Brendon Babenzien, Supreme’s Former Creative Director, Talks His New Label Noah and Creating a New Paradigm

It's been a wild, 30-year journey for the New York native, and after setting the bar in streetwear, he's making a radical change of course.

Photography By Andy Hur

“So what’s your story? What are you into?” These aren’t questions you expect the former creative director of Supreme to ask during an interview that’s supposed to focus on his latest venture, but Brendon Babenzien’s all-consuming curiosity has always informed his entire trajectory. It’s how he found early success working in a surf shop, which served as a hub for a community’s constant exchange and development of ideas. It’s what drove him to move to Miami and work on the highly-influential brand Pervert. His endless questioning is what he brought to Supreme in the mid-’90s, and what was behind the first iteration of Noah, which launched in 2002. After shuttering around 2007, the last eight years of Supreme gear have acted as a canvas for the new interests and things Babenzien’s learned because of ever-expanding interests and the desire to always dive deeper.

For one and a half decades, the Long Island native stood at the creative helm of Supreme, a position of unprecedented influence over the streetwear world and the subcultures tangential to the revered label. His designs have consistently created online and IRL frenzy, turning countless men and women into unabashed fanatics and re-defining the notion of hype, all while simultaneously progressing what streetwear could even mean. And then, earlier this year, it was announced that Babenzien would be leaving Supreme to re-launch Noah.

With the resurrection of his brand Noah, Babenzien is hoping to create a space and time in which people make the effort to explore the types of questions he’s been asking since his surf shop days, and to seek out a deeper understanding of their own and others’ pursuits. It’s a gigantic challenge, but after spending a short amount of time with Babenzien, his genuine passion for this goal is nothing short of infectious. Besides, can you really doubt the mind behind 15 years of Supreme product?

Noah is a return to the designer's personal roots, serving up an aesthetic that’s directly inspired by the guys who did it all back in East Islip: surfers, fisherman, skaters, sailors, clammers, etc. But here’s the thing: Babenzien’s goal with Noah is to encourage, cajole, and support people going well beyond the aesthete.

Again, it’s definitely a challenge, but from May 21 to May 28, Babenzien is taking a first step by hosting a pop-up shop in tandem with Union Los Angeles at The Supermarket, located at 393 Broadway in Manhattan. For that week and leading into the fall, Babenzien’s central aim with Noah is to help foster a community of active participants who will enable one another to progress collectively and individually. So how can you join in? You could start off by sharing your story with him. Here’s his.

You grew up in East Islip and worked in a surf shop. Is that when you started to connect the dots between subcultures?
The culture at the time was developing. It was really kind of new, this idea that suburban kids who surfed and skateboarded could also be into hip-hop. That cultural exchange was just starting—the trading of ideas—which now feels like the norm among young people. It was so new and exciting. If you met someone else who was thinking that way, it was really special.

What was the shop like?
It was a local shop called Rick’s, named after the owner. He was my boss. When I was 13, he was still selling cards, cigarettes, and magazines, and then he had a little part of the shop that had some skateboards and sweatshirts. Over time, it took over the shop, then he moved locations, and it became full-on. For us, it was the hub. Kids came to hang out and skate in the parking lot. It was a great job to have. We’d introduce ideas to each other through it.

Was Pervert born from there?
Pervert wasn’t born from there. Pervert’s from a friend of mine, Don Busweiler, and he was from a town called Bayport. My crew from my town and his crew from his town would all go to this carnival at night to skate and cause trouble. Don and I became friends, and he was doing his own thing. We sold Pervert in the shop when he was selling the T-shirts out of a backpack. There was this crew of kids on Long Island who were loyal Pervert kids. Just like the Stüssy tribe—we were all looking at what Shawn Stüssy was doing and emulating that.

There were times when you could go out to our local club, out on Long Island, called The Malibu. It had New Wave in one room, and hip-hop in the other. There could be 40 kids, all of them wearing Pervert. Everyone was just down.

“We want function to be a major part of what people are buying. I leave what that function is up to the individual.”

When did you start doing Pervert full-time?
Don started printing T-shirts in high school, and then he moved to Miami. I was, I don’t know, 20 years old? I can’t even remember. He was like, “Hey, I need help. Would you be willing to move and come help me?” So I did. His business was already up and running, but he wanted help from people he trusted—people who had good ideas. So I moved to go work with him down in Miami Beach for a while. This was maybe 1991 or 1992—the early ‘90s.

And then from Pervert, did you start working at Supreme?
More or less. It was weird for a few years when I was working with Don. I don’t know if you know the story, but he kind of lost it and has become a religious person.

Is he still involved in The Brethren?
He still lives on the street, as a Jesus follower. So there were a couple years during that time, when I came back to New York for a little while, and then I went back to Miami. After that second trip to Miami, when I was coming back home to New York, that’s when James [Jebbia] and I started talking about me possibly working with Supreme. He was in the very early stages of Supreme. He was already open, and he was already making product, but he didn’t really have an official product development guy or designer.

When Don left, was that the end of Pervert?
No, but I’m trying to remember the exact series of events. You have to understand. I was a kid, and there were a bunch of us just bugging out in Miami. A lot of it is really blurry. Miami Beach at that time was like the Wild West.

It didn’t just end. He had a partner who was doing it, and he tried to hire a few of us back. A few of us tried to do it for him, but it didn’t really work out, primarily because you need to let people do what they do. The partner was a business guy who wasn’t just letting us do our thing. I don’t think he fully understood what it was about, you know?

So you ended up at Supreme and started working on collaborative Vans sneakers?
It was just one of the first things that James asked me to do. He said, “Color some Vans.” That might have been one of the first things I worked on there. I don’t know why I remember it that way, but who knows.

To be honest, there was a lot to do. I was finding fabric suppliers, trying to find new manufacturers, and then reporting back to James. The infrastructure was relatively new.

Sort of an "all hands on deck" situation?
The resources were very limited. For the first several years we were just building resources, learning how things work, and figuring out who to call for what. It was a very interesting time.

When did you start developing Noah, five or six years later?
Yeah, I left to work on this idea that I had. It was primarily a reaction to everything that was happening. I felt like there was something I wanted to see that I wasn’t seeing. The initial idea of Noah was to capture this spirit of life near the water and what that means. Back then, nobody was really doing that. It was completely ignored. You couldn’t even really find a peacoat back then. It was really weird.

This was before the beard trend and all that shit. Nobody was really addressing this rugged man idea. And I grew up with these guys—guys who were clammers and fishermen. They’d paint houses all winter so they could travel and surf; they’re a pretty specific breed. Up until that point in fashion, you saw nautical, but it was really soft—blue and white striped T-shirts that were happy and beach-y. I was showing the other side of it, which was working men, cold, nasty weather, and storminess.

“I think every generation has their own way of finding their space and creating their freedoms.”

In a sense, do you think that the first iteration of Noah was ahead of its time?
I wouldn’t say that. I’m not gonna say that about myself. I’m never gonna say I’m ahead of my time. [Laughs]

OK, maybe that’s the wrong phrase, but being first is always hard. I think Dave Chappelle said that no one wants to be the first black president. It’s extra difficult to be the pioneer.
It’s definitely easier to be the guy who comes after. 12 or 14 years ago, somebody from a publication asked to do a story about Noah pioneering this kind of nautical look. I said to them, “That’s ridiculous.” Because up until very recently, the whole world revolved around nautical culture. Everything. You had to travel that way, you had to ship that way. This is ingrained in culture worldwide. People live near the sea, they get their food from the sea. This is not something I created.

What we’re trying to do here is really incorporate real life into the brand. We’re not trying to create an image. We’re trying to do real things, be who we really are, show what we’re really into, and have that part of the experience as much as the clothes themselves. I think we’ve gotten a little bit lost as a society; it used to be that clothes were very much about what you needed. There’s always been fashion, which goes back hundreds and probably even thousands of years back. But clothing’s first service is function, and if you can do a little bit of both, that’s great.

We want function to be a major part of what people are buying. I leave what that function is up to the individual. I don’t like things being stuck in holes.

Why the name Noah?
It’s really, really simple, but to get to the reason is very, very complicated. It’s fundamentally based on Noah from Noah’s Ark, the boat-builder. Whenever I think of Noah, I just think of the water. The early iteration of Noah was very much about the water. And it is still, but we’ve taken it a bit further than that.

When it comes to my design process, I like to do the extreme versions of things. Coming from New York, that’s a blessing, because we have summer, which is really fucking hot and nasty. And then we have winter, which gets really, really cold. My strength is making things made for those extremes. If I could just do swimwear and outerwear, I probably would. I love that shit. An example of that would be this sweatshirt [points to a sweatshirt], which is a reversible sweatshirt. It’s two-ply, back to back. And you can just turn it inside out and wear it on the other side. So it’s the heaviest sweatshirt you’re gonna see pretty much anywhere.

This looks like stuff you see on East Coast guys who surf, fish, work on the docks, who do all of it.
This is literally inspired by my youth and the guy who used to go out clamming in the wintertime. You’d see the guys clamming with a hoodie and a crewneck pulled over it. They’d just be out there digging clams in January with icebergs floating by.

Why are you re-launching Noah?
I’ve always wanted to. It’s always been really important to me. I’ve spent the better part of a decade figuring out how can I bring all of my ideas and beliefs into one space. This isn’t really just about design and clothing. Hopefully we accomplish our goals, and it’s much, much bigger than that. Hopefully we bring people to a place where they understand that what they purchase matters. What they buy, how they buy, and where things are made matters. Are people being paid a good wage? Are they happy? Are we happy? There are so many things. Being much older, I’m 43 now, I’m a grown man. I wanted to fully realize the best possible scenario with the brand. And there’s really no point in waiting. I still have the energy to do it, I am still very excited by it, and I think we can do some really great things. It’s really that simple.

“The goal is, if you buy this, make sure you use this fucking thing. Get out there and do it.”

You don’t want to just sell people a part of the Noah image. You want to enable them to do the things they’re already doing, or try new things. How can you ensure that Noah is striving towards that?
Fundamentally, bottom line: It’s about being yourself. To me, being an individual is the most punk rock thing you can do. To just be like, “This is who I am. Whatever. I like to wear ties. Fuck you,” you know? [Laughs] Or, “I hate a suit and tie, because that’s some corporate shit, and I just want to wear T-shirts everyday.” What really makes you you is how you think, not what you wear. As long as you’re being yourself, we’re all good. But fashion doesn’t really like that. Fashion wants to scare you into believing you have to do things a certain way and wear things a certain way. Otherwise, you’re not real. You don’t count.

Did you see that non-punk rock-ness in Supreme consumers?
I would say to ask about Supreme specifically is maybe missing the point. It’s everywhere. It’s going to be here, too. It’s everywhere. And all we can do is strive to get people to really feel good about themselves and be themselves.

You want to model a physical space after the surf shops of your youth, right? As a place where people can come in and interact, learn, and teach?
The goals of the brand are to create real interaction. Coming out of a surf shop as a kid, I really experienced that. People lived their life in that shop, and they spent time there. They talked to me. If there was a younger kid there, I could teach that kid stuff and talk to him, and be like: “Oh, did you see this? Did you ever hear about this band?” I want that experience to continue and not just be purely about commerce. I want there to be more positive interaction. Without that, what are we doing, if we’re not enjoying our day? We’re all gonna be in the fucking grave soon, so we might as well make every day a positive and fun experience if we can.

It sounds like there’s this whole system of brands creating a desirable lifestyle, consumers chasing that lifestyle, and then when it's oversaturated, creating a new one. You want Noah to escape that cycle.
I would love to. I can tell you this, there won’t be any planned moves to make people come by. We’re just gonna do what we do. We’re gonna do it in an honest way. If it appeals to you, great. We’re not gonna change what we do for anything. We’re not gonna chase trends or anything like that. We’re just gonna be what it is. We’re lucky because we intend to be small. And as long as we’re small, we can continue to do that, and do it well. If we wanted to be some monster company, you can’t do that. You just can’t be really really big and maintain that kind of level of honesty and integrity. I feel like it just has to go away. The volume dictates that not everyone coming to shop with you is gonna be shopping for you for the most pure reason. There’s nothing wrong with that either, that’s just not my way.

“Anybody can wear a fucked up shirt, anybody can dye their hair, but what do you do? What are your beliefs?”

During your time at Supreme a lot of the clothing was informed by or adjacent to various subcultures and creative arenas: art, politics, music, etc. Is Noah the same way?
It’s essentially similar in that way, because that’s a big part of my life. I’m very interested in music, and politics, the environment, and in this case, the outdoors. There will be some similarities, just because how couldn’t there be? Will it be as prominent, the usage of those kind of things? Maybe not. But it will be there.

Was it a tough decision to leave Supreme?
Yeah. It’s fam. I’ve been there for a really long time. All my friends are there. And beyond that, there are questions of security. I’m leaving a good job. I’m leaving one of the most popular companies on the planet in youth culture. That’s never easy. I have a phenomenal amount of respect for James, what he does, and his ability as a leader with that business. So to say I’m gonna leave the cozy shelter of this incredible organization to be alone in the woods is not an easy thing to do. But what kind of person would I be if I let fear dictate my choices?

So the potential reward for achieving what you set out to do is greater than the security.
I guess that’s apparent. I guess so. I’m here. Growing up as a skateboard kid, even though I suck at skateboarding these days because I’m an old man, the attitude is still there. You can take that attitude into everything else you do; you don’t lose that. The freedom that skateboarding affords young people is tremendous. On the creative side, you have the freedom to do whatever you want to do, like invent tricks, and also the literal freedom of travel.

I used to go so far on my skateboard as a kid. To other towns! You can travel on those things. So that sense of freedom never really left me. It’s always been hidden deep inside of me, and I think it just welled up, and I realized I just need to be doing my own thing.

I think every generation has their own way of finding their space and creating their freedoms. The digital world has given kids so much information that there’s a freedom in that, too. They can learn so much, and they can choose from so many things, that they see what we didn’t see. We had to really explore. Some people think that’s a great thing, some people think that’s a bad thing. We just want to try to give a deeper experience.

“When you’re a kid, there’s a lot of pressure to follow and be down with what everybody’s down with. And if you’re something else, you’re kind of an outcast. I hope those kids come to me.”

How do you want Noah to give customers that deeper experience?
Number one: The physical experience of coming to the space will be a place you can come spend time, hang out, and ask questions. We’ll introduce you to a book if you say you’re interested in something. We’ll encourage you to pursue something. It’s really about connecting with people, one-on-one style, in a very honest way. The clothes themselves, the role they do play, is that they can be used. It’s not fashion. They have a function. The goal is, if you buy this, make sure you use this fucking thing. Get out there and do it.

There are some policies we’ll have to encourage certain types of usage. For instance, we want people to buy the clothes, go use them, and if they ever feel like they don’t want them anymore, they can bring them back. Bring them back to us, turn them in, tell us what you did with them, give us a story, then buy a new piece, and we’ll give you a discount on that new piece, because you turned in your old piece. We want it back. We want to know where it’s been, we want to know what it’s done. We want to know. That fucking wine stain, where did that happen?

So, it’s not a complicated thing. It’s really just having the desire to do it. You could walk down the street and not talk to anybody all day, or not look at anybody in the eye. That’s totally fine. Or you could create a totally different experience by walking down the street, and if somebody looks at you, be like, “Hey how are you? Good morning.” The person who serves you coffee, you could be like, “How are you feeling? What’s up? You ever heard this song?” [Laughs] You can do whatever you want to do. The only difference between what we’re going to do and maybe what others do is that we’re going to make this effort to connect with people.

It sounds like such an obvious and yet very underutilized return to what clothing used to be. It used to be an expression but also a barrier between you and your world.
Yeah. I don’t want it to sound like there’s some weird vendetta against fashion, because some of the fashion, to me, is pure art. It’s brilliant and amazing. I just want people to pick the lane that truly shows who they are. Because we all know there are some people who are fashion, man. They are about it, and they do it well, and they look great. It gives them an expression of who they are as individuals. And then there are others who are pulled into it, and it’s not quite their lane. And you can tell. And all we’re saying is be yourself. Just do your thing. Use clothes in whatever way you need to that’s honest for you.

What are you the most stoked about re-launching Noah?
That’s a really good question. I think the possibility of actually getting back to the activities that inspire it. Being able to skate again. Not that I couldn’t before, but I was really busy. I’ll be busy with this, too, but being independent and working for myself, I can choose how I go about my day. Hopefully I’ll skate more, I’ll surf more, I’ll run more, and I’ll do all the things that are injected into the clothing. That’s part of the company policy. If we’re not doing it, we can’t make it.

At Supreme you always maintained that you weren’t really a designer. You were more of an anthropologist of the things you enjoy, a conduit.
Yeah, it’s really simple. I’m definitely not a designer. I mean, I have to make choices, and I have to make sure that things fit, and I have to select the fabric or add a detail, or whatever.

I think the word “designer” is thrown around a little bit too much these days. I don’t really want to contribute to that kind of usage of the word. Because there are people who study, learn, and spend a lot of time cultivating their skill. I didn’t do any of that. So I don’t really think of myself as a designer. I don’t think any of the pieces I’m making are revolutionary pieces, you know what I mean? So I think it’d be really unfair to say I’m a designer. This is a brand. I didn’t name it after myself for a reason. I’m not a designer. There are people out there who put a lot of time and effort into learning a skill and honing their craft, and I respect them. I respect that. So, I don’t know. I’m not sure what I am. [Laughs]

In some ways, getting older is the best thing that can happen to you, if you retain your curiosity. Because you’re strong enough to recognize, “I don’t really care what anyone thinks.” It’s fucking amazing. When you’re a kid, there’s a lot of pressure to follow and be down with what everybody’s down with. And if you’re something else, you’re kind of an outcast. I hope those kids come to me. Those outcast kids.

So the older you get, the less fucks you give?
Pretty much, if you’re a strong individual. If you know your shit. It’s liberating, because you can actually really enjoy a lot of things that maybe you wouldn’t have before.

We’re in a moment where a lot of kids are very proud of their oddities, or their weird interests that aren’t mainstream. It’s a badge of honor to call yourself a "weirdo" now. Just because you dye your hair purple, does that mean you’re a weirdo?
Not at all. Not even close. Put your money where your mouth is. What are you really about? Because anybody can wear a fucked up shirt, anybody can dye their hair, but what do you do? What are your beliefs? And what are you willing to do to actually show the world what those beliefs are? Are you willing to take it on the chin for your beliefs? Or are you just like, “Nah man, I’m okay.” So it’s going to be an interesting time. But there’s an interesting thought there—making choices with your physical appearance might lead to bigger, stronger choices, which could be really cool. If you're a kid, your first understanding of being different or being yourself is a physical choice that opens up a Pandora’s box of other possibilities. It could be really, really interesting, you know?

Your outward appearance is an immediate and the most obvious signal for like-minded individuals. “Oh, you wear weird shit too? Maybe we listen to the same music. Or maybe we could do something together.” But to only believe in the superficial as an expression of your individuality is kind of cheap.
It’s too early to tell if all this oddity accepted as cool is actually an honest expression or not. We don’t know yet. Right now it’s kind of fashionable to be "off" and strange. We’ll see if it’s actually the real thing, in time.

It could just cycle back.
Yeah, I have no idea. And we’re only talking about the outward expression. I want to see what this generation does with their choices. Beyond their fashion choices. What are they buying, why do they buy it, and how do they vote? Where do they live? How do they raise their kids? All of that. We’ll see what it really means. Or it could just be a fashion trend, we don’t know. It’s too early to tell.

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