On May 4, The New York Times published an article about Brendon Babenzien’s recently revamped Noah clothing label. Originally launched in 2002, Babenzien’s clothing line favored nautical inspiration, upscale fabrics, and elevated menswear staples that predated the #menswear blogosphere and Frank Muytjens’ tenure at J. Crew. The pricey line was sold at stores like Nom de Guerre, a sub rosa SoHo menswear shop that was equally ahead of its time.
It shuttered after a few seasons and Babenzien returned to Supreme, leaving last year to resurrect Noah as a vertical label with its own store and independent distribution methods—eschewing a more traditional wholesale business in favor of linking up with his friends, like Chris Gibbs at UNION Los Angeles, to stock his label. Other than that, it’s pretty much exclusively available at the Noah store or website.
But that information is a footnote the NYT article. Instead, it focuses on his previous time as Supreme’s creative director, implying a sense of competition between the two brands. It’s a story that feels tone deaf. To say that Noah is competing against Supreme is missing the point—once you have a clear understanding of the brand’s DNA it becomes apparent that its ethos is built upon opting out of the race entirely. Babenzien knows a thing or two about building a strong brand, and he and his brother Ryan talked about it at length on one of our recent podcasts.
To the uninitiated, Supreme and Noah may seem similar at the product level—both carry plenty of hats, t-shirts, and hoodies with graphics on them. But often, when mainstream publications and writers unfamiliar with street culture attempt to cover buzzy brands, they get it wrong because they don’t operate on the same wavelength. It takes a certain cultural literacy to understand the intricate relationship between streetwear, lifestyle, and the influences behind a Cav Empt, a Noah, and a Supreme. To break it down between age demographics is inaccurate.
Describing Noah as merely a grown-up version of Supreme discredits the adults who have worn it for years, like Jason Dill, Mark Gonzalez, and Glenn O’Brien. It also glosses over the fact that Supreme makes plenty of wares that are far from teenage staples, like its recent knit polo shirts, suits with Adam Kimmel and Brooks Brothers, oxford shirts with Thom Browne, and even a Rolex watch so limited it never hit any of the label’s stores. Babenzien was less than pleased with the Times‘ take, and sent them the following e-mail expressing the amount of umbrage he took with the final article:
To Whom it May Concern,
I’m sorry to have to be writing this email, however I am extremely disappointed in the article written about Noah. Aside from the fact that it is written in a style that makes it seem as if I have some issue with Supreme, there are many inaccuracies in the actual reporting. The photos are old. The product listed was old. The writer told us this piece was not going to run, and then surprise – here it is – with no notice. Every interview opportunity we have gone after up until this point has said, “unless we can talk about current product, we don’t want to do it,” and every single item and picture in this article is way way outdated.
Just to further emphasize, all of the products circled in this photograph have not been in stock for months. We even switched out the rug pictured 2 months ago. The products being linked to either don’t exist in our shop anymore or have been sold out for a very long time and so the author has linked to the “archive” section of our site instead. There are countless other articles in existence highlighting these pieces when they were relevant in October when we opened – it’s now May.
Is this typical of the NY Times to run a piece without really checking the facts? Is it typical to write an article pitting friends against each other. I have already received emails from old friends at Supreme. I don’t quite understand this but it is extremely disappointing. I’d like the article taken off your website and I prefer it did not run in the paper.
It saddens me to say this as the Times has always been something I’ve looked to for accuracy and truth. Again, we received no opportunity to fact check and no notification of this going to print… We have literally been pitted against the company we admire the most and could face legal ramifications based on the verbiage. Please get back to us about this. We really feel like our reputation is being put on the line.
According to Babenzien, his e-mail was met with “deaf ears.” So yesterday, he responded to the Times via Instagram, where he laid out all his problems with the article and completely disavowed it. The situation between Noah and The New York Times is indicative of why so many brands who operate in the currency of coolness are notoriously press-shy, and in the rare instance that they do decide to give an interview, more often than not they vet the reporter or writer.
Such is the case with Supreme and James Jebbia, who has worked with writer Alex Hawgood on stories for the Business of Fashion, and 032c. It isn’t about nepotism as much as making sure the story is in good hands. It’s a given that from first draft to publication, a few of the details will be lost in the process, but the importance of having a person who “gets it” cover a market where mystique, nonchalance, and reputation can affect a small, independent business’s bottom line is often underestimated.
There’s a precarious line publications like The New York Times tread when writing about the unique culture brands like Noah exist in. It’s admittedly challenging to put it in the right context while having a mass appeal, mainly because the authenticity of streetwear usually depends on a never-ending struggle against normalcy. Articles about the enduring influence of skateboard style in The Wall Street Journal read like they were written by your dad after watching a few episodes of Epicly Later’d. Respected fashion journalists like Suzy Menkes can come off as condescending to designers like Matthew Williams, a multi-hyphenate creative and former creative director to Kanye West and Lady Gaga.
Last year, Menkes interviewed Williams for British Vogue and describes her initial expectation as “some cool dude whom I hoped would take his mirrored shades off long enough for me to see his face.” She’s surprised to meet “a polite man, looking as open and easy as his Californian origins, with hair skimming the shoulders of a fresh white T-shirt. If he had any particular characteristic, it seemed like modesty.”
Like minority culture is often misconstrued when covered by someone who can’t actually relate, there’s a similar cognitive dissonance when a tourist writes about streetwear versus a native. No one can tell the narrative as accurately as someone with firsthand experience.
As outsiders become more curious about street culture, we are in the midst of an interesting time in which we examine how publications are covering it. Former niche media entities like Hypebeast and Complex have now gone public or been acquired by larger companies like Hearst. Seeing articles about Supreme is as common on GQ as it is on Highsnobiety. Mainstream and enthusiast media culture is meeting in the middle, and both need to take a closer look at what they can learn from each other.
For more think-pieces, check out our Does Streetwear Objectify Japanese Culture? op-ed.
- Cover Image: Thomas Welch / Highsnobiety.com