Aimé Leon Dore seemingly came out of nowhere. Images of the debut ready-to-wear collection popped up on Hypebeast and Four Pins at the beginning of the year, and insanely-hard-to-please Internet commenters responded with muted adulation ("Actually like the fitting of this collection. Not the most amazing stuff but it's simple and it looks like it fits comfortably") to all-out praise ("The basics have been murdered in cold blood. Aimé Leon Dore pulled the trigger.") about the styling of the images and the clothes themselves. The brand was doing something right.
In the modern age of branding, it's all about the approach. Thanks to platforms like Big Cartel and Shopify, it's never been easier to start your own clothing brand, promote it over social networks like Instagram and Tumblr, and hope that it gets picked up by the blogosphere or generates some sales. The downside is that there's never been more bad stuff out there than ever before, which can make it challenging for any young label to set itself apart from the pack. For Aimé Leon Dore founder Teddy Santis, he differentiated himself by aligning his hard-earned business acumen with a honed level of taste. His first foray into the retail world was a specialty eyewear shop where he made more mistakes than right moves.
"We learned a lot. We fucked up a lot. But at the end of the day I saw the industry in a way that I've never seen it before," says the 28-year-old Queens native of the experience. I met Teddy Santis in February at a SoHo coffee shop. He showed up wearing a pair of Air Max 1s, slim heather grey sweatpants, a pale blue oxford shirt under a sweatshirt and a topcoat in the perfect shade of camel. He rounded out his kit with a fedora and a pair of designer sunglasses, perhaps a carryover from his previous retail life. He looked like he just stepped out of his own lookbook, which was entirely intentional, given that ALD's entire first collection was based on Santis' personal uniform.
"I've always appreciated good style. I've always appreciated good product," says Santis. "I'm not trying to front myself as a fashion insider, because I'm not." The first piece Santis designed for the line was a thermal-lined crewneck sweatshirt with 4.5" side vents, which he says was inspired by a Saturdays crewnecks he loved, but were so tight at the bottom that he cut the sides open. "I'll put it to you this way: Every piece in Aimé came from something that I wanted that didn't exist."
"I've been wearing sweats on a daily basis for the past year and a half. They're tailored, they look nice and they're not unpresentable." He cited Ralph Lauren as a big influence because the designer is "so consistent it's crazy." ALD's fleece terry topcoat actually owes its existence to an old Ralph Lauren fleece peacoat Santis wore "for like three years straight, but there were things I didn't like about it." A skinny-framed dude, the designer's constant need to layer in cold weather inspired the waffle-knit thermal lining inside most of the pieces.
I don't have any experience in this shit. This was a passion project that turned into a hobby, that turned into an obsession.
What Santis brings to the table isn't just clothes that look nice and photograph well, but a story and driving vision behind the brand. "I wouldn't say we're a high-end streetwear brand," he cautioned. "But more of a comfortable, functional lifestyle brand." Out of all of things he admires about the Ralph Laurens and Nikes of the world, what he wants to emulate the most is their longevity. "I want to be around for 115 years, and this is not something I'm trying to make money off of right now," he says of Aimé Leon Dore. "It's more of me feeling like I have the right platform to do something special."
The name Aimé Leon Dore is a portmanteau borne from legal necessity. Santis' fiancé is a French-Canadian attorney, who is also fluent in the language. Aimé means "love" in French, which resonated with him because "the whole goal behind Aimé was to love the product for what it is," says Santis. But ot was too general of a word, so he sat down and brainstormed with his fiancé and looked at relevant trademarks, such as Ralph’s "Polo Ralph Lauren." Leon came from the designer's fascination with powerful objects and icons: "Michael Jordan, sharks, stuff that's just on a level of power that you almost don’t understand." Santis, of Greek ancestry, also liked Leon because the word had Greek and French roots and also represented a powerful animal. The Dore came from the last symbol of his first name, Theodore, albeit reluctantly. "I didn't want to use Theodore Santis or Teddy Santis," he explains. "I wanted to have a really strong brand that has its own identity."
When it came to actually making the clothes, Santis lacked the knowledge, but was more than willing to throw himself into the process. "I don't have any experience in this shit. This was a passion project that turned into a hobby, that turned into an obsession," he claims. He spent a great deal of time planning the first collection, thoroughly doing his homework. "I'm doing this to be a real contender in this industry," he says. "But I have to be smart so I can become that contender, so I can't start producing in New York. I can't start producing in Italy. I can't start producing in Japan." Manufacturing in China allowed him to make less costly mistakes during the sampling period. "If I was going to perfect this, I really had to get my silhouettes right," he says. Nailing the fits, fabrics and factories absolutely perfect was a long process, but one that paid off in the long run.
He believes that the current menswear climate makes it easier than ever for guys to be adventurous with their style choices, which can be a double-edged sword: "The main reason I wanted to do this is because everything is so busy today. There are these big numbers everywhere. There are these big logos everywhere." Santis backs up his unique perspective with a clearly defined view of what he thinks menswear should be: "It's gotta look good, it's gotta be comfortable, it's gotta be functional and it can't look forced," he says. That vision didn't hinder him from making riskier pieces like a bathrobe in his first collection. "That's the one piece that I get the most acknowledgements about," he says.
Santis wants to align himself with the "style, not fashion" crowd that looks effortlessly put together. The inclusion of the Air Force 1 and Air Max 1 sneakers in the lookbook was very important to him. "The Air Force 1? I wore that through high school. I wore that every single day for, like, seven years," he claims. He's also adamant that this brand isn't aimed at guys looking for the next trend to ride, but rather men who want clothes that finally speak their language: a rough-around-the-edges approach to luxury. Amongst his inner circle are former GQ fashion editor Justin Doss, Filling Pieces founder Guillaume Philibert and KITH proprietor Ronnie Fieg. "I'm going after the people with good taste. I really want to control who wears this product, and that's why there are such small runs too."
There are no cool points involved in this. This is not paying my bills, and I'm not lying about that.
The limited run of the first collection explains why, when Aimé Leon Dore's webshop went online last February, everything sold out in 45 minutes. "I tried to explain to people from the beginning this was a very limited release," says Santis. "I did not make huge runs of this product. There were certain pieces where there were only 24." Regardless of availability, Santis was extremely surprised at the response and insisted that it wasn't his intent to sell out so quickly. "I'm not trying to be a brand that sells out—that's not what I'm going for. I'm not trying to have people who buy a crewneck go and re-sell it."
Even so, it’s clear that Aimé Leon Dore struck a chord with a lot of style-conscious guys who liked where the designer was coming from. "When I launched the website, people were like, 'This is beautiful. It's exactly what's needed right now. It's the void that everybody has been looking for,'" says Santis. "I was like, really? I'm just trying to figure this shit out."
There was no big restock on the website, only lessons to be learned on both ends: For Santis, it was that the demand far exceeded the supply, and for his customers, it was that Aimé Leon Dore had officially become a "hot" brand. He plans to unveil the next ALD collection in July. In the meantime, Santis whets his newfound fanbase’s appetite by offering a different take on the Aimé Leon Dore lifestyle, courtesy of Aimé Armée, a more editorial side to the label, featuring a Tumblr, Instagram, and a series of short videos featuring artist Seb Gorey, choreographer Olga Kostritzky and photographer Jerry Buttles, who shot ALD's first lookbook, the portrait for this piece and will continue collaborating with Santis on future campaigns.
It's a way of reflecting the brand's New York identity without driving it through your brain. Santis sees a little bit of George Lois in himself, the seminal Bronx-born Greek designer and art director whose personality is as bold as his unerring vision. Aimé Armée helps the brand reconcile its New York roots with the fact that it’s currently made overseas. Ideally, Santis would like to manufacture here not just for the advantage of being able to work more closely with his factories and product, but because he feels that there's a ton of the city's unique DNA that can be felt in the clothing and styling.
Despite Aimé Leon Dore's initial success, the brand is still a long way from being Teddy Santis' main hustle: "There are no cool points involved in this. This is not paying my bills, and I'm not lying about that." Santis' day job is still intact, but he's recently managed to put his 9-5 and 5-9 all under one roof, working out of an Upper East Side office where he can easily toggle between both gigs. As far as the next launch, Santis feels more prepared: "Now I know better, I have analytics. I have a better idea of what's going on." Even though he's taken his time planning his next move, for those who missed out the first time, it will undoubtedly be worth the wait.