What Is Aimé Leon Dore?
What Is Aimé Leon Dore?
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date January 7, 2020
It’s almost impossible to pigeonhole Aimé Leon Dore. The New York-based brand, founded and helmed by Teddy Santis, might be described as a heritage brand, given the nostalgia for the ‘90s that infuses so many of the brand’s designs; or perhaps it’s a streetwear brand; what about a haute streetwear brand; or a casual menswear line? The thing is, Aimé Leon Dore has been and is, at any given moment, all of these things, depending on which pieces you’re looking at.
Every so often, there are brands that tap into the zeitgeist so perfectly—so naturally—that they come to be deeply intertwined with that moment in time, or that specific aesthetic. Think A.P.C. circa 2012, or Supreme, circa 2017-2018. With Aimé Leon Dore, there’s a feeling that what the brand is tapping into might be less fleeting—that it might instead come to typify a new breed of luxury. And, if that’s easy to imagine, then it’s equally difficult to imagine a menswear landscape in which Aimé Leon Dore doesn’t have a place. Thanks to the myriad influences and aesthetics that Santis and his team have tapped into, Aimé has the potential to be trend-proof; the ability to enjoy the sort of evergreen relevance that is the stuff of legend.
Amidst all of that, it can be easy to forget that Aimé Leon Dore has only been around for five years. But in a half decade, it’s enjoyed success—and wielded influence—that belies the nascent stages in which it finds itself.
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Teddy Santis grew up in Queens on a steady diet of Mobb Deep, Nas and Tupac, dressed in streetwear’s earliest staples and working at his parents’ Greek diner on New York’s Upper East Side. All of those things have informed what Santis has made Aimé Leon Dore out to be and, in some respects, he’s trying to create a brand for his younger self. “The kid I’m trying to get to […] cares about being educated and understanding things that are more than a fashion brand,” Santis explained to SSENSE, drawing analogies to Ralph Lauren. “I discovered Ralph when I was 15 and I'm 30 now, feeling the exact same way. [The brand] keeps educating you on things that put you outside the comfort level of a polo or an oxford.”
But, as much as Aimé Leon Dore is steeped in years of inspiration, it wasn’t always Santis’ plan to launch what would become a cult favorite label. It might not be a fluke that the brand looks the way it does, but that the brand even exists is the product of happenstance.
In the late ’00s, Santis was still working in his parents diner, and he only made his first foray into fashion in 2010—though, really, only tangentially—by running marketing and advertising for a boutique eyewear shop in Manhattan. It was there that Santis says he started to toy with the idea of creating a brand; many of the shop’s customers worked in fashion and they told Santis he “had a very specific eye,” which would lend itself well to fashion.
By 2012, Santis had come up with a logo for Aimé, though he described it to Sportswear International as “janky [and] horrible.” Still, when Ronnie Fieg—leader of the Kith empire and a good friend of Santis’—posted a photo of a crewneck adorned with the screen-printed logo on his Instagram profile, it blew up. There was suddenly a demand for the brand Santis had dreamt up over the course of a few months.
That’s not to say there weren’t a few early snafus, like wanting to call the brand simply Aimé, but being denied a trademark for it, given that the word, in French, is rather broad; it translates, literally, to “loved.” But Aimé Leon Dore is probably a more fitting name, inspired by Santis’ upbringing; Leon was his father’s nickname and the Dore comes from his own given name, Theodore. Then, of course, there is the Aimé, which—whether intentional or not—gives the brand a certain aura of romanticism. And, from the outset, Aimé Leon Dore has been as much about that romanticism, as it has been about selling clothes; it sells an idea, an aesthetic, a lifestyle.
That much was evident from the brand’s very first collection, which debuted in early 2014 alongside a website, to a considerable amount of fanfare. Aimé Leon Dore is “not just a fashion brand,” wrote Highsnobiety at the time, with “the new online space [serving] as a platform for various explorations of art, furniture, photography and visual editorials.” The first collection featured what would go on to become the earliest Aimé staples—logo crewnecks and fleece jogging pants—as well as more refined garments like nylon vests, bomber jackets, a wool trench coat and accessories.
Follow-up collections for Pre-Fall 2014 and Winter 2014 showcased more of the same—a mixture of fleece basics and elevated pieces, like a camel coat, woollen baseball jersey and cable knit sweater. It was a winning recipe for Aimé Leon Dore, though, with the brand gaining an important following online, thanks in large part to how quickly the lookbooks spread on platforms like Tumblr. Within that first year, Aimé’s styling became almost as famous as the brand’s garments. Something which, again, is rooted in Santis’s New York upbringing. “Nom de Guerre for me was one of the biggest inspirations behind my brand,” Santis told SSENSE, about Aimé Leon Dore’s signature aesthetic, “They made it okay to go and buy a pair of dunks, to wear them with a pair of trousers, a knit and a wool zip-up.” While Nom de Guerre may have pioneered that look, it was Aimé that helped bring it to the masses in the age of Instagram and Tumblr and the young brand reaped the rewards of championing the aesthetic.
By late 2014, the brand had opened a pop-up in New York, which, while theoretically temporary, ended up being rather permanent. The Mott Street location became a fixture of “New York cool guy” shopping and allowed the brand to bring its distinct aesthetic mix to real life—there was ’90s hip-hop blasting, candles en masse, a mix of industry fixtures and vintage furniture. It was the first in a series of important developments for Aimé. In January 2015, the brand announced a collaboration with Kith. It was simple—fleece basics that incorporated both brand’s logos in burgundy and black—but it was the exposure that was incredibly valuable. It was also a declaration that Aimé and Kith existed within the same universe of New York streetwear that was rapidly becoming an industry-wide force. Yet, that Kith collaboration was, arguably, the least influential project undertaken by the label in 2015.
A first anniversary collection was released in February, 2015. While only eight pieces strong, the collection was noteworthy for the lookbook that accompanied it, which reinforced the brand’s aesthetic. While Aimé Leon Dore is considered to be a romantic brand in the sense that it looks back longingly on the ’90s, this lookbook made the argument that it was capable to embody romanticism in the artistic and aesthetic sense—photos staged like oil paintings from a bygone era. The April, 2015, collection, entitled “NY NAVY” not only continued to push this idea of streetwear romanticism, but it represented a jump in terms of the breadth of Aimé Leon Dore’s collections—with 22 pieces inspired by traditional military garments, ranging from waffle thermals to chore coats to popover shirts.
In May of that same year, Aimé Leon Dore was tapped for its first sneaker collaboration, and revamped the Puma States with a mesh upper and two-tone colorways that played to Aimé’s traditional palette of burgundy, cream, grey and navy blue. While it didn’t carry the notoriety of, say, a collaboration with Nike or Jordan Brand, it was still noteworthy that a brand less than 2 years old was collaborating with one of the largest sneaker brands in the world.
But, long term, the collaboration with Puma was something of an outlier—a moment when the brand allowed itself to grow a little too fast. The Fall/Winter 2015 “0415 35th Street” collection again marked an expanded and elevated offering, with leather jackets, sherpa hoodies, shawl collar coats and wool trousers. It was all made in New York, using a mix of Canadian and Japanese textiles. The aesthetic was, once again, true to what people had come to expect from Aimé. If anything perhaps a little too elevated—and, like with the Puma collaboration, may have come a little too fast in retrospect. The collection was well-received, but when you look at the Aimé collections that immediately followed that Fall/Winter 2015 collection, you get the sense that the brand understood that the fleece basics, which had helped make the brand, were noticeably absent.
Subsequent collections, like the brand’s second anniversary “Two Years Later” collection, featured a healthier mix of modern tailoring and casualwear. That carried over to the Spring/Summer 2016 and Fall/Winter 2016 collections, the latter being when it seems like Aimé really found its lane.
The Fall/Winter 2016 collection was the first to be showcased at Paris Fashion Week and introduced the Uniform Program, which split the Aimé offering into more unique seasonal designs and carry-over classics, like crewnecks and waffle thermals. The collection was built around elevated basics—like logo hoodies—but also incorporated menswear staples, albeit with an Aimé twist, like a deep pile fleece bomber, a ’90s-inspired nylon flight jacket and a double-breasted coat. But, equally important as finding the right balance in its offering, Fall/Winter 2016 marked Aimé entry into the footwear market, with an Air Force 1-inspired Q14 sneaker and an Air Force 1-Chelsea Boot hybrid, the Q76. While the Air Force 1 was only name-checked tangentially, there was no doubt that it was the inspiration. After all, the shoes were released alongside an exhibit and capsule collection paying homage to basketball in New York City and Michael Jordan. There was even a “Thank You Mike.” capsule collection that riffed on Nike’s iconic typeface.
But while other brands might be accused of complacency and plagiarism for using the Air Force 1 so clearly, Aimé Leon Dore managed to infuse an air of nonchalant class into the silhouette. They were different enough that they were distinct—and distinct in a way that could only be achieved by the New York label. There was the sense that they were the product of ’90s inspiration and modern menswear in equal parts.
As Fall/Winter 2016 wore on and bled into Spring/Summer 2017, the wins continued to pile up for Aimé. Patience was being rewarded. The brand announced its first stockists, with exclusive collaborations with Kith and SSENSE, as well as the permanence of its concept store on Mott Street. Spring/Summer 2017 saw the winning mix return—now perfected after seasons of tinkering—with logo-driven basics accompanied by more refined pieces like lightweight baseball jerseys and color-blocked anoraks worked in.
Building on the back of that success, Aimé Leon Dore’s Fall/Winter 2017 and Spring/Summer 2018 collections provided a one-two punch that solidified the brand’s standing within the menswear community.
The Fall/Winter 2017 offering was the most complete one yet, and could be divided into three tiers: the classics—like logo hoodies, micro-pocket mock necks, crewnecks and joggers; elevated streetwear—like rugbys, windbreakers and coaches jackets; and, proper menswear—boiled wool vests, herringbone coats and honest-to-God tailored suits. There was something for every customer, but every customer could also mix and match within the collection. While, on the surface, there wasn’t much difference between the collection and previous attempts to offer such an all-encompassing range, Fall/Winter 2017 resonated differently. Without making assumptions, it was like the brand’s customers from the very first collection had finally reached a point where they could afford pieces from the entire range—and, importantly, work them into their wardrobe.
That was followed by a Spring/Summer 2018 collection that had something which Aimé had lacked up until that point: pieces that went viral. While the Aimé Leon Dore lookbooks had long spread like wildfire, there were no pieces that had resonated quite like the brand’s tie-dyed seersucker shorts and camp collar shirt ensemble from Spring/Summer 2018. The collection featured the well-balanced mixture of elevated menswear and refined streetwear staples, but it was the tie-dye that bucket hats and shirts and shorts that really left an indelible mark. It was perfectly-timed, tapping into the menswear zeitgeist and executed in a manner that was decidedly Aimé Leon Dore.
Those pieces’ popularity over that summer helped propel Aimé to a new level of notoriety, seen by many as a brand championing a streetwear-meets-menswear aesthetic that was rapidly gaining traction, especially in New York. By Fall/Winter 2018, Aimé was starting to be tapped by brands to bring its unique cool to heritage products.
Unlike the PUMA collaboration, which seemed out of place, the brands that Aimé began to work with were not antithetical to the New York label’s aesthetic and inspiration. The brand teamed up with Woolrich for Fall/Winter 2018, bringing together 200 years of heritage and Santis’s modern New York flair—three-quarter-sleeved puffer jackets sat next to knit cardigans and Canadian-made hoodies. Timberland, too, joined the Aimé bandwagon that season, with two luxe takes on its iconic 7-eye Lug Boot. This typified the modern streetwise luxury that Aimé was by-then synonymous with and neither collaboration felt like a particularly big reach. Nor did a collaboration with Suicoke that released that season, which saw two colorful and unique sandals, each extensions of Aimé clothing designs, come to life.
It all leads to 2019; if the tie-dye seersucker tapped into one particular trend at one particular moment, then Aimé Leon Dore has, by and large, typified what menswear is in 2019. Over the course of a calendar year, Aimé Leon Dore has: opened a new flagship, with a concept café, on Mulberry Street; collaborated with New Balance on multiple occasions—a partnership that is a perfect aesthetic match; rekindled its partnerships with Suicoke and Woolrich; put forth a collaboration with Drake’s that seemingly came from nowhere, but makes perfect sense with the the more “adult”-end of Aimé. That’s all to say nothing of the brand’s actual collections this year.
The Spring/Summer 2019 collection once again offered pieces inspired by ’90s New York—like color-blocked windbreakers, bucket hats and technical shorts—while the Summer 2019 capsule collection focused on more elevated pieces, like striped shirts, T-shirts, polos and penny loafers.
Fall/Winter 2019 represents the best of what Aimé Leon more can be. There’s the return of the brand’s Uniform Program, chock full of Canadian-made heavyweight logo fleece. There’s a collaboration with New Balance that was hyped to the point that the N.Y.P.D. shut down the in-store release because it was getting out of hand—on par with releases like the Staple Pigeon Dunk SBs and the Supreme x Nike Foamposites. There are the collaborations with Woolrich and Drake’s that allow Aimé to offer the elevated menswear with a dash of streetwise cool it has become known for. There are the novelty pieces that reference the history of New York—both city and the state writ large—that have made Santis, Aimé Leon Dore and so many of its customers who they are.
Aimé Leon Dore can’t be pigeon-holed. It’s at once a heritage brand, a contemporary luxury brand and the brand of the future. It shouldn’t be all of those things at once, but it is. It has found a way for graphic knitwear to sit next to Italian denim, while selling out $195 silk ties and and $220 sneakers two weeks apart. More importantly, it has done so, not by selling and marketing clothes, but by selling and marketing an idea, a look—an emotion. Aimé Leon Dore is familiar—inspired by cultural flashpoints like Michael Jordan and ’90s hip-hop and by things like playing pick-up basketball—but, still, it manages to be singular and unique.
That’s why Aimé Leon Dore seems the most likely to be the brand that comes to define this next chapter of menswear. Because it is not adapting to what men are wearing—it has always stuck to its unique breed of streetwear-meets-menswear garments—men are adapting and wearing everything that Aimé Leon Dore is making. It started with some branded fleece… but it’s certainly not just the fleece anymore.