Band of Outsiders and the Business of Casual
Scott Sternberg, the designer of a preppy line of clothes called Band of Outsiders, hasn’t really been shopping since he introduced his Los Angeles label 10 years ago. On the first chilly day of September, he’s hanging out in a Manhattan store trying to remember how it goes. “It’s interesting how long people spend with a shirt before they buy it,” says Sternberg, who’s wearing a Band of Outsiders nautical-striped tee and spying on a group of young men and women as they browse. “For guys, it’s not this thing where you pick it up and say, ‘It’s cute, let’s go.’ They sit on the bench, think about it, text somebody, make sure they’re going to do it.”
The men decide to pull the trigger on some oxfords, which is enthralling to Sternberg, 39, in no small part because he owns the store. The boutique is Band of Outsiders’ first in the U.S. (There’s one other, in Tokyo, run by an Asian partner.) Sternberg initially wanted the New York shop to just spring to life in an abandoned lot. That was illegal. So he’s paid rent on this capacious, 4,800-square-foot SoHo space for half a year and on Sept. 7 opened a boutique he’s been obsessing over for months. As intended, it looks as if it came together in a week: Many racks are recycled, equipped with wheels, and more evocative of a pop-up shop than a brand’s lasting home. That’s because Sternberg says most stores are too formulaic. “There are these clichés: marble, chrome, glass, and what is expensive, and fancy, and cool, and downtown,” he says, his West Coast rasp accelerating into something slightly more excitable. “The moose on the wall, the fake living room. Why is there a fireplace in the store if there’s no chimney?”
Even if you’ve never heard of Band of Outsiders, you’d recognize the look. It’s a slightly luxe, purposefully rumpled version of the chinos, navy blazers, and checked button-up shirts that have come to define men’s workplace style. It’s a line for a guy who doesn’t want to be caught wearing the same J.Crew gingham shirt as his assistant. You may have unwittingly purchased a Band of Outsiders piece on sale or received one as a gift and never quite realized it’s different from your other shirts. It’s the one that’s shorter, slightly more fitted, with fabric that feels a little bit smoother.
Although Sternberg shows a collection each New York Fashion Week, he never pushes scary runway fare. The brand’s overall aesthetic rarely changes, and proportions don’t shift much. Nostalgia is omnipresent, as are references to the designer’s upbringing in Dayton during the 1980s. One recent collection pulled patterns from early arcade games such as Asteroids and Space Invaders; another drew color inspiration from Lego. To showcase those pieces, Sternberg persuaded one of the 275 retailers who sell his clothes to build shelves out of the kids’ blocks. “The line is not for a ‘fashion’ person,” he says. “The customer is either vibing on the cultural references or has this system of preppy dressing that, once you’re a proponent of that, you stick with it.” In 2007 he began making items for women, who, he realized, wanted a similar uniform. The inventory in his store is evenly split in terms of gender, Sternberg says, “because the business potential is much more in women’s, but I find men supercompelling.”
The clothes are inoffensively appealing enough to woo shoppers in from the street. And though it’s well-established that e-commerce is the future, a boutique remains a surprisingly powerful tool for a fashion brand, especially one selling menswear. In 2013 sales of guys’ clothing in the U.S. rose 5 percent, to $60.8 billion, outpacing the growth of women’s apparel, according to a May report by research firm NPD Group. Of that, the majority of sales have occurred at specialty stores such as Sternberg’s, not at department stores like Macy’s or national chains like Gap, and especially not on the Internet.
“Despite technology, and because of it, there’s a gravity to what a store can be,” Sternberg says. “To a customer, in almost the same way as any other weekend activity, it’s a release.” Men also spend more in person: The average price of an in-store purchase grew 3 percent for men’s apparel last year yet declined 7 percent online, according to NPD, which helps explain why Band of Outsiders and most other independent brands aren’t yet committed to e-commerce. Companies such as Bonobos, Warby Parker, and Rent the Runway are now focusing on brick-and-mortar expansion only a few short years after pledging to be the first wave of Web-only retailers.
Other brands have tried to court shoppers by introducing a label one year and a store the next, if not sooner. Sternberg’s business has evolved more deliberately. In 2004 he started his company with a line of ties and simple button-down dress shirts that were slimmer and shorter and looked best untucked. Soon after, along with designers such as Thom Browne and Michael Bastian, he began making suits, pants, and outerwear in U.S. factories. That was around the time, and part of the reason, that “made in America heritage” became an obsession of the fashion world. “The thing that’s smart about Scott is that he decided to focus really early on,” says Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “It allowed him to develop a consistent, strictly American aesthetic based on classic pieces.”
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One reason Sternberg hasn’t yet become, say, the next Ralph Lauren—who also kicked off his business with ties back in 1966—is because Band of Outsiders has always been prohibitively expensive: Basic shirts average $235, and dresses start at $295. (Another gripe is that its sizing runs small and can be confusing, with a numerical system that labels a medium as a 3.) Sternberg is aware of these problems. “Here’s a shirt that’s not just for skinny, waify guys,” he says while in his Los Angeles office earlier this summer, referring to a collection he sold at Barneys New York that’s designed for bankers to wear to work, contrast collar and all. “And we’re trying to make all the clothes less expensive,” he adds, his shoulders sinking, though it’s usually the opposite direction a brand goes once it opens a fancy flagship store.
The most efficient way to lower prices is by moving manufacturing and ditching those made in America roots. “That’s where our version of luxury ultimately comes from, but it can’t be so important that the polo shirt costs $340,” Sternberg explains. Lately the company’s women’s silk dresses and other delicate pieces are being made in China, which some Band of Outsiders customers have grumbled about on social media. “C’mon,” Sternberg says, annoyed. “It’s made by a hardworking artisan who lives in a hard place.”
Sternberg has no formal training making clothes; before he started Band of Outsiders, he was a Hollywood agent, which has proven useful for casting actors such as Josh Brolin and Michelle Williams in his self-shot Polaroid ad campaigns. His previous career also made him a “strangely capable person” when it comes to blending the economic and fashion aspects of running his brand. “I can read a balance sheet and, you know, do a color palette or whatever,” he says, bragging about a combination that’s rare in his industry. (Sternberg declines to say how much Band of Outsiders is valued at, because the line is privately funded and he’s undergoing a new round of financing.) Still, finding a chief executive officer is a top priority—he’s been interviewing executives for years but hasn’t landed on one yet. “It’s time for the company to grow up to a different place and function in a way that’s ultimately less taxing and more scalable,” he adds. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be so cult, and it can still be kind of great.”
Opening a store remains one of the best ways to go mainstream. In his boutique, Sternberg can constantly move the modular furniture. He can also sell more affordable special items—Wm. J. Mills wallets ($85), Cooperstown baseball caps (also $85), and cookies from a Momofuku Milk Bar—to casual browsers, while he tries to figure out what shoppers want and how much they’ll pay for it. This fall he’s launching a line of high-end men’s and women’s shoes that start at $295. Next, Band of Outsiders will get into handbags, which Sternberg says should be slightly cheaper than the $2,500 bags Céline sells at its new boutique across the street. “Who knows, maybe you can charge $400 for a shirt,” he says. “You get these sort of ‘duh’ answers from your store manager.”
Sternberg then shares that, the day before, when the doors opened for the first time, five Band geeks were waiting to buy stuff. They stayed for hours, invited some friends, and took selfies with their favorite designer. On this weekday afternoon, the dozen or so people browsing don’t realize that the man who made the clothes is watching as they shop. In saunter two European women, swaddled in sunglasses and scarves, seemingly unaware of Band of Outsiders at all. “Oh, they look like they’re going to spend money,” Sternberg whispers, leaning against a mural to watch it go down.