Beneath the Surface is a monthly column by Robert Lim that examines the cultural side of heritage fashions.
This is the second part of a two-part interview with Noah founder Brendon Babenzien, talking about his approach to trying to run a brand in the right way.
If you haven’t read part one, I strongly encourage you to do so, since he builds on themes he discussed in depth during that part of the chat.
As a quick recap, a few key elements we covered included: how choices in what you buy can influence companies in a way that leads to political change; how buying cheap clothing is a vote for someone along its supply chain path to have a shitty life; how each company should have one positive cause; how there’s no separation between the Noah brand and the personal lives of those who work there. To requote Babenzien, “Our life is our business and our business is our life.”
We continued the discussion by talking about some of the materials that Noah’s used, that minimize waste by utilizing by-products of manufacturing, or recycled older garments:
Heddels (Robert Lim): One thing I’ve noticed is your use of post-consumer waste product, like the Cashball in your Cashball Puffer. How did that come about? Did you find the material and wonder, “what can I do with this?” Or was it more like, “I want to do a puffer but not have it be terrible?”
Brendon Babenzien: I should clarify that our position on production of clothing is more about responsible consumer behavior. We all consume. It’s more about buying and using products well. Buy something good, keep it a long time – that’s kind of what we believe. The post-consumer stuff, we do try and seek out, but it’s not our number one priority – I want to be clear about that.
BB: But then things present themselves, it’s pretty thrilling. In that particular case, I work with a friend of mine in Italy who has an agency where he helps you source things, find manufacturers, and that kind of thing. He developed that product with a friend of his. They got together and they built this idea of taking all the excess cashmere fibers from sweater production and turning it into [something else]… The original one was Cash pad, which was like a sheet.
H: Right, you did a coat with that as well…
BB: Right. And then they introduced Cashball, which are small little cashmere balls that can be blown into jackets like down feathers, so you don’t have to use feathers. That was kind of lucky, because I know him and we’re friends, and he was developing this thing. And he showed it to me, and I was like, that’s amazing. We’re using it as we go forward as well – there are two more jackets for Fall ’18 using it.
BB: Same thing with the recycled cotton t-shirt this season, that was someone we heard about in L.A. who was developing something. And we were like, well, if we can do it, let’s do it – you know? We did one product with it and we liked it – so we’ve developed more products and slowly it’ll work its way into the system. And maybe one day it will be all of our t-shirt products – I don’t know, we’ll see… there’s a lot of limitations as well.
H: Yeah, it’s probably short fiber…
BB: Right, and the feel is different. The feel is great, it’s not actually bad – it’s just different, and there’s limitations in terms of color and different things. You do what you can, basically.
H: Is there anything else of that sort that you’re excited to work with?
BB: My excitement comes with textiles and high quality goods, just generally. [Such as using] Loro Piana Storm System wool for a jacket. We buy wool, cashmere stuff out of the U.K. / Scotland… I like classic mills – what a lot of the U.K. guys do and have done for hundreds of years. That’s what I get really psyched about, but I’m just as excited to work with our rugby makers in making all the different things we do with them because it lasts thirty, forty years sometimes. You buy it once and you keep it forever. You know?
H: Right. I once wrote about wool because I think wool’s super underrated – it’s the original performance fabric. That was when you did the Tartan beanie which was 100% virgin wool. And something I learned when I was researching the post-consumer side of garment life cycles, is that wool blends are not recyclable.
BB: Yeah, once you mix them you can’t really do anything with it.
H: Right. If you have something that’s 100% wool, it’s biodegradable, you can recycle it – and cashmere the same way – but once you start mixing in nylon and elastane…
BB: Right, and that even gets complicated too – because sometimes by mixing nylon in, you extend the life of the garment. Nylon has a durability that’s really interesting. So it’s a really dynamic conversation that you can have, but you really have to get into it deeply to try and figure out if one’s better than another. I’d say, anything that is recyclable or compostable, or whatever you want to call it, is always the best option. But then, is that going to last for forty years or not? It’s tough. It’s really tough.
One of our sweaters this year came out of Italy, and it’s the same guys [Tesma Cashmere] who did the Cashball, they basically make sweaters out of recycled yarns. They buy all of the old cashmere from America in huge bales – things that people throw away. Massive amounts of cashmere sweaters come in these big squares and then they break them down. Then they turn them into fiber, and they re-spin new sweaters. It’s pretty interesting. You should see it – you literally go to a warehouse and there’s guys on the floor with a pile of light blue sweaters. All kinds. Every kind of light blue sweater you’ve ever seen in cashmere in a huge pile, and they’re just sitting there cutting them up. Those strips are put into a machine, get broken down and then they get re-spun into new light blue sweaters.
It’s pretty cool. One of our sweaters was done like that.
What I didn’t know is that’s been ongoing. They’ve been doing that in Prato forever – it’s part of their industry. J. Crew make their cashmere sweaters, sometimes, out of this [material] and no one ever knew. I think it was [originally] introduced during the war. There were shortages, so they created this industry to recycle all the old stuff, basically.
We got to this guy through MIDA. They’re like buddies, basically. Everybody in that industry knows everybody else and he’s like, “Oh, you should meet my friend. He’s my favorite recycled cashmere.” His name is Dudi. He rides an Indian motorcycle – he’s super cool.
I’m pretty sure it’s a whole industry in Prato, recycling old pieces… they get everything from America. It’s all the old cashmere sweaters from America. Massive shipments come in and they just break them down. In some cases they just resell them. I think he has a store in Italy that sells vintage cashmere sweaters – the ones that don’t have holes in them or anything like that.
H: Yeah, it’s interesting. Especially, since there’s such over-production of cashmere, right? It’s causing an ecological problem.
Going back to something you said earlier – if you’re going to make change, you’re going to do it through the business… and I think that we as consumers have more power than we probably think.
BB: Way more.
H: I love the Patagonia Action Works video you posted, with Yvon Chouinard saying, “the cure for depression is action.”
H: So what do you think people can do?
BB: What they can do is shop differently for everything. Now, there’s a whole big discussion about the practicality of that. People will say, “well, what if you’re a mother of five and you live in Brownsville and you don’t make any money? You can’t buy organic produce.” That’s true. That’s real. That gets into a whole other conversation of unfair economic practices in modern society. You know what I mean? How an entire population of people just doesn’t have anything, which is ridiculous.
They can’t participate in buying expensive organic produce, because they can’t afford it. Then of course, McDonald’s comes in and says, “you can feed a family of five for ten dollars.” That’s literally what happens. They prey on these people who can’t afford to eat right. If you go to a poor neighborhood, almost anywhere in America, there’s no food available. Go to the grocery store, go to the corner store, fast food restaurants – it’s all garbage, there’s no real food.
H: Right – it’s processed food.
BB: Right. So, I say that what people can do is they can shop differently. I say that with some limitation, because there are some people who don’t have a choice. It’s unfortunate and unfair that that’s the reality. Those of us who do have the economic strength to actually choose how we shop can make change through our shopping – through our consumer behavior.
Every dollar you spend is a vote towards something or against something. The way you eat, what you eat, the car you drive, the clothes you buy, if you buy guns or not. All these things. The businesses are only going to sell you something that people are demanding. Demand is in the form of dollars spent.
If people stopped buying guns, the gun companies would find another product to make. They’re not going to shut down, they’re just going to find something else to sell you. If everyone stopped eating hamburgers, McDonald’s would sell you veggie burgers. They’re not going to die, they’re just going to change.
H: True. They’re there in India, right?
BB: Because their brand strength is so huge – but they’re going to adapt to what the consumer is demanding. But the consumers forgot they have that power.
H: Can you be more specific about “shop differently?” Shop less, or for more durable goods?
BB: I think all of the above. Buying less is really a vote for the future of the world, basically. That involves an entire situation, which is restructuring what we value. Right? If we all shop less, there would be less to sell us, which would mean industries would have to change entirely. We’d have to change the entire way we think about how we survive as a society. Unfortunately, with the wealth distribution the way it is, our wealth is through selling. Selling ideas, selling goods, whatever. But if you think about how wealth is distributed, it’s all at the top, right? But if it was spread out evenly, we could change the way we exist.
We don’t need as much as we have, and there’s no proof that having all this shit makes us any happier. As long as the top part of the population that has all of the wealth is controlling the messaging of the world we live in – like how you’re supposed to be as a person – we’re going to keep getting these messages telling us that we need more. We need to own more, we need to own a house, we need to own cars, we need to wear this shoe, we need to have a hot fucking wife – all that shit. Then we’re going to still believe the messaging and we’re going to structure our happiness based on those things.
The funny thing is, we have structured our happiness based on those things, and it’s been a failure. People are not happy, generally – they’re miserable. Know what I mean? People go to work, and they hate their jobs, and they’re not enjoying what they’re doing, and they have no free time to fucking smell the roses and go swimming or whatever. The two weeks you get off a year in America, it’s like – that’s it? That’s your life?
We built this business [at Noah]. We said if we weren’t having fun… if we didn’t like the people we worked with, if we didn’t like what we were talking about, if we didn’t like the graphics we were doing, if they weren’t thought-provoking, then we weren’t going to fucking do it. What’s the point? It’s stupid. You spend a lot of time at work. If you don’t like it, you’re wasting your life. ‘Cause you’re going to die – we’re all going to die. You spend your whole life doing something that doesn’t make you happy, with the random fucking idea that maybe one day you’ll have enough money to be happy for ten years? You’ve wasted your life.
That’s real. And I’ve felt that way. I had the dream situation – based on the way I grew up, the people around me and the things we were into, it seemed like the greatest thing in the world. “Oh, you’re there, you’re doing that? Amazing.” But it wasn’t fun. It stopped being fun and I wasn’t happy. And it didn’t feel like we were doing anything positive for anyone other than ourselves financially and that felt wasteful to me, you know?
H: So what gives you hope for the future?
BB: The kids that come in here – the kids that we talk to and the emails we get. They’re so dialed in. They know what’s going on. I laugh when I listen to politicians – these guys who are running the country right now, they don’t even know they’re dead. They’re dead already – it’s over for them. They may still have four years, or eight years, or twelve years left before these kids become legitimate participants in the process, but it’s already over. This is the last gasp of that type of politician – it’s over.
These new kids coming up are not going to let this shit sit for much longer, they’re just too young to make it change yet. Once they’re in their 20s and 30s, guys like Rubio and Trump, Pence… they’re done. They don’t even know yet. It’s like they’re dead already and they have no idea.
H: Yeah, it’s amazing to me because you hear people of that generation say, “young people are so lazy and entitled.” And yet, they think everything should be the exact same way it was for them fifty years ago – which is totally an entitlement itself. Like, there’s a whole country of other people out there.
BB: It shows how out of touch they are.
The older generation – older than me, I’m 46 – people in their 60s and 70s, right? They look at people in their late teens and 20s, even their 30s for that matter. They decided that they’re lazy and it’s a complete misunderstanding of the younger generation. But they don’t realize, it has nothing to do with laziness – it’s a different value structure. They value their time more than they value money. I’m certainly not going to critique that.
If someone’s happy with less money and has more free time, that’s not lazy to me. That’s smart. You want to live in a van, and surf more, and go skate? And you don’t need much? Dude – you’ve got it all figured out.
Do you know Foster Huntington?
H: No, I don’t think I do.
BB: Check him out. This kid is amazing. He came to me when he was one of the youngest people on the Ralph Lauren creative team. Like the cool shit, rigging – buying vintage and setting it up for Ralph – that’s what he did. He had the best job, and he was young – and years ago we were hanging out and he said, “I think I’m going to leave my job.” I said, “Are you sure? You have like, the best job in fashion. Everyone wants your job.” “Yeah, but I don’t like being inside all day and I think I’m just going to go do this book.”
That’s how I met him. He took a picture of my stuff [for the book] – it’s called The Burning House. What are you taking if your house is burning down? At the time, for me, it was my bicycle, my surfboard, my wetsuit, my cat, my running shoes, maybe my iPod so I could listen to music. The things I needed to get through the day, right?
A year later, I’m in the airport in Tokyo and I see the book. I’m like, “Holy shit!” Then I find out, he left his job and he was cruising around in a van. And Patagonia was giving him clothes and money, and he was surfing big waves, and snowboarding, and then he built a treehouse in the woods.
And beneath the treehouse in the side of the hill, they built a bowl for skating. And that’s where he lives. And he has a hot tub and all this shit. He travels and he surfs. He put out another book about living in a van, and now he’s paid to just do cool shit.
He figured it out. I don’t think he’s rich, but I follow him on Instagram – he’s having the life that I wanted. You know what I mean? He’s having the time of his life. He skates and surfs and snowboards and hangs out with his friends. They make movies and just do whatever they want to do.
That’s where the older generation gets it wrong – they think these kids are lazy. They’re not lazy. They just have a different value structure. They don’t want as much as you. They don’t need a big house and four fucking cars. They’re happy living in a van.
H: I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I was listening to a podcast and they were talking about how the baby boomers used to be one of the most idealistic generations. And the question was, what went wrong? They had kids and families, and they had to find some way of doing it – so they had to sacrifice that idealism. But I think you’re right that the younger generation just doesn’t see their options in that way.
BB: Well, what went wrong was that it was all a lie. The “American Dream” was the greatest propaganda campaign ever. It was never real – it certainly wasn’t real for people who aren’t white. That’s for damn sure. It wasn’t real for people who were anything other than a very specific category.
How’s that really the American Dream if it doesn’t include everyone? They were able to pull off [what was basically a] lie, for a really long time. But eventually, the shit was going to drop and then people started to figure out that this is bullshit.
That’s where we are today. Today we’re at the point that [we’re realizing] this was never real. It doesn’t include everybody, therefore it’s a lie. If it’s only for one group of people, it’s not the real thing. I think that’s what happening now. People are like, “This is bullshit.” The American Dream can still be there – it’s just different. It’s got to be more inclusive – for real. Not as a myth, not as propaganda. It has to really be inclusive. Otherwise, America never really existed in the first place. You know?
We digressed into a discussion about inequality in America and white privilege (and I couldn’t resist shouting out one of my favorite songs by the Washington, D.C. band Priests, on this very topic), which led to:
H: Where would be a starting point for educating yourself about these types of things? Because I think it is connected with what you were talking about earlier.
BB: Where do you start? Unfortunately, if you’re a white person living in a white community and you’re not exposed to other people – other ways of life, other ways of thinking – it’s almost really hard for you to imagine anything [different]. I think you have to first want to know what’s going on in some way, and then you have to bring yourself outside of that world you live in and expose yourself to other things. Which, not everyone does.
I feel blessed that I started traveling when I was younger, and met other people – and I was exposed to some race issues when I was very, very young through my cousins, who are black. I had an early start, let’s say, on the education. I was able to see things a little bit differently. I think growing up in New York obviously goes a long way too. Because you’re exposed to people from different places.
I think travel plays a big role. Just seeing other parts of the world and talking to other people gives you a head start. But again, Americans – a lot of people don’t do that.
H: That’s true, yeah.
BB: It’s a big-ass country and a lot of people don’t go anywhere.
H: Yeah, it’s amazing how little people seem to think of what else happens in the same country, let alone…
BB: The rest of the world.
H: The rest of the world, yeah. Well, thank you very much for your time.
BB: Yeah, of course!
You can learn more about Noah and their offerings via their website or at their store at 195 Mulberry St. in New York.