On today's episode of Vibe Check, Brendon Babenzien of Noah and Sam Lobban, SVP of Designer and New Concepts at Nordstrom, talk about their unlikely partnership and why small businesses and big businesses need to work more closely together. New Concepts @ Nordstrom 011: Noah launched today online and in select Nordstrom stores, but unlike previous iterations of Lobban's New Concepts series (which has included labels like Dior and Thom Browne), the Noah partnership foregoes a physical installation for a digital one, owing to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
The accompanying lookbook was styled by Haley Wollens and features several exclusive pieces to Nordstrom, like paisley yellow chinos in brushed twill and a summer-ready white suit, alongside core offerings from Noah and a collaboration with famed new wave band The B-52s. Lobban and Babenzien discuss the inspiration behind the pieces, the importance of working with partners you trust, and the trick to pulling off paisley.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jian DeLeon: Nordstrom and Noah is a partnership that certainly you wouldn't expect. Brendon, you and Sam are good friends, so there's a level of trust there. I feel like you can speak on this idea of a smaller company working with a larger one.
Brendon Babenzien: Let's not minimize the impact of trusting an individual in these projects, because that's how they all start, right? It all starts with people and that trust in someone. Whether you know them or not isn't really the issue, it's more the ability to speak to someone and think: “This person really knows what we're trying to do and can help us.” I don't want to minimize Sam's impact on this, because we have a lot of faith in Sam as a person and his understanding of both our business, our industry, and where things need to go.
With that said, Nordstrom genuinely wants to be a part of things outside of their scope. It became apparent after speaking with Sam and other people at the company; it wasn't just a marketing thing. That made the decision relatively simple for us, because at this point in the world, big and small companies need to work together. Small companies have things they want to say, big companies have large platforms, and if we don't work together, we could be kind of doomed.
JD: Sam, this is the 11th iteration of New Concepts, and something else that's new is you had to re-strategize how to approach the storytelling aspect without a physical installation.
Sam Lobban: The initial plan was that it was going to be all-encompassing. We were going to do the physical buildout, a digital experience, and some kind of event. We were talking all sorts of different things. And then the pandemic hit. Estelle [Bailey-Babenzien, co-founder of Noah] and I were talking through what we should do in that situation. The product is actually going to be in five stores, but there's not going to be the buildout we would usually do. We felt like we could tell the story through digital means, and that would be the most appropriate thing to do given everything that's going on.
JD: Nordstrom is no stranger to working with brands in Noah's universe. By that, I refer to Chris and Beth Gibbs of UNION, with whom you also partnered with. And back in the day there was a little-known connection with Stüssy.
SL: You're right. There's an old, longstanding relationship with Stüssy from the early '90s days. There's also the Portland-based retailer — I know them by their Instagram handle, @TheCulturePDX. They've had a few special one-off old school Nike Marathon T-shirts that like Nordstrom specials from l'77 or '78. We did the UNION and Co concept with Chris and Beth about a year ago.
JD: Let's talk about some of the pieces in the capsule. Brendon, you're a huge paisley fiend. It pops up in a lot of your collections. What's the story behind some of the exclusive products and fabrics?
BB: The story here is this place where summer fun and the path we're on as a society collide. It's this weird thing where there's a lot of color, there's graphics, and it's fun and poppy, but if you start to peel back the layers, you'll recognize that there's some fairly serious concepts there.
The paisley is pretty interesting because if you look closely, the actual paisley itself is made up of tiny little flowers. Paisley for me, specifically, is viewed as this really traditional pattern, but when you apply it to clothing, it's almost kind of becomes an aggressive choice. It's not the easiest thing in the world to wear; it's certainly not the easiest thing to wear well. So we viewed paisley as this really aggressive thing where you really have to have a lot of confidence in yourself to pull it off.
JD: Brendon, as someone from Generation X, creative culture and corporations used to be each other's antithesis. Selling out was a bad thing. Now it's about monetization. When did you start to notice the rise of so-called “corporate punks” and see progressive-minded people trying to change the system from within?
BB: This part of the conversation gets really complex, because there's the perception of things and then there's the reality of things. My position on this now is: What we do as a company really gets to the truth of the matter. How we operate, how we act, the choices we make, that's what you look at. That's how you can tell if somebody is really doing the work. I feel like it's a really interesting time because it does appear to me that some of the larger organizations have made a legitimate shift to make more positive choices if they can.
If we can be a part of that, if we can help in any way...that's kind of where we are. It's definitely a shift in my attitude, but the world has changed, so it would be silly for me to not change with it and recognize that some of these organizations that were really problematic for me 20 years ago now have the potential to be solution-based companies.
JD: Lastly, I want to talk about The B-52s collaboration. Brendan, Noah has done worked with everyone from Depeche Mode to The Cure. As someone who loves the album art to Bouncing Off the Satellites, it's interesting to see you went with the single cover art for “Wig.” Why that one?
BB: That one stood out to us for a variety of reasons. When I think about the B-52s, I think about outlandish behavior, look, and attitude, like the beehive hairdos. It's everything I love about the B-52s —it's weird and fun. They're kind of party band that doesn't take themselves seriously That behavior to me is super punk, the idea that you do what you want and can be yourself.
JD: Who do you think has the better Rock Lobster impression between you two?
SL: That sounds like a challenge if I ever heard one.
BB: I'll steer clear. I'm not weird enough.
Stay tuned for new episodes of Vibe Check every Tuesday and Thursday.