Lifestyle

The Clothing Brand for Preppies, Punks, and Bleeding-Heart Liberals

Outside Noah’s shop in New York, a smiling family of tourists stops to take pictures in front of a mural of a cartoon pig in a suit with the caption “Pig Brother is watching you.”

The references to author George Orwell’s dystopian novels Animal Farm and 1984 were also printed and sold on T-shirts and trucker hats as part of Noah’s 2019 spring collection. Because in today’s polarized climate, promoting in-your-face politics is clever business—and for this almost 5-year-old brand, it is the business.

Founded by Brendon Babenzien and his wife, Estelle, in 2015, Noah has hit a sweet spot by selling an identity seemingly in conflict: surfers, skaters, and punk rock fans who want to challenge the man while wearing nicely made fabrics and colorful shirts. He’s so far bet correctly that the generation that grew up on new wave and hip-hop didn’t automatically turn into dorks once they started having children of their own.

The two of them expanded the store this summer. It’s on a downtown corner of New York where SoHo and Little Italy meet the Lower East Side. In one room are corduroy pants and madras shirts that could have been rescued from your grandfather’s closet; elsewhere are tees that reference hardcore bands like Youth of Today and the underground straight edge culture of the 1980s and ’90s.

Babenzien grew up in East Islip, on Long Island, where he developed what became Noah’s penchant for nautical stripes and the classic polos, rugby shirts, hoodies, and sweaters that dominate seafaring leisure pursuits. Imagine the staple items of J.Crew, made with the premium fabrics of a Loro Piana, with a supply chain managed as tightly as Hermès’s, but with a subversive design angle that’s entirely singular. It’s the only clothing shop in New York with An Introduction to Sailing and a copy of the Skate Jawn zine on its bookshelves.

Before Noah, Babenzien spent more than a decade leading design for Supreme, taking it from influential streetwear brand to global luxury phenomenon. He left the company two years before private equity firm the Carlyle Group bought a 50% stake for $500 million, essentially valuing Supreme at $1 billion.

Despite that success, Babenzien always wanted to run his own company, his own way. “In a business meeting before we launched this, when I said all the things we wanted to do—to make cool clothes, but not so cool that they weren’t accessible, to be responsible when it came to the environment to the best of our ability, to inform customers about making better choices, to make clothes in First World countries with environmental laws and labor laws—I was told, ‘You can’t do that. It’s impossible,’ ” Babenzien says.

And it might have been if not for Donald Trump. In the early days of the company, leading up to the 2016 election, Noah’s social media profiles were outspokenly supportive of movements such as Black Lives Matter, and it released shirts emblazoned with the words “Anti Nazi League”—all of which garnered more than a few comments telling it to “stick to business.”

Instead of apologizing, the brand did something, well, punk rock: It offered a full refund on any Noah purchases for those who planned to vote for Trump. “I kind of freaked out on Brendon, because it started to pick up some press,” says Beau Wollens, Noah’s chief operating officer. “I was scared of people taking advantage of it.”

Not only did no one claim a refund, the resulting attention brought a new wave of like-minded consumers. By its second year, Noah had opened a store in Tokyo. Later it opened two concession shops inside the New York and Los Angeles locations of the trendy Dover Street Market retail outlet.

It’s begun expanding into new product categories while still keeping true to the tenets its customers have come to love. For the fall, Babenzien has introduced traditionally made topcoats embroidered with ’80s-style track-and-field graphics. A down vest is made from patchwork paisley. There’s even a leopard-print two-piece suit and penny loafers.

All of it is conscientiously made and sourced, and volume is deliberately limited. “Brendon is very conscious of who he works with in terms of production and factories, and he makes sure the product run is not overly produced,” says Federico Barassi, senior director of menswear buying at Ssense, a luxury retailer in Montreal. “Every season we see the T-shirts, hoodies, and caps all sell out.”

Crucial to the sell-through is a strategy of raw transparency. The brand takes a page of the Everlane playbook by telling customers exactly how much their clothes cost to make, and why. The “aha!” moment came early in the company’s existence, Wollens says, when he and Babenzien came up with a blog post called “Anatomy of a Jacket,” explaining why the two-tone parka at Noah costs $488.

The brand started communicating expenses and challenges more deliberately in a series called “Breaking Down the Costs.” The first, focused on labor, explained how price increases on Noah’s hoodies correlated to Canada bumping its minimum wage more than $2. Another focused on tariffs. “This is one of those things that sounds a world away,” it reads. “But it’s frightening for small brands like us.”

Honest accounting such as this helps communicate these pressures to consumers and to explain brand priorities like a commitment to fine materials and fair wages. “Over the last few decades, the American public has gotten used to a price—whether it be for a T-shirt or a cup of coffee—that is not an honest price,” Babenzien says. “If you had to factor in the human component, other people’s lives, how much they’re getting paid, what their life is like, then the price is a lot.”

Customers, Wollens says, have been overwhelmingly receptive to the practice. “The younger consumer actually has a better idea and understanding of those things than the older ones,” he says. Oliver Chen, a luxury retail analyst at Cowen Inc., says this sort of philosophy fits in with the values of millennials and Gen Z. “Technology has really enabled transparency,” he says. “The new generation of shoppers values sustainability.”

Patagonia Inc., the venerable outdoor outfitter, is viewed by many, including Babenzien, as the gold standard for responsible capitalism at scale. But whereas Patagonia has a party-agnostic, pro-conservation ethos for protecting the environment, Noah’s “Save the Whales” shirts look banal from the front but feature detailed illustrations on the back of how the endangered animals are divvied and sold.

“I don’t have a problem with choosing sides,” Babenzien says. “Most businesspeople do.”