On the May evening before Aimé Leon Dore was set to make its grand return to Mulberry Street following eight months of construction on an extravagant new storefront, Teddy Santis, the brand’s founder, was walking around the shop floor, sweating the details.
The sneakers on the table near the register were “a little too choked,” he said, urging someone to loosen the laces just a tad. The mannequins near the entrance, dressed for a night that might start at Lovely Day and end at Zero Bond, needed an additional layer of zhuzhing. Overnight, a mystery stain had appeared on a slab of marble flooring near the ALD-customized 1960 Porsche 356B that sits in the front of the store, an unpurchase-able trinket of the brand’s reach. A contractor looked at it sternly and promised to whip up a poultice.
The old Aimé Leon Dore — ALD, colloquially — was open from 2019 to 2022 and rapidly became NoLIta’s gravitational center, perpetually choked by sidewalk crowds. This new one felt less like the headquarters of a trend-savvy men’s wear brand with a rabid fan base than a members-only midtown social club or an Upper East Side gentleman’s atelier.
The walls are dark wood, the lighting is muted, the clothes are displayed museumlike, with plenty of space to linger and take in the details. Art hangs throughout, including a Rene Ricard painting in the back room and a Tyrrell Winston installation in the front.
“When you’re buying into ALD, you’re buying into a world — you’re buying into a perspective more than a garment,” said Mr. Santis, 37, a couple of weeks later, in the nameless private clubhouse the size of a shared secret that adjoins the store.
Outside, things were hectic. At any given moment, a few dozen people or more were lining up to get into the shop. On opening day, that number had been consistently well over 100. Mr. Santis loitered outside for hours, greeting well-wishers and taking pictures with fans. He was, as always, dressed in head-to-toe ALD, a prim and inconspicuous brand billboard. At one point in the afternoon, the chief executive of LVMH North America showed up for a walk through, wearing ALD New Balance 550s, and Mr. Santis ushered him in for a private tour.
Even though he audaciously created a personal sanctuary quite literally within arms’ reach of the scrum, the scrum is very much the thing, and Mr. Santis is its mayor. More than with any brand since Supreme, the ALD experience extends beyond clothes into how to navigate acquiring those clothes, and what worlds wearing those clothes will associate you with.
ALD sold its first items in 2014, but over the last four years has become men’s wear’s most visible and promising bridge between streetwear and luxury, making clothes with a striking blend of Mediterranean machismo, prep classicism and outdoorsy sturdiness, all with a sprinkle of hip-hop flair.
Its garments are swarthy and a little sensual, displaying a clear affection for Ralph Lauren but also for how hip-hop appropriated Ralph Lauren in the 1990s. It is a brand that’s both mindful of the role heritage plays in men’s wear and also actively reconstituting what a heritage brand might look like to the buyers of a few generations from now.
“When we reference something, we’ll know automatically if it feels gimmicky, if it’s a reach, and if we even have a right to touch it, with how much respect we have for it,” Mr. Santis said. If you get the references, ALD’s garments function as refined, updated nostalgia pieces. But they also stand on their own, landing at the intersection of slick bruiser and around-the-way gentleman.
“I’m super-inspired by Ralph, but I feel like there was a void that didn’t exist within Ralph that I thought I could speak to, which was my starting point,” Mr. Santis said. Supreme, too, was a huge influence: “I built a case study around that brand for two years straight — not the product, more so how they spoke to their consumer.”
The style Mr. Santis landed on has struck a nerve, creatively and commercially. He declined to provide revenue figures for ALD. The company is private, but early last year, LVMH announced it had acquired a minority stake.
The LVMH scion Alexandre Arnault, who now sits on ALD’s board, began shopping at ALD as a customer several years ago, and met Mr. Santis in the store. What LVMH finds study-worthy in ALD covers three areas, Mr. Arnault said: the brand’s complete avoidance of runway shows and the fashion week calendar, instead relying on seasonal (and occasionally off-season) drops; its avoidance of all paid marketing and advertising; and the power of its Mulberry flagship, “a store on a kind of a no-name street that nobody really cares for in their sector, that draws a line around the corner whether it rains, snows or overheats.”
Before the pandemic, ALD was sold in 160 stores worldwide, but that model collapsed. Instead of waiting for retail to reopen, ALD recalibrated by taking back its exclusivity. Now, it is a purposefully cloistered brand. You can buy it only at one of its two stores — London, opened last year, is the other — or online.
The shift to scarcity and distribution control, combined with design and quality improvements, conspired to give ALD an air of impromptu luxury. Having no retail partners allowed Mr. Santis to control the company’s narrative from the inception of design to the point of sale. To see, touch or buy the clothes, you have to go through him.
“Teddy’s been able to make people feel, you know what I mean? And in today’s world, that, to me, is a designer,” said Ronnie Fieg, the founder of the sneaker and streetwear retail empire Kith. “He’s designing feelings.”
Mr. Santis met Mr. Fieg in Kith’s early years and became fast friends while Mr. Santis was working on an earlier retail venture, an upscale eyewear shop in Chelsea named Tina Catherine. The two remain profoundly close. When Mr. Fieg was recently announced as creative director of the Knicks, Mr. Santis bought him a Knicks pendant with one of their shared phrases on the back: “Only one of us has to make it.”
Through Mr. Fieg, Mr. Santis was introduced to Sam Ben-Avraham, a longtime fashion business insider who made an early investment in ALD in 2016.
“When Sam invested, Sam didn’t invest because I had this profitable business,” Mr. Santis said. “He just believed in the point of view. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I know you and you’re a worker.’ I was a diner kid.”
He continued, “I’m going to outwork everyone. And while everyone’s out there trying to be famous, trying to be a celebrity designer, they’re trying to gain clout and following and all this crazy [expletive], I’m going to do the complete opposite.”
Working the Morning Shift
Much of Mr. Santis’s approach to business, and relationships, was forged in the Midnight Express Diner, on the corner of East 89th Street and Second Avenue, which was owned by his father and of which he took over operations in 2006. “I built amazing relationships with customers,” Mr. Santis said in April, sitting at a window table in the diner, picking at a medium well cheeseburger. “I learned what it was to host and serve. Til this day I run my whole business that way, you know?”
Mr. Santis was born in 1986 and grew up in Flushing and Astoria. Both of his parents had emigrated from Greece. As a teenager, he attended five different high schools, but he found a home in local nightclubs, where he was DJing house music. Many nights, he’d leave his club gigs and head straight to morning shift at the diner.