Band of Outsiders Founder Scott Sternberg's Secrets to Success

From how he got into Barneys after five months to how he gets celebrities in his Polaroid campaigns.
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From how he got into Barneys after five months to how he gets celebrities in his Polaroid campaigns.
Scott Sternberg at our How to Make it in Fashion conference. Photo: Gil Riego/Fashionista

Scott Sternberg at our How to Make it in Fashion conference. Photo: Gil Riego/Fashionista

Band of Outsiders is one fashion brand that I think it's safe to say has been collectively adored by the Fashionista team since this website's inception. Which is why we were all really, (but really) excited that its founder, designer, CEO, etc. Scott Sternberg agreed to speak at our fourth How to Make it in Fashion conference in L.A. on Friday. 

Sternberg and his brand represent exceptions to a lot of the "rules" of the fashion industry: Sternberg had no formal design training (he was a talent agent before starting his line); is based in Los Angeles instead of New York; gets awesome celebrities to rep his brand without paying them tons of money; is weirdly obsessed with cookies; and, oh, has a sense of humor.

Our own Lauren Sherman chatted with Sternberg about his rise to success. He started Band of Outsiders 10 years ago with a few ties and men's shirts and it's since grown significantly: He now produces menswear, womenswear and shoes and recently open two stores — one in Tokyo and one in New York. Read on for the 10 biggest, most fascinating takeaways.

He got into Barneys in his first year by cold-emailing.

"Barneys — which was the first major order I got pretty much five months into starting — I cold emailed the tie girl who bought ties thinking the tie girl has nothing cool going on, she’s going to get an email from Band of Outsiders, this guy in L.A. and of course she’s going to take a meeting, and I was right. She emailed me back and she got the dress shirt person buyer girl in there and I showed them my 15 ties and 20 shirts and they loved them and said they were too cool and fitted for their customer but I should meet the designer buyer."

He represented his brand well.

"[At my Barneys designer meeting] I was all decked out in my little Band-y look, my golf pants and shirt and tie and this guy Jay Bell, this tall, overwhelming, African-American super queen in the best way, he looked me up and down and goes, 'Mmmhmm,' and goes, 'Get in my office.' He wrote a $35,000 order as I was pulling stuff out of a suitcase."

He didn't win the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, but it didn't really matter.

"People at Vogue still think that I won. I didn’t win but it didn’t really matter. The money would have been nice, but that experience exposed Band to Vogue and Vogue is this awesome machine with really great, talented people and everybody gets involved with the Fund so that’s Grace, Tonne, Phyllis, down to the market editors and what that does is you suddenly have these ambassadors, these proselytizers for your brand and that's more important than anything, more than even an actual page of editorial. Having all these people talking about you and buzzing about you and actually understanding who you are because they heard it from your mouth, it’s super helpful."

His best advice came from Anna Wintour and Andrew Rosen.

"I developed a good relationship with Anna and Andrew Rosen [from the Fund] and I’ve kept in touch with both of them. Stuff they told me then, and now it’s invaluable: A, focus and B, you have to be able to explain in words, not only in pictures, you have to be able to very succinctly say this is what my brand is, this is what I stand for, you have to really know and believe why and how that’s different from everybody else’s stuff. Because you’re competing."

His approach to celebrity dressing really was organic.

"The impact is greater because it’s a celebrity but it’s a positive impact like anything that’s true to your brand and true to who you are. The celebrity thing, it's a clusterfuck; it’s something that if you decide to dive into, it becomes this anti-productive, huge waste of time. Your stuff is out there but it's not in the right context. It really helps, there’s no question, but you can’t just bank on that. It doesn’t sell lots of clothes ultimately — it helps create awareness of what your brand is, but at the end of the day if you’re not creating a product at the right price on time, all that stuff doesn’t totally matter. But it’s limiting, like we could never buy ads with those images, those polaroids, we would have to pay those people lots of money to do that. It was more of an ongoing creative project." 

But it's harder than it used to be.

"We haven’t done it for a couple seasons because it’s a different world. Chanel, Miu Miu, Prada, Dior, they all have pretty much cast a very wide net around most young actresses so you don’t really have access to people as much anymore."

The whole cookie thing came from the brand's core idea of lightness, and a genuine love of cookies.

"It was imperative to me that at the core of the brand was this idea of levity. I felt that the imagery and the tone around fashion was always so almost comically serious and uniformly serious, really homogenous and I just find fashion so joyful. Like 'Pretty Woman,' where the shopkeepers were such bitches, it’s part of that mean fashion is serious thing, so part of what Band of Outsiders always was going to be was light and funny and it’s who I am, I’m a serious guy certainly, but it needed to be personal and warm in that way.

With cookies, I’m a cookie monster, I like cookies, it’s my dessert of choice. I was on a hike with two of my very smart friends, one's an artist and one’s an art consultant, and we were just waxing on about cookies and I just said, 'I’m going to start a cookie blog, I don’t care, I’m just going to do it and see how people react,' and I think still to this day the traffic on the defunct blog is like really, really strong."

He's "a stickler for the Band filter."

"I’m super active in the design process; I’m at every fitting, I sketch a lot, I love it but it’s important for exactly the reason you said, it’s the hardest thing to do because it’s so easy to be seduced. I love fashion, so it’s so easy to be seduced by a trend or something beautiful out there and its important to be part of the fashion dialogue and to look at what’s going on and throw your hat in the ring, but I’m just sort of a stickler for the Band filter. I'll say, 'That’s a beautiful dress but why is it Band? What’s making it Band?' and, 'Ok, that’s great for a show but ultimately who cares?' I think about a system of dressing and ultimately you want to create a product that speaks to the brand."

He's made a lot of mistakes.

"First of all, I screwed up so much, I have not done anything perfectly at all, there are so many samples that have been thrown out; there are so many things that have been produced poorly. I gave an interview last year in Apartamento mag where I sounded like a total dick. I was in a bad mood. But then the Huffington Post picked it up and it was like, 'Scott Sternberg Says the Fashion Industry Sucks.'

I think that it’s mostly about learning from that and being able to really quickly adjust. I’m a highly sensitive person in a good way being a business owner, I want to know what’s working and what’s not, I’m not a reactionary person, I’m pretty proactive and try to address things in real time."

His advice to aspiring designers: You have a better shot of making it if you are an expert at something than if you try to do a full ready to wear collection.

"I think that the world of a collection brand, unless you’re really really sure that you have this original vision, and you have the resources to execute it on a runway and you can compete with Balenciaga and Vuitton because you’re on the same Style.com where everybody is, then you should not do that because it’s a lot of work, it’s really, really hard to realize that. It’s so few and far between that actually can; I think Altuzarra’s the last one who’s been able to do it. It’s hard to make money and if that’s your thing go for it, but for me I don’t think the world and the world of fashion necessarily works that way. You don’t need to be that anymore, you can be an expert at something, not just as a business but even editorially if thats important to you. I think focusing, being an expert at something, you have to stand for something. You have to have a product that represents what your brand is and starting with a full collection, unless you’re an Alex Wang type, then I wouldn’t do it."