Today, BoF brings you First Person with Band of Outsiders' Scott Sternberg, followed later this week by the exclusive global debut of a new Band of Outsiders film directed by Debra Scherer for The Little Squares.
LOS ANGELES, United States — What made a 20-something junior agent at CAA, with no background in clothing design, think he could just up and create a fashion company and make it a viable business?
“Good question,” says Scott Sternberg, who in 2004 did just that, ditching his desk job to launch the LA-based Band of Outsiders with a limited collection of shirts and ties. Four years in, Sternberg won the CFDA Swarovski award for emerging menswear designer; last year he shared the top award with Italo Zucchelli of Calvin Klein. This September the hip brand, found at dozens stores around the world, will debut its fourth imprint, the entry-level womenswear line, girl.
Viable indeed. A runaway success, more like it.
“It was very clear that I was much more of an entrepreneur than someone who services clients,” Sternberg says now of his time as a Hollywood agent. “I was thinking, what would be a company be if I started it—is it a product or a service? Just sort of soul-searching in my late twenties to see what I wanted to do with my life. I was working with a few entrepreneurs, one of whom started J. Crew, and she encouraged me to consider [fashion] as something to do because the way I approach the creative process is similar to the way a clothing designer would. In a short period of time it became clear that the apparel business is incredibly entrepreneurial—the barriers to entry are really low, probably even more so now. All these stores and magazines are desperate for new, great things. If you have something honest and interesting and personal and cool and relevant and well-made, you can at least get started.”
The first step, Sternberg says, was honing the vision. “It was about being specific. I had such limited resources and such limited knowledge of how to make clothes. So I made what felt right and felt like something I would want—which were shirts and ties at the time—that I could make at the level that I would find that the price and the product would align. It’s a wonderful industry for an entrepreneur who is creative and can make things.”
As interest began to grow and those magazines came calling, Sternberg says he resisted the pressure to act outside of his comfort zone. “It was really about being small and pure and not doing anything if I wasn’t sure what the next step was. From a product perspective, I can make these shirts and ties really well. I have access to the factories and materials that feel right to me and I can get it at a price where there is a market for it. All those steps are set in stone. In terms of business model, there’s rules and margins, and all of that is trial-and-error to some extent, but keeping things small and doing everything myself for so long meant no overhead so I was able to always profitable and never take on outside investors even to this day.”
So, beginning to feel grounded, secure in his new enterprise, the young designer allowed himself to experiment. “There’s a product delivery cycle that’s set,” he said. “You’re gonna deliver Spring at a certain time, you’re gonna deliver Fall at a certain time. You’re going to show at these times—you fall into the groove of that. That structure is liberating. It’s challenging and it never stops but it allows you to fail because there is always another season.”
Spreading his wings with this newfound freedom, Sternberg went on an expedition to Scotland, researched plaid, created a collection informed by his adventure, and picked up the prestigious CFDA hardware for his troubles.
On the marketing side, however, he needed no such incubation period. From the very inception of the brand Sternberg’s deft imaging of the company with the geek-chic Americana of a Hollywood insider has been a sensation, and correlation between that image and the success of the business cannot be overstated, even if it is difficult to quantify.
“Brand image is intrinsically tied to the product,” he says, explaining. “Because it’s your clothes and clothes are about self-image. It’s not just the shirt and the buttons and the fabric. At the end of the day I think, for the loyalty factor, people are entertained by the brand and feel a connection to it. I hope they are coming back because their shirt fits really well and they wear it every other day.”
And Band marches on. The growing business is moving headquarters, and Sternberg has his eye on expansion. “As a creative person, how can you not,” he says. But, as he points out, returning again and again to his touchstone of purity, the new developments are not overreaching.
“The focus now is how to expand—not to rule the world or make tons of money—but to make a bigger business, a more sustainable business. You’re looking at scale. I do a lot of work here, create a lot of product and you want to sell it more places, because it makes it sort of worth it and more interesting. You test: does this have legs? I don’t want to be the Gap or even Ralph Lauren. Women’s was a market that was obviously enticing.”
But that line, Boy., which he launched in 2007, was not a reinvention of the wheel, dropping instead out of his clear concept for the line as a perfectly ripe fruit falls off the tree—when it is ready. “I just had a notion of doing a really focused collection offering everything that women loved about my menswear but couldn’t articulate to women. Meaning, really well-made jackets and shirts. But at this point it is a full designer-, whatever-, collection. I thought there was something there that I could offer,” he says.
And you agree. So crystalline is Sternberg's vision and his business acumen one imagines that if he were to design a car or a building, not only would he likely pull it off, but it would be immediately recognisable as an entity in the Band brand.
Chris Wallace is an editor and writer based in New York. His work has appeared in Dossier Journal, i-D, Interview and T.