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Johnnie-O label finds sweet spot between East and West Coast prep

December 29, 2014

John O'Donnell, founder of johnnie-O and brother of actor Chris O'Donnell

For many years, John O’Donnell’s fame came by association with actor and younger brother Chris O’Donnell ("NCIS: Los Angeles," "Grey’s Anatomy," "Scent of a Woman").

Over the past decade, though, John has built a commanding national presence of his own via his johnnie-O clothing line, which has carved a distinct identity between Southern California surfer and East Coast popped-collar prep. Its emblem: A stand-up-paddle boarder embroidered on the chest of shirts.

"Laid-back guys are comfortable because it’s not too preppy, and preppy guys are comfortable because it’s not like they’re throwing on a Hawaiian shirt and having an identity crisis," O’Donnell says.

Revenues have doubled each of the past five years for johnnie-O, which counts Pete Sampras, Ryan Seacrest, the Farrelly brothers, and Peyton and Eli Manning as customers. Johnnie-O has added women’s and children’s items as well as his premium High Yield collection for men.

O’Donnell thinks guys relate to the johnnie-O logo — "an actual person" versus a whale, alligator or pony — as well as the sport it depicts, which has been taken up across the entire country.

"Now the guy with the lakehouse in Ohio who has a stand-up paddleboard can look at our logo and say, ‘It’s me,’" O’Donnell said.

It is also O’Donnell, who grew up outside Chicago and has a 12-foot paddleboard in his Brentwood garage in Los Angeles (where it has been spending more time since the birth of son Jack a few months ago).

But the paddleboard isn’t his only inspiration, or the only secret to johnnie-O’s success.

Q: How did you conceive of this brand?

A: I grew up in a preppy, conservative environment, on the North Shore of Chicago. I’m No. 4 of seven kids. (Chris is the youngest.)

Then I went to UCLA (where he played on the golf team) and was thrown into this other culture. I realized there were similarities — the house drink might be a margarita versus a martini, fish tacos versus cheeseburgers — but we all have the same interests. It comes down to family and friends and being active and enjoying life. Maybe it’s squash on the East Coast and skateboarding out here. But we all gravitate toward the same things.

I lived in both and saw them both. I thought, why can’t there be something that we all kind of "get"?

Q: What sells best in your line?

A: Our men’s four-button polo, which we refer to as The Original.We are constantly updating colors and bringing in new stripes so that our core customers can come back for what we call "freshies."

Q: What’s one of your greatest twists on standard prep fare?

A: On button-down shirts, men are always struggling with that second button dilemma — do you button or not button that second button. The minute you button it, you look a little too buttoned up, but when you don’t it looks like you’re going too far. I invented a hidden placket button — a tweener button, like in-between. It has been a massive home run for us.

Q: What’s your business attire?

A: A pair of johnnie-O khakis — they’re like a jean/khaki hybrid — and a johnnie-O button-down shirt. And then Chuck Taylors, loafers or flip-flops depending on what the day will bring.

Q: What’s your first style memory?

A: My Hang Ten shirts in the early ’70s ... loved them!

Q: Did your upbringing influence the laid-back vibe of your line?

A: Growing up, we spent summers at our cottage in Douglas, Mich., on the lakeshore. As my dad used to say, "The only thing on my mind was my hair." To this day, whenever I hear the Bee Gees or Abba or any other early ’70s light favorites, it takes me back there. It’s my favorite place on earth.

Q: Is there anything in your closet from that time that you still wear?

A: One of my dad’s old madras blazers; I wear it on special occasions in the summer.

Q: What’s your worst sartorial mistake?

A: The apple green socks I’m wearing today.

Q: Do you hang or fold your polos?

A: I hang but am thinking about switching to fold now that you mention it.

Q: What do you wear when up in the air for business or leisure travel?

A: A pair of jeans, a button-down shirt and a blazer.My mom always said to pack a blue blazer — you never know!

Q: Are you becoming as famous as your little brother?

A: No, and that’s fine with me. I’m very happy just being the voice and face of this brand.

 

 



Associated Press