Hustle is ingrained into New York City’s identity as deeply as hot dog carts, the Statue of Liberty and pickup basketball. It takes a tireless work ethic combined with cutting edge creativity to conquer the five boroughs. Luckily, Queens-born designer Teddy Santis has both—and it’s no surprise that he’s actively conquering the big apple.
In 2014, Santis founded Aimé Leon Dore (ALD), a New York City-based fashion and lifestyle brand informed by his hometown and its influential culture. From the brand’s debut in January 2014 to its most recent summer 2016 drop, Santis has won seemingly unanimous acclaim from the menswear community for his elevated basics and detail-conscious outerwear.
ALD is lauded for distilling the sensory overload that is New York City into minimalist designs with a perspective that blends uptown tailoring with the vibrancy and attitude of streetwear. Since launching the label two and half years ago, Santis has gone on to collaborate with the likes of streetwear legend KITH and sports behemoth Puma. The brand’s drops generally sell out in a few hours and pieces often fetch a hefty resale price.
Given the trajectory of ALD’s success, it would be fair to assume Santis graced the honor roll at a prestigious arts and design school before founding his label. But true to his roots, Santis earned his fashion education through experience and street smarts. Before starting ALD, Santis worked with his childhood friend at a boutique optical shop in Manhattan, running point on marketing and advertising.
“I never knew I would get into fashion. I’ve always had more of a business mind,” Santis says, “but there was always a love for fashion, good product, good story and good design in general.” After hours at the optical shop Santis would continue to explore his interest in fashion by keeping tabs on local designers and rubbing shoulders with emerging artists. Through this he found himself supported by a crew of friends in the industry; with a creative framework growing clearer and clearer, ALD started to become a reality.
“I’ve always had a definitive vision which I found to be unique, and I felt that there was a need for that voice in the industry, so I gave it a try,” Santis says.
Aiming to make a product that he himself—a careful observer and critic of menswear—would be proud of, Santis set out on the design and production pathway while still working his nine-to-five. With no background in the fashion industry, hard lessons came fast.
“The logistics and actual business behind a brand is as important, if not more important, than the product itself,” Santis explains. “It’s very rare to find a creative who understands how to continue funding their creativity.”
The first few months of ALD’s existence were what Santis describes as a crash course in working in the fashion industry. Thanks to the business model—in which Santis sells directly to consumers—there’s intimate control over every element of the brand experience, from the point of sale to scheduling production. Today, ALD is almost entirely made to order in New York City (a few select factories outside the five boroughs help, too). When a lookbook drops, the collection is made available for pre-order exclusively through the brand’s site. Then the clothes are made and consumers get the product in about a month. For Santis, it’s the best way to control quality, and it’s a lesson that came at a cost.
When ALD started, Santis outsourced the production for some of the first collection overseas. Unhappy with the results, he knew he had to look to his home to get the job done. It would only make sense for the city that inspired the brand to also make the clothes.
“Producing in NYC was an important decision because it allowed us to ensure and control the quality of the product we want to sell to our consumer,” Santis says. “It also resonated with our brand ethos to have our garments made in the same city the brand is from.”
With a firm grasp on the importance of controlling his production techniques, Santis set out to continue to explore New York City’s past, present, and future as an influence. One capsule collection, “In the Pocket” includes an EP from a local Queens artist, YL, with whom Santis is close.
The EP’s artwork is shot by YL’s brother and depicts a well-worn basketball held against a white wall. The unknown holder wears an unassuming black down jacket, but all the focus is on the ball. To Santis, the music and the photo represent the aesthetic of the city—one that mixes hip-hop and fadeaway jumpers with high-tops and honking cabs. Like photography, music, and fashion, it’s an alchemy that only New York can create. And it keeps Santis inspired.
“It’s very important to continue delivering a definitive message that people want to genuinely be a part of and represent,” Santis explains. “We aren’t trying to force what we do.”