Q&A with John Carroll of Carroll & Co.

Hollywood movies and actors have always inspired fashion. From James Dean, Steve McQueen,The Rat Pack, Clark Gable to Fred Astaire all in some way changed the way we dressed. As dapper as our favorite actors looked in front of the camera, there was one brand that managed to them keep looking good off the set. Richard Carroll, a publicist at the time for Warner Bros. Studios, and needed a suit for his brother’s wedding and couldn’t understand why there was no place on the Westside of Los Angeles for a man to buy one. So he borrowed $7000 and opened up a menswear and haberdashery. John Carroll (son of Richard) took over the brand years ago and managed to keep the core of what the brand is today. We were granted the opportunity to interview the long standing brand to understand what it takes to be a legend in men’s fashion.

In reading about your first store, your first customers were directors, producers, writers and actors. Is there a noticeable difference as to how Hollywood buys vs the general public?

Actors shopping in our store tend to be slightly more conservative. We don’t notice a big difference between Hollywood vs the general public. Actors are generally low key, not wanting anything too flashy or ostentatious. They know our store before they come in so they are familiar with the type of merchandise we carry.

How did this help differentiate the brand’s identity from other suiting establishments at the time?

We introduced an “Ivy League” look where most other stores were concentrating on a “Continental” look. We were a higher quality Brooks Brothers – natural shoulder clothing, tweed and flannel fabrics, button-down collar shirts, etc. The look had an Eastern feel, and many of our early customers had moved out here from back East and couldn’t find the look that they were so comfortable with, other than at Carroll & Co.

Made to measure – how is it different today than when it first started in 1996? What originated the idea?

Made to Measure was always an important part of our business, but only a handful of our clothing manufacturers were properly set up to cut one garment at a time, as is needed for made to measure. In the last 15 years, we have a selection of fabrics for a customer to choose from. We have made it very easy for our customer to order a made to measure suit. It’s fun – he can pick his own fabric; detail the suit any way he wants it with special linings, pockets, buttons; choose a special model, such as a double breasted or something with a bi-swing back. A quality suit today is an investment – a gentlemen doesn’t mind waiting the 5-6 weeks to have something made expressly to his specifications.

Now it seems as though anything can be considered “fashion,” what would you attribute to your success and longevity in menswear?

We have stayed true to our core. We are an updated, traditional men’s store. We move with the times and current fashions, we experiment with different looks, but nothing strays too far from our center. When a customer walks into Carroll & Co., he’s not going to be shocked by a completely new look.

How did you stay true as a brand when the surroundings is always about constant re-definition?

As a stated we have stayed true to our core. I have always felt that the most important brand is your own and the most important label in our store is “Carroll”. Yes, we carry certain important brands – Oxxford Clothes, Luciano Barbera, Robert Talbott, Alden Shoes – but our control over what these brands present is limited. We have much more flexibility when putting together our own private label collection of clothing, furnishings and sportswear. We control our own “re-definition.”

Now that the company is more widely known, are there plans to downsize the brick and mortar shop to go online?

I still believe that the brick and mortar shop will continue to entice the distinguished shopper, especially at our quality level. You can’t buy a suit or sport jacket online and get it tailored properly. People still like to feel quality clothing, try it on, make sure it fits properly. Our online business is growing in the sportswear area, but non-existent when it comes to alterable items.

What advice can you give those who would like to start their own business?

  • Your own name is the most important name in your store. Brands are fine, but a customer is going to return to the store he feels comfortable in.
  • Establish your look from the beginning and make that the core of your buying. It’s fine to stray a bit and do some unusual things, but stay true to your core.
  • Never trade down, regardless of price. I am a firm believer in the saying, “Quality is long remembered after the price is forgotten.”
  • Surround yourself with quality people at every level, from your management team, to the sales people, tailors and office staff. Pay them a bit more, make them feel like they are part of the family. Employee turnover can get expensive and quite frustrating.