Fashion

Brendon Babenzien Stages a Subtle Menswear Revolution

Behind the seams with the creative force guiding Noah and J. Crew’s latest incarnation.

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IF, IN LIFE, you find yourself shopping for trousers at the same place as director Sofia Coppola — doyenne of incredibly-chic-but-always-discreet dressing — there’s a good chance you’re doing something right. Stop by the Noah store in downtown Manhattan, and that’s precisely what might happen: I was there to interview the designer of the brand, Brendon Babenzien, and in walked Coppola, briefly interrupting our conversation just to introduce herself and throw some admiration Noah’s way. “I’m so glad you always make these pants,” she said, smiling while trying on a new pair of pleated olive-green chinos. “These are the pants I wear when I’m working.”

The company was founded in 2015 by Babenzien, who first made a name for himself in the ’90s while helping to build Supreme into the streetwear empire it is today. Though Noah got its start with mostly menswear, it’s quickly gained a loyalty from both men and women in the Coppola milieu — cool kids all grown up, with real jobs and obligations for which they want to look smart but never boring. “I’m 51 years old. I still have a hoodie on. I surf. I skate,” says Babenzien, wearing a pom-pommed golf hat and lounging in the back room of the boutique, Smashing Pumpkins blasting from the store’s speakers. “I think that 40-somethings, 50-somethings, even 60-somethings — they’re not the same as the generations before them. Older guys don’t just get old. I think about how many people I knew when I was a kid who skated. There’s no way they all just threw in the towel. They have responsibilities, and they have to dress a certain way to go to work. But the attitude is still there.”

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And what is that attitude, at least when it comes to Noah? Babenzien takes the most wearable elements of his childhood interests — prep, surfing, punk — and brews them into a mature, broadly likable blend. On the racks at the store in the SoHo neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, you’ll find tailored but velvety-soft wide-legged chinos, Ivy League staples such as rugby shirts and pastel plaids, bright versions of Barbour coats, and hoodies and graphic T-shirts that are sharp instead of schlumpy. If one of the Brooks Brothers had a great-grandson who fell in love with Minor Threat, this is the shop he might’ve opened, and you could wear everything here to a Cape Cod clambake or to a skate ramp on Long Island and still somehow look appropriate. In the old days, it was more important to choose a style lane, whether that be rocker or raver or weirdo or retro; Noah is proof that for the modern man in the Instagram era, where aesthetics of every kind clash on your explore page, all ideas and influences can exist in one wardrobe, with no particular heritage necessarily outweighing another. Why not take cues from Henry Rollins and JFK Jr. in the same outfit?


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If one of the Brooks Brothers had a great-grandson who fell in love with Minor Threat, this is the shop he might’ve opened.

J. Crew has taken notice of Babenzien’s work: He was recently appointed creative director of menswear at the once-beloved, now-beleaguered brand (it filed for bankruptcy in 2020). He is pushing the company through a subtle revolution by bringing it back to its classic Americana roots with a range of worn-in khakis, cashmere crewnecks, and sailing anoraks. In the Bowery in New York City, he’s designed a J. Crew concept store, which looks like the inviting interior of a Connecticut living room. His brashest innovation is something called the giant-fit chino, which takes the traditional J. Crew trouser and widens it to oversized proportions, as if to tell the customer, “Hey, loosen up, okay?” Babenzien says, “I’m rarely critical of what the average American man is doing. But I believe one thing that has gone too far is how slim things have become. Everyone wears slim to a point where it’s like, ‘No, dude, you need to know your own body type.’ There are people who can wear slim really well, and then there are some who shouldn’t. If I can read your credit card numbers through your back pocket, we’ve got a problem.”

The looseness is the point: In a fast fashion environment where options overwhelm, Babenzien’s genius at J. Crew has been to make things easy breezy — everything here is recognizable, similar to something you might’ve worn in the ’90s and wish you hadn’t thrown away, or is a sweeter-fitting version of something you already own, with a few extra-bold colorways, such as preppy pink and collegiate orange, to draw out your adventurous side. “The ultimate objective for me there is not to drag a guy into a place he’s not comfortable. I think it’s unreasonable to tell people what to do. The most punk thing you can do is be yourself, whatever that really is,” he says. “You can wear totally normal-ish stuff every single day and still be the most stylish person in the room.”

We can’t all look as effortlessly stylish as Sofia Coppola, but — at Noah — we can find clothes that complement our lives instead of complicating them. “I don’t like the conversation of, ‘Hey, man, you make clothes, and you’ve been doing this a long time. What should I wear?’ I wouldn’t try to offer a style suggestion. I would encourage more of a mental shift. Style is with the person. It’s a sweater and chinos, but he’s got a great personality, so it works,” he says. “Some things are really simple.”

Our Contributors

Alex Frank Writer

Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.

Shawn Brackbill Photographer

Shawn Brackbill is a photographer and director based in New York and Kansas City. His work has been featured in music-related publications such as Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Self-Titled. His fashion photography experience includes capturing the backstage scene at New York Fashion Week for Dazed and Confused and shooting for Vogue, Interview, and Elle.

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