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For the founder of a label called Band of Outsiders, Scott Sternberg is fast becoming an inside player on the fashion scene.
This story first appeared in the June 20, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
On June 15, the L.A.-based designer will present his spring 2012 men’s and resort women’s collections in a runway show in an abandoned cigar factory in Florence as the headliner at Pitti Immagine Uomo. He follows previous guest designers in the role, including Raf Simons, Hedi Slimane, Gareth Pugh and John Varvatos.
“It’s awesome—one of those things you only get to do once. It’s a great opportunity to capture people’s attention, and there’s a great legacy of who’s shown at Pitti,” says Sternberg, who in the past two years has also won the CFDA award for Menswear Designer of the Year and was named a finalist for GQ’s Best New Menswear Designer in America prize.
It’s been a steady ascent for Sternberg since he launched Band of Outsiders in spring 2004 with a small collection of shrunken, preppy shirts and narrow ties. The brand is now sold in 51 stores in the U.S., including Barneys New York, Bergdorf Goodman, Mrporter.com, Opening Ceremony and South Willard. Overseas, it’s available in 156 stores, including Beams in Japan, 10 Corso Como in Seoul, and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
But true to its name, Band of Outsiders was created with modest ambitions, insists Sternberg—who emits a modest, bookish persona even as he carves out an ever-larger niche in the hyper-competitive fashion world with new lines, new business partners and Hollywood fans like Andrew Garfield, Jason Schwartzman and Kirsten Dunst.
“My intent was never to be a part of the fashion dialogue. I didn’t come from a fashion background. Really, all I wanted to do was to make things and own my own business,” says Sternberg. “I love getting dressed, but I was never into pink polka-dot shirts or turquoise pants. I’m interested in things that are quiet and simple and I appreciate details.”
Sternberg’s aesthetic is understated and fairly sober, with an emphasis on American staples, but he updates them with trim fits and a dose of modernity. “I wanted to make shirts that were small and trim and that were preppy and European at the same time,” he explains.
Barneys New York was one of the label’s first customers, and Tom Kalenderian, general merchandise manager for men’s at the retailer, remembers Sternberg as a pioneer in bringing Americana to the forefront of men’s trends in recent years—but in a singular way. “The concept of prep and trad had been oversized in the past and this was a different way of spinning Americana. It was slimmer, trimmer and shorter, with a sexy bent to it,” says Kalenderian. “The brand is a move away from European, highly styled fashion. It’s not built on trends that expire but built on assembling a wardrobe that lasts.”
Sternberg was born in Dayton, Ohio, to a dentist father and a mother who worked in various jobs, including retail and real estate. “She used to come out to L.A. when I first started and help me pack boxes to ship,” Sternberg recalls. “I’m not packing boxes any more, but she still comes out to help arrange things.”
At Washington University in St. Louis, Sternberg studied economics, but he harbored ambitions to work in the entertainment business and wrote his senior thesis on the industry. After graduation, he landed a plum job at Creative Artists Agency in L.A. as an assistant to a talent agent but left after a year to work for Ed Solomon, the screenwriter of Men in Black.
“I read a lot of scripts for possible development. And you sort of go to a lot of lunches and dinners and drinks and form relationships. It was all kind of painful for me,” says Sternberg, who insists that he’s socially awkward despite his expert navigation of the insular worlds of both Hollywood and Seventh Avenue.
In 1999, Sternberg was recruited back to CAA to work in the firm’s new media division, where he helped integrate clients like Coca-Cola into entertainment vehicles—including bringing them a little show called American Idol.
After three years, Sternberg left CAA again and hooked up with the husband-and-wife team of Tom Scott, a co-founder of Nantucket Nectars, and Emily Woods, the former ceo of J. Crew, who together had started a multimedia company. Sternberg’s main task at the firm was putting together an inexpensive juniors apparel line with Kidada Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones.
While that project was a far cry from the Band of Outsiders aesthetic, it’s what piqued Sternberg’s interest in designing. “I learned that I really connected with the creative process and how clothes were made and how an idea could manifest itself,” he remembers. “And I realized I was better at it than all the designers we hired.”
With that realization, Sternberg started up Band of Outsiders—named for the Jean-Luc Godard film Bande à Part—with $30,000 in savings plus $50,000 in zero-interest credit cards. “I had great credit because I’m a nerd,” he confides.
Sternberg took his samples to the most influential specialty stores in the country, such as Ron Herman, Jeffrey, Steven Alan and South Willard as well as Barneys—and they all bought the line. “I only saw things in superlatives and had no doubt those were the stores I had to sell in,” says Sternberg. “The line would not have worked anywhere else.”
Everything in the line was—and remains—slim and scaled down for the skinny, hip customers Sternberg catered to. The sizing was so small that when Kal Ruttenstein, the late, legendary fashion director of Bloomingdale’s, saw the line at The News showroom in New York, he inquired about the cool, new boys’ collection he saw hanging there.
In 2007, Sternberg launched a women’s line, called Boy, which took men’s wear staples like blazers and Oxford shirts and translated them into a women’s collection. Soon after, he added another women’s line, Girl, which is more feminine and flirty and geared toward the contemporary market rather than designer.
“Doing women’s really helps the men’s. The retail and publicity machine for women’s is much louder and bigger—and to become a global brand that machine is necessary,” Sternberg observes.
Along with overseeing the creative aspects of Band of Outsiders, Sternberg has also astutely managed the business aspects of the company. He recently inked a distribution agreement for the Japan market with Sazaby League Ltd., a billion-dollar company that also operates stores there for American Rag Cie, Ron Herman, 3.1 Phillip Lim and Camper, as well as Starbucks franchises. Band of Outsiders also opened its first New York showroom in January to complement a new L.A. headquarters that bowed in September.
Italy’s Pier SpA is the European distributor for the men’s Band of Outsiders collection and also manufactures various categories of the women’s Boy and Girl lines. Sternberg is in long-running negotiations with Pier for the company to become an investment partner in the entire brand.
Last year, Band of Outsiders rang up sales of $8 million, and 2011 revenue should grow 50 percent to $12 million, according to Sternberg. In the U.S. and Asia, men’s comprises about 60 percent of sales and women’s is 40 percent, with those figures reversed in Europe.
“As an entrepreneur, he’s a model for the industry. I think any designer starting out must look up to him in a tremendous way,” notes Barneys’ Kalenderian. “As Scott matures and evolves I think he could surprise us and do something broader and bigger—maybe something slightly more commercial and with a wider reach.”
Apparently, being an outsider can pay off.