LOS ANGELES — Lee Spielman is nothing if not efficient.
He’s direct and doesn’t waste time on formalities, and that’s no surprise given how busy he is with Babylon. That’s the Los Angeles label he started with Garrett Stevenson some three-and-a-half years ago. The two have a steady flow of collaborations in the works, going as far ahead as 2020, and plans to reopen a store in the L.A. area next year.
They recently wrapped a pop-up at Undefeated on La Brea Avenue, doing a collaboration with Venice brand Born x Raised. Past collaborations for the brand have ranged from Off-White to skate brand Spitfire. This places it in the enviable position of sitting alongside Maison Margiela in some stores and F—ing Awesome, a core label, in others. Distribution is discerning, with some 25 accounts globally, doing business with accounts it sees eye-to-eye with, Spielman said.
“It’s finding the common thread [as to] why that all makes sense,” Spielman said. “So Virgil [Abloh], he’d actually come to the shop and pull up and talk with kids….We definitely live in a wild place where we sell clothes to fashion kids and we sell clothes to dirty kids at the skate park, which is a really dope world to live in.”
There’s also the recent release of a look book photographed in South Africa, marking the first time the brand’s diversified beyond its Los Angeles aesthetic.
“I’ve overseen most of the look books and a lot of it has been super L.A.-based,” Spielman said. “It’s always palm trees, liquor stores and alleys. So we wanted to step outside of the box and do something a little different.”
The collection represents experiments for the brand in garment-making, including a sublimated dye process on a 21-oz. hoodie. Next month, a second drop of the collection will include a heavy denim utility vest and ripstop Babylon overdyed pants.
Everything’s made in Los Angeles and it’s always been that way since the two started the brand, which served as an extension of their hard-core punk band Trash Talk.
“The thing is, it would be a lot easier for us to just ship it off and have it done somewhere else, but I really like the idea of constructing it all from start to finish,” Spielman said. “You see something on paper and then from there it goes to finding the fabric, finding the buttons, finding the right pattern and then actually making the ideas come to life in front of us, instead of just shipping it off. We get to oversee the quality of it.”
Babylon shuttered its Hollywood store in July after three years and is relocating to a new spot next year. The store’s always been an important aspect of Babylon because it wasn’t just a store. It functioned as a community hangout where kids could skate or learn how to screen-print T-shirts. The store will continue that.
“It’s all an offshoot of an idea that we’ve always had where me and Garrett, through punk music, have been pretty hands-on, whether it’s photography, making zines, making T-shirts, making [show] flyers,” Spielman said. “So this is an extension of that. With the store, it was dope because we had an open-door policy where anyone could make T-shirts and clothes and figure it out. It’s not rocket science, you know? Our brand is super community-based.”
Some examples of Babylon’s community-based projects include its collaboration with Converse, when it rented out a parking lot in Hollywood for a skate jam and brining in a matte black skate bowl for ComplexCon.
“I feel like a lot of brands currently try to spend all this money to re-create this vibe and this feel of a snapshot of what a Los Angeles kid is right now in 2018, whereas with the shop and our community of people, it’s just that’s what it is,” he said. “You don’t have to go and spend tens of thousands of dollars to try to curate a look book that looks like it has some cool, hip skate kids.”
With brands outside of skateboarding trying to project images of the street, how does a brand stand out? It’s pretty easy in the eyes of Babylon’s founders if you’re staying true to your roots.
“If you’re truly involved in your scene and your community, you can see through the bulls–t so quick,” Spielman said. “Money doesn’t buy authenticity and when you see a massive brand with a street, hip look book — I’m not going to name names — but I see luxury brands all the time where it’s like, that’s not you. Just stick to Barneys. It’s all good. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s amazing, too, but I get it. It’s been happening for years because there are always people trying to buy into the times. Kids see through that s–t more than anybody else. You’re not going to be some high-fashion luxury brand and convince a 16-year-old kid you’ve been at the skate park for 10 years. No.”
Well over 10 years ago, Spielman was a teen, tagging in San Francisco. Babylon’s upside-down peace-sign logo is a reference to those days. Artists who had a beef with someone would paint the symbol over a piece of work to represent conflict or war.
Spielman, at 14, grew up going to shows, frequenting them so much at a do-it-yourself punk venue in downtown Sacramento that the owner handed him the keys and told him to run the operation.
“Early on, I was paying touring bands, turning on the lights, cleaning up the building, making the flyers, booking the shows,” he said. “From a super young age, I learned everything from accounting to task management to booking. Through playing music, the D.I.Y. element coming from punk rock for sure shines into Babylon when it comes to cut-and-sew and constructing something ourselves because I remember being the 15-year-old kid in my mom’s backyard silk-screening T-shirts off a screen we burned by flashing headlights in the driveway or silk-screening 7-inch covers and constructing them for tours. It’s one of those things where no one’s going to care as much about your own stuff as you, and I feel like that’s bled into Babylon.”
The brand is still young, but the idea would be to eventually bring Babylon’s idea of store-community-center hybrids to places outside of the Los Angeles area, such as New York, Tokyo and London. He estimates that’s a couple of years off. Next year will see the brand test more pop-ups internationally.
“We just want to take the idea of having it be more than clothes,” Spielman said. “What can we give back and have shops where it’s an open-door policy if you’re coming here and you’re a level-headed person who just wants to hang out and bounce ideas off other people. The idea of teaching people more about what we can give versus what we can get and take that on a global scale, is superimportant because I remember growing up as a little kid going to a skate shop and hoping they thought I was cool enough to come back the next day, you know? So I think it’s important for people to have places like that and brands that feel like a network versus just buying into a graphic.”