Scott Sternberg and Kevin West on the Space of L.A., Nostalgia and Transformation
Barbara Katz Kevin West (left) and Scott Sternberg chat on-stage as part of the Hammer Museum's Conversation series.
In the courtyard of UCLA's Hammer Museum, patrons are gathered during a dwindling happy hour. They're waiting to be seated in the Billy Wilder Theater for that night's Hammer Conversations event -- a talk between Band of Outsiders designer Scott Sternberg and writer/"canning evangelist" Kevin West.
Sternberg and West's talk was advertised as being about the unlikely overlap between food and fashion, and strictly speaking, that was true. Especially early on in the program, the self-described close friends took time to loop in that overarching theme. Yet what became clear was that this talk, held in front of a packed audience, was more of a meditation on several individual themes loosely connected by their careers.
The first major connection to be discovered between the two men was a theme of transformation. Sternberg spent over a decade with Creative Arts Agency, and West was with W magazine for 12 years. Neither man was truly happy.
"The day I started there, I knew I was out of there," Sternberg said.
So both decided to move on in their careers and follow their bliss -- "sort of an Oprah turn of phrase," as West described it, but an accurate one.
Eleven years ago, Sternberg started making menswear, and in 2004, he founded the Band of Outsiders label. It wasn't easy to call himself a fashion designer immediately, preferring as he did to think about the brand and the ideas than actually thinking about designing clothes. Even when West first called him a designer in a conversation they had years ago, he demurred at the idea of being categorized with his East Coast colleagues.
"I'm not a garmento," Sternberg said, referring to the New York term for designers. "[But] I can talk to garmentos, and I can talk like a garmento."
"You can hang with the garmentos," West joked.
The two have been friends for years after meeting at a Halloween party, and their warmth with each other was evident from the outset. Even playful jokes, as when West pointed out he was wearing Band of Outsiders ("Cute," Sternberg said, "but, I mean, you got it at a discount"), established their dynamic: West is the more positive of the two, and more prone to long ponderings, while Sternberg tends to want to cut to the chase.
Similarly to how Sternberg can fit in with the garmentos, West can hang with the foodies, but despite his latest venture -- a blog and recipe-filled book about food canning and preservation called Saving the Season -- he doesn't call himself a cook.
"If I had my druthers, I would say I'm a reporter," West said. "I like going out and asking people questions. ... I've just shifted subjects now."
Shift indeed: The man once known for interviewing Brad Pitt and other celebrities at W "went rogue" in his own words and struck out on his home. Yet as West himself admitted jokingly, he was largely able to sell Saving the Season on being "the W magazine writer who made jam."
"The power of celebrity is so great in the culture," West said, "[it] accrues a certain reflective reputation."
Sternberg is similarly aware of the power of celebrity -- his brand has featured Michelle Williams, Jason Schwartzman and Frank Ocean in its campaigns. He also knows his past with CAA is not forgotten. In fact, he noted, no article written about him since he founded Band of Outsiders has failed to mention his previous employment. (A trend that will not be broken with this piece, clearly.)
Beyond L.A.'s proximity to the famous and fabulous of Hollywood, however, the two men talked about the city in relation to their careers. Surprisingly for a writer and a fashion designer, they said they appreciate the differences from New York -- namely the figurative and literal space of the City of Angels.
"I'm so separated from what's going on," Sternberg said, crediting that figurative space as part of what makes his brand successful. He also noted that his trips to New York have previously been like "four-day extended panic attacks." West was similarly complimentary of the space L.A. provides, noting that his book came together while staying in a house in Laurel Canyon.
Both men have built their current work on the idea of nostalgia, one of the biggest themes in the conversation.
"There's this self-conscious yearning to return to this pre-industrial, home-cooked, local scene," West said of the public's current obsession with nostalgia. However, while West considers it a trend, Sternberg thinks it's more about the kind of person you are -- be it nostalgic or a futurist.
Sternberg's work has hit on several major trends -- from the Polaroid-based photo campaigns to a line of boat shoes just before the trend became massively popular again. Striking those nostalgic trends is great for a brand, he said, but there is a struggle to rein in that nostalgia.
When speaking with L.A. Weekly the morning after the event, West was clearly thrilled with how the event went. "It didn't feel like a canned conversation, but a continuation of conversations we've had in the past," he said. Yet the question about nostalgia still hung in the air -- much as nostalgia does, of course -- as the one point where West and Sternberg disagreed to an extent.
"I'm not a Luddite," West said, joking about the influence of recreating the past in his work. He noted that it's not about staying in that past, but using "what's valuable about that place" in his work.
"I think Scott and I would agree on that basic point," West said. Perhaps acknowledging their conversational dynamic, he added, "I do think he would have a more succinct way of putting it."
Kevin O'Keeffe on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter: