How the Menswear Brand Noah Redefines Band Merch and Nostalgia

For Brendon Babenzien, the founder of the New York-based menswear label Noah, music is everything. “If you’re somebody who’s interested in culture and style, you can’t really leave music out of that conversation,” he says. When I meet him at his brand’s SoHo storefront, he’s wearing an understated but tasteful outfit. Blue jeans, a wool sport coat, and a t-shirt from their recent collaboration with the iconic Seventies rock band Roxy Music. 

As part of Noah’s ongoing collaborations with various musicians, the Roxy Music collection offers more than the expected t-shirt. Noah manages to embody something richer in its artist collaborations — an opportunity for fans to take inspiration from musicians in the way that they dress. The Roxy Music collection includes t-shirts, button-downs, and a tiger-print varsity jacket.

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The collection, which is available now, fits into the brand’s overall ethos of re-imagining the contours of artist merchandise and personal style. To date, Noah has released collections inspired by everyone from The Cure, to Earth, Wind & Fire, N.E.R.D, and lesser-known acts like Big Audio Dynamite. The selections always come from a place of sincerity. Which is to say they’re usually artists that Babenzien himself grew up listening to. “I think it’s part educational and part just kind of like selfishness, because I wanna give someone like Lisa Stansfield a T-shirt,” he says, laughing. 

The 49-year-old designer, who prior to founding Noah spent more than a decade working as creative director for the streetwear powerhouse Supreme, was recently named the menswear designer for J. Crew. “I grew up with the brand. For me, it’s kind of an easy fit,” he says. “From the outside looking in, people wouldn’t expect them to make that move, because usually, people expect big companies like that to be more corporate-minded. But they’re really not. They’re, like, pretty cool.”

And, like with Noah, he sees room for infusing the heritage label with a musical sensibility. “Obviously, music is a part of everyone’s life. So there’s a way to do music there too,” he says.

Ahead of the brand’s Roxy Music collection, Babenzien spoke with Rolling Stone about how he draws inspiration from his love of music.

Ben Grieme for Noah

What made you decide to start doing music-inspired collections?
It’s bands that I grew up loving and bands that I think are as relevant today as ever. Where it’s like, ‘Hey, here’s a band that maybe inspired the bands you like.’ Which is very old-man, I get that. But, at the same time, I feel like I’m always really interested in the original in anything. Whether it be a piece of clothing or a band or a sound. So, a lot of the bands that we’ve worked with were kind of first to market in the way they did things. Whether it be The Cure or Big Audio Dynamite, or Youth of Today, or Earth Wind and Fire.

At this point, music seems like a big part of the brand. Why do you think that is?
It’s the backdrop to kind of everything we do. To me, in all the different kinds of artistic expressions, they all conjure emotion. They all make you feel something. A film can make you cry, but a film is using multiple things at once to get there — it’s got visuals, it’s got sound, it’s got writing, all at the same time. But a song, all you have is the sound and maybe the words. I feel like it’s the greatest expression of emotion out of all the artistic fields. It cuts to the emotion quicker than anything. 

When it comes to clothes, there’s also an emotional connection, too, right? Maybe it’s like ‘this looks like the something that my favorite artist growing up wore.’
We’re closer to the film conversation. We make clothes, but we wrap them in a lot of other things. We talk about social justice, we talk about the environment, we donate money to things, so we do give more meaning to the threads. We have to also do the work in order to achieve that. A jacket’s just a jacket until you show people other things that are surrounding it. That’s where the film conversation comes in. You need more to lift it up. But with music, you turn it on, and you’re like, ‘you got me.’

How do you approach coming to these artists and describing how what you’re offering isn’t just merch?
It’s hard. Some of them totally get it and it’s just instantaneous. A lot of them are already set up with merch deals where they have companies that represent them in the space. And it’s the job of those companies to then find good vehicles to sell merchandise. So a lot of those companies now know who we are. So it gets a little bit easier for us as we go forward. But with some of the artists, they just don’t understand it. Like, we have gotten responses back on a few of them like, ‘Oh, we have a merch deal already.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, this isn’t really a merch deal, though. This is a one-time thing. We’re gonna take a little bit of creative license and try and create some newness with what you do.’ And some of the artists, they just don’t understand it. And fair enough. I mean, they make music, why should they care, you know what I mean?

Victor Llorente for Rolling Stone

 

What would you say is the difference between traditional merch and what you guys are doing?
Point of view. We are a company that has a very specific idea about graphics. And with each band, I’m such a huge fan that I kinda know what they’ve done and haven’t done. I know if a T-shirt that they once made is now re-selling $600 or $1,200. So it’s like, ‘nobody can afford to buy the one that’s out there. Let’s do that one again.’ So it’s really just coming from like a fan’s perspective of what I think would be interesting.

And that’s very, a very different approach to what maybe a big merch company might do. Unfortunately, the way those things work is there’s a lot of people inside doing the design work, and they’re doing it for maybe a hundred other bands. It’s just their job to create graphics. And they might not be coming at it with as much passion as we might for a particular project.

Could you ever see the brand scaling up the artist collaborations and taking on the bigger merch companies?
I don’t think so. I mean, they’re a bigger part of each collection in their own way. Like, you’ll be feeling a certain way about everything in life, and then the band you work with will kind of reflect that mental space a little bit. You don’t really think about it, it just ends up that way. So, for example, in our suits, the legs are a bit wider this season, everything’s a little bit looser. There are more seventies-style colors and things like that. Somehow Roxy Music just fits really beautifully right into that whole vibe. So it’s almost like the musicians come almost after the fact.

And you guys do more than shirts — the Roxy Music collection has that varsity jacket. Usually, bands aren’t doing cut and sew items or anything like that.
Sometimes you think about the band’s style and the types of people who like the band, and what their style is like. And you try and translate that a little bit to go a little bit further. So in this case, there’s a jacket, there’s a button-up with the graphic on the back. It’s just like ‘what inspires you?’ And what we’ll do here is even on the drop day, there might be some pieces that aren’t directly related to the collaboration but maybe somebody in the band might’ve worn a piece similar. So, for example, we’re dropping the white corduroy jacket the same week. 

So you see people getting into a band like Roxy Music via the drop, and then being inspired to dress like them?
Well, they see Bryan Ferry. I mean, he’s incredible, right? Like, he’s one of these people that in the early stages was like a little bit more avant-garde with his style and then just graduated into traditional menswear. But somehow, because of who he is, it still came off as super cool even though it could’ve been the same outfit worn by some regular guy next to him. He just knows how to wear clothes.

When you were developing this collection, were you able to talk to any members of the band?
So this one was interesting. I rarely talk to the artists personally because I’m a bit afraid to. I don’t wanna cross that line as a fan. For this, we didn’t speak to Bryan directly, but it was his son who was managing the whole thing. So it was pretty close to home. And they were really into it. They saw what we wanted to do and were like, ‘Oh, this is great. Cool. Go ahead.’ I do remember for The Cure collection, Robert Smith sent one or two emails. They were these cryptic emails about a little change here and there. Very subtle, very slight. I don’t wanna go so far as to say meaningless, but you’re kind of like, ‘Wow, you just wanna change something. Pink to red on that squiggly line.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, Robert Smith is really like that.’ Detail-oriented and very particular about very specific things. 

Victor Llorente for Rolling Stone

I was interested in the N.E.R.D. collection that you guys did. Pharrell is someone with really deep roots in menswear and streetwear, too.
What’s great about Pharrell, I don’t know him very well, I’ve met him a handful of times and always enjoyed him. But from a distance, I just feel like he does what he wants to do stylistically. There’s like this whole era of artists where they started in hip-hop but didn’t all stay there necessarily. Some of them are more pop or whatever now. But there’s a whole group of them that benefited from the explosion of hip-hop in the mainstream, who became these kinds of, like,  fashion icons. But I feel like he’s the only one who isn’t really afraid to just be normal. Where he’s just like, ‘I like what I like and I’m gonna wear what I wear.’ I feel like he doesn’t need to make these massive statements stylistically. And I think that says a lot about his style. Because there’s a difference between fashion and style, right? He has style. A lot of other artists, they’re more just like ‘Oh, what’s next? What’s next? What’s next?’ And oftentimes, it doesn’t even really look appropriate on them. I know I singled out hip-hop artists, but it’s true of anyone who’s famous these days. I don’t know how many of them actually have really good personal style. They might have great stylists.

Who are some artists on the more contemporary side that you think have good style?
Dev Hynes. And Frank Ocean has incredible style. Oftentimes, the problem with today is when you say style, people tend to think of the moment and being ‘on point’ and all that kind of shit. I don’t really think that way. I like Kurt Vile.  He looks natural. He throws on a flannel shirt and he looks good.  He knows how to wear what he wears. But I am seeking more contemporary artists to work with. It’s pretty complicated because the second an artist does anything halfway interesting nowadays, they’re kind of exposed and everywhere. But we do have a small little thing coming out with Wet. We’ve been friends for a while. So we have a little drop with them coming.

Have you seen kids pick up on the music that you’ve brought into the brand?
We’re so small that I don’t think our impact is that big. (laughs) I don’t think we come in when we do any of these collaborations or any of these projects and, like, change the world. With that said, you can look at the world six years ago when we opened to today. You definitely see a difference. And I think most recently, we’re really seeing a shift, where maybe kids that were 18 are now 24. And what a jacket or a sport coat or a pair of trousers means to them today is very different than what it meant six years ago.

I think probably the most impactful collab stylistically might’ve been Big Audio Dynamite. Even when they were around, nobody knew them, and they were one of the first, if not the first band that looked at hip hop and were like, ‘This is incredible. We’re not hip hop artists, but we recognize that it’s great.’ That’s kind of how we do everything here. We’re always just a little bit out of step with popular culture. If you’re in step with popular culture, you’re probably doing something wrong. 

Is there an artist that you see as a dream collaboration?
The Cure was up here for me. Like, it’s my favorite band of all time. So the fact that I got to make any product connected to them. That was the dream. Now, the ones I wanna do are a bit more obscure. Like, I might wanna do a Lisa Stansfield T-shirt or something.

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