New Yorker Brendon Babenzien’s had an interesting ride. A lifelong surfer and skater, he starting working at the seminal Rick’s Surf Shop in his teens. That led him to a gig with the clothing brand Pervert in the ‘90s, and then to Supreme, back when Supreme had yet to explode. Brendon rode that explosion. He was at the very center of it, “doing product development, design, the whole kit and caboodle.” It was exactly the kind of DIY, learn-on-the-fly approach that surfing and skating grooms you for. After fifteen years of it he stepped off. In 2015, Brendon launched Noah, a men’s clothing brand that’s about integrity, responsibility, keeping the bar high. “We believe in doing things our own way, with conviction, according to principles we determine ourselves. That’s the definition of punk rock to us, and we’re interested in the endless ways people from all walks of life manifest this attitude.” Brendon and I caught up the way so many of catch up in these strange times, via cell phone. He was in Brooklyn with his family.
What were the surf and skate scenes like when you were growing up?
I started skating in the ‘70s when I was around five. It wasn’t the normal thing to do on Long Island. And in my school there were only a handful of people who skated and probably even less that surfed in any real way. But I was lucky because my older brother surfed, and his crew of friends all surfed. We grew up in a town on the Great South Bay, and going to the beach was just part of the lifestyle. I learned how to surf when I was like 12. In the ‘80s, you knew pretty much everybody. You felt like you were part of a special club in New York, you know?
New York has such unique surf and skate scenes.
My view of the world has been fully formed by New York. As a teenager I was reading Thrasher and Surfer and Surfing and really being inspired by California, but I shed that quite early on. I think by my early 20s I already was recognizing that California wasn’t really for me. Mostly because I identified pretty early on that there were so many other things that New York had to offer that also interested me—music, theater, nightlife, fashion.
And you were a Birdwell fan from early on, right?
There are two things I gravitate towards: a unique point of view on something that is genuine, and the quality of This is who we are, this is what we’ve always been, this is who we’re going to be. In a way that’s undeniable. And Birdwell represents both of those things to me. There are a few of us in the company that have been wearing Birdwells for a really long time. Because we didn’t really grow into that other thing that happened, which was like super-long trunks and flip-flops and a baseball hat. That just wasn’t our thing. And Birdwells were like a standard. You can rely on it. If you saw somebody with Birdwells, you knew that the person had just good taste basically.
Tell me about your collaboration with Birdwell.
We love what Birdwell does, and so we wanted to just inject a little bit of our point of view into it, and we do a ton of paisleys, and we do a lot of florals, so we just wanted to show that side of it. We wanted to show a slightly different point of view that was, we hope, new for Birdwell, but not so distant that it didn’t make sense for them. We wanted to keep the thread; we didn’t want to break it. They brought their area of expertise to the table and we did the same. And we kind of met in the middle and it worked out really, really well. It’s exactly what a collaboration should be. Birdwell is a pillar within the surf community, not just culturally, but also within the business, for the choices they make—how they operate, the products they make, how they present themselves. And I know they like what we’re doing as well. This collaboration isn’t just a marketing trick. We have a tremendous amount of respect for Birdwell and what they’re doing.
Tell me about Noah.
As a brand, Noah’s got like a multiple personality disorder. And that’s by design, because growing up in New York, being into skateboarding, being into surfing, but also being exposed to hip-hop culture, graffiti, music, breakdancing, the art scene, and punk rock—all of that has informed what we do as a brand. And I know the rule is you’re supposed to be focused, right. Like that’s generally how you succeed. Pick a focus. You’re a running brand. You’re a surf brand. You’re a fishing brand. Like, that’s what you are. Be that, right? But that just felt limiting to us. It just felt impossible to do the things we wanted to do and say the things we wanted to say in that box. So we just took a different approach. We were like, Look, people are really interesting and complex and diverse. And to try and say if you surf, you look like this and you talk like this or you listen to this is ridiculous. And it’s equally as ridiculous to say if you’re a fisherman, you might not be into this, that, or the other. So we just kind of ignore it all. And what that allows us to do is it allows us to touch a lot of things. An important part of the business is the very fundamental idea that businesses should operate responsibly and not really operate with the bottom line as a driving force for all decisions, which again in business, in America, historically, we have the phrase, “It’s not personal, it’s business,” exists for a reason because that was our attitude, right. Business in America was just think money. Doesn’t matter how you do it. And if you do, you’re a god, right. That’s how it’s been for decades. And nobody really cared how you did it, as long as you did it. If you made money, you’re a superstar. And that always felt really inappropriate to me. So we just said, Look, we’re going to use the business as a vehicle to talk about things we think are important, and to raise money for things. And we’re going to operate in the most responsible way possible. All businesses should be doing some kind of good for the world.