Brendon Babenzien hunts the post fast-fashion

At first glance, Supreme and J.Crew seem to have little in common. One is inspired by the skate culture of the 90s in New York; the other adopts the preppy style that first appeared in Ivy League colleges in the 1910s.

But Brendon Babenzien, who spent more than a decade defining design at Supreme before taking over J.Crew’s menswear department in 2021, sees a distinct line between them. When done right, both aesthetics should be timeless and stand up to trends. “Fashion is about tricking you into buying more products by convincing yourself that what you own is no longer relevant,” he says. “But in some ways, fashion doesn’t come into the conversation at [either J.Crew or Supreme]. They talk about how really cool it is to wear your old clothes.

[Photo: courtesy Noah]

For three decades, Babenzien has been an integral part of the American fashion landscape. He established his design chops as Creative Director of Supreme, a position he held for nearly two decades. In 2015, he left the streetwear brand to relaunch Noah, the preppy menswear label he launched with his wife Estelle in 2002. He continues to design for Noah and has just released his fall/winter collection for the brand.

J.Crew brought him in last May, a year after declaring bankruptcy. Last month, the brand launched Babenzien’s debut collection, which revives simple and unassuming menswear classics from the brand’s archives, such as cashmere ties, Fair Isle sweaters and striped Oxford shirts. The fashion critics of QG at HighSnobeity gave Babenzien high marks for his designs. There’s hope it can return J.Crew to its roots as a purveyor of high-quality, affordable classics that made it so popular in the 80s and 90s.

Babenzien’s rise coincided with the rise of fast fashion, which now dominates the industry. Pioneers like H&M and Zara built complex global supply chains in the 1990s, relying on low-wage factories in Asia that could produce fashionable looks at bargain prices. Consumers have begun to think of their clothes as disposable, and clothes are now piling up in landfills around the world. rate of one truck per second. To compete, industry brands from Old Navy to Urban Outfitters felt the need to produce hundreds of new styles each season and keep prices low. Over the past five years, Chinese powerhouse Shein has boosted the business model, updating its website with 6,000 new styles. every daygenerating $16 billion in revenue last year.

[Photo: courtesy Noah]

Many fashion brands are starting to think about how to operate sustainably, from developing fabric recycling systems to offsetting carbon emissions. Babenzien is also interested in it. He used Noah as a sort of laboratory to explore durable materials, such as thick Austrian wool and Thornproof waxed cotton, designed to withstand years of heavy use. Noah’s website highlights a fabric directory to explain the origins and qualities of each material. It has also been chosen to manufacture products in countries with strict environmental regulations, including Italy, Canada and Portugal. Babenzien says he wants to bring his ethical sourcing approach to J.Crew. (The brand recently came under fire from Remake, a non-profit organization fighting for a more ethical fashion industry, for not transparent enough on its supply chain.)

[Photo: courtesy Noah]

But in some ways, Babenzien is more interested in what clothes should see as if we were getting rid of the fast fashion system. He believes that creating a more sustainable clothing brand starts with designing clothes that customers want to wear season after season, without fear of looking silly or dated. There are a few other designers who have struggled with this issue. In womenswear, for example, Eileen Fisher designs loose-fitting garments in neutral colors like black and white that are meant to evolve with a woman’s body over the decades. Jerry Lorenzo’s label, Fear of God, released a Eternals collection earlier this year, named after its soft-hued unisex silhouettes that are meant to “live forever.”

For Babenzien, minimalism is not necessarily the answer. He believes it’s possible to tap into an aesthetic that has stood the test of time, at least over the past few decades. This has been one of his fixations on Supreme and Noah; at both brands, he’s obsessed with creating perfectly fitting hoodies and tees season after season. He now brings the same approach to J.Crew. He points out that streetwear and preppy menswear are examples of American-born style that have remained constant, even as trends have come and gone. In fact, over the course of his career, Babenzien has been instrumental in weaving these two aesthetics together, creating a preppy-streetwear hybrid designed to be timeless. “There’s kind of a crossover in the sense that they’re both classic Americans,” he says. “The product is more or less what it always has been.”

Streetwear has been embracing a new, evolving country-club aesthetic for quite some time. But that presents an interesting design challenge for a brand as iconic as J.Crew. Babenzien says his goal isn’t to stray too far from classic clothing, so he sees his role as making very small changes or putting pieces together in a way that makes them look fresh again. From a business perspective, Babenzien believes its job is to keep long-lasting versions of these classics in stock, so customers can add to their wardrobes or replace worn-out pieces. “In menswear, subtlety is a serious variable,” he says. “It’s like changing the cut of a chino ever so slightly or styling it in a new way. I’m not even sure I’d call it design: I’m making adjustments to clothes that have been around for a long time.

[Photo: courtesy Noah]

Take Noah’s new fall/winter collection, which drops this week. You’ll find traditional masculine pieces that have been remixed in interesting ways. One look includes blue chino shorts paired with a flannel shirt and chunky cardigan, along with black loafers and ankle socks. Another combines a purple hoodie with blue shorts and the surprising addition of shiny leather Oxford shoes. These are pieces that many men already have in their closets. “It’s really about encouraging people to look at their personal style based on how they choose to put the pieces together,” he says.

[Photo: courtesy Noah]

At J.Crew, Babenzien has the opportunity to bring this vision to a wider audience. The looks from her latest collection for the brand are strongly reminiscent of her work for Noah. There’s an Irish wool and alpaca blazer with a herringbone pattern that can be worn in a variety of ways, from khaki to denim. He also brought back pieces from the archives, including a cotton turtleneck sweater and a ruby ​​shirt with green, brown and orange stripes, both from the 1980s.

[Photo: courtesy Noah]

One question, however, is whether a large company like J.Crew can thrive in today’s fashion industry without encouraging overconsumption. J.Crew struggled over the decade in part, experts say, as it has failed to adapt to changing consumer tastes spurred by fast fashion and social media. For a while, J.Crew ditched its classic, preppy heritage for a more glamorous look, crafted by longtime creative director Janna Lyons. But this forward-thinking approach did not take off, and sales began to decline in 2014, prompting Lyon to leave his post in 2017. In May 2020, the pandemic caused sales to plummet further, causing the filing of balance sheet of the brand already in difficulty. . A few months later, J.Crew was able to emerge from bankruptcy, thanks to a capital injection of investment firms. Now, it seems, the company’s strategy is to return to making quality basics at prices above fast fashion, but below luxury. It is unclear whether this approach will generate enough profit to satisfy institutional investors.

By tapping Babenzien to lead menswear, J.Crew is banking on his prowess in making classic clothing fresh and cool – something he’s mastered at Noah – that will help bring the brand back to life. But designing for a small independent fashion house is very different from designing for a large company beholden to investors. And we’ll have to wait and see if Babenzien can stay true to his vision of encouraging J.Crew customers to buy fewer clothes that they can wear for 5 or 10 years.

For his part, Babenzien is optimistic about his ability. “Really big companies can always do the right thing,” he says. “They just have to choose to do it.”

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