In October 2003, Sternberg struck out on his own and took classes in illustration, pattern-making and garment construction. He started his Band of Outsiders menswear label that month with just two products — shirts and neckties. He incorporated the company in January 2004, and within a few months his super-skinny neckties and slim-fitting shirts started hitting retail.
"At that time we were looking for some really plain men's button-down shirts without logos on them," recalls South Willard's co-owner Ryan Conder. "And there was nothing at that time — everything was either really formal like Prada or middle-of-the-road with logos all over them. Scott made a really understated, basic, button-down shirt that fit well. And it was made in the U.S.A., which was great."
In the years since, the menswear label has grown to include jackets, hand-tailored suits, knits and outerwear pieces. Spring-summer 2009 saw the addition of a menswear-inspired designer line for women called Boy by Band of Outsiders. In January 2010, a line of lower-priced fitted men's polo shirts (dubbed This Is Not a Polo Shirt) joined the Band family. A softer, more feminine women's contemporary line, Girl by Band of Outsiders, followed for spring-summer 2011.
A big part of the brand's DNA is the influence of film. Not only does the name come from the Jean-Luc Godard film "Bande à part," but seasonal inspirations have included Godard's "La Chinoise" (which influenced the fall 2009 collection), Jacques Cousteau's "The Silent World," (spring 2010) and "The Hunger Games" (Boy by Band of Outsiders' spring 2013).
That there's a cinematic theme to hook into, that the clothes are high-quality and well-designed and that everything from the typefaces used and the way the ad campaigns are shot (on a dwindling stock of Polaroid 600 film) hew strictly to Sternberg's vision for the brand are only parts of the equation. There's something about Sternberg himself, his personality and sense of humor that all play into the brand's success.
It can be seen in the Lego figure in Sternberg's bespectacled likeness (the legacy of an early installation at Opening Ceremony), the occasional entries in his cookie blog (which started as an in-joke with some friends and can be found at the Band of Outsiders website) and the movie screenings he hosts at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (over the summer it was a showing of the Bill Murray summer-camp classic "Meatballs.")
"Look," says Nina Garduno, the buyer responsible for bringing Band of Outsiders to the racks at Ron Herman and who has gone on to launch her own Free City label, "there are a lot of people with great ideas who don't have drive, and there are a lot of people who have drive but no great ideas. He's got both — and he's charming and personable."
South Willard's Conder said he didn't have any idea the guy he met selling shirts and ties out of his L.A. apartment in 2004 would get to be where Sternberg and his brands are today.
"I probably should've figured it out," Conder says, "because everything is very calculated with Scott. He's very smart about what he does, but he's such a humble guy. It's like he's the kid that pays attention in class."
If Band of Outsiders were a film, 2012 might well mark the start of the second act, and like any good filmmaker, Sternberg is happy to hint at what's coming next — but he's not about to give up the plot.
Yes, he'll say there's a book in the works (compiling the Polaroid celebrity ad campaigns he's shot over the years), and he's happy to discuss the Tokyo store, which he thinks will be set to open next October. But he won't talk about specific plans for stand-alone stores in the U.S. or a brand extension that's in the works. ("I can't give it away because it's so specific … but all in due time," he says.)
"For the next year, the goal is to get the supply chain in place so when we do have a network of stores we're able to fill them on any given week," he says.
Although the Tokyo store is being opened in conjunction with Japanese partners, Sternberg, who owns his company free and clear, says he's reluctant to take on any partners or investors who don't share his long-term vision.
"I'm a brand guy," Sternberg says. "It's super important that I sell a lot of shirts and blazers and all that stuff because that's the legacy, but in terms of the real value that I'm creating, it's around this brand that can have a life well beyond me. So that requires decisions that are always going to give an investor pause."
As a former agent and ardent cinephile, Sternberg's one brand guy who knows all too well that when a film gets made by committee, there's rarely a Hollywood ending.