LOS ANGELES >> Attorney Larry Stein has long depended on Carroll & Co. in Beverly Hills for his wardrobe staples.
But the 70-year-old store that once defined a certain kind of high-end, conservative style for politicians, professionals and celebrities is planning to close at the end of January.
Stein, a partner at Latham and Watkins, pointed to his attire, from his dapper Zegna suit down to his color-coordinated wingtips, noting that everything but the tie was bought at Carroll & Co. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Stein, 57, said. “It’s very sad. I’m really going to miss it.”
That the stalwart menswear store is selling the last of its made-to-measure suits and shirts says a lot about changes facing retailers, even in Beverly Hills’ Golden Triangle, as well as the value of a well-placed property.
President John Carroll, son of founder Richard Carroll, said that the company’s North Canon Drive store is worth far more than any clothing he could sell.
“Those six or eight quality men’s stores that were in Beverly Hills are now gone,” said Carroll, 54, attributing the decline to online competition and rising rents.
“My father was smart enough to buy our building over 20 years ago, and that’s one reason we’re closing down this store. It’s become more of a real estate issue than a retail issue.”
Carroll & Co. was a post-World War II first for the Westside, said Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association.
“It was the first contemporary men’s store in Beverly Hills,” Metchek said. “Before then, it wasn’t really an American look to be dressed up. Before Carroll’s, to be well dressed and well groomed, you either had to look like an Englishman or an Italian.”
Irritation was part of its genesis. Carroll said his father, a former Warner Bros. publicist, was fed up with having to drive downtown to Brooks Brothers to buy a suit.
Carroll said his father was encouraged to open his own clothing store because he had always been “an elegant, sartorial kind of guy. He had made a number of Hollywood contacts in his years as a publicist, and that really was the foundation for starting his clothing business.”
The movie industry noticed the carefully crafted and conservative style found not only in Carroll & Co.’s professional clothes but also in the casual attire, Metchek said.
“Hollywood looked at this and said, ‘That is our look. That is our story,’” Metchek said. “The Cary Grants and the sweaters and the V-necks. That’s all Carroll. There was no sportswear look coming from anywhere else but his store, and everyone else copied that look. The movies were driving it.”
John Carroll put it this way: “Anybody that you can think of who has a long history in Hollywood, one way or another, they have worn something from Carroll & Co.”
Fred Astaire, Clark Gable and Cary Grant were among the leading men who were outfitted at Carroll & Co., he said.
Frank Sinatra sent a note about a Carroll & Co. suit. “It swings,” Sinatra enthused. Paul Newman quipped that his new clothes “fit terrific, however I did not receive the garter belt.” Walter Matthau wondered jokingly “how many sweaters can I get for the Oscar” he had just won for best supporting actor in 1967.
On the political front, Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote thanking Richard Carroll for a shirt he planned to wear to Baja. Jimmy Carter wore a Carroll & Co. tie while delivering one of his State of the Union addresses.
The look, Carroll said, was the result of his father’s countless trips to Europe.
“He went to Scotland. He went to England. He traveled to Italy, and this was in the 1950s, and that was not an easy trip back then,” Carroll said.
“If you wanted to find material, if you wanted to find knitters, the quality people, they didn’t have offices in London. You would have to go to them,” he said.
On other occasions, Carroll said, his father would camp out in a hotel and put out ads in publications commonly read by tailors. “He would say, ‘Richard Carroll will be in residence at this hotel,’ and people would come down on the train and they would show him their collections,” Carroll said.
Decades before mass mailings and social media, Carroll said, his father used a little trick, sending hundreds of postcards to customers in America saying he was in Europe finding the best new styles, made to fit the warm Southern California climate.
Carroll & Co. also has provided clothing for decades of films and TV series, all the way up to “Ray Donovan,” currently on Showtime.
The Rodeo Drive version of the store, at the corner of Little Santa Monica Boulevard, has been credited with boosting the retail credibility of the once-sleepy street. It became a place for customers to have coffee and talk deals.
Whenever Sinatra was in the store, someone made sure only Sinatra music was playing. Comedian Don Rickles liked insulting everyone in the store. Famous violinist Jascha Heifetz brought his instrument and played for a few minutes to make sure his suits wouldn’t feel tight during performances.
The closing announcement “was kind of a shocker to most people,” said Todd Johnson, chief executive of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce.
Joseph Nunes, chairman of the marketing department at USC’s Marshall School of Business, said consumers’ shift to e-commerce has reached well beyond shopping malls and large retail chains to expensive brands and bespoke clothing stores.
“There are a lot of online competitors,” Nunes said. “You can send in your measurements and have a shirt made for far less than what Carroll & Co. would charge.”
The California Fashion Association’s Metchek said “all of the old legendary brands are having a problem, unless they have dramatically changed, like Gucci, where it’s now hip-hop. The legacy look is not fashionable.”
Carroll & Co. prices are not for everyone’s budget, even during a going-out-of-business sale. Shoes run from $295 for a classic loafer to $895 for a wingtip brogue. Wool and cashmere dress pants approach $400. Shirts run from $195 to $395. Sport coats run from $1,195 to $1,575.
Just browsing the store is an experience. One wall displays more pants suspenders than most people have seen in a lifetime. Memorabilia is everywhere.
One photo features a 7-foot, 2-inch UCLA freshman, then named Lew Alcindor, being fitted for a suit by a tailor who was 4 feet 11. Even standing on a chair, tailor Frank Cuda’s head was still below future Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s shoulders.
Another shows a young John Carroll selling plastic hangers for 5 cents apiece to five-time Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Carroll began hanging around the family store at age 11. He took over as president in 1996, the year the store moved to 425 N. Canon Drive from Rodeo Drive. Richard Carroll died in 2003 at age 80.
John Carroll said he isn’t getting out of the clothing business entirely; he just doesn’t want to run a store. He’s considering a custom clothing operation of some kind in the future. But the decision has not been easy.
“There’s a lot of history, not just because it’s a family business,” Carroll said, adding that he has known some employees and customers for as long as 40 years.
“So to them and to me,” Carroll said, closing is “kind of like losing a family member in a lot of ways.”
Longtime customers such as 54-year-old Joshua Berlin feel the same way. Berlin’s father was a loyal Carroll & Co. customer who also bought Berlin’s first suit there “when I was 14 or 15. So I, of course, got my son’s first blazer and suit here as soon as he was big enough.”
Berlin added, “We’re obviously sad because it’s been a big part of our lives.”