On the afternoon that I arrive to interview Scott Sternberg at the Band of Outsiders New York offices, the racks at the back of the showroom are almost entirely empty. Last season has already been shipped off and the next collection is yet to take its place, and this transitional state speaks well to the spirit of BoO. In the ten years since he founded Band, Sternberg has never stopped moving and reshaping his L.A. based label. Along the way, he has racked up countless accolades, started a women’s business that’s equally as robust, married modern menswear with movie stars, and continuously redefined what prep means in this day and age. As Band embarks on their second decade, Sternberg has his foot squarely on the gas as evidenced by the soon-to-open New York store, which will be their first flagship here in the states. We sat down with Sternberg to discuss the plans for this store, the meaning of prep, the L.A., New York divide, Starbucks, and even economics.
ACL: This January marked ten years of Band of Outsiders, what has changed in that time? Both from your personal viewpoint as well as how the brand is now formulated?
Scott Sternberg: Essentially it’s the same through-line since the idea of Band of Outsiders, even before it was called Band of Outsiders came up. This idea of being the future of American prep, this sort of modern American preppy uniform and system of dressing. I think what’s different is that I make women’s clothes and through the process of doing that and learning how to do that, which was self taught, I became more interested in different ways of pushing things a little further, beyond just making a great suit, a great tie, and a great shirt. And that’s all within a pretty strict bubble of wearability still. Whether that’s graphics, fabric development, certain construction tricks, any of that stuff, over the years I’ve just gotten more playful and inventive with the clothes, but essentially it’s the same system of dressing. Hopefully I’m getting better at what I’m doing. *laughs*
Through the years we also started making products as objects to also styling those in the looks and then creating a narrative out of what those looks are, for a fashion show, for a look book, for a Polaroid campaign. So there’s this whole layer of imagery that sits on top of the product that again, same message, same thing: prep, American, humor, levity, all that stuff. So yea, boring old me, same old thing.
ACL: It’s interesting to think of 2004, because that feels like forever ago in the grand scheme of things and it was in 2010 that the CFDA named you Menswear Designer of the Year. But, prep back then seemed to be such a hotter topic and people were pressing it a lot more, so do you consider how menswear has changed overtime? I get the sense that Band’s clothes have changed somewhat, but do you calculate it like that, or do you not pay attention?
SS: I pay attention because I love fashion. I probably pay attention to women’s more than men’s because stuff changes more. But, before I did this, it’s not like I went to design school, I was really a consumer of it and I love it. I think preppy, American trad, whatever you want to call it, certainly was a thing a few years after I started and it helped really fuel my business. It was a great thing for the time, but I don’t think preppy ever really goes away, I think that there’s an attitude now that’s different than that time.
I’ve evolved naturally this way, but things are more street, there’s more of a streetwear influence in men’s fashion right now. That doesn’t have to come across as something that’s black or moody or super graphic and hard and print oriented. It’s the looseness and feeling of it, the way you wear it. We don’t use this word a lot in men’s but the silhouette, it’s a little bigger. Ultimately though, our blocks, our fits, it’s still pretty consistent. We add stuff around it and maybe for a show you sample everything a size bigger because you want it to feel a little easier. And even personally, last year I was feeling like I wanted to wear everything bigger so I just ordered up.
It’s sort of the same thing on womenswear, when I started our first women’s collection Boy, which now just Band of Outsiders women’s, it was all about a Tomboy thing, boy meets girl. Honestly, every other season it’s about that. It’s a trend cycle and maybe it’s a press thing, it’s something for people to write about. I think I got really lucky, as did Thom (Browne) and Michael (Bastian) and it was really just all of us doing it and we were able to be propelled by this wave of excitement and now we all have businesses that are built on that and can progress from there.
ACL: You are one of the only L.A. designers that’s actually thrived and survived, but you’re opening a store here in New York now, so what is your take on New York at this moment?
SS: There’s several ways into that question. Personally, it’s just a place I choose not to live. *laughs* I just choose to live in L.A., it’s my home and that predated being a fashion designer. New York is one of those things like preppy clothes, it’s always there, it’s always staid and tried and true. It is what it is.
In terms of being a fashion designer who doesn’t live here, or Paris, or Milan for that matter, it’s so hard from the inside to comment on that. Truly, we’re not ignoring the world out in L.A., we’re engaged and doing what we do. It’s exceptionally difficult to run a business out there, to find talent, executive talent, design talent, all that stuff. This (New York) is practically where you should be making clothes and I’m an impractical guy. But, I’m gonna be here a lot, and I’ve been here a lot. That store over there is quite attention inducing.
ACL: Why now for the store here?
SS: I’ve thought about it for years and somehow whenever I looked around the notion of a small little shop in New York just seemed really sad to me. You can find a lot of our clothes at Barneys or Opening Ceremony or online honestly. You can see it all, so I didn’t want to open just a men’s shop. There’s something about the fact that we do do men’s and women’s and they’re pretty equal businesses actually which is another rarity beyond the New York/L.A. thing.
It was really important for the store to be exponentially additive to our message and to our business and our brand, for it to be a true flagship. Financially I just didn’t have the resources until now, and really from a product perspective. When you have a store you realize, you do the basic retail math, and you have to have a pretty wide collection of stuff that delivers all year long or else your store is gonna suck. It’s just gonna look the same all the time.
ACL: But the Japan store came first?
SS: That was a practical thing. I have distribution partners there who I work with on wholesale and retail, they’re great and they would’ve prefered we open in New York first. That’s the normal way of things – you open a flagship in New York and then your distribution partners in different territories create a facsimile of that with you and with your direction. They’re buying your clothes and all that, but in terms of the visual merchandising and the programming and the special product they siphon off of what you’re doing in your flagship. So, we went bizarro, reverso, which is fine, it just created a lot of work for us because this is a living, breathing store, we have to feed it all the time.
It’s a market that, especially for menswear, is a super strong market for us and it’s one where we never had to translate the product to something else. A lot of global brands, like a Ralph or a Tommy, they’re really different everywhere you go, either because they’re licensed and they’re produced in separate territories or they make a separately sized line for that territory or certain colors in Japan actually never sell. So, it was natural in a way, but also sort of bizarro and reversed.
ACL: Early on Band was very closely associated with Hollywood, not just with your own background but through the Polaroid campaigns and marketing as well, is that something that you still consider to be a part of the brand?
SS: I’m a cinephile and a storyteller and when looking for inspiration and for escape I go to movies and television. So personally it’s still part of my thing. All of us are for better or for worse victims to celebrity culture. Victims is one way of looking at it, consumers of, whatever you call it. So, I’ve always chosen to play around in that world in a way that we can engage talented people to be part of our campaigns or whatever it might be because we’re creating an interesting project for them to collaborate on. Inherently we’re getting a lot of attention from it, which is good, but it’s just so there, you can’t escape it, so why not play along in your own way?
ACL: Along those lines, and you mentioned this, when Band started it was smaller in scale and smaller in narrative, do you now think of the narrative of each collection as you create it?
SS: Yeah. It’s usually inescapable and it’s a construct that I’m actually considering screwing around with a little bit and getting outside of. Typically, since I started showing at Fashion Week and as the presentations got bigger, just naturally the way my brain works I did think of look one as the beginning and look thirty as the end and that it was a progression, it was a story. In terms of practically putting a collection together, it represents a lifestyle, a full range of a guy’s system of dressing, it’s actually a good way to do it.
I’m a very conceptual guy, I’m not about just throwing on decoration for decoration sake, everything has to be tied to a core concept and have a reason. So, when you create a narrative like that and put a box around a collection essentially, a very specific one, beyond “I was inspired by Steve McQueen” or something like that, you really get deep and really get specific and that’s when a lot of new stuff comes out. Especially with classics and preppy stuff, you have to box yourself in and I box myself in with stories like Barbeque Dads shrooming circa 1964.
ACL: Collaborations have been a big part of Band and you just had the Starbucks collaboration which I think garnered the most press about a coffee cup ever. How do those relationships develop?
SS: At the beginning, it was a different world, it was before J. Crew’s Liquor shop where they got their hands on all those collaborations. The first collaboration we did was Sperry and that was me calling Sperry very naively and saying “I wanna make boat shoes.” I literally could find their shoes at DSW at the time. The boat shoe I wanted they call it the AO, the Authentic Original and I just always wore them, I thought they were great shoes. And I thought I’m doing a show, let’s see if we can figure this out, I don’t know how to make shoes. That really took off and that really became a model, a case study for a symbiotic relationship.
We were able to leverage all of their production, product development resources and money and we were able to give them a ton of ideas that they could siphon off of. They gave us access to a wide group of consumers that couldn’t fit into our clothes or afford them. It opened us up to the streetwear market big time online and for them it was just credibility, IP (intellectual property), all that stuff. We just started up with them again too. Generally, it just depends, but I’ve sort of stopped on the collab front. They got kind of out of control and became devalued. But, as I started to think about the store, it was clear that there was a whole range of product that we wanted to have for the customer, whether we were buying at wholesale a third party product or really putting our stamp on it, in a deep way or just a surface packaging way. So, I’ve really started to open myself up to it again and we have a few cool ones coming in the pipeline.
Starbucks came to us. Target, when they did that thing last Christmas with Niemans for our best friend hats and cookie cutters, they came to all of us, usually through the CFDA or something like that. Typically, my instinct is usually to say no, and Nicole (Cari) who is my right hand, the keeper of the brand for lack of a better term, will challenge me on it if she feels it or she’ll agree with me and we’ll just scrap it. With Starbucks, for some reason, it was so obvious to me that we should do it. If you can pull that off and make it good, what a win. They were great, they killed it, they really executed it well. We did like five prototypes which was insane, we get like two protos if we’re lucky on clothing.
ACL: So as we’ve touched upon, you were part of a class where some of the brands have now faltered, whether they’ve completely shuttered or merely fallen out of favor. But Band seems to only be getting bigger and bigger so do you think about that at all and if so what do you think is the key behind your success?
SS: It’s so challenging doing this, so probably there’s more around me reminding me of it all the time like “Dude, you’ve been doing this ten years and nobody’s telling you what to do and you’re figuring it out.” Most of the time I just look a little exhausted and tired and I’m just realizing how much work there is to do ahead. And enjoying it. But, I don’t know, I think at the end of the day for men and for women, I just want to make great things that people wear. That is the center of it all. And more to that, I don’t even want the stuff to be as expensive as a lot of it is and over the years we’ve really worked hard in key categories to add more value to the expense of stuff, or keep the other stuff down to a place where it has a cost value. I think being a womenswear brand and a menswear brand helps, it gives this sense of totality to what we’re doing. It’s important, it’s important even to our relationships with retailers. But, those other dudes are doing pretty well. Thom Browne’s blowing up.
ACL: Yeah, with each collection you still seem to design to this notion of things that just make sense.
SS: Yeah, thank you. The other thing is honestly, when you’re doing womenswear, it gives you license to do that. You don’t feel like you need to inflict all of your ideas onto every garment. With women’s it’s so much change, it’s so much newness every season that you can put a lot of those crazy ideas there. Whereas with menswear we’ll start crazy, but it’ll just dial back to the basic tenet of “that looks cool.”
ACL: We’ve seen that a lot lately, where there’s brands that aren’t telling a story other than “oh this is what retailers want to see.”
SS: Oh yea, and it’s brutal. God bless my wholesale partners, they’re great and they’ve been super supportive, but you cannot let that dictate your collection. It will either water it down or just confuse it. They have an idea of what they want or what they need, but ultimately they’re looking to us as designers and manufacturers to inspire them and give them new stuff. If I really believe in something and people aren’t responding to it, I’ll pound it home for three seasons, I’ll just keep going. You will eventually buy this.
ACL: You have a lot of confidence as a designer, but you actually did not go to school for this, you studied economics. Do you think it’s helped you out more that you came into the fashion world with your own knowledge rather than what you’d been taught?
SS: I’ve had a lot of years to learn and it took a while to get confidence. I have design teams and they’ve all been to design schools and I think there’s a lot of valuables and stuff you can learn there, a lot of good communication tools, which is essentially sketching. You sketch a lot and my sketches are horrible, but they work. So for that I regret not going to design school, but beyond that it’s not the way I think. There’s a lot of good ideas that become bad clothes because of that way of designing a collection, it’s a very textbook idea of “okay we have this pocket construction here and let’s carry it out against these five garments and make this connection.”
There are these formulas that are not servicing cool clothes, so in that way I’m really glad I didn’t go. I loved economics because it’s a social science and it’s so challenging, it combines math and psychology and game theory. I couldn’t sit in a design school class all day, I would’ve gone crazy. I’m just more of a visual person totally, but intellectually I need more out of school. Not to put down designers or design school.
ACL: To circle all the way back, ten years from now I gather you still want to be forging ahead with Band?
Sure. It’s so hard to say, I’m trying to think of what I thought ten years ago. I mean ten years for sure, twenty year I’m gonna be old. I don’t know if I want to work this hard in twenty years. But it’s hard to think of not having this platform. I’ve never had a design job, I’ve never worked for a company that has a design ethos that I have to design into. This is all just pure, authentic Scott expression and it’s all through the filter of Band that I’ve created, but that is pretty close to me. And that’s an awesome thing. To forgo that and let that go, that would take a lot, but we’ll see.