By Ashley Fetters
Photography by Bjorn Iooss
Ryan Duffy didn’t become a professional investigative journalist until he was out of college, but in a way you could say he got his start as an obsessive investigator long before that — in record-store CD aisles in his hometown of West Orange, New Jersey.
A seventh grader with a newfound love of Green Day, Duffy suddenly found himself desperate to know everything there was to know about punk rock. So he created a system: Buy a CD, take painstaking note of who was thanked in the liner notes, and doggedly research from there. His discovery of Lookout! Records led him to bands like Operation Ivy, for example; eventually, he remembers, he’d track down faraway record shops that sold the music he wanted to hear next, and then he’d beg his dad to drive him there.
“I might sound like an old man yelling at the wind saying this,” he says, laughing, “but when I look back on that, it made me truly love the bands I found. Just because I put so much sweat equity into finding them.”
Talk to Ryan Duffy for even a few minutes and it’s clear he’s still a guy with an insatiable appetite for knowledge — and a good story. Now 35, Duffy is a hyperproductive, fast-talking multi-hyphenate with projects in TV, investigative journalism, and sports media, which allow him to traverse the planet learning everything he can and then relay it to an audience.
Left: Ryan wears the Chambray Button-Down in Blue Band Collar, and the Stretch Weekday Warriors in Monday True Blue
Right: Ryan wears the Cotton Linen Henley in Heather Oat Grey and the Italian Brushed 5-Pocket Pants in Onyx
Duffy grew out of his punk phase eventually and moved on to chasing other kinds of fascinations (though not before setting up a makeshift concert-promoting business in his high school years, or before recording a couple of albums as the lead “yeller” for a punk band in his college years). He enrolled at NYU to study journalism, and before he even finished school, he was a regular contributor to what was then a small, quirky magazine called Vice.
Duffy went on to spend a decade with Vice; he famously accompanied Dennis Rodman on a visit to North Korea for a reporting trip in 2013, and today he says it was almost certainly the “most terrifying” project he embarked on there. (Their trip was predicated on one wacky transaction they’d proposed: If Vice brought Rodman and the Harlem Globetrotters to visit the famously NBA-obsessed, Chicago Bulls–obsessed Kim Jong Un and put on some basketball clinics for North Korean youngsters, Kim would grant Duffy’s crew permission to bring in their cameras and document life in Pyongyang. “That was a wild ride, to say the least,” Duffy remembers with a laugh.)
Duffy has also created and starred in shows such as Now What with Ryan Duffy, an online HuffPost docuseries that sent him around the world to profile people working to create solutions to the planet’s biggest environmental and geopolitical crises. To provide just one example, his work on Now What gave him the opportunity to follow an eccentric group of scientists and artists from Berkeley, California, to the small town of Kwendin, Liberia, where they installed clean-energy power generators to give the town its first-ever electric light. “To see a light switch flipping on and watch six-year-old kids who had never seen lights go, ‘Ooooh,’” he says, “I will never forget that singular moment for the rest of my life.”
Ryan wears the Riviera Short Sleeve Shirt in Olive, and the Selvage Stretch Jeans in Surrey Black Wash
Today Duffy’s schedule is overgrown with ambitious projects: He runs the production company RDD Media, reports as a correspondent for the National Geographic series Explorer, and oversees development for the Derek Jeter–founded website The Players’ Tribune. Before his Bonobos shoot in January, he’d just returned home from a stint following environmentalist Buddhist monks as they intervened to prevent deforestation in Cambodia. Prior to that, he’d been in Russia investigating the emergence of fight clubs within the soccer-hooligan scene. And trips like those are wedged into his calendar between jaunts around the globe for his in-development series Away Game, which takes sports figures to the birthplaces of their chosen games. Recently he took American football players to “this sleepy English country town” called Ashbourne, in Derbyshire, where residents play “this insane kind of medieval football game that’s a combination of football, rugby, and boxing. It runs through the streets and it’s this crazy spectacle,” he says.
To fully understand what Duffy aims to do nowadays, though, you might first have to understand who his heroes are. Duffy grew up with a passionate admiration for Hunter S. Thompson, and today he counts Jon Stewart and the generation of news humorists he emboldened — like Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah — among his inspirations.
Duffy loves that Thompson and the “gonzo” journalists of his era believed reporting didn’t have to be strictly confined to the communication of facts and figures in a super-dry, informational-exchange way. What today’s news comedians did, meanwhile, “was say, ‘Look, we can add in a little bit of humor and storytelling to this in the service of communicating what otherwise can be a tough pill to swallow,’” Duffy says. “In that way, I think what Stewart and those guys did is similar to what the gonzo guys did a generation ago.”
Ryan wears the Spring Overshirt in Washed Blue Denim, the L.A. Tee in Heather Midnight, and the Stretch Washed Chinos in Jet Black
So what does a mile-a-minute guy like Duffy, with his wide range of projects and interests, do when he wants to gather his thoughts? “Nothing does it for me in the way that running does,” he says. Having recently relocated with his girlfriend from New York to Los Angeles, he’s discovered that this is more of a challenge in his new hometown than his old one: “If you’ve been running in New York for 15 years and think you’re a good runner, go run up essentially a 90-degree incline in Runyon Canyon and you will convince yourself otherwise real quick,” he says with a laugh.
Duffy’s outdoor runs, though, are where he finally finds the “clarity of thought” to come up with his best ideas. Because even in his off-hours, staying committed to making learning about the world as entertaining as it is vital remains his top priority.
“It is truly amazing,” he says. “My job is ... I ride in a sidecar, you know? I’m not doing anything of any import, that’s for sure; sometimes I wonder if I’m actually getting in the way of doing things of import. But I can attach my wagon temporarily to people like that, and that is awesome.”