Interview: Brendon Babenzien Talks Trivial Pursuits
Brendon Babenzien’s career trajectory is impressive. The Long Island native started working with Supreme in 1997, helping James Jebbia establish the brand at the forefront of the downtown scene, before departing to establish his own label – Noah. In 2006 Babenzien returned to Supreme, the prodigal son, and helped steer the brand as creative director during a definitive period for the cultural juggernaut. Ever restless, he left Supreme in 2015 to revive Noah. Still, according to Babenzien, such professional accolades aren’t what matter. Instead, life is all about the inbetween – those inconsequential moments that shape who we are. Drinks with friends, a trip to the beach in summer, or the simple luxury of a well-crafted pair of shoes. These are the experiences that inform his latest endeavour – sneaker brand Aprix. Launching early 2017 with two silhouettes that reference his Long Island upbringing, these are the new staples of a refined Americana.
I’m interested to know what it was like growing up in Long Island as a kid.
I loved it. It’s like another universe. I was a real kid in the 70s – the world was totally different. You could do whatever you wanted and it all felt safe. Nobody had to worry about us going out on our bikes and skateboards and disappearing. I think one of the things I discovered later in life is that if you grow up in the suburbs in close proximity to a city – a good city – you have a weird advantage.
In what sense?
There’s two definite types of people in the suburbs. Those who live or grow up in the suburbs and they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m going to go to my close city.’ In some cases, your close city is New York. In other places, it’s Tokyo, London, Manchester, it doesn’t really matter – but if you start going and accessing the cultural things that your local city has to offer you gain a lot from that. You can see shows, you can go see art, you can see people from different cultures. You’re essentially learning whether you’re trying to or not. But you also have this advantage because in my case, for example, I had the beach ten minutes away. There were times when I could go to the beach and surf, then later that day, take transit to the city and go to a house party or see a show.
Really cool kids grow up in New York, grow up in London and grow up in Paris – they’re inner city kids who have access to everything. My suspicion is that
they kick things off, but then they chill, they don’t take it to the next place because they don’t have to. Kids like me or others who are from the suburbs, we might have to work a little bit harder. That effort actually turns into something. I don’t know if I should’ve been the guy who had a pretty big influence on the way Supreme worked out on a day-to-day basis or not, but I wanted to be. I put in my time, and I was able to do it. From a ‘cool’ perspective, there are probably a thousand other kids who are way cooler than me.
You’ve got to work for it.
Growing up in a suburb you might be into something that everybody else in your community isn’t. You have to find other kids, and they might be living two or three towns over. It teaches true commitment to something. Growing up in Long Island turned out to be a tremendous advantage in the end.
You grew up with surfing and skateboarding. At what point did you start to associate those cultures with a sense of visual identity?
I don’t think it ever was a conscious thought. I think those things just go together, organically. I think just by the nature of being into skateboarding, you’re surrounded by imagery already. You’re surrounded by people who are individuals with unique attitudes and styles and it rubs off on you.
When did you become involved with Supreme?
I did two runs at Supreme. The first one was probably around ’97, in the early days when Supreme was developing their stuff. The shop was there, James was making stuff and it was already probably the coolest brand around. He was growing and was looking for help in developing product. It was kind of everything. I don’t even know if you’d call it design. It was conversations with James, but it was also sourcing, building relationships with factories. It was everything – and certainly wasn’t really glamorous. I did that for six or seven years, then I went out and I did Noah for a little while in a much different time and place. Eventually I wound up back at Supreme for another eight or nine years. The second go around was a much different experience. The world had changed, and I had changed. I’d learned a lot and I was able to bring a focus back.
Did you keep some of that Long Island identity when you were immersed in the downtown scene?
My experience in this community is unique because I could walk into a fucking Supreme store in L.A. when I was doing the job and there were kids who worked there who didn’t know who I was. I’m not even shitting you. That’s always been my existence. I never really wanted to define myself by this one specific community or culture. I definitely wanted to go to the beach as often as I could. That wasn’t a typical thing. I never did drugs. That’s a huge defining thing for a person who lives in downtown New York. It kind of takes you out of a lot of the conversations to be perfectly honest.
In your role now, you’ve got to be a lot more present as the face of these companies. Is that something that you’re comfortable with?
With Noah, of course, because this is my full spectrum. I can talk about punk rock and I can talk about the environment in the same day. We can go to the beach and still be in the city that afternoon. It’s all encompassing. This is a much more realised version of my thought process and the things I’m interested in. I don’t love being the voice of anything, necessarily.
My interest doesn’t lie in being the face of a brand or being famous, that’s not what I’m about. But I do recognise that it’s necessary for the business.
You’ve gone on the record a number of times saying that you don’t really identify with the term ‘designer’. How do you describe your role?
I don’t know if I’ve quite figured that out yet. Here at Noah, my role is a little bit of everything because this is a business that I own and I essentially make all the decisions. In terms of the visual side where you’re talking about the development and production of clothing, I’d say at best it might be a glorified stylist or something along those lines. Although I think there’s some level of creativity that goes into what we do here, it’s pretty simple stuff at the end of the day. It’s not Yohji Yamamoto in his heyday changing seam locations and construction – it’s sweatshirts and jackets. I think it will be insulting to people who go to school and learn how to make patterns and really push the direction of clothing if I sit here and call myself a designer.
I think it’s funny when people in our space put out some t-shirts and sweatshirts and it gets labelled a ‘collection’. It’s like, ‘Are you fucking kidding?’ It doesn’t even make sense. Now, with that said, there’s other variables that play into it. If you look at Supreme – we changed culture. We’ve changed the way people dress, the way people think, the way people talk and all of those things. It goes beyond the term ‘designer’. A company like Supreme or Stussy have changed generations of people and continue to have an impact.
I think they function more as cultural conduits or facilitators than a ‘brand’ in the traditional sense.
It can sound a little bit belittling for me to say, ‘Oh, I’m not a designer’. Maybe we play an even more important role, I don’t know.
Given your time with Supreme and Noah, what do you think of the emergence of streetwear and sneakers as distinct cultures? Are they something that exists in and of themselves, or are they something that are ancillary to other subcultures?
This is probably going to sound crazy, but I don’t give a fuck about sneakers in that way. I like what I like, but I’m the last guy that’s going to be able to tell you what sneaker came out when. None of that shit ever mattered to me. It almost defeats the purpose. There’s some guys who’ve been collecting sneakers their whole lives, they’re down and I’m all for that.
If that’s your thing, cool, there’s guys who collect fucking stamps. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I’m more of skate kid at heart. When I was 15, perfect sneakers didn’t even make sense – it meant you didn’t skate because your sneakers weren’t fucked. I don’t know if we should be coveting anything like that – let alone sneakers.
If all you’re doing is getting dressed in the morning to look cool and it’s not coming from a culture that influenced your style then you’re just a character. If you’re dressed up like a skater, but you don’t skate – what are you? If you can just buy whatever you want, you haven’t really earned much.
“If you look at Supreme – we changed culture”
This is a good segue, what made you start Aprix?
We developed Aprix 12 years ago. A good friend and I developed the whole concept. At that time, Converse and Vans were dead. Canvas sneakers were not what they are today. It sounds funny to say, but we basically just wanted to create a new canvas classic for ourselves and for people who were like-minded. We wanted it to have this really simple elegance. The idea of it is a really simple kind of luxury, having less to do with money and more to do with time. Footwear was the introduction to a bigger kind of lifestyle that we have planned – really simple things. My buddy who helped me work on this, he calls it ‘trivial pursuits’, these things that fundamentally don’t mean much, but life is really all about them. He sails and he’s a race car drive. He does all these crazy things that aren’t technically important, but if you’re not out doing things that you love – what the fuck are you doing? That’s what the brand identity is all about.
I was going to ask you who the consumer is, but it sounds like it’s actually you.
It has to be. I think it’d be weird for me to be like, ‘I’m going to make stuff for those people over there who I have nothing in common with.’ I wouldn’t know how to do that. In some cases, they’re for a previous me. In other cases, it’s the future me.
Sustainable practice is something that really informs what you’re doing with Noah. Is that something you’re bringing over to Aprix?
What sustainable means for me is so complicated because I’m not using organic cotton or canvas, for example. I’m sure there are some glues used in the sneakers that that are probably toxic. What we can do is we can make long-lasting products and encourage people to buy wisely, and not be so hell-bent on owning everything they see. I want people to shop with me, but not for the wrong reasons. I want them to actually really care about what we’re doing and want to be part of the community that we’re trying to create. If they do that,
I would expect that they’ll keep the things we do longer, use them longer and maybe they will buy less. The reality of sustainability in this world is a reduction of things tends to be one of the biggest problems we have. We do a lot more for the world buying a used car than we do buying a brand new Tesla because the amount of materials that went into creating that new Tesla – it’s insane. We use more water to produce a plastic bottle of water than the fucking water in the bottle.
You’re launching with two styles, what informed the decision to limit Aprix to just those silhouettes?
It was a combination of things. There are some practicality issues – I don’t want to start with ten styles. We’re only a small business, we’re only going to sell in a handful of places so we can’t really come out the gate with all these different styles. This is the best presentation of what the brand is about, which is a very simple thing, and I felt that these two styles do that. The 001 which is the canvas and suede combo with the toecap and the heel patch, that’s probably the most culturally relevant shoe – it’s the core of the brand. The 002 is a classic shape that’s very tennis. I love that silhouette. I really just wanted a vehicle to be able to drop in fabrications and colourways over time and have it constantly evolve and change based on how we’re feeling.
Is the tennis and soccer influence a callback to your upbringing?
If you go back to the 70s and the early-80s, you didn’t have the variety, everything was a tennis sneaker or a soccer sneaker. We didn’t have skate-specific sneakers, you barely had basketball sneakers. I think there’s things that just naturally come out when I sit down to talk about what I’d like to see. I have this thing where I don’t question what I’d like to do. I think it has a lot to do with some kind of weird sense memory from my youth, with what was happening back then.
How do you differentiate between fashion and style?
Fashion is trend, fashion is what the industry tells you is happening. Style is a personal choice, style is something that individuals do. I think there’s a world of difference there. You can look at any trend that comes along. Usually, it can start with a handful of people that actually do something that isn’t typical and they do it very organically – it suits them. Then you walk down the street a year later and you see every motherfucker doing it and it looks really uncomfortable on them. It looks totally contrived and you can tell it’s not really who
they are as an individual – that’s fashion. The industry is a massive beast that literally is fucking mind-controlling people. They’re just telling people what to do and what to wear, how to look, what to say and all that shit. They’re using every tool at their disposal, whether it be advertising, social media, celebrity endorsements or whatever. The truth is, a lot of people don’t have the strength to combat that, and they fall prey to it.
This article first appeared in Sneaker Freaker issue 37, available at our shop.