What Aimé Leon Dore’s Success Says About the State of Streetwear
We track how Aimé Leon Dore has grown its audience, influenced the market, and what that means for the evolution of streetwear.
Published September 12, 2023
By Mike Destefano
“What are all these people lining up for?”
It’s a question passersbys probably ask themselves as they walk down Mulberry Street between Prince and Spring in Manhattan. If you frequent SoHo and Nolita, you are probably used to seeing young men wearing graphic T-shirts, hoodies, sneakers, and brightly-colored fitted caps lining up outside of shops like Supreme or Hat Club. But this crowd is different. Sure, some of those same young men are hanging out, but there’s an older demo of men and women holding coffee and wearing crispy white Oxford shirts, double-knee carpenter pants, and a canvas tote bag slung over their shoulders. You see this archetype sprinkled throughout SoHo and Nolita, but when they all convene in one area it almost feels like a fashion ad.
The block wasn’t always this way. Sure, there were popular eateries like Rubirosa and Parm along with dive bars like the Spring Lounge that drew crowds. And when Noah’s flagship, which sits on the corner of Mulberry and Kenmare, opened in 2015 it brought some retail traffic to the area. But in 2019 when Aimé Leon Dore moved onto the block, it completely changed the neighborhood.
With Aimé Leon Dore, Teddy Santis has created a clubhouse, only there’s no password needed for entry. Unlike other streetwear brands like Supreme, which shrouded themselves in an aura of intimidation and exclusivity, ALD tows the line between being inclusive while still remaining aspirational. Santis has done that by studying the market, referencing the best parts of successful brands, and then creating a world that feels perfectly primed for 2023. One month, ALD gives us a campaign featuring one of streetwear’s most promising young creators, Corteiz founder Clint419. Next month, it’s showing us a tuxedo collaboration with Drake’s.
There is something for everybody. Streetwear, which used to be a rebellious niche of fashion focused on graphic T-shirts and hoodies, has grown into something much bigger. People want to participate in streetwear, but are looking for a bridge that helps them look cool without trying too hard. ALD serves as that bridge, speaking to how much streetwear has evolved, the vast audience it now caters to, and how the industry may need to adapt.
“It speaks to more than one type of person,” says YL, a New York rapper and former employee at ALD’s Mott Street shop. “You could be 40-plus rocking stuff like that. They have basic pieces and sweats for the young cats. They have suits for different occasions. They have something for every type of consumer and they do it in a very tasteful way. They're becoming a staple.”
Santis created the name for ALD by combining three things: Aimé is French for “loved,” Leon is his father’s nickname, and Dore is a shortening of his birth name, Theodore. He started the brand officially in 2014, with little to no fashion experience. He handled marketing at Tina Catherine, an optical boutique, in 2010, but most of his resume consisted of working in his family’s diner, Midnight Express Diner, on the corner of 89th Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan's Upper East Side. The idea for ALD started in 2012. It was how many upstart brands begin, with a simple logo. Kith's Ronnie Fieg posted a picture of ALD founder Teddy Santis wearing the earliest ideation of his brand. It was a gray crewneck with “aimé” written in big cursive lettering across the chest. The style would eventually be released as part of ALD’s first official collection two years later. From the beginning, Santis didn't want to just produce graphic T-shirts and hoodies; he was focused on creating seasonal ready-to-wear collections.
When ALD released its first collection in 2014, upscale athleisure was dominating men’s fashion. John Elliott had found massive success with his stacked sweatpants and hoodies with side zippers made of French terry. Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne’s Public School was featuring sporty sweatsuits on its runway. Kanye West debuted his first collection of earth-toned athleisure items for his Yeezy clothing line just one year later. Kith (which released a series of fleece basics with ALD in 2015) was giving its customers a more casual entry into menswear through its own line of French terry basics and collarless Oxford shirts. ALD’s collections at the time largely followed the same formula. Looks included cuffed gray sweatpants paired with navy blue bomber jackets and white Oxford shirts. Slim-fit khakis gave some looks a classic menswear feel. And experimental outerwear like a hooded trench coat made of fleece offered a casual spin on a silhouette usually presented in more refined settings. In 2015, it introduced quarter zip hoodies made of deep pile fleece, chunky turtlenecks, and biker jackets. ALD hadn’t totally found its identity yet. It still largely followed what was trending in the market. But it was getting there despite some growing pains along the way. A Chelsea boot with a toe box reminiscent of a pair of Air Force 1s and mesh Puma States didn’t exactly get people excited. Santis admits the earlier years of ALD came with a lot of experimentation to see what would stick.
“I didn’t know how to make clothes; I wasn’t classically trained,” Santis told Business of Fashion in 2022. “It was a lot of just trial and error, just falling on my face a bunch until I figured it out.”
TARGET THE NON-HYPEBEAST CONSUMER
Santis wasn't a traditionally trained designer, but he did know who he wanted to target. It wasn’t the traditional hypebeast following trends. “I want my brand to be known as one that touches beauty and real life in all its aspects—one that tells stories through these experiences. The biggest goal for me right now is to create a vibe and a platform for a kid who wants to continuously evolve, but with the same values,” Santis told SSENSE in 2017. “That’s the kid I’m trying to get to, the kid who cares about being educated and understanding things that are more than a fashion brand. That’s the kid who I believe is the future’s loyal consumer, not the kid who’s running around wearing Kanye merch.”
Instead of being one thing to one specific customer, Santis has attempted to speak to many, and he’s done that by becoming an amalgamation of the best menswear and streetwear brands. He’s leaned into the preppy aesthetic perfected by Polo Ralph Lauren. The main difference is that ALD is acknowledging the subcultures that adopted Polo and made it cool, like graffiti and hip-hop. Nom De Guerre, a New York City-based menswear boutique that folded in 2010, was celebrated for mixing streetwear items like Nike Dunks with more luxurious pieces like wool jackets years before it was common. While ALD hasn’t leaned into Nom De Guerre's utilitarian designs, it has created its own blend of high and low, like pairing Air Jordans with a classic blazer.
Kith’s inline collections have always been robust offerings that mix high and low pieces, but the brand has also relied heavily on collaborations with major IPs like Marvel or Coca-Cola. While ALD’s collections may feature comparable items at times, Santis has never depended on the big collaborations that many people feel have diluted the Kith brand. Supreme also influences ALD’s approach. The skatewear brand is rooted in downtown New York culture. ALD channels some of those same areas, but with less edginess. Don’t expect a Piss Christ T-shirt from ALD any time soon. But by honing in on the nuances of New York City’s rich culture, like street basketball or hip-hop, ALD has been able to attract a wide scope of shoppers.
“I think there's something about merging American sportswear with New York City dispositions,” says founder of menswear newsletter Sprezza, Clayton Chambers. “That was what caught a lot of eyes.”
Along with studying how these brands operate, Santis also understood where the men’s fashion market was moving. Over the past five or so years, more people have traded in their sneakers for loafers, preppier silhouettes are in style again, and customers are looking for more elevated takes of familiar items, like linen basketball shorts with lace panels, a Yankees-fitted made of camel hair, or a varsity jacket with a Casentino wool body. ALD has just been able to execute the entire package a bit better than some of its competitors.
“Starting in like 2017, you see an insane rise in Google searches for men's loafers. Nowadays, a lot of sneaker-reselling places are really struggling because that's just not what people are willing to go out and spend their money on,” says Alex Hartman, who's behind popular fashion meme account Nolita Dirtbag, which regularly teases the ALD customer. “I think it really just has to do with not being in your face. ALD truly captured that dude who didn't want to dress like a 22-year-old anymore.”
CREATE SIGNATURE VISUALS
By now, most people are familiar with ALD’s visuals. Models, usually twins Torey and Khorey McDonald, stand in front of an off-white background. Occasionally, the setting changes to a chic home space with wicker furniture or hardwood walls. The twin models have become so synonymous with ALD’s lookbooks that other brands have even tried to steal some of the sauce. Abercrombie and Fitch is a main example. The once-dominant mall brand anchored a recent overhaul with images that even included the twins and featured ALD’s New Balance 550 collab.
“I feel like you're looking the other way if you don't give them their credit,” says YL. “I go on my explore page and I swear to God I'll see the same backdrop that they use and it's like some brand from Boston or some shit. It just shows you how real the influence is.”
ALD’s campaigns also show off the brand’s extensive reach. “International Friendship Through Basketball,” a series of images and videos to promote its New Balance 550 and 650 collabs, feature cameos from legends including Jason Williams and Charles Oakley. Its ongoing “The World’s Borough” series invites the brand’s circle of cool friends from across the industry to model its clothing.
New York emcees from Jadakiss to Action Bronson have appeared in the campaign. Other models have included fellow New Balance collaborator Joe Freshgoods, photographer Julian Williams, or owner of popular LA deli Uncle Paulie’s, Paul James. Santis isn’t just calling every famous name in his contacts to appear in these photos. He’s painting an authentic picture of the brand and making it feel obtainable for everyone. Santis has also consistently showcased his Greek heritage as part of ALD’s brand identity. An image of an older man in the Greek countryside may not feature any ALD clothing at all, but a customer will still associate it with the brand. It’s that same commitment to brand building that has turned ALD into a punchline.
“They did it such to a T that it's so easy to make fun of. When you see a photo of a grandpa in an olive field in Greece or something, you think of that brand,” says Hartman. “That's why it's stayed in the mouths of people for so long.”
The strong brand identity has allowed ALD to grow its reputation beyond New York City. Dominique Jones, a TikToker who specializes in fashion content and lived in Seattle before recently moving to Ohio, acknowledges what the brand has been able to do since its inception. He even channels the brand for his “Aimé Leon Dom” series, which tracks down some of the overpriced vintage pieces ALD sells in its “Leon” drops. He finds LL Bean fleeces from the '90s and New York Rangers hockey jerseys for a fraction of the price ALD sells them for. But he's still inspired by ALD.
“Even if you don't buy from the brand, you can't knock their lookbooks and how they've changed what that looks like,” says Jones. “How they style their clothes is really great. You can grab pieces and get inspired from the way that they put clothes together. I think that's what really sets them apart. Their styling is just exceptional.”
MAKE YOUR STORE A DESTINATION
ALD was no stranger to physical locations. Santis operated an ALD pop-up space located at 179 Mott Street in New York City since 2014. The space was relatively small. Clothes were displayed on generic racks. Shelves housed Nas tapes and used basketballs. Details like the carpeting, potted plants, and wall art would switch up each season. Santis would also rotate between focal points like a barber’s chair or pool table, an early look into the clubhouse atmosphere he would later create.
But thanks to investment in 2016 from Sam Ben-Avraham, who helped launch Kith and owned the now-defunct New York City boutique Atrium, ALD was able to scale and eventually open its first flagship store on Mulberry Street in 2019. Like its close neighbor Noah, the space offered a sophisticated shopping experience complete with leather couches, clean wooden fixtures, and Persian area rugs.
Santis accentuated that look by hanging 1985 Air Jordan 1s on a light fixture or playing old New York Knicks highlights on TV screens. An attached café modeled after Ralph Lauren's Ralph's coffee shop or Kith's Kith Treats ice cream and cereal bar was another way for ALD to build its world beyond good clothing. Even if you can’t afford a $90 T-shirt, you can still feel like you are part of the brand.
Santis introduced the same retail concept in London in June 2022 and in May 2023 ALD reopened its newly-renovated flagship on Mulberry Street complete with a more expansive indoor area and seating.
“I really think the store on Mulberry and the café really pushed the brand forward. You see everyone outside. It’s him just bringing together all of these people in the city that really fucked with the brand,” says Hartman. “To some degree, it's like a tourist destination for anyone who's coming to the city and has worn a Lacoste cardigan before. I remember even seeing people standing in front of the store when it was closed.”
COLLABORATIONS TAKE THE BRAND TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Despite Santis not wanting to cater to the customer who follows popular trends, that shopper has still been instrumental in the growth of ALD. While YL recalls a steady stream of customers at the Mott Street shop, he says he felt a big shift in 2018. ALD’s color palette that season matched up perfectly with the recently released Sean Wotherspoon x Nike Air Max 1/97 and New Yorkers were in search of the perfect pieces to complete their summer fits. That’s the first time he remembers seeing a line form outside of the store.
But the real transition came in April 2019 when ALD kicked off its collaborative relationship with New Balance, one that has proven to be its most fruitful partnership to date. Once again, the sneaker space was helping the brand grow.
The second collab, centered around pairs of the 990v2 and 990v5, ended up being shut down by the NYPD due to commotion from the lineup. Arguably its biggest project was the revival of the 550, a forgotten basketball silhouette from the '80s, in October 2020. ALD’s reintroduction of the 550 bubbled into a larger trend that spoke to its core customer, sneaker resellers, and fashion girls in SoHo.
While the hype for the 550 has waned since its debut, ALD is still releasing new takes on it, most recently a two-pack of earth-toned suede pairs in May 2023. The New Balance partnership has been so successful that Santis was even appointed the creative director of its Made in USA category in April 2021.
New Balance isn’t ALD’s only important collaborator. Major partners have included Porsche, which has led to three releases anchored by bespoke vintage Porsches like a 964 Carrera 4, British menswear brand Drake’s, which has collaborated with them on elegant pieces like wool sweaters and silk pocket squares, and Timberland, a tie-up that's produced various lug-soled boots. Unlike many of today’s collaborations, these aren’t just easy cash grabs. They are ways to further tell ALD’s Queens-inspired story that don’t feel corny or played out. Most important, they were cool pieces of the ALD uniform that customers could be proud to wear.
“As a New Yorker, I'm happy with it. They do shit that I can stand by. It’s not cheesy. As a New Yorker, I definitely think it's not a bad representation at all,” says YL. “Everybody has those New Balances. Everybody got the Yankee fitted with the script on the side. That has become more popular than the regular Yankee hat.”
THE LVMH INVESTMENT
It helps to have customers in high places. Alexandre Arnault, son of LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, took a liking to ALD a few years ago and became a regular shopper. In January 2022, the luxury fashion conglomerate that houses Louis Vuitton and Dior, took a minority stake in the company. Alexandre now sits on ALD’s board. According to the New York Times, Alexandre was intrigued by the crowds standing outside of the store.
“In recent years, [LVMH] has really had an awakening of what luxury is today and where luxury is heading, and started tapping into it,” says Jessica Ramirez, a senior research analyst at Jane Hali and Associates. She believes the investment is mutually beneficial. “It enables [ALD] to grow and learn from a very reputable group. It’s inspiration. Luxury is a space where you can do the unimaginable. The teachings and learnings are there for [ALD] and for LVMH as well to really understand what this customer looks like and how this customer is evolving.”
While the specifics of the deal have never been revealed—ALD is a private company so its figures are not available—LVMH taking interest in the brand is no mistake. LVMH hasn't been shy about tapping into streetwear, appointing figures like the late Virgil Abloh, Nigo, and Pharrell. It's also invested in Los Angeles streetwear brand Madhappy.
“If you have a co-sign from a brand like LVMH that literally has whole teams of people to help you go international, I think you’re off to a different stratosphere,” says Chambers. “They're going big. They've gone beyond the ‘if you know, you know’ downtown New York crowd.”
As is the case with any brand that reaches ALD's level of notoriety, people start to point out the bad as much as the good. One of the biggest knocks on ALD is that it’s copying Ralph Lauren’s playbook for Polo. But that’s sort of the point. Santis told the New York Times that he periodically writes letters to Lauren to thank him for the inspirations. YL, an avid Polo fan himself, doesn’t agree with the comparison, nor does it bother him to see ALD referencing Polo so blatantly. However, he believes this generation will look back on ALD in the same way older generations view Polo.
“I think it's going to be one of those things that when we look back, it'll kind of be like the Polo of our time in a way. Not the new Polo, just another timeless brand,” says YL. “I treat it as its own thing. It's just more stuff for me to get fly with.”
Others have described ALD as "basic" and compared it to Banana Republic. As the brand grows, it attracts a less fashionable finance bro consumer that can sour certain people on the brand. But Chambers believes ALD can maintain its mystique if it continues to move as it does now.
“The more a brand grows, the more risk there is of original fans seeing it as basic or calling it a sellout,” says Chambers. “I think as long as they keep pushing boundaries, try new stuff, tap into partnerships that make sense for the brand, and there's a level of scarcity there, that mitigates the risk of ALD falling into the bucket of basic.”
The naysayers don’t seem to be slowing ALD down. The newly renovated flagship on Mulberry Street boasts new elements like a private sound room only accessible to close friends and family. The dimly lit area features intimate brown leather booths sandwiched between dark wood walls, olive green suede stools, and black cocktail tables throughout. It will be home to Sound, a series of monthly DJ sets that will be performed in front of shelves filled with old records. Not an ALD friend or family member? Don’t fret. You can also stream the sets online. Once again, Santis balances between exclusive and inclusive. If he can keep finding ways to do that, don’t expect those crowds on Mulberry Street to die down any time soon.