British Male Voice: I’m a big fan of the pants, I like the pleated slacks and those work pants, adjustable waistband, so comfortable, so light, you know? 4:10 …[But] how many pairs of pants do you need?
[Opening music, Winning by EJ Cali]
1:01 Welcome back to Relentless, a podcast about the pursuit of farfetched ideas, unusual aspirations, or that perfect pair of sneakers. [Music fades under] I’m the host, Maddy Russell-Shapiro. At Relentless, motivation is put under a microscope to investigate why certain people choose to spend their limited time and resources on a specific goal.
This is the second episode in the series and I suggest you listen to these episodes in order, starting with Episode One. In this episode, I continue my investigation of ethical fashion and the New York City menswear brand Noah.
[SCENE: NOAH’S AESTHETIC AND GOALS]
[Music continues underneath]
1:36 Maddy: Are you familiar with the brand Noah?
Multiple Voices: No, I am not. No. No. No. No.
Maddy: Are you familiar with the brand Noah?
Male Voice: I am.
Maddy: How do you explain the brand?
Male Voice: Modern take on preppy stuff, but bringing it to streetwear. I like it a lot. [laughs]
You may not be familiar with the brand. [Music fades out] Noah doesn’t advertise, at all, anywhere. So you won’t have seen the clothes in magazines or on billboards. Noah mostly sells direct-to-consumer, meaning you can only purchase at its two stores, in New York City and Tokyo, at a couple other select locations in Los Angeles and London, or a small number of websites, one of which is their own.
For a lot of people who are into menswear, especially streetwear, Noah is an exciting brand.
British Male Voice: Really good quality, great materials, great feel at not a ridiculous price. Everything has nice ethos to it and a good design story. Feels kind of rare, very New York, very American.
It churns out collections at the same pace as other brands that have exponentially bigger teams and budgets. The designs appeal broadly.
Everything is designed in-house, including versions of the standard streetwear uniform: graphic t-shirts, sweatpants, and sweatshirts with prominent logos – a cross, a winged foot, a skull and crossbones. Fans eagerly anticipate collaborations with bands like Youth of Today and Big Audio Dynamite.
But the breadth of the designs goes well beyond streetwear,
Male Voice 1: When they dropped the look book for the new collection this week, I was like yeah, that could be my entire wardrobe. I’m slowly accumulating the pieces over time. If money weren’t a thing, I’d have everything in here. I could wear all Noah. I like variety, and I’m gonna to wear other stuff, but everything I need and want is here.
Their Look Book for spring and summer 2019 featured men and women in an array of colorful options: a Madras suit in pink, light blue, and pale yellow; black-and-white checked cotton-linen beach pants; a floral print on swim trunks and a rugby shirt; a white crewneck sweatshirt with royal blue polka dots; a plain black water-resistant pullover parka. Some fans are particularly devoted to their accessories,
Male Voice 2: I honestly wanted to see if they matches, because their matches are great for candles. They’re very long.
The Noah team prides itself on prioritizing quality and durability, on carefully selecting fabrics and vetting manufacturers. Customers are attuned to these details,
Female Voice: Their stuff is very clean, classic, you can wear it for years. Stuff I want to wear as I get older. Reverse terries. Rich wools. Good texture and colors every season. Each year it gets better and better,
Noah doesn’t adopt pithy taglines or broadcast a high-minded mission statement that outlines exactly what it is out to accomplish, but there is an ethos that informs everything the company does.
3:48 As we introduced in the first episode of this series, the creative force behind the entire galaxy of Noah’s aesthetic,
Estelle: It’s all Brendon.
Founder Brendon Babenzien.
Estelle: His musical influences or phases in his life or just the way he grew up, he has incredible references
Incredible references from a life spent surfing, skating, running, and immersed in music,
Brendon From 1976 on, the way skateboarding evolved, the way surfing evolved, the way music evolved, and all those things collided. I was kind of growing up through all of it, all those things led into what we now have today at Noah. I was lucky to have existed as a person old enough to have ideas [laughs]during an incredible time, during a really creative time. Just a little young for punk tbut around for the post-punk and new wave, and then skateboarding doing what it did, and then surfing doing what it did, I was around for all that, right? Then hip hop exploded. Then rave culture. And I was old enough to be part of all those things. And I can draw connections to all of them. None of them are totally separate from the others. They all came together in some way, shape, or form.
[Music, Salamata, MS244, up and under]
And all the brands, all the music, all the art, all the people, all the this and all the that is what allows us to do this. Definitely couldn’t exist without it.
Brendon explains that at the outset, when he was conceiving of the brand,
I was operating with a few premises: one, the customer is ready and really wanted to consume in a different way and would be happy to do it. I also was kind of making this prediction that young and old is less of an issue these days. As consumers, we share a lot of the same clothing and music and entertainment now.
[Music fades out]
It’s not the same as it was before. So, essentially, I looked at the market and I was like, we have a much bigger audience than we could have ever had. I’m 46. I’m sometimes wearing the same things as 15-year-old kid[laughs]. We wear it differently but we’re into the same shit. So, I just looked at it and was like, we have this huge audience. It’s not like 18-to-22 anymore. 40-to-45.
[Music back up and under]
No, it’s like 13-to-60. We all still skate, we surf, we love music, art, all these different things we have in common now. Seemed like, how could you fail when you have that many people into the same shit?
[Music fades out]
Brendon’s confident bet is on Noah’s ability to attract a broad consumer base across age, interests, even gender, to come together for clothing that draws inspiration from classic and contemporary menswear. Clothing that combines high and low concepts, sold at higher and lower prices, a brand that makes hooded sweatshirts and graphic t-shirts and suits.
6:34 This approach resonates with Noah’s employees, such as designer Corey Rubin,
My name is Corey Rubin, I’m 27 years old, my role here is designer. I’ve been here almost from the start.
When asked to categorize Noah, he offers,
Not menswear, womenswear, just clothing that people would like to wear. That’s so cool that whoever can come into our shop and find something they like. Something cool to them.
6:59 Vrn Powell works in the New York store.
My name is Vrndavana Lela Powell, I’m 27, I’ve been here two years. I’m a musician, I’m a writer, I’m an artist, I’m a yoga teacher. I work in the shop!
I interviewed Vrn on a cold January afternoon as the light outside faded. Noah was closed between seasons and the shop floor was full of cardboard boxes containing merchandise for the new season. Vrn is petite and pretty much everything she wears from Noah is oversized, including the yellow shirt jacket she wore that day, layered over a hooded sweatshirt. As with everyone who works in sales at Noah, Vrn wears the clothes in her own stylish way. Talking about Noah’s customers, she observed that,
It’s really cool when I see women shop the racks and wearing more men’s clothes, suits, and dress them in a way that is unique to them. That to me is very-- fills me with optimism because the more people are individualistic, the better.
To Vrn, on the question of whom Noah’s clothes are for,
You leave it up to the consumer, the individual to make the choice. I identify as female and wear whatever clothes I want and encourage everyone to do the same.
For former operations manager Jasmine Young, here is what stood out to her about Brendon’s creativity and vision,
One of the things Brendon tries to do, we live in New York, everyone is always wearing black, I think that’s one of his pet peeves [laughs], he wants to fill New York with more color. That in general appeals to women, but also allows men to express themselves in other ways that other brands may not allow them to.
The concept of clothing for anybody is something I find very appealing, another reason that Noah holds my interest.
[Music, Kwame’s Song from MS244, up and under]
[SCENE: SOURCING FABRICS]
8:50 Regarding the clothing more objectively, quality and durability are two distinct yet complementary components of Noah’s business model.
For a company like Noah that prioritizes producing garments that will last, Brendon describes why their production team has to pay especially close attention to the mills, [music fades out] which turn fibers into fabric,
Fabric makes the garment more of less. You’ll have a tailoring component, people making patterns need to be incredibly good at what they do so people can buy off the rack and things will still fit even though not custom for them. After that level, for me, the sewing is relatively simple to direct. You get a sample in, you tell them, and they can adjust. But fabric comes from the mill level, you get real quality from a shirt that has a lot more yarns packed into a square inch and if that yarn is a higher quality from a better source then you get a better piece of fabric, just that simple. It’ll last longer, it’ll feel better, it’ll perform at a higher level, all the way through. I focus on that. I can direct factories to sew things differently but I can't take a mill that makes crappy fabric and get them to make a better fabric, so I have to go to the good mills. If a seam splits, you take it and re-sew it. Pocket opens, you can probably fix it. Things like that can be fixed. But once your fabric starts to fall apart and rip or tear whatever, it's kind of a wrap. Or if it doesn’t work. If you buy a fabric that you want to be a raincoat but actually it doesn’t repel water, then it’s kind of useless. If you want swim trunks and you want them to dry fast but they don’t then they’re not good swim trunks. We spend a lot of time at the mill level with people who make beautiful garments because we think it makes a garment that will last longer.
10:51 Good fabrics are necessary for durability.Corey describes the process of working with mills,
We’re always meeting with mills, looking at their new developments, submitting old stuff from the 80’s that we’d like to repurpose into something but better quality, lots of that going on too.
Most of the time, it starts with the design as the silhouette, then you pick a fabric from there. Sometimes we really like a particular corduroy that this mill has offered, so we keep that in mind, do research around that or. Some of the suiting, it starts with the fabric.
Another invisible aspect of the manufacturing process is the work that goes into testing new designs.
And then while that’s happening, you have a bunch of other things, stuff coming in from factories that you’re checking, print strike-offs, swatches from fabric developments, construction on garments, we’re all taking a look to make sure things are done well.
With a small team, reviewing samples,
It really comes down to someone trying it on and doing these day-to-day things that you would do, like going in and out of pockets. If it’s performance based, someone has to do the things, someone has to use it. That’s when you make the best little design tweaks, from using something, going back to try to fix it. Those little fixes and tweaks make a lot of things here the quality we talk about and try to be proud of and strive towards. Recently, recycled cashmere beanies. It’s a new thing. Because it was a new thing and it was something I wanted to develop, I spent the winter in that hat. The best thing to do is use it and try and perfect it as best you can.
That testing continues even once they’ve committed to production. One day, I sat in on a design meeting and the team was talking about the season’s winter gloves, which Brendon had been using,
Brendon: I ran in them this morning. So windy that I was almost running in place, and my hands were totally warm.
Corey: The only thing I worry about, like the wind getting through.
Brendon: They kept me warm, I expected them to pill, they haven’t yet. They still look great. No loose threads. Comfortable.
Corey: Have you been wearing the shit out of them?
Brendon: I’ve been wearing them everyday.
[Music, Kwame’s Song up and under]
13:08 There’s another critical element: to reduce the strain on the planet of creating these clothes.One way to reduce that negative impact? Limiting the use of polyester in garments,
[Music fades out]
Brendon: So, like garments so far, I don’t think we’ve used polyester at all. I think we may have used polyester in some hats, things you don’t throw in the wash all the time, might allow. Came down to the shedding into the water, which then ends up in the oceans. All this polyester stuff goes into the wash and ends up in the ocean and no one ever thought about it until recently and it’s way worse that they thought. It’s microplastics, basically.
This shedding issue is a big oneand, as Brendon points out, not something that is yet widely understood. Basically, when fabrics are washed, microfibers come off in the water. These are miniscule pieces of the fabric. If it’s a natural fiber, then that means little pieces of cotton or linen or wool that will eventually degrade in water. But if it’s a synthetic oil-based material, like polyester or acrylic, that means little pieces of plastic. When the wash water drains away, those shreds of textile are in the water. And they are so small that they don’t get filtered, so they end up in the ocean. And in such a large quantity that the accumulation is actually having a detrimental effect on marine life.
Brendon: So stuff that’s going to be washed all the time, certainly we don’t have any poly in. Which poses other problems. Want to make swimwear? A big chunk of industry uses polyester. And finding nylons is difficult and more expensive.
Maddy: But you have swim trunks for sale right now.
Brendon: They’re nylon.
Maddy: How did you find the nylon?
Brendon: [laughs] We just pay more for it. It’s an Italian mill, it’s really high quality, it’s really nice construction that is durable but lightweight, dries quick, but it’s more expensive. And it took a while to figure out who could supply us with that stuff. We have minimums per color, it’s just not easy. That’s the issue for most companies, time is money. They’re going to pick the easier route. And polyester is cheaper.
Nylon is better than polyester, but it isn’t perfect. Designer Corey Rubin explains,
Nylon also leaks micro-plastics, it’s just when you have the quality we have, really high dense, higher quality yarn going into that woven nylon, it’s much less than polyester but it’s less in other comparable nylons. But all synthetics shed. Everything sheds, it’s just a matter of it’s being natural or synthetic. But polyester is notorious for letting loose, especially fleece.
15:47 However, that leaves plenty of other materials for design ideas. Noah carefully sources high-quality fabrics because they prioritize making clothes that will last a long time. But quality is not a priority for every company. Brendon recalls,
I can’t tell you number of times I’ve been to fabric show and the amount of times I’ve been sitting in a booth and I’ve heard somebody come in from name a brand, any fucking brand you know, that work for their textile division, and they go, do you have something like this? And they’ll pull it out. And they’ll be like, yeah, yeah, how about this? Oh, how much is it? It’s $18 a yard. I need it for $5 a yard. And then they move on. Like, that’s the reality of the business.
Less costly fabrics may benefit the customer by keeping total price of an item lower. But a lower price means something in the supply chain has to give. Either the fabric is being produced more cheaply – less yarn per square inch for example – which means the fabric won’t be very durable. Or the fabric quality is higher, requiring more materials and more labor. To keep costs down in that situation, the cost savings may end up being with labor, by reducing how much factory workers get paid.
Brendon: How do we get it cheaper? Not like, we make a better product, how do we do a better job for our customer, how do we use our business for good. How do we get it cheaper. I’ve seen it over and over and hear it constantly and we don’t operate like that.
Those truths about production are largely invisible to shoppers. Which is why there is a certain onus on us individually to become more informed, to learn how to assess for quality, for durability, and to ask questions and expect clear answers from companies that want our money.
Noah clothes are made to last, contravening the trend of disposable clothes that only withstand a few wears, a few washes. As clear as Noah is as a company about the importance of prioritizing quality fabrics, that message still has to make its way to customers,
Brendon: Why we show our fabrics on our website so people can see this is no joke, this is the real shit, it’s worth it. We do feel like it’s a big part of our business to educate consumers. Not because we see ourselves as experts, we need to explain our stuff.
The Noah blog provides informative descriptors about why each fabric was selected and in what country it was made. Like a cotton-nylon blend for a spring jacket that blocks wind and is water-resistant.
It needs to be explained. You can’t just walk in and be like there’s a 1000-dollar jacket, ridiculous, overpriced. Because twenty minutes ago, you were on Broadway, you saw something similar for 200. That’s a shitty jacket or alternatively it’s a good jacket but the people who made it are fucking starving and can’t put their kids in school and live in a dorm working six days a week for nothing.
The website is one source of information. Another is the store itself. For Vrn, fabric selection is,
It’s a big part of what we talk about because Noah uses best materials possible for every piece and each fabric is really special and it’s used in a way that’s not conventional. Like the baby-camel hair hoodie, is the best example for me of how to use really luxurious fabrics in an unconventional way that’s elevated but also casual.
There is an ongoing, spiraling conversation taking place in the shop on Mulberry,
At any given time, a customer walking in the store is either going to be talking abut cultural references or see a piece or fabric on hanger that is unique and stands out. We’ll start talking about fabric, then that’ll be the point of entry, what is this brand, where did it start, [voice fades] where’s it from?
[Music, Kwame’s Song, up and under]
[SCENE: SOURCING FACTORIES]
19:30 In the manufacturing of clothes, there is a long supply chain of workers handling and shaping natural resources into fabrics and clothes. The work takes place on farms, in mills and factories, and at distribution centers. How are people treated in those workplaces? Are the work conditions safe? Are employees paid on time? Paid for overtime?
As you may recall, in 2013, a commercial building called Rana Plaza collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The eight-story building housed five garment factories and today, four years later, it’s still not clear which apparel companies contracted to have their clothes made there. Over 1,100 workers died. That disastrous tragedy shined a spotlight on the need for labor reforms in the industry. But even with good intentions, it can be very challenging to confidently assess what is happening in factories halfway around the world.
Noah is committed to selecting their factory partners with care. Former operations manager Jasmine describes first learning about the company and,
How Brendon sourced each company we worked with and had a good relationship with them and one of his main focuses was working with brands that had good reputation, that did not use child labor, that honored people as people and paid them a living wage…It was a quality product that was being made with factories and manufactures that have good industry standard, or go above industry standard.
Given all those preferences, Brendon acknowledges that it,
Puts us in a position where we can only manufacture in certain parts of the world. Dictated to us. It’s Italy, it’s Portugal, US, Canada, Japan. We do a tiny bit in India but only because we know the factory owners, who they are, we know how they operate, they funnel part of their profits to put girls into school.
21:23 Noah’s Chief Operating Officer, Beau Wollens, sat down with me at the office on the Friday before Labor Day weekend.
My name is Beau Wollens, I am 28. I grew up in the East Village, around 13 or 14 started to get into clothing and street wear and sneakers. And I stumbled across Nom de Guerre, high end men’s on Broadway and Bleecker that sold limited edition sneakers. Started cleaning hallways, running errands. Brendon was friends with the owner. He met me for the first time when I was 15.
Beau explained more about Brendon’s sourcing of factories,
Before launching the company, he went to Italy and he visited two factories that we now work with and partnered with the owner of one of the factories to work as an intermediary to manage production in Italy. Some other factories in US are factories he’s been working with for close to 15 years in different capacities. We’re a small team, he knew what he knew, easier to continue working with those.
But that hasn’t spared Noah from production challenges. Noah’s production runs are small and,
It’s extremely difficult. A lot of factories won’t entertain number of units.
In other words, just because the design team at Noah has an idea it wants to execute doesn’t mean it will be logistically feasible. The team has to find the right material and then find a factory with the skills and capacity andthat treats workers well. And for each of those decisions, timing is an issue. As is cost.
Even today, as expanding into new products, trying to uphold same standards, trying to figure out correct checks and balances for that. Do we need to physically go to the factory and see it and check certifications? Or is it gonna be simply referral based?
In order to expand beyond existing partners, Noah will need to create its own rubric for assessment. Noah is building these systems as it grows.
[Music up and under, Wonder by EJ Cali]
23:30 In the next episode, efforts to reduce waste without alienating customers.
Jasmine: They were coming back and saying, hey, we respect what you are doing but we also want our package to get here intact.
And the challenges inherent to the decision to put ethics first,
Brendon: We’ve always said that we’ll be as big as we can be until we have to start making decisions we don’t believe in. When that happens, that’s the ceiling.
In the meantime,
Last week we encouraged you to start doing some sleuthing within your own wardrobe. What did you learn? Did you get a chance to make some inquiries online or in a store? How much of the information that you wanted was available?
This week, turn your attention to the working conditions of the people who make your clothes. What countries are listed on the labels of your most recent purchases? Do the labels say anything else about who made the clothes? What about if you go to the company’s website? Can you learn more?
The Noah website, Noah NY [dot] com, has an entire section dedicated to fabrics and a series of blog posts titled “Breaking Down the Cost.” You can find links on our website, the relentless [dot] org, where we’ve also posted resources related to today’s episode. Join us in conversation on Instagram at The Relentless Podcast.
[Music, Wonder fades out and Look At the Stars by DJ Synchro up and under to end]
24:48 This series would not be possible without Brendon and Estelle’s agreement to participate. And I am so grateful to all the members of the Noah team who sat for formal interviews, chatted informally with me at the office, and welcomed me on countless visits to the New York store.
Relentless is produced by me, Maddy Russell-Shapiro, and is recorded at Bryght Young Things with the help of Dan Navetta.
This episode was edited by Britta Conroy-Randall and Sarah Holtz.
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 to the podcast through your listening app so you don’t miss the rest of the season.
[Music fades out]
And come back for the next episode!