0:00 Brendon: Here’s the vision. Love what you do, do good stuff, encourage people that you work with to do better, educate our customers, then use all that to enjoy the process itself. Be able to have fun while we’re doing it, go skate together, go to the beach. Just build a business that allows good things to happen.
[Music, Winning! by EJCali]
0:22 Welcome back to Relentless, a podcast about the pursuit of farfetched ideas, unusual aspirations, or that perfect pair of sneakers. I’m the host, Maddy Russell-Shapiro. [Music under] At Relentless, motivation is put under a microscope to investigate why certain people choose to spend their limited time and resources on a specific interest. What’s it like to stick with something even when others think it’s foolish, or impossible?
If you listened to the first season of Relentless, you’ll recall that I spent months getting to know dedicated fans of the skateboard brand Supreme.
I did most of my reporting on sidewalks in Soho, in downtown Manhattan. And on my first day, I met a super-fan who mentioned something in passing that piqued my interest,
[Music fades out]
Male Voice: Not to plug another brand but the former creative director, Brendon, he’s down on Mulberry.
The former design director for Supreme had gone out on his own, establishing a menswear brand called Noah.
Noah, that’s kind of more my speed at this point. The brand’s ethos means a lot to me, the idea of preserving environment, down to their packaging, the materials they use. Cover them while you’re at it!
I wasn’t particularly interested in learning about another brand, but I was curious about the career trajectories of former Supreme designers, so I took the advice to look into Noah.
1:44 [Sounds of store]
When I first went to the store and took a look at the merchandise, the prices seemed high -- $148 for a hooded sweatshirt -- but the clothes were attractive, the palette colorful, the array of natural-fiber fabrics impressive. I was particularly taken with a pair of patchwork corduroy pants. The atmosphere was friendly. A couple tall guys greeted me warmly from across the room and we chatted briefly. It was a pleasant and unpressured interaction.
Spending time in the Noah store made me curious about its founders. So I emailed one of them, Brendon Babenzien, to see if he’d participate in my series about Supreme. He declined. I emailed him requesting an interview about Noah. No answer. But when I emailed again pitching him on the idea of a story about one business trying to align its ethics with its business practices, he responded in the affirmative.
[Sounds of store fade out and Winning! by EJCali back up]
[SCENE: INTRODUCE THE SERIES]
2:40 These days, it’s nearly impossible not to have noticed how often fashion brands are marketing themselves as quote unquote sustainable. It’s a term that has become shorthand for an amorphous set of concerns related to the environment and labor rights.
Maddy: When I say sustainable fashion, what comes to mind?
Female Voice: Where it’s coming from, where it’s made, factories, conditions, everything.
Sustainability has become so prevalent in marketing that there is now a term for misleading consumers about how sustainable a brand really is: “green-washing.” Andthere is a term for criticizing companies [music stops] for not doing enough in the environmental and social realms: “green-shaming.” It’s pretty hard to discern if any one company is actually doing the good it claims and the industry is full of contradictions.
If you spend just a little time researching the apparel industry online, you’ll find countless stories about hazardous and abusive work environments,
News Clip: Locking a door that’s specifically there to enable people to escape down a fire escape in the midst of a fire is about as bad as it gets.
News Clip: Chemical waste from clothes manufacturing has devastated rivers in Asia.
and lots and lots of waste,
News Clip: Swedish clothes shop H&M is struggling with a multi-million euro pile of unsold clothes.
A random sampling of people on the sidewalks of New York suggests that shoppers are aware of these issues,
Maddy: What are some examples you’re aware of that make the fashion industry not sustainable?
Male Voice: Unfair labor practices, people taken advantage of, resources being depleted, particularly with fiber.
Female Voices: I would say a lot of the waste that goes into making fabrics. The water that’s used. The pollution of dumping dyes in rivers. Working conditions of people in factories. Pay. How much they’re paid, they’re underpaid, their conditions in the factories aren’t safe. Also transportation of things, when it’s coming from other side of world, it’s a huge amount of gas used on those airplanes.
4:42 Human rights advocates around the world are agitating about this. [Music, Home by DJ Synchro, underneath] Environmentalists too. Fast fashion gets a lot of attention because of the sheer volume of clothing produced, but the entire apparel industry is implicated. And by extension so are we, as consumers.
It’s sickening to contemplate. Yet the harmful practices are pretty much invisible when you are standing in a brightly-lit air conditioned store, listening to Old Town Road on a loop of pop hits, glancing through countless racks and piles of freshly pressed slacks in six muted colors for fall. It’s hard to conjure ocean pollution and underpaid women in a foreign country when there are friendly salespeople at your elbow asking how they can help.
A lot of us really do want to support businesses that are making the effort to protect workers and the planet. We love style but we don’t want to buy clothes and shoes and accessories that contribute to pollution and exploitation. We’re even willing to adjust what we consider a reasonable price to pay.
Male Voice: It’s easy to contribute to things that are ultimately harmful. It’s just kind of people’s baseline is not wanting to challenge themselves. But anything good comes from a little more work. So clothing should be the same way.
In this season of Relentless, I take an inside look at the pursuit of responsible, ethical business decisions in fashion. I want to understand concretely what kinds of choices are available for companies to reduce waste and pollution, to treat workers fairly.And I want to figure out what role I can play in encouraging brands to make those decisions.
For starters, there’s Noah, the menswear company in New York. I spent time with the Noah team throughout fall 2018 and winter 2019 in order to learn about the ways in which the company holds itself accountable to people and to the planet, and to understand the reality of implementing those values in the apparel industry.
Because despite the trends, taking an ethical approach to producing clothes is still, in 2019, countercultural.
[SCENE: INTRODUCE THE FOUNDERS]
6:44 Hi, this is Brendon from Noah.
Noah’s founder, Brendon Babenzien, has a slight build. I’m 5’7 and I think we’re about the same height. [Music fades out] Over the months that I met with him to report this story, he sometimes had a shaved head and at other times a low-profile Mohawk. Often he wore a billed Noah cap. Over the winter, he had the beginning of a salt-and-pepper beard. Whenever I see him, he’s dressed head-to-toe in Noah. And his relaxed posture during interviews belies the intensity of his convictions.
Brendon grew up on Long Island in New York, started working at age 13 in a local surf shop, and later spent a total of 15 years at the menswear and skateboard brand, Supreme, ultimately as its design director.
Supreme taught everyone everything. [Laughs]Prior to Supreme, the bulk of the population hadn’t heard of certain artists or bands or were unfamiliar with certain looks or visuals, the way New York skateboarding was different than the rest of skateboarding. No one outside of this very small community of people knew anything about that stuff really. Supreme brought that to a much larger audience.
After about six years at Supreme, in 2002, Brendon left Supreme to start his own menswear brand, Noah.
I was mostly interested in the story of Noah, as this idea of a boat builder and really just water, generally. I wanted that theme to run throughout the brand history because it’s big part of my life. And I do think that whether we like it or not, religions have pretty much shaped history and interactions between societies. So really the name came from that larger thought process: what's a name that I like? What’s a name that hints at water stuff but also allows me to talk about these bigger issues, you know, graphically? That’s kind of how it came to be.
The plan was,
To go through the traditional system, which was like, build a collection, show it to buyers, hope a great store buys your stuff.
In other words, he was going to follow a typical wholesale model that depended entirely on enticing buyers for retail stores to decide to put his product on their shelves, but
You don’t make any money, they don’t fucking pay you. And you pray that some editor likes your stuff and puts it in their magazine once a year because you can’t afford to advertise.
Ultimately, despite interest in the Noah brand, it failed. Brendon resumed his work as design director at Supreme but,
I mean, I had 100% confidence that even the first time when I failed miserably [laughs],I would do it again and it would work. [Music, Elijah Song by EJCali, underneath] I always believed in not just the design sensibility, but also the other ideas that I knew I could bring into the conversation. So I knew it would work. That was never really in question for me. It just came down to finance. It’ll work if you have enough money and if you don’t, it won’t. After that, I was 100% confident in all the things we set out to do.
9:54 So in 2015, Brendon left Supreme, again, to launch Noah, again, this time in partnership with his wife,
My name is Estelle, Estelle Bailey-Bebenzien, I’m 41 years old.
Like Brendon, Estelle also wears Noah whenever I see her, though not exclusively, and often stylishly accentuated by a decorative scarf wrapped around her hair or a colorful pair of limited-run sneakers. She grew up in England and moved to New York after college.
Estelle: I am the founder of Noah with Brendon, and I’m also married to Brendon, the visionary behind Noah. Brendon, he’s extremely confident in his own skill and ability. So, I think that, combined with my fearless wind, is a good combination. [Laughs]
[Music fades out]
Like Supreme, Noah also produces skate decks and accessories and clothes. And Noah uses certain strategies from the Supreme playbook: embracing a youthful defiant attitude; releasing its collection incrementally, week by week, on Thursdays; collaborating with artists and other brands for limited-run items.
In other ways, Noah has intentionally forged its own path in the world of streetwear and fashion.
Brendon: We’re bringing something different to that larger audience. Different price point, I would argue different quality level, and even different cultural references.
Its pioneering attitude and creativity exist not in Supreme’s shadow, but very much alongside it, and alongside other major brands, holding its own and influencing its peers.
In departing Supreme, Brendon says,
I really set out to not repeat myself. I brought with me the stuff that was always with me and I left behind the stuff that I either personally didn’t care for or wasn’t really genuine to me or I was no longer interested in.
11:41 Noah as a business is grounded in Brendon’s core values, beliefs that were molded by two formative experiences.
At my first job, my boss at the surf shop, I was a teenager. He was probably 35 or 40 or something. He used to talk about the surf industry: we own a surf shop, we work in the surf business, these guys should be protecting the environment. But every fucking box we get from them is filled with Styrofoam chips, plastic bags, plastic hangers. This is in 1986. At the time, it didn’t really register. He used to talk to them, the Maestro brothers who owned Body Glove and whoever the president was of Quicksilver at the time and he’d be like, guys, what are you doing? One pair of shorts? Don’t fucking ship them alone, wait until my next order, put it in the box with that, and ship me that box. And this was the way he thought. And I would hear him having these conversations. It did not register at the time but years later I was like, this guy was so advanced in the way he understood the impact of these things.
That was the first formative experience. Years later,
And then I read a book, State of the World, which is basically an annual report. Every year they pick a topic. Changes all the time. Could be environment, consumer behavior, all sorts of things. Bring in experts to contribute and compile all this data.
Published since 1984 by the Worldwatch Institute, State of the World is an annual research report. Each report assesses urgent global environmental problems and proposes possible solutions. The purpose is to influence policy and help bring the world into greater harmony with nature.
I read the one about, I think it was consumer behavior, specifically about t-shirts.
The year was 2004.
The actual cost of producing a t-shirt. We think of a t-shirt as just the cost of making the t-shirt – the person who gest paid to sew it, the cost of the fabric, and possibly the cost of shipping it – then it gets marked up. We don’t think of the environmental component, which should be part of that economic discussion. We do have to pay for that. At some point we pay for the mess made producing those t-shirts. At some point we’re paying for the pollution in shipping those t-shirts. So when we look at products, we don’t really look at the full economic picture, they keep a lot of shit out of the conversation, so the prices aren’t really real. I read this and it just became really influential.
Those two events, my boss and that book that I read, were pivotal.
And what has followed since then is,
Just a natural interest in trying to develop a business that could simultaneously be considered cool or whatever [laughs] by our customers but also do some good stuff.
[Wonder by EJ Cali up and under]
Do some stuff. Like building a brand with his wife that promotes a fundamental change to our entire relationship to consumption. Many of you may have never heard of Noah before listening to this podcast, but those of you who are fans know that this is a brand that is popular and influential in fashion, in streetwear, in menswear. And this is just the beginning.
[SCENE: BRENDON’S VALUES = NOAH’S VALUES]
14:56 [Music fades out]
Noah’s office is a few blocks away from its store in Soho. The team works in an open space, with white desks arranged in rows, everyone seated alongside a wall covered in mockups for future seasons. There are piles of art books -- Joan Mitchell, Bruce Nauman, skate photography. There are swatches of tweed wool and a thick binder of Tartan plaids.I often conducted interviews in a tiny enclosed side room, surrounded by piles of colorful vintage samples.
Sitting with Estelle in that side room one afternoon in late fall 2018, she explained,
We’re trying to do a long-term legacy brand that is around forever and continues to grow and make conscious choices and change the way people do business.
Noah is in the early stages of a long-term plan.
You know, it’s really Brendon’s baby from his whole life. But it’s also my baby in terms of, this is a family business and I’ve always wanted to have a conscious company with a purpose.
It should be noted that they also have a human child, who was born the same year that Noah re-launched, 2015. By that time, compared to when Brendon first launched Noah,
Brendon: Everything changed. I had these ideas back then but I didn’t have the opportunity to pursue them in the same way. Back then, internet wasn’t a factor. Social media wasn’t a factor. Direct to consumer wasn’t a factor. 8:53 Ironically, the ideas being explored back then became more needed. The environment has become more of an issue. Consumer behavior has become arguably worse. Celebrity, all these things that distract us from real issues have become so overblown that a business like ours is needed now more than ever. Not just ours. All businesses need to behave better.
Estelle summarizes the Noah ethos as being,
About quality, we try to be understated, try to have a foundation of dignity and ethics and have a point of view, and stand up for what you believe.
How is that accomplished at Noah? Brendon enumerates,
It’s gotta be interesting, made well, made responsibly, work with factories we know take care of their people, paid well, vacation, health care. Variety of things all have to happen for us to put out a collection. Have to check off all those boxes.
It’s that kind of checklist that is the genesis of this story.
Brendon: All those things are part of core construction of the business, basically. You can’t leave any of it out. It makes for probably a much more complicated system to operate within than people realize.
Noah’s existence is about more than designing and selling clothes; ultimately, it’s
Brendon: It’s just a vehicle to show that business can function this way.
Estelle: Every decision we make, Brendon and I live together. This is our life.
[Music up and under, Wonder by EJ Cali]
I learned about Noah because of Supreme. That’s how a lot of people are introduced to the brand. But the reason I decided to make a story about Noah is because it provided an interactive way into a subject that interested me: ethical fashion. And because I like spending time in the store.
18:32 In the next installments of this series, Relentless will dig into Noah’s quest to reduce waste,
Male Voice: Ongoing issue is poly bags in which our garments are packed in and shipped in for protections. They’re like the bane of my existence here.
I sit in on a meeting with the design team,
Brendon: Ok, but in this room, you are the only person who would wear them. You and my wife.
Continue the conversation about the company’s aspirations,
Brendon: I think we have a unique opportunity in the world today, the world we live in, because of the power and influence of style and, lack of a better word, fashion
Query customers about their shopping values,
Male Voice:Now I have some Noah clothing, my carbon footprint is a little smaller.
And try not to get in the way,
Brendon: This is all off the record by the way.
[LISTENER CHALLENGE & TIPS]
19:26 But first, there’s more for you to do here than just listen.
There are very real implications for where we decide to spend money on clothes. As you listen to this season of Relentless, keep your own wardrobe and your own shopping choices in mind.
The good news is, whatever you have in your closet already is great! Because one of the best things we can all do for the planet is to keep wearing the clothes we have.
[Music, Home by DJ Synchro]
So for starters, pull out your favorite outfit or whatever clothes you bought new most recently. Check the labels.
Of the fabrics listed, do you know what each of those actually is and how it is made? What do you learn if you look those terms up online?
Or how about this? Next time you are in a store, ask some questions about whatever item interests you, like what the origin of the material is and how long that piece of clothing should last.
On our website, The Relentless [dot] org, we’ve posted links to the environmental impact of the most commonly used fibers in apparel production and a short animated film about consumer habits. [Music fades out] Join the conversation on Instagram at The Relentless Podcast.
20:35 [Music, Look at the Stars by DJ Synchro, up and under to end]
Relentless is produced by me, Maddy Russell-Shapiro, and recorded at Bryght Young Things with the help of Dan Navetta. This episode was edited by Britta Conroy-Randall, Eve Austin, and Sarah Holtz. I want to extend a heartfelt thank-you to Brendon and Estelle for welcoming me inside Noah to make this series.
Music for Relentless is provided by Building Beats, an awesome nonprofit that teaches young people in New York City’s schools how to DJ and make music. Today’s music was produced by DJ Synchro and EJ Cali. If you like the music, please consider supporting Building Beats!
Everything you need to know about the show and this series is available on our website, The Relentless [dot] org.Subscribe through your podcast listening app so new episodes will download automatically.
And come back for the next episode!