Brendon Babenzien: “You can be a complete bastard but if you look cool you’re given a pass”

The Noah founder and ex-Supreme creative director explains why fashion brands need to be more sustainable if they want to survive

WORDS: Tom Banham
PHOTO: Chris Tang

This week, Brendon Babenzien took the unusual step of revealing how much one of his jackets costs to make. After 14 years as the creative force behind Supreme, last year he returned to Noah, the brand he mothballed in 2006, where he creates clothes that he hopes will last more than a season. His blog post came in response to a young customer who, meeting him at the brand’s new concession in Dover Street Market, asked how Noah could charge more than its competition for what seemed like similar products.

Surfers should be defenders of the environment

As Babenzien explained, it’s because he works with factories that pay their workers fairly, and uses materials that don’t destroy the planet. The fashion industry is, after oil and agriculture, the world’s third most polluting. Like Patagonia, which Babenzien describes as “the most influential brand to me when it comes to how we are trying to function”, he sees that challenge as something to solve, not ignore. His quest is to educate his customers to look beyond a label, to not buy into hype and instead consider the impact of what they purchase.

As Babenzien told his young customer (who, after hearing his explanation, immediately purchased the jacket): “Every time you buy something that is made cheaply, it means someone else is picking up the cost. You save money because someone else is making less, and perhaps working in conditions that no human should suffer.” He spoke to us exclusively about this philosophy.

Do you think people know enough about where their clothes come from and how they're made?
It feels like they don't. I think in the more recently, say the past 30 years, no one has really cared. However, I think the new youth are becoming more and more aware of their choices – and they’re realising that their choices define who they are more than any look ever could. That’s what drives me: the future generations who care about the world on a larger scale. It makes perfect sense to me that younger people care more. They’re more exposed to the rest of the world through ease of travel and social media connections that link them to a global network of like-minded people.

We ship fabric from Japan to Italy to be sewn, and then to the States to be sold. Then back around the world to customers who order online. This is an environmental disaster. But for now, it is the best we can do.

What drove you to think about the ethical aspects of the clothes you make? Was there a moment at Supreme that made you want to approach design and manufacturing in a different way?
It wasn't any one thing that drove me to try and build a company that strives to be better; it’s been an ongoing development in my life for a long time. I can remember being 15 or 16 – my boss at a surf shop on Long Island used to comment on the foam packing chips in the boxes sent to us by all of the surf companies. He would say, ‘They shouldn’t have used foam packing chips to ship a few t-shirts – surfers should be defenders of the environment.’

Ever since then, it’s been a continual education for me, and I’ve got tons to learn, still. I add components as I move forward, but there is loads I would still like to do. Just today, someone commented on us shipping fabric from Japan to Italy to be sewn, and then to the States to be sold. And in some cases, then shipped back around the world to customers who order online. This is an environmental disaster. But for now, it is the best we can do. In the future, we may be big enough to have distribution centers elsewhere to allow for less air shipping. It’s a goal of mine. And if I could find fabrics and factories all in one place, I would.

The reality though, is that to get high-quality things, sometimes you have to source in a variety of places. We focus more on the life of a garment – you can make up for any damage you do in production by encouraging people to be more knowledgeable consumers by buying less and keeping things longer. I like to present it as a challenge to people. Anyone can look good with the latest and the greatest where the brand or graphic is recognisable to all, and everyone immediately knows you’re a cool guy. It’s a completely different story to show up with the confidence to be yourself and wear what suits you, regardless of what the world of fashion or media is telling you.

Fashion supply chains can be incredibly convoluted. How do you find the factories and textile producers that you want to work with?
I simply look for good stuff when it comes to textiles. My focus is quality. I work with a lot of older mills that produce high quality goods. I take the same approach with factories. The simplest approach to factory sourcing is to work with people I know and where I can verify the factory conditions. A simple approach for us is to work in the countries that have fair labor laws and environmental laws. Most of the factory sourcing starts with a recommendation from someone I trust.

What do you recommend to anyone who wants to get more educated on these issues?
There is an organization called the Worldwatch Institute that puts out a report annually in the form of books called “State of the World.” They pick a topic every year and call on experts to contribute and come up with a comprehensive understanding on where we stand in areas like environmental issues, food security, and consumerism. The first one I ever read was about consumerism and it blew my mind.

I also would highly recommend anything Patagonia is talking about. They are the pioneers in this space and have been the most influential brand to me when it comes to how we are trying to function. The book Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard is incredible. I’ve also recently read a book called Blood and Earth which is about the link between modern day slavery and the destruction of the environment.

You talk about the price of your garments and where that comes from. That openness is great, but most brands aren't so candid and high price doesn't always mean high quality. How can people ensure that what they buy isn't exploitative and is sustainable?
No one is going to like this answer. I think it’s hard to know if what you’re buying was produced in a fair manner. The only way to know if your purchases are not exploitive is to not be lazy about it. Ask questions. Do research. Educate yourself about quality and price. Generally speaking, the adage ‘you get what you pay for’ still holds true. If something is inexpensive, there is probably a good reason for that.

Even well made garments often get binned when they pass out of fashion. How do you navigate that tension between making things that feel current but which won't date?
That is complicated. I’ll try to explain how we think of it, though. Essentially, we don't consider ourselves a fashion brand. We are not trying to be cool. I am much more interested in helping shift the cultural understanding of what “cool” means. We’re hoping that people’s choices become a defining factor in whether or not they are perceived as ‘cool’.

In today’s world, ‘looking cool’ is enough. You can be a complete bastard or you can be buying things that you know do damage, but if you look cool, or if you’re handsome or you’re friends with someone famous or are someone famous yourself, you’re given a pass. So the answer to the question is: we are encouraging our customers to buy things from us for the right reasons and not to bin them. If you’re in line with us culturally, the idea of trend or fashion doesn't have any bearing.