Brendon and Ryan Babenzien are two brothers from East Islip, New York with a rich history in street culture. Both grew up playing team sports before fully embracing skating, surfing, and snowboarding. Surprisingly, lacrosse played a huge part in their adolescence, too. As they got older, the lifestyle associated with alternative sports drew them in more and each one found his way into the industry in one way or another.
Ryan started as an entertainment marketing director and consultant to brands who wanted to get in with Hollywood celebrities. Brendon cut his teeth working for labels like Miami-based clothing line Pervert, before eventually working at Supreme. We spoke to them extensively in our recent Highsnobiety Conversations podcast, but feel that their own story deserves attention, too.
Now that both brothers are running their own labels, Brendon with his clothing line Noah, and Ryan with his footwear line GREATS, we talked to them about their first-hand experience watching a niche culture go mainstream. We also got their views on consumer culture, the importance of sustainability in today’s crowded market, and a sneak peek at an upcoming Noah x GREATS sneaker collaboration.
What was your relationship with sports, growing up?
Ryan: We were inundated with sports. Lacrosse was one of them, but we played everything on a team level. Baseball, football, soccer, lacrosse, and then it was BMX, skating, and surfing. It was little bit unique, especially for the era. You either played a team sport, or you were a burnout.
Brendon: For me, it was a very complicated situation because I loved lacrosse. It’s really the only team sport that really interested me, but at the same time I knew I was going to be into skating, surfing, and snowboarding for the rest of my life. That stuff in a lot of ways was more fun for me, but I knew I had a limited time to play lacrosse—basically after high school and college was gonna be the end of it. Every spring, when it was time to commit to lacrosse, it was really difficult. The weather was getting better, kids were going to the beach, you could get in the water without freezing your ass off. It was a hard decision to make every year, but in the end I’m glad I did it because I wasn’t gonna do it forever.
Ryan, how did you get into the clothing industry?
Ryan: I worked in entertainment first. I started consulting streetwear brands that were trying to engage the entertainment community, like how does Mecca get on a celebrity or in a movie? That was my entry point into the industry. My first real job was running entertainment marketing at PUMA. I’ve always been engaged in the culture, I didn’t make a living off of it, but I was into product and lifestyle pieces.
What was your relationship with sneakers growing up?
Brendon: I was never a sneakerhead. I’m not a collector of anything in that way. It never really made sense to me. My relationship to sneakers was mostly about skateboarding, and the things that pass through that culture. As I got older, footwear as an idea became more and more important to me, because it became pretty clear that what you wear on your feet says a tremendous amount about you. I learned I was pretty particular about what I put on my feet, and that what I chose said something. So it wasn’t really this huge love for the culture of sneakers or footwear, it was really just saying: “This is the stuff I would like to see in the world.”
Ryan: When we were 10-year-old kids, there wasn’t sneaker culture in the way there is today. Nobody collected sneakers, waited in line, or was reselling them. But there was an association for sneakers for one particular audience, and that was basically around hip-hop. Back then they were wearing Bally Shoes, British Knights, or a moccasin with a lug sole. That was your social currency, and it morphed out of that culture into a lifestyle. You have it in skate, basketball, and all other areas. But we were really young when that culture began to take shape. This was in the very, very early ‘80s. Sneaker collecting probably didn’t start until the ‘90s.
Brendon: You might’ve had some people in the late ‘80s, but nothing at this scale, this kind of idea that sneakers are important, and they define people. It’s a really interesting kind of culture that developed, but yeah—none of that existed then.
Ryan: There was no secondary market. There was no waiting in line, there was no Internet. You just went into your local sneaker shop and bought what you thought was hot and represented you. I actually worked at a sneaker store in high school called Suburban Sports in Bay Shore, Long Island. I was getting the newest thing because I worked in the store, not that I was a collector. I would just wear them, they’d wear out, and I’d throw ‘em out. I didn’t covet them in that way, I was just into gear. I liked all kinds of things – sneakers were just one of them.
Right, sort of the Bobbito Garcia-era of sneaker collecting, when it was more about making your sneaker knowledge more diverse.
Ryan: Yeah, it was more about being an individual than it was a follower. The irony is that kids think they’re so fucking cool because they have something that 10,000 other idiots waited in line for. There’s no sense of individuality or leadership around that.
Brendon: You’ve injected yourself into this commercial system, basically. It’s just more merchandise. If you’re a real individual, you start thinking about bigger picture stuff and things that really matter. And as a consumer, what you buy means a lot. It goes a long fucking way. If you buy some stuff made by some fucking kids who are slaves—or borderline slaves—you’re not fucking punk. You’re not cool; you’re wack—that’s the wackest thing you can be. I think we’re evolving as a consumer society and starting to understand that. The last 40 or 50 years has been about getting products cheaper, and the general public has no knowledge of how or where these things are made and what the results are, and now they’re starting to learn, and I think we’re starting to see a change in consumer behavior. A big chunk of Ryan’s shoes are made in Italy, and they’re a higher-quality shoe, and he’s giving them to people at a good price. That’s a vision for the future.
Ryan, when you first launched GREATS, one of the slogans you used was “It’s ok to buy status, just don’t overpay.” How does that reflect today’s consumer?
Ryan: I think the Internet being a great equalizer—and the largest distribution channel in the world—has allowed for a value proposition to be created around whatever it is you’re making. Allowing yourself to sell it directly to the customer allows you to say: “I’m still going to make that same quality you’re looking for, that level of excellence, but I no longer have to charge you what you were paying before.” We eliminate that top of the profit chain for the retailer, and at the same time…We get that vanity is built into human behavior. People still wanna be cool, look cool, or at least think they do. We get it. You wanna buy status, that’s fine, just don’t fucking overpay for it. We think that pricing for footwear is out of control, so we’re trying to provide a level of coolness at a much more approachable price.
Brendon: Let’s be honest. We see people walk down the street wearing cool brands head-to-toe. That doesn’t make them cool, it just means they have enough money to buy that shit. There’s a difference between somebody who can buy the latest shit and some kid who just has really great personal style. They both walk into the room, you’re gonna know. We’re talking to the guy who really is an individual and is into good stuff, and doesn’t really need flashy shit. It’s really about his personal choices, giving him the options to take what we make and wear it how he wants. Or say: “No, we don’t like that shit. Fuck you, we’re not coming into your store.” It’s fine either way. We don’t need to a be a huge business, so we can accept that. That’s the way it should be. We don’t want everyone to be the same.
Brendon, what’s your approach to clothing and approaching it with Noah?
Brendon: We have huge goals at the company. We’re trying to balance contemporary, cool, and interesting. But we can also care about things. This idea that not giving a shit is punk, or a youthful, aggressive cool attitude—you’re actually playing into the hands of a corporate structure. Not giving a shit means you don’t have to question where your fucking shoes are made, or think about things like Coca-Cola owning all the water rights in Africa, and they charge people more for water than they do Coca-Cola. It’s a lot cooler to care. It’s more punk to care and be aggressive about it. Call people out on it, and spend your money as a message. The way you spend your money sends a message more than any other thing you can do—more than your vote, in this country. Because if you spend money in a certain way, you’re sending a message to the companies that own the politicians. And if you hit them in the pocketbook, you can change the way things work by doing that, because the only thing anyone gives a shit about is money at the end of the day.
How that relates back to how we operate is that we make things in Japan not because it’s cool to make stuff in Japan. There’s certain things we have to make in Japan based on where the fabric comes from, so it makes sense. We make stuff in Italy, the United States, and Canada for the same reason. Our goal is just to make stuff in countries where we know people are treated well where they’re working, and there’s some level of environmental control so it’s not total mayhem. When something gets dyed, they’re not dumping the chemicals out back into the river; they’re trying to take some kind of responsibility. It’s actually quite hard to do with a small company because you don’t have any power. We can’t change the way manufacturing works. We have to find people that are doing it reasonably well and responsibly, and work with them. And then as you grow, you can slowly implement change into the industry. A good example of a company who’s been able to do that is Patagonia. They do a great job. They do the best they can as a company who produces things. Producing is the problem, right? But we’re not going to stop producing things, we just have to try and do it better.
Sustainability is a huge buzzword for companies right now, denim brands like Levi’s, G-STAR, and Nudie have made active efforts to market their sustainable efforts. Is it a real movement or a trend?
Brendon: None of us are sustainable, including Noah. There are certain things beyond our control, but you have to start the conversation so you can get there eventually. So that’s where we’re at. We’re trying to learn, get better at what we do, so that in the future we can be more sustainable and truly responsible. Other companies who are doing certain things to be part of that conversation, that’s fine, because it will turn into a reality. Even if they think they’re just playing a game to go along with the situation, the public is gonna keep demanding it, and it’s gonna become part of their norm. However they get to it, I think it’s ok. It might start in the marketing room, but if it becomes part of their regular routine, the result is the same, and I think that’s a good thing.
Noah’s clothing tags even carry a message, saying there are 100 million sharks being killed in the ocean each year.
Brendon: That was something I had just read. I read a lot about the ocean, the environment, fisheries—I read a lot of doomsday shit. That was a figure I had come across that I spent some time researching and found out it was quite accurate, and it fucking blew my mind. I didn’t even know there was a 100 million sharks in the world, let alone 100 million could be killed annually. It was so shocking to me and I was like: “People need to know this.” People that work in my company are as interested in this stuff as I am, and we just created a position for one of our guys that we call “environmental outreach.” His job is to analyze our business and come up with ways we can make changes. The first thing he did was change our packaging and the way we ship. We’re getting 100% recycled packaging and changing the tape we use. And now he’s finding us different dye houses that might be cleaner than the one we’re using, and consistently looking into how we can be better environmentally.
We’re interested in those things and we have a vehicle to share that information. People might throw it out, study it for themselves, it might make some change in their life—we don’t know, but we have the platform to do it, so we’ll continue to do it. Our long-term goal is to partner with an organization that we can be more active with. And there’s a lot of people out there doing important work. It’s just not perceived as very “cool” right now. Our job is to make it interesting, our job is to present it to people in a way that they’ll be like “oh shit, that’s fucking crazy!” If we put a cool graphic to it, and people are like “Yeah I’d wear that,” and if 1 out of 100 people becomes affiliated or does something, that’s a big deal.
Ryan, how does sustainability factor into what you do at GREATS?
Ryan: We take a less political position on how we communicate what we’re doing and why, but we have our own kind of filters. Are these factories getting the right grade for us to attempt to work with? We haven’t begun to change the industry, and I don’t think we’re in a position to do that just yet, but we look at it like: Is this logical? Are we knowingly out there doing something we know to be wrong? And that’s our filter, just do the right thing. We’ll try to impact some change as we grow and have the ability to do so.
Our position is a little different than Noah’s, we focus on a human level. We don’t think we’re out there saving the world, but if we can save you some money, which is important to someone that doesn’t have any, and you can buy some level of coolness or feel a style upgrade from something you used to have, that has an emotional impact that we’re really proud to offer. I know what it’s like to grow up wanting shit and not be able to have it. And for some 15-year-old kid who’s like “I can buy two pairs of Babs for the same price as that one pair of another brand, and these are dope,” at that age, and that level, that may have a much greater future effect on some level than we realize. We’re not out there thinking we save the world—we sell sneakers.
Brendon: When you’re making a better product, you’re doing more for the world than most people. Product that lasts a long time means you get people to buy less shit over time, and you’re putting less crap into the world. If you have a high-quality shoe, you have them for a long time, and that’s a big thing.
Ryan: We don’t believe in fast fashion. I think it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to our culture. I’m not trying to make something that’s not going to be wearable in a year, two years, or five years. The lane we play in is classics. That allows us to not have a fucking Shape-Up or something that 10 million people buy in a year and throw out the next year, or a trend that lasts for 15 months. We don’t engage in that shit. And to Brendon’s point, we’re making things that have a lasting value and therefore have some positive impact, at least we’d like to hope so.
Brendon: No, there’s research to prove it. Production of anything—shoes, cars, T-shirts—is a big part of the problem when you talk about destruction of the environment. If you’re doing anything at a higher quality, you’re helping to some degree. Producing nothing is really the answer, but as the human race, that’s impossible.
Why did it make sense to collaborate now?
Brendon: We’re both in the position to do it now. For my part, if there wasn’t a shoe in my mind to do, I wouldn’t have done it. It wasn’t opportunistic, it was a practical decision because it’s a good shoe, and we could do something fun with it.
Ryan: The influence was the Sk8-Hi, a shoe we wore as kids when we skated. We wore Vans a lot, not just the Sk8-Hi, but that was one that resonated. There were some design cues and inspiration that we thought would be interesting to inject into a shoe we were already making. When we married those two ideas, it just came out dope.
Brendon: It was a pretty natural thing to do, and for me that’s the best. If you have to work too hard on something, it means there’s something not quite right with it. And the shoe that we ended up with doesn’t look like some crazy, newfangled weirdness that we won’t wear in a couple of years; it looks like a shoe that’s been around for a long time, and for me that’s always really important.
Collaborations have become a huge marketing ploy in past years, especially for large companies like H&M and Uniqlo. Are we over the golden age of truly good collabs?
Ryan: I still believe in collaborations and feel like it’s art not science. When done with purity and intent and not for collaboration’s sake, that’s the way they should be approached. If it’s done well, then the collaborative product is more meaningful than the original on each side. I compare it to sampling: There’s a host of original music out there, and when sampled and collaborated upon, it creates a new version which in and of itself lives on forever.
Brendon: Collaboration culture—what it’s become—that was bound to happen. I could easily critique it, but it’s not my place. There’s levels of everything in the world. In food, you have crappy food that’s bad for you, and you have really good food that either tastes great, or it’s good for you, and that defines how good it is. Same deal with collaborations now. There’s good ones and there’s bad ones, and they’re always going to exist side-by-side, and they’re going to cater to different consumer mentalities.
For me, we’ll just do what we do. We’ll do collaborations, but they’ll be very specific, very meaningful, and have a real purpose. The reason that I could do this shoe with Ryan is number 1, it’s a good shoe, and number 2, it has a look that I wanted to touch, but on my own, if I’m not working with someone already in that space, it doesn’t really make sense for me to just go and do it. I couldn’t make that shoe by myself at that quality, and make it well. And that’s pretty much how we’ll proceed as we go forward with collaborations. They’re all very personal for me as well. My business and my personal life are basically one and the same. There’s no real separation; the stuff that comes through this brand and this store is coming directly out of my life, my history, and my friends. It’s all very personal.
Will you guys continue to collaborate in the future?
Brendon: We haven’t even discussed it yet.
Ryan: There’s no master plan right now for the Noah x GREATS collab series. I don’t know what that means. I’m sure someone’s gonna read this fucking thing and be like: “Oh shit I better buy this–there may never be another one.”
Brendon: It came out better than I hoped for actually. If there was gonna be another one, it might just be different colors or something, because it’s just a good shoe.
Listen to the Highsnobiety Conversations podcast with Ryan and Brendon below:
For further in-depth reading material, check out our commentary piece on how streetwear is finding inspiration in rock music.