How Aimé Leon Dore Took New York

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.

Selections from recent Aimé Leon Dore collections. Top row, from left: fall 2022, spring 2023, spring 2023. Bottom row: fall 2020, fall 2021, spring 2022.Credit…Aimé Leon Dore

At the same time, he was beginning to learn about clothes from downtown stores like Yellow Rat Bastard, David Z and Michael K., as well as noting how older friends in the neighborhood dressed, particularly those who collected Polo pieces like art.

The earliest prep-leaning ALD collections were ravenously received by the online men’s wear media of the day, but Mr. Santis, working out of an office behind the diner, struggled with the basics of making clothes. At the time, he said, “People thought the brand is beautiful, but the product is absolute trash.”

As he was building out ALD — the brand’s name includes nods to his father’s nickname and his own name — Mr. Santis consistently turned to nontraditional people to form the core creative team. He met Anthony Bigio, now vice president for design, when Mr. Bigio was designing custom Air Force 1s for clients at Nike’s Mercer Street location. Joe Bavasso, now ALD’s vice president for product, had a job at Todd Snyder but sought out Mr. Santis in hopes that ALD would sponsor his summer basketball team in the Rockaways.

What links everyone is disposition. In the office, and in the store, and out in the world, most of the staff speaks in a gentlemanly, conspiratorial hush, as if letting each other, and you, in on something lightly startling that you should be grateful to know. The clothing becomes something of a memento, a token of inclusion.

Over the last couple of years, though, that sense of intimacy has been playing out on an ever-growing stage. ALD logo hoodies, Yankees and Mets caps with ALD script logos embroidered on the side, New Balance 550s: In corridors downtown, there has been an inescapability to what ALD has wrought.

A few years ago, Mr. Santis discovered the New Balance 550, a low-top lifestyle sneaker, in an old New Balance catalog and revived it as a collaborative release with ALD. Since then, the 550 has become in “a staple iconic franchise for New Balance,” said Chris Davis, the New Balance chief marketing officer and senior vice president for global merchandising. “It was one of those phenomenons in sneaker culture that only comes around once every few years.”

Matt Powell, a longtime footwear industry analyst, said that the speed of the 550’s spread was unusually rapid: “New Balance figured out the real key here is to have the limited shoe, make the sneakerhead really happy that they got a rare shoe, and at the same time, trade off of whatever buzz there is out there by having a more commercialized version in the marketplace right away.”

But the ubiquity causes Mr. Santis some light anxiety, too. “We had this moment where it was like everybody had the New Era hat and 550s on in SoHo, you know? It was incredible, the brand’s at a pinnacle,” he said. “But then you have to be aware. You have to ask yourself, does this play in to the longevity of what we’re trying to do?”

Maturing the Audience

Where ALD flaunts its patience is in its store, and in its lookbooks. To the extent that ALD has peer brands, they are far less sophisticated when it comes to physicalizing their storytelling.

The Mulberry store’s design is fully narrativized. The first room is vast and breathable, with almost no clothes, a foyer of sorts. The second room has the most clothing, displayed beatifically. And the third room has some of the most expensive pieces, along with deep chairs for relaxation and huge fitting rooms. It’s a literal manifestation of ALD’s arm-around-the-shoulder, you’re-with-us-now spirit.

For a brand so intentional about its pacing and tone, the limitations of the original store were a real distraction. The store itself was postcard size. People loved lingering outside by the cafe. If you simply wished to buy clothes, these were serious deterrents.

“It was the kind of place where people would come to actually spend their whole day,” Mr. Santis said of the crowds. “There’s businesses and brands that would cut their left arm off to have this. But the community that inspires me felt intimidated by how busy it became.”

He continued, “Our business is not selling coffee, so I can’t let what is an experiential moment behind the brand hurt the brand.”

The new store is far more breathable, and the crowds outside the revamped cafe have largely been tamed. After some line supervision experiments, store access is now managed by a text message alert system.

Mr. Santis wants to be a good neighbor but also wants to avoid burning too hot. “I was also extremely self-aware of the fact that growing up here, there’s always a scene,” he said. “And historically in New York, scenes die. So I was really more frightened by that than anything else.”

Now, in between the store and the cafe sits the clubhouse, Mr. Santis’s personal fief, which has no official name, and is not officially open, and never will be. Access to it is another unpurchaseable trinket: you might catch the Los Angeles nightlife guru Zack Bia slyly name-drop it in a TikTok, or perhaps see a blurry photo online from a low-key Drake concert after-party.

The aesthetic of ALD photo shoots has become signature. A stoically cool model dressed as a sporty flâneur blending technical and tailored garments, often with an unexpected accessory. The backdrops are warm, lived-in, somewhere between Northeastern and European. One of the brand’s staple colors is a forest green that evokes royalty and money. (“A perfect substitute to navy,” Mr. Bavasso said.)

In addition to the seasonal lookbooks, ALD also semi-regularly shoots friends and family campaigns. One shoot early last year featured both the Knicks legend John Starks and the hip-hop hypeman Big Body Bes, cost-effectively turning them into brand ambassadors.

“It’s rare that lookbooks make you feel,” said Clint419, the founder of the bleeding-edge London streetwear brand Corteiz, who recently appeared in one of ALD’s short campaign films. “How can someone lay clothes on someone and make you feel an emotion?”

ALD lookbooks, he said, “felt like a breath of fresh air in terms of the way in which things were shot, in the way the products were articulated. And how, say, a sweatshirt, usually you just kind of slap it on the model and then that’s that. But when they do it, it’s almost like when you go to a restaurant and the guy comes out with that little flame gun and he puts the flame on the dessert.”

The ALD looks are signature enough that elements of the shoots, including even ALD’s primary model, have sneaked into campaigns from more established brands like Abecrombie & Fitch.

The looks have also inspired a seemingly endless supply of memes, a suite of online punchline discourse. Many of the most viral ones were created by Alex Hartman, ALD’s de facto antagonist-in-chief, who posted them to his (then anonymous) Instagram page NoLIta Dirtbag.

“Someone needed to put a name on what was going on there — it seemed almost cultish,” Mr. Hartman said of the crowd that would loiter outside the store. An early hit: a mock New York Post headline reading “Man stands outside Aimé Leon Dore store in NoLIta for 48 hours straight, dies.”

ALD is a romantic brand but not a playful one. “People are always going to throw rocks at the throne,” Mr. Santis said. “Misery loves company. It took us a long time to join in, to be able to laugh at it ourselves, because we were so serious about what we were building.”

As for the meme ecosystem, he has become sanguine: “The meme thing drove a ton of eyes to our business, right? Because the majority of the memes you saw were memes about how busy we were.”

Mr. Hartman added, “If you’re getting a massive investment from LVMH, hopefully you’re not letting some bozo making memes about you get under your skin.”

Over the last few years, as the luxury market has reckoned with the rise of streetwear, and the streetwear market has wrestled with saturation and creative vacancy, ALD has stepped into a void that perhaps could have been filled by Supreme but wasn’t ever quite.

Nevertheless, maturing the audience toward something slightly more refined (and likely less meme-able) is one of ALD’s goals. Many ALD garments feel transitional between buttoned-up and casual, austere and loose. Sometimes a proletarian garment will be made in ostentatious fabric — say, a cashmere sweatsuit. Sometimes, there will be a peacocking pivot: “We never design anything to tell someone, ‘Hey, we think everyone should wear berets right now,’” Mr. Santis said. “No, there’s a character in our season that wears a beret.”

Assessing how to get its customer “a little bit more grown, into suiting and finer tailoring and dress trousers, silk shirts and cashmere shirt jackets” is a priority, Mr. Bavasso said. Or, he added, “taking these finer fabrics and bringing them down a bit more into the sport world.” The goal, he continued, was “foreshadowing how they’re going to dress in the next X amount of years.”

‘We’re so far from the ceiling’

Beginning in 2021, ALD began working with Aaron Levine, a design star of the #menswear generation known for his work at Hickey Freeman and Abercrombie & Fitch.

“Aaron in the beginning would come in and be like, How do you want me to help?” Mr. Santis recalled. “And I’d be like, ‘Yo, I don’t think you understand that we don’t know much about clothes. Let me tell you what we’re great at. We have an amazing point of view, we’re good people and we work extremely hard.’”

Mr. Levine consults on each season. “When I talk to the team, we talk about this idea of tension, right?” he said. “Your one aspect might come from humble origins, and another aspect might come from a truly luxury-derived origin. That sounds simple enough. But what’s hard is to do it with a taste level and restraint so that when you walk in here, it doesn’t feel like either thing is out of place.”

Can there be a truly American contemporary luxury brand? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe the right one is whether the concept of luxury has been so irrevocably changed by the rise of hip-hop — the truest American luxury milieu — and the absorption of streetwear into European houses that the forward direction for luxury resides somewhere in the still-unwritten space in between those worlds.

ALD is catering to, and possibly creating, a new kind of luxury gentleman — a self-made sophisticate, familiar with hip-hop and maybe also indie rock, mixing jeans with Belgians, or Timberlands with a beret, unafraid to be a little frisky.

Once every couple of years, Teddy Santis sits down and writes a letter to Ralph Lauren — a thank-you note, essentially. A nod of appreciation. “It’s an emotional connection that we have to what we do because of him,” Mr. Santis said. For a few years as a teenager, he wore only Polo. “I fell in love with Ralph because you aspired not only to wear the product, but to live that life.”

ALD aspires to inherit that mantle. “If you walk into Ralph today and you walk into my store, there’s a lot of products that someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time with the product won’t see the difference on,” Mr. Santis said. “But then there’s certain products that you’re like, ‘Oh, he’s been making this shirt for 40 years.’ That’s just a time thing. We’ll get there.”

The most limited resource is Mr. Santis, who until recently had personally supervised every lookbook shoot since the beginning. “At his scale, he sees every visual, every product, every supplier. He oversees every tile of stone on the floor of the store,” Mr. Arnault said. “Which is great, but one day, people need to have his creative brain and execute for him.”

The ALD office, currently in Queens, is relocating to a huge space on Mercer Street, just a few blocks from the Mulberry store. An ALD-branded powerboat, made with the Greek company Technohull, will be available next year. He’s also planning to create a soccer pitch in London in partnership with New Balance, similar to the open-to-the-public basketball gym ALD opened on the Lower East Side last year.

“We’re so far from the ceiling,” Mr. Santis said. “There’s so much for us to get better at.”

On the day of the store opening, he walked up to the checkout counter, pointed at some boxer briefs and joked, “We selling underwear?!” It was a new extension for the company into a staple product and another place for the logo to be flaunted on the streets of downtowns around the world.

Then he leaned in close, as if to share a piece of information so confidential it could destabilize markets: “By accident, we made the best underwear in the world.”

Jon Caramanica is a pop music critic for The Times and the host of the “Popcast” podcast. He also writes the men’s Critical Shopper column for Styles. He previously worked for Vibe magazine, and has written for the Village Voice, Spin, XXL and more. More about Jon Caramanica

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