Night Of The Living Brand: Will Fashion Ever Accept Zombie Line Band Of Outsiders?

What happens when a much-beloved, heavily eulogized brand rises from the dead?

Band of Outsiders, a much-beloved, California-based clothing label, died in 2015. I remember, because I was sad about it. A lot of people who worked in fashion were. Designer Scott Sternberg’s preppy-with-a-twist silhouettes were a favorite of the industry and fashionable celebrities, many of whom — Frank Ocean, Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman — starred in the brand’s iconic Polaroid campaigns (it was a different time; that was still cool). Band of Outsiders shows were unusual and out-of-the-box, playful events that people actually wanted to attend. In a sprawling eulogy, the New York Times noted, “It remains a mystery in the fashion community how an established label with a loyal following run by a hands-on creative talent like Mr. Sternberg could be forced to simply shut it doors.”

The answer turned out to be a combination of frustrating retail positioning (Band of Outsiders was neither high nor low), an inability or unwillingness to face the commercial realities of the business (Sternberg “seemingly still hadn’t reconciled his purist creative vision with his business ambitions”), and brands like J.Crew and Uniqlo closing in (quickly) on more fashion-minded consumers. The bigger mystery is how Band of Outsiders has managed, without anyone really noticing, to resurrect itself not once but twice in the past two years.

Steve Mack/FilmMagic

Anna Wintour and Scott Sternberg at Band of Outsiders' fall 2010 presentation.

After 10 years, Band of Outsiders folded in 2015. But the label never really shuttered. A Belgian fashion fund, CLCC SA, took control of the brand after it failed to make payments on a $2 million credit line. It auctioned off the remaining inventory to Filene’s Basement (which in turn sold it at discount, piecemeal, on Black Friday that year), but retained the name, minus the cachet lent by its charismatic founder. In 2016, CLCC SA made the curious choice to appoint three young designers who met at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, none of whom had ever met Sternberg. One of the designers, Niklaus Hodel, told W, “We still work with American inspiration, but the idea of proportion and fit doesn’t reflect our aesthetic, so we felt like we had to change it in order to have credibility.”

That credibility was undermined by their decision to rename the label Band of Outsiders Los Angeles (despite it no longer being based there), to show in a very un-Sternberg traditional runway format in September of 2016, and to anoint their rebrand with pretentious blabber like, “Celebrating the unsung hero, the underdog & the enigma … Los Angeles is America, but it is also everywhere.” The show, a relatively straightforward mix of boxy, avant-garde silhouettes mixed with preppier sporty accents, garnered little acclaim. It felt like Band of Outsiders knocking off its own aesthetic, an insult to everyone who had only a year before spent energy (and word counts) eulogizing that very aesthetic. The end result was a slew of headlines in the vein of “The New Band of Outsiders Makes Us Miss The Old Band of Outsiders.” Perhaps more painfully, no one seemed to really care.

Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Band of Outsiders presents their Fall 2010 collection.

The “Los Angeles is America but also everywhere” rebrand lasted approximately three months. In December of last year, Women’s Wear Daily reported that not only did Band of Outsiders have a new creative team (brand director Daniel Hettmann and designer Angelo Van Mol), this creative team had a vision: “to take the label back to its Californian roots.” Certain elements of Sternberg’s original vision — impeccable tailoring, high-end materials — are there, but his whimsical approach to fashion is distinctively not. In a quote to WWD in January, Hettmann explained, “Fashion is not just about the fun anymore, it’s a business.”

In the intervening months, Hettmann seems to have lightened up a bit. This past week, Band of Outsiders showcased its SS18 collection by outfitting four comedians in looks from the spring line, and having them make jabs at the fashion world and themselves. The levity seems to have healed old wounds. WWD wrote, “The tongue-in-cheek brand experimented with a new fashion show format this season, to great effect — and much laughter,” and some outlets are back to calling it a “cool-kid brand,” despite the conspicuously missing cool kid at the helm.

Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images

Band of Outsiders' presentation at London Fashion Week Men's June 2017.

Scott Sternberg hasn’t said much publicly since 2015. The abrupt closure of the original Band of Outsiders took Sternberg’s close friends and admirers almost completely by surprise: Architect Ada Tolla, who designed both Band of Outsiders stores, told the New York Times, “I never, never thought that could happen, given the position that Band had reached in the fashion world.” Another collaborator thought “it must be some kind of hoax or rumor.” The end was swift and clean, much like everything Sternberg did. He gave a clipped statement to WWD, “Nobody knows anything at this point but me,” and posted a caption to a video of Mama Cass singing “New World Coming” on the Band of Outsiders Instagram page: “The store should be open for at least another week or so, like, go buy buy something cute. And enjoy it. That was the whole point of this thing after all.”

It’s unclear whether the industry, or consumers, will ever fully forgive the brand, which faces enormous challenges in rebuilding its once fiercely loyal base. Only time will tell whether Band of Outsiders will be accepted back into the fold. But for now, a once definitively “in” brand is stuck outside.