not a huge fan, but I’m getting more comfortable with it. As a father I feel a responsibility to start communicating these ideas. I’m not good if I’m not taking the little amount of connection I have to people. If I’m not doing that, I’m kind of being irresponsible. If I can maybe open someone’s mind to buying less or starting their own business, then I need to do it. But I don’t necessarily enjoy it.

AL: I just remember when you were at Supreme one video of you came out and everyone was like, “Brendon Babenzien speaks,” it was a big deal, just to hear you speak at all. Now there’s tons of press. It has to be different.

BB: It’s a lot. I’m not stoked. Did you see how stressed I was this morning? It was pretty much because of this. I like talking to you, I like talking to people. All the writers that have come in are informed and cool and it’s a pleasure to have these conversations. But I don’t want to be fucking famous.

AL: And fame can be a by-product.

BB: Here I am trying to talk about consumption issues and buying less and I’m selling products. We live in a fucked up world where there is no perfect answer. So what do I do? I make clothes, I understand brand culture, and I have things that I want people to see. So I open up the doors and communicate every aspect of the process. Focus on how style is style and you need not buy 100 things to look cool. I would argue that people with less money and access that know how to dress are far superior creatively to people that can buy anything they want. It’s easy to buy a Celiné piece and look fresh, Celiné is incredible!

AL: It’s harder to go dig up an old Yohji Yammamoto jacket at a thrift store.

BB: Forget that even. Maybe you can’t even afford that, and you have to co-opt something. That’s why I think skateboard culture and hip-hop culture were so impressive in the early years. These kids had nothing, but they would go buy stuff at Army Navy stores and workwear and make it look fucking cool.

AL: And it’s been influencing everything ever since.

BB: That’s style. To not have to go out and buy the latest and the greatest thing.

AL: You’ve said Supreme was more about the artists, musicians, skaters, surfers, writers, and athletes, are these still your people with Noah?

BB: They’re not even separate. You can’t separate music and fashion and skateboarding and style. Think about skateboarding: the style isn’t just the fashion, it’s the doing. You watch the old Dogtown doc, they say you have to have style. How your arm sits, you land. The clothes are an extension of that. You can say the same thing about a painter or a writer, the physical action of what they do is natural. It’s a style. Because if you skip that process of skating, running, or painting, and go straight to just trying to look a certain way, there’s nothing there. There’s no substance. Shopping shouldn’t be a fucking hobby.

AL: With Supreme something everybody liked were the campaigns with people like Lou Reed, do you still want to use the brand to highlight people that you admire?

BB: Without a doubt. I don’t know that I’m in the position to do that yet, there are costs involved. We’ve already started in some way, these bandanas are from some Japanese kid who cuts up bandanas. We’ll do that, when we can.

AL: To finish up, just sitting here I see people coming in and you seem so interested in people. And stories, and you have ideas and an overall message, do you see yourself in some sense being a storyteller?

BB: I think I like people, I joke a lot that I don’t like people but I just don’t like bad people. I definitely like a good story. I don’t know if I’m the storyteller or if I like other peoples’ stories and want others to know those stories. Maybe I’m the person who spreads the story. Because you realize that there are so many people that do amazing things and don’t get noticed, maybe they don’t have connections, or can’t talk to the press, or don’t understand social media. They never get their due. It’s fucking crazy. Or these days if you aren’t into alternative music or lifestyle, you’re nothing. Why? I met these guys at a wash house the other day. They were these big MMA guys from Maine, like brawlers. And they were there getting some of their clothes washed. They have a big factory in the woods in Maine, and they make MMA fighting gear. And they were super cool, smart, fun to talk to, interested in New York. We talked for like an hour, because they were really interested in fabrics. But if you saw these huge guys walking in and they said, “Yeah I love textiles,” you wouldn’t know how that happened. I love that shit.

The Noah flagship store is now open at 195 Mulberry Street in New York. The online store will be live on October 22, 2015. Text and interview by Adam Lehrer. Images by Thomas Iannaccone. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE

Tattered to Shreds: An Interview With Chapel NYC's Patrick Matamoros On The Perfect Tee

The first time I met Patrick Matamoros, we decided to drive to Malibu – to John Frusciante’s house – to shoot a wet t-shirt contest fashion editorial with some of his incredible vintage tees. He had just come in from New York where he would sell his tees either on the street or in pop up shops throughout the city – and often got arrested for not having a merchant’s license. There were original Vivien Westwood and Malcolm McClaren seditionary tees with Minnie Mouse getting fucked by Mickey, and Snow White getting gang banged by the Seven Dwarves. It was the kind of subversive brilliance that came out of a late 70s punk London when donning swastikas and chains was the cool thing to do. Today, a lot of these t-shirts have become a lot more rare and sought after. Ten years later, Patrick is in Los Angeles and has a virtual library of some of the rarest t-shirts in the world – what he calls a “t-shirt orphanage.” His biggest clients are Rihanna and Kanye. It’s hard to find anything about the umbrella company, Chapel NYC, which he uses to slang his threadbare wares. Patrick is also very secretive about where he finds his t-shirts, but he is not shy about telling you that he’ll travel far and wide to find some of the coolest tees you’ve ever seen. Patrick has a laid back, ageless California soul whose living room consists of a half pipe and a DJ booth that usually has a Waylon Jennings record spinning on repeat. After all this time, we got a chance to catch up with Patrick to ask him some questions about his life in vintage tees, the great lengths he goes to source his tees and his brand, Chapel NYC. Chapel has also curated a fine selection of rare tees for the Autre store – we are rolling out a batch this week and next, so grab one or two before someone else does.

Oliver Kupper: When did you start collecting tees?

Patrick Matamoros: My first vintage tee was my cousin’s Beatles t-shirt. It was from the early 80s. It was worn and thin. I had a crush on this girl in the eighth grade—a cute, Mexican gothic girl. She had never talked to me before. She came up to me and said, “Nice t-shirt,” and walked away with an attitude. I went and got the rest of my cousin’s t-shirts.

OK: Those t-shirts were original concert tees?

PM: Concert tees didn’t really start until the seventies. You’ll see t-shirts before then, but hardly ever official. Maybe you’ll get something made up for a photo shoot for a record label. T-shirts weren’t fashion until the seventies.

OK: What’s the craziest length you’ve ever gone to source a tee?

PM: I bought a t-shirt from a homeless guy once. I was on a bus, and this guy is wearing a 1976 Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt. It was amazing. I start talking to him to see if the t-shirt meant something to him, but someone had given it to him at a shelter. I bought him a new t-shirt and paid him $40.

OK: Did you sell it?

PM: Yeah. Almost immediately for $350 or $400.

OK: There are specific tees that people seem to like over time. Have you noticed any trends?

PM: I’ve gotten a bunch of new clients recently that are very young. Ten years ago, people were wearing t-shirts ironically. These young kids that are collecting tees and getting into tees are not doing that. When they’re wearing a Brandi t-shirt from 2002, they’re really, really into it. There’s nothing ironic about the way they wear a Christina Aguilera or Mariah Carey t-shirt. I’m not exactly a fan of most of those people or their music. But I think it’s cool that these kids aren’t doing what we were doing ten years ago. They are actual fans of everything they wear. 

The trend right now is very much early 2000s and late 90s. A lot of cartoon stuff; a lot of Disney t-shirts. Not like Mickey Mouse, though.

OK: Tell me about the days when you were a street merchant in Soho. How did you go about doing that? Where did you sell them?

PM: I used to sell at the markets on the weekends. I was looking for more opportunity to sell my stuff. Some guy who sold on the street in Soho asked me to sell with him. The first day that I was out there, I made $2,000. I thought, “Maybe I’m onto something here.” I set up every day at the corner of Prince and Mercer. I used to have to fight for that spot. No one wanted that spot, but I made it hot. People were always there. People started setting up next to me. Everyone knew to find me there. If I didn’t show up, I’d get phone calls or texts from clients saying, “Hey, you weren’t there yesterday.” I kept getting arrested. Not for doing anything illegal; Bloomberg didn’t want any street merchants. He created a task force to get rid of street merchants under the guise of trying to fight counterfeits in Chinatown. He started arresting street merchants for any offense. If you were half an inch over a line where you were supposed to be, you would get arrested instead of getting a ticket. That’s how they go about intimidation.

OK: They put you in holding?

PM: Oh, yeah. I got arrested three times in four days once.

OK: That was outside of a hotel?

PM: At the time, it was a L’Occitane store. Now, it’s the Nescafé store.

OK: New York has definitely changed. Is that why you moved back to LA?

PM: I was born and raised in LA, and I like enjoying my life. No matter how successful you are, you keep plugging away, but you don’t see yourself moving forward. I decided to make being happy my number one goal. That worked.

OK: When did you sell your first t-shirt?

PM: I don’t have a great story to that. I was trying to pay some bills. I went to a store that bought vintage clothes and sold some t-shirts to them to pay my rent. I would say it started before the t-shirts, when I was in the mod scene. I always had impeccably tailored suits. People would always come up to me and ask where I got my suits. I would say, “Give me your number. If I find something, I’ll give you a call.” I was really into old things. I wasn’t into shopping at the Gap.

OK: Does every t-shirt have a story?

PM: Oh, yeah. It might not register on the t-shirt necessarily. That’s part of the story, but it isn’t the story. Take this Motorhead t-shirt. The story is the person who wore that t-shirt.

"That’s the story of their life, the t-shirt. How many times did someone snort coke or shoot heroin in that t-shirt? That’s what I’m after. That piece that you look at and say, “Fuck, man.” Where did this t-shirt come from?"

OK: Who wore that Motorhead t-shirt?

PM: Someone who really loved Motorhead. At what point do you think they said, “There are too many holes?” It’s destroyed. You can’t wear that again. That’s the story of their life, the t-shirt. How many times did someone snort coke or shoot heroin in that t-shirt? That’s what I’m after. That piece that you look at and say, “Fuck, man.” Where did this t-shirt come from?

OK: In terms of counterfeits, how do you know that they’re real? A lot of people can print t-shirt on vintage linens. Can you tell the difference?

PM: Yeah. I see so many t-shirts. You match the wear of the t-shirt to the wear of the print. You see enough fakes that you can tell. It’s t-shirt archaeology.

OK: What is an era to which you find yourself gravitating?

PM: I love as early seventies as I can get. It’s hard to find t-shirts from that era. T-shirts didn’t really come into being until 1975—that’s when you see t-shirts for a purpose. If you do find a music t-shirt from pre-1975, it’s pretty special. I care less about rarity than about how intrinsically cool the t-shirt is.

OK: It seems like it gets pretty niche. You have everything from hip hop tees to 70s concert tees.

PM: These t-shirts are all orphans. I’m their caretaker. I’m trying to find the right home for them. You might like that tee, but it’s not yours. You know when you put it on. You really know.

OK: It’s the t-shirt orphanage. It seems like t-shirts speak to you. If you buy and wear vintage tees wholesale for the sake of resale, it feels like a difficult thing to give up. Do you have trouble giving up t-shirts?

PM: All the time. But my clients respect what I do. When I say a t-shirt is $1,000 and they agree, I respect that they have money to buy it.

OK: It also seems easier to put a price tag on things when you have your own personal value to it. People will put any value on a t-shirt, but you seem like you have a legitimate, distinct value for a t-shirt. It seems worth it, if you have the money.

PM: People get really upset when I tell them the price. I don’t feel bad. Maybe, sometimes, I feel bad a little. It’s not the hard work that I put into finding the pieces. That’s important, but that’s not really it. It’s all relative. Someone walks in with a Balenciaga bag, and they start complaining about the price. I tell them, “You know what, maybe it’s not for you.” I take the option away from them. That’s when they really want it. Go to Barney’s, got to Bergdorf’s, go to Maxfields—try to find something this fucking cool for $500. Come back, and now it’s $600, because you’ve aggravated me. The aggravation tax is $100. And I’ve done that. They’ve gone and come back, and I’ve charged them the aggravation tax. They don’t even question it. They know they were wrong. For them, it has value. They could afford it, and they questioned me. I’ll even send them to all my competitors. Here are the four stores that are my competitors—if you find anything this cool, I’ll give it to you. I give people that challenge all the time.

OK: It’s ironic that the vintage t-shirt market has become a luxury market. They’ve become the definition of luxury, in the sense of how rare they are and the value you put on them. There’s a distinct value to them outside of monetary value.

PM: A lot of the other stores sell according to how rare it is. I don’t care. I’ll sell blank t-shirts for $500. All I care about is how good it looks on you.

OK: What’s the coolest shirt you’ve ever seen?

PM: That’s tough. I have a Lou Reed t-shirt that’s pretty cool. It’s just his face and the words, “Lou Reed.” The back says, “Rock n’ Roll Animal.”  But it’s so thin and fragile—it’s absolutely beautiful.

OK: What’s a typical buying trip like?

PM: I get my best tees from old clients. Buying shirts isn’t the same as it used to be. You used to be able to buy stuff. I used to be able to go to thrift stores and find things, but that doesn’t happen anymore. Really, I’m getting all my best stuff from people like myself or ex-collectors. Buying trips aren’t what they used to be.

OK: Has the market become saturated?

P: It’s the opposite. We’re drying up. Because of the Internet, people know that they have valuable things. They’re selling the things themselves, they’re saving them, they’re giving them to their kids. People are keeping things when they used to donate them. There used to be a circle of life of t-shirts. That’s not happening anymore. The supply line has been broken.

OK: But the t-shirts are still around. They might come back later.

PM: When they do, even a basic tee is going to be hundreds of dollars. A common 1989 Stones tee—which you used to get for $60—is now $150-$300. Christina Aguilera t-shirts from 2000 have gone for $350. In ten years, even those things are going to be impossible to find. Let alone a nice 70s Stones tee—those things are going to be out of any well-to-do someone’s price range. That t-shirt is going to be $3,000. That’s what they’re going to be going for.

Click here to purchase tees from the Chapel NYC collection on Autre. Follow Chapel NYC on Instagram. photographs by Sara Clarken. text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE