When I meet Brendon Babenzien, Supreme's former artistic director, I have a simple premise in mind for our interview: how do you age gracefully out of a scene? Glancing at the racks of meticulously-designed separates that fill the collaborative pop-up shop for his new line, Noah, and Union at Exposure's ideas gallery, The Supermarket , I have my question ready. But in addition to my curiosity about this idea is an underlying anxiety that true youth culture, in all its rebellious glory, is actually dying out. I worry about my 15-year-old sister, who wakes up and falls asleep to the glow of an iPad, and for myself, sitting at a dinner table with my closest friends, all scrolling through our Instagram feeds. I worry that fucking shit up, as a concept, is going extinct. Babenzien doesn't think so. "That's the mistake people make," he tells me. "People think we go down a path and we stay on that path. There's a some young kid somewhere right now who's saying, ' I don't like what my older brother did. Fuck that shit, I'm gonna do it like this.' That's always gonna happen."
Babenzien was instrumental in the skate-streetwear brand Pervert, whose influence still persists twenty years after its founder Don Busweiler dipped at the crest of the brand's success to join the Brethren religious cult. After Busweiler's departure, Babenzien moved back from Florida to New York and became a fixture of the skate scene, existing at the forefront of the rise and fall of rave culture, hardcore, new wave, the early years of hip-hop. All the while, he was busy becoming something of a streetwear legend, acting as artistic director of Supreme. Now, 43 and the father of a newborn daughter, Babenzien has his hands full helming Noah, the coalescence of twenty years of streetwear expertise and an adolescence spent fucking around at the ocean and the skatepark. Babenzien may be grown, but he has faith in kids today. Here’s why you should, too.
When was the idea for Noah born?
I'd left Supreme [in 2002] and worked on Noah for a couple years with very little experience. That was at a time when the clothing for younger people and downtown New York was really dominated by a heavy hip-hop influence. There was nobody doing what I thought of as really classic clothing at the time. I was trying to present all these really great ideas that weren't being touched on and also show people that nautical culture wasn't always pretty, prissy white and blue kind of stuff. A lot of it isn't. Guys that I grew up with, fisherman and commercial clammers and shit—they're rough. I wanted to represent that, but I didn't know what I was doing, didn't have money, all the usual problems for businesses. In a lot of ways that set the tone for what my individual design sensibility was gonna be, as opposed to someone working for a company. This version [of Noah] is basically a more informed version: a little more thought out, more detail, more layers. It's an elevated version of what I did the first time around.
Why did you decide to leave Supreme for a second time?
I'm an older guy and Supreme is an incredible brand. I have family there. It's such a huge part of my life. But then there's other parts of my life that don't really belong, and I can't really go work somewhere else. You work for Supreme or work for yourself. It's a very particular personality type with a very particular skill set: [you need] diverse knowledge of the history of music and fashion and art and downtown New York culture—all those things and how they converge. Not everybody has all those things at once. But the people that work over there have that. They have it, and they're super talented. For me it was really just the need to change and try new things. Supreme's probably still the best brand on earth. I can only aspire to do it that way.
Your work has consistently evolved with the times without getting stuck in the past. Do you actively think about keeping up with youth culture as the kids get younger and younger?
Who knows if I'll be around next year? I don't know, we'll see. If you're thinking too much about 'How do I adapt, How do I stay relevant,' all that shit, all your energy goes to that and you're not actually creating anything worthwhile. If you're honest about what you're doing and you're trusting what you're doing and you have a point of view, you're gonna make good stuff. Young people have been coming by and talking to me—a 43 year-old guy that still likes music, still likes skateboarding, and still likes clothes—and they see what I went through when I was a kid with different music scenes and skateboarding and how that fits into this new project.
“That’s the misunderstanding that young people have—and I had it too when I was younger—you think, ‘I’m gonna be so different later on in life.’ You’re not.”—Brendon Babenzien
What does it look like to outgrow a scene?
There's no graduation. There's no end and beginning to any of these things. If there was, I wouldn't have some of these designs. These graphics are from ideas I had when I was a kid. I didn't leave them behind, they're still in me. They stay with you. All you do is add to your previous experiences. I stopped skating a long time ago, but it's still in me. I'm skating again. I think that's the misunderstanding that young people have—and I had it too when I was younger—you think, I'm gonna be so different later on in life. You're not. The world is different and it forces things on you, but you are the same person. When you're a kid it's pure emotion. You don't even know what you're feeling. You're like, 'Why does this song make me feel this way? Why do I love this T-shirt so much?' or whatever. The only difference is that when you're older and feel that way, you can figure out why.
Can you talk about the socially-conscious aspects of Noah?
I care about people. I make my clothes in places where people are making a good living and they care about their future. I don't want to just put a bunch of garbage into the world and hope for the best. I wanna be part of a solution moving forward. I have a seven week-old daughter and it's my responsibility to make the right choices with our businesses to ensure a good future for her. If you really break it down, it's actually a very aggressive position to take. Most people are like, 'Oh that sounds kinda hippy dippy.' But if I didn't care [about the world], I'd actually have a lot more in common with Coca-Cola. They don't give a fuck about us or the future. Caring is actually more punk than not.
Do you pay attention to the high-fashion world?
My opinion is that for men, clothes should stay relatively simple. I think overt high fashion stuff gets a little strange. You know what, let me retract: not entirely. There's some people who are "about it," about fashion, and it makes sense for them. It's naturally who they are. I think where things go wrong is when fashion and business collide and the intention is to sell everyone the fashion. Then you have some guy in the street who decides he's gonna put on some crazy leather strappy thing, and he shouldn't. It doesn't make sense to him, and you can tell just by looking at him that he's really awkward and uncomfortable. It's some fantasy gone wrong and it doesn't even look good. I'm that dude. I can't wear that stuff.
“The current state of youth seems to be very focused on fame and success and social media has made everyone the center of their own little universe, right? But that’s not gonna go on forever.”—Brendon Babenzien
How did you bring the influence of your adolescence into the collection?
I was a skate kid, and my friends were weirdo skaters. In the '80s, it was all about football and baseball back then. If you were into skating and listened to punk rock or even new wave, you were a weirdo. The Cure was definitely not accepted. A 15-year-old kid loving Sinead O'Connor, bald lady? Not cool. We had this weird mix: we were all these little skate kids, but the girls we hung out with were these super preppy private school girls. These girls would be wearing tennis skirts and Doc Martens. It's just the coolest fucking thing ever. A lot of what you see here is residual emotion from that time. That's where [Noah's] colors come from. This [running jacket] is something my mother would wear when I was a kid in the '80s. It's cool. It allows me to play with all these real life things.
A lot of kids who are into style and streetwear are really tapped into this nostalgia for an era they never experienced. Do you feel like that time belongs to the people who lived it, and it's up to kids today to own their current experience?
There's certain things I can speak about there that I do feel sorry for. If you've never been to a Cure concert when The Cure were at their peak, you missed something. But everyone experiences that. I never saw Bob Marley. That dude was a revolutionary. When he put that music out, that was really saying something, and I never saw him. I missed that. Never saw Led Zeppelin. It sucks that young people didn't get to see The Smiths together, but young people make their own new stuff. That's how it should be. Make new memories. I'm always hoping for that.
So you don't think the youth of today are doomed?
The current state of youth seems to be very focused on fame and success, and social media has made everyone the center of their own little universe, right? That's not gonna go on forever. We have highs and lows where the youth is into really commercial shit. When I was a kid, pop music was really popular. Now, alternative music seems to be more popular than normal shit. It's a cycle, it'll always go back to something. Like, I remember Nirvana came out of a glut where there wasn't any good rock & roll. Doomed is a strong word. There'll be something cool again.