Sneakers
From the ground up

The Highsnobiety inboxes are inundated on a daily basis with new brands vying for a piece of the spotlight. To help you show off your vast knowledge of sneaker brands, each month we take a moment to present highlight up-and-coming brands we enjoy.

When it comes to the modern sneaker stunt-fest, your arsenal is often only as good as last week’s release. Granted, sites like Highsnobiety have helped contribute to a culture in which highly-anticipated products are put on pedestals months before they come out, elevating their limited-edition status to grail levels and building anticipation amongst consumers. But most people can decide for themselves whether they want to cop or pass on the latest hot release.

In that paradigm, Aprix makes an interesting proposition. Founder Brendon Babenzien, whose Noah clothing label is known for its transparency and balance of classic menswear staples with a youthful edge, isn’t really out to make the next covetable silhouette or colorway. In a way, it’s a footwear brand for people who want to take a break from the hype cycle.

We sat down with Babenzien and discussed the evolution of street culture, the motives behind Aprix, and how age can change your perspective on what really matters in life.

Noah originally started in 2005 before you brought it back in its current form. You initially started Aprix in 2008, too. Is this is another comeback for you?

I suppose, if you count the first time around even as something, because it really wasn’t. I think we made 1,000 pairs of shoes and sold them to some people, but it wasn’t really a thing. There was no website, there was nothing.

I guess for me, things never really go away. This whole thing has been my life, so it’s just a question of whether it’s in a tangible form or if it’s still in an idea somewhere in my head, or a sample sitting in a box somewhere. There are all these things that always come in and out of my life that eventually will get done.  But yeah, we could call it a comeback.

On the Noah blog you position Aprix as a sort of footwear “anti-brand.” It’s more about people wearing one pair to death than buying several pairs to stock. There’s even a video lookbook set to the B-52’s “Deadbeat Club.” It seems very ’80s and John Hughes.

That was just kind of like…we had to go somewhere that we thought made sense for people to be hanging out and chilling, more or less. And we got super lucky ’cause it was an incredibly beautiful day. You know, those early spring days, before it gets shitty. We got super lucky and we just really wanted footage of people relaxing, just spending time.

We talk a lot about that. We talk a lot about people just spending time well, and not just working, working, working: chasing money, chasing stuff, chasing everything, and we thought that was a nice, easy way to do it. A part of the Aprix lifestyle—if you want to call it that— is just spending your time well. Getting out, enjoying yourself, and then a lot of that’s connected to travel. Leaving your space, wherever you are. In our case, it’s New York City. We love it here, but we also would like to get to the beach, or get to the mountains, or whatever. So, some people can’t do that, right?

Right.

It’s just a fact of life. Particularly for young people. They don’t have a car, so places like Central Park serve as a little getaway. And it’s incredible. You forget how big it is until you get there on the right day, with the right weather, and the fucking cherry blossoms blooming, and then all of a sudden you’re like: “This place is amazing.”

It’s so sick. Those little rowboats and stuff—they’re really funny, ’cause nobody really knows what the fuck they’re doing and just bump into each other. It was fun, and it didn’t really take much effort to do it, which is kind of how I like things.

You’ve always been about materials, things being ethically made, and made well. How does that factor into the shoes?

You know it’s funny, ’cause we just did this Dover Street Market clinic yesterday. The sales team there and I were talking a lot about that because the original version of the shoes, going back 12 or 13 years, were made in Asia. And between then and now there’s been such a tremendous evolution of thinking about things. We’ve been able to move the manufacturing to Europe, which is great.

We were messing around with Italy for a bit, but ultimately we ended up in Portugal. They make really good products and the people there have regular working conditions. There are two styles now. This oval one, which is the original two-tone, which is canvas and suede. That’s kind of the heart of the brand. It’s this exceedingly sporty, preppy, sailable-looking kind of shoe.

Which works for you perfectly, given your lifelong interest in all things nautical.

That was the shoe that launched the whole thing. And now we have the 002, which is far simpler. There’s no flash to it at all, actually. It’s strictly about simple silhouettes, materials, colors, and that’s it. The idea is that we’re not really interested in being a cool brand. I don’t even know how to talk about this stuff anymore, because there’s so much talk about “is it cool or isn’t it cool?”

And it’s like—well, was Converse cool? Or were they just Converse? Maybe they’re cool now, for a variety of reasons, like their history of cool people wearing their shoes. But when Converses were built as a sneaker, they weren’t thinking, “Is it cool?”

Sneakers were more specifically purpose-driven back then.

They needed a shoe for basketball or whatever, and that was it. We’re taking a very similar approach. Just make a good product and let it take on the personality of the wearer, the places it travels to, and don’t even try and be cool. That’s pretty weird to make an attempt at.

With Aprix, there’s an interesting parallel with Noah, not just with the nautical connection, and the fact that they complement each other. Is it difficult to toggle your energy between both brands?

It’s not that hard actually, because there are so many facets to people. This is what I always find fascinating about our business. So many businesses, brands, whatever you want to call them—they go in on one thing. They’re like: “We’re this.” We’re the rock ‘n’ roll brand, or whatever it is. I appreciate that; I respect that as a business, that helps. It’s much easier to for people to get their head around something. It’s like, “Oh, they’re just a surf brand.” Or they’re a fashion brand, a running brand, whatever it is.

But that doesn’t really suit me. There are all these different components to my lifestyle and the people involved with me, like my original business partner, Skinny, he’s a really eclectic, interesting person. He lives in LA now, but he has some input. He’s a race car driver, sails boats, and he’s kind of this nutty guy, but he knows how to live.

What ideas come to mind when you’re designing the shoes?

There’s a part of my life that is pretty classic and traditional, visually. I don’t wear wacky clothes, but my mentality, the way I think about things, is incredibly punk rock. The look of Aprix is one thing, it’s classic, it’s simple, it’s an elegant design, but then our choices as a business that’s where we’re more aggressive. I could kill with a vulcanized shoe, but I have to go to Asia to do it, and I don’t want to do that. So we have to find alternative solutions.

In business, particularly in the business of design, whether it be a house, a car, a sneaker, or anything, it goes beyond just the design. If you’re saying, “Well, I can only do it within these constraints,” like I can’t work with a shitty factory that puts toxins into the air, then all of a sudden it impacts your design. And I think that’s really, really interesting, because it forces you to actually be more creative with what you do. If everything in the world was at your disposal, then it’s easy, and I guess I’ve never really made things easy on myself.

What are some of the ways that you’re thinking about ethics in regards to materials, sustainability, and manufacturing?

I wouldn’t say it’s incredibly sustainable. I think there’s a lot of talk about what we do with Noah as sustainable, and there is some degree of truth to that. Basically, our version of sustainability is educating our customer about buying better products, buying smarter, and even buying less.

It’s letting their choices present who they are, rather than a fucking walk-in closet of every new cool thing that is available to them, because that necessarily doesn’t make you interesting. Maybe it makes you look cool, but what’s behind that is what’s really going to matter in the long-term—who you are as a person. So, with Aprix, it’s a very similar approach: Let’s just make a good product that people will hold on to and wear and use for a long time. And it isn’t trend-driven, so they’re not just buying, buying, buying.

That’s pretty evident if you look at the shoe. It’s so simple. Next year you’re not gonna look at it going: “I can’t wear that anymore, oh my god,” because it has some big ribbon on it, or some crazy embroidery that people aren’t into anymore. It is essentially, like a Converse or Vans, or Stan Smith—all the classics—which is literally what we were trying to accomplish when we started.

If you think back 12 or 13 years ago, Converse and Vans were the staples in the canvas area. At the time they weren’t doing great things. Now they’re both doing incredible things. Their shit looks amazing. You can get all kinds of stuff, you can get prints, great colors, and this and that, but back then you couldn’t. And we were just like: Well, nobody’s really speaking to us culturally, let’s do our own thing. So we don’t try to take any credit for being these brilliant design minds. We just want a simple thing that falls right in line with these already classic things that exist, and we really liked the idea of it looking like a shoe that had been around a long time already.

What’s the story behind the flag motif on the shoes?

That comes out of  racing and sailing—that sporty vibe. We really like the idea that you would think a little bit sporty when you saw the stripes and the colors. We also liked the specific colors: the blue, and the gold, and the white. They felt simultaneous sporty but also rich—but I don’t mean rich in financial terms, I mean visually rich.

Is that a reference to a specific nautical or or racing flag?

Not specifically, but obviously those colors turn up a lot in nautical culture. Obviously, blue is there a lot, and then you think about sailing slickers and stuff like that, and there’s a lot of yellow and gold,. But you also see colors like that in car racing—bright, bold colors, so that was what we were going for. And we also liked the idea of the label on footwear as opposed to a print or embroidery. It felt a little bit nicer to us.

You’re using more upscale materials like suede in new silhouettes. How would you describe Aprix’s position in the market?

I’m not that well-versed in the qualities of suede to say, “this is the best one.” They’re just good quality. Are they the best in the world? Probably not. A lot of it had to do with color accessibility. I wanted good colors, and the factory we work with wanted tanneries that were coming out of Europe, so that was primarily the driving force behind it.

I’m not trying to make the most luxurious shoe on the market. People don’t really need that. There are plenty. Which is another interesting thing—every major fashion brand has great footwear now. They didn’t always. Ten years ago you weren’t getting great sneakers from Saint Laurent or Lanvin. They might have done it, but it wasn’t as good as it is now.

Bally was one of the originators.

Yeah, and that goes back to the ’70s and ’80s. But nobody really did footwear well, and if you look at why they’re doing  it well now, it’s the influence of streetwear on fashion.

Of course.

They’re like: “Oh, young cool people love sneakers, let’s do that right.” That was never the case before. Before, the luxury customer was older, more conservative, and was buying  proper shoes. It was all brown and black shoes for those guys, so it’s another area that we see the influence of street culture on fashion.  I don’t pay attention to the industry, but if I had to guess, I’d say from a growth perspective, I’m sure that for tons of these brands, their growth has been in footwear.

Puma and Gucci in particular have seen crazy growth, especially with fashion sneakers. Do you think it’s because the barrier of entry into so-called “sneaker culture” these days is literally just a self-professed love of kicks?

I suppose. I don’t know, because I don’t consider myself a sneakerhead at all. I never cared, I don’t come from the sneaker collector culture at all. I couldn’t tell an Air Max from that shoe…I don’t know when any of that shit came out. I never really gave a shit either.

My venture into footwear was more like: “I’d like something that looks like this, and it’s not available to me.” And that was it. I wasn’t like, “God I love sneakers! Let’s start a sneaker brand.”

I came up through skateboarding, and then I went to Pervert and Supreme, I think a lot of people just assumed. People often come to me like, “Oh, remember blah, blah, blah?” And I’ll be like: “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

No, I don’t remember that at all. I’ve fundamental knowledge of it, because I was around it all those years, but I’ve never really kept track. I don’t keep track of most things. There are a few things I’ve stayed truly into over the years. Musically, I could probably talk about a lot of stuff.

With Noah, you revisit the iconography of the Knights Templar, mixed with nautical aspects and notes of outlaw culture. How would you define what shapes Aprix? Where’d the name came from? 

Aprix was a funny take on Grand Prix and this idea of racing—but not necessarily to win. You just do it. You go out, you race a boat, you race a car. You could get into all kinds of conversation about the “rat race” and all this other kind of shit, but that’s simply where the name came from, it was just a funny take on Grand Prix.

And then culturally, it’s so simple, it’s just good things that influence it. I think you when start talking about nice things, people automatically tend to jump to expensive things. We’re not belittling really high-quality, expensive anything—whether it be a dinner or a vacation—but we are asking people to pay attention to the little things, with time being the most important. You could work your whole life trying to accomplish some financial greatness so you can have all this shit, and then realize you just wasted all your time.

We talk about time as the ultimate luxury because that’s some shit you just don’t get back. In pursuit of all these other things, you might be missing out on all the little things. We want people to recognize that in the moment. The things you do with your time really matter, so be smart about it.

You have a family now. There are a lot of older heads in this culture who have evolved along with it. They’ve grown up with this conscious consumer behavior of: “Dude, I need to get this thing next week.” Even today, the Supreme Uptempos came out. But I think age and family change your perspective on what’s actually important.

Without question. In this particular slice of industry—whatever you want to call it, streetwear, fashion, or whatever the fuck this is—people used to grow out of it, and that’s no longer the case. It’s our lifestyle too. It’s who we are, it’s who we’ve always been. So that’s a new wrinkle.

We have all the guys who stayed active, but what I try and keep reminding people is no one fucking escapes getting older. Not to be like, “Oh fuck I’m gonna get old and boring one day,” but you should understand that you’ll get older and that you’ll have to make choices. I hope you make the same choices I’ve made, which is to stay young at heart, stay active, and stay doing things.

I could have just continued doing what I was doing for the security of the money. That would have been the normal decision of someone at my age, “I’m not taking any chances.”  They stay where they are because the money’s good, the lifestyle’s good. But a young person’s choice is: “Fuck it, I’m gonna do something new; I’m gonna try and change things, and I’m gonna do it a different way.”

So, when I talk about changing your perspective, it’s not to be wagging my finger at young people and say, “Hey man at your age…” It’s more like: Pay attention to the evolution and the changes, because if you’re not careful,  you might find yourself acting like the person you didn’t want to be at 40 or 45.

For another low-key footwear brand you should check out, read our interview with Tony Ferguson, founder of Rone Footwear.

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