t’s difficult, in retrospect, to pinpoint when exactly panic about coronavirus took hold in the United States, but March 12 stands out. Stores ran out of canned goods. Streets emptied of cars. Tom Hanks had just tested positive for the virus. That evening, Scott Sternberg, a fashion designer, was lying awake at home in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, thinking about Entireworld, a line of basics he founded two years earlier. Would people still buy clothes? How much cash did he have to keep going? When would he have to lay people off? “My Band of Outsiders battle scars just opened wide,” he said.
Band of Outsiders was Sternberg’s previous company. He founded it in 2004 as a line of slim shirts and ties. (Remember the skinny-tie boom? That was Sternberg.) Eventually it grew into full men’s and women’s collections that won over the fashion world with self-consciously preppy clothes. Sternberg took home two Council of Fashion Designers of America (C.F.D.A.) awards, the industry’s equivalent of the Oscars. He posed for photos with Kanye West. Michelle Obama wore one of his dresses. He opened stores in Tokyo and New York. Then, in 2015, to everyone’s surprise, Sternberg announced that Band was going out of business. An investment with some Belgians had gone bad, but that didn’t feel like the whole story. Sternberg knew the whole story. Every choice he made at Entireworld was to prevent it from happening again. Now a global pandemic had hit. He couldn’t foresee that. No one did.
Unlike other designers, Sternberg studied not design but economics, a major he chose in part because the year he entered Washington University in St. Louis, the economist Douglass North, a professor there, won a Nobel Prize. Sternberg graduated summa cum laude. His senior thesis was about the economics of actors in Hollywood, which is how he wound up in Los Angeles in the first place. This is all to say that Sternberg knew what uncertainty does to consumer behavior.