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Suit Maker John Carroll of Carroll Custom Hills Tells All

Suit Maker John Carroll of Carroll Custom Hills Tells All

Beverly Hills‘ Carroll & Co. once had the menswear market for Hollywood players all but sewn up. The 20th century’s greatest stars were regulars, from Jack Lemmon to Paul Newman. But the haberdasher, established in 1949, also had the machers, among them NBC CEO Grant Tinker and Walt Disney Co. head Frank Wells. Oh, and Billy Wilder and Ronald Reagan, too.

When costumers for shows like Dynasty and Dallas needed to outfit their bigwig characters, they knew their execs at the networks appreciated the authenticity lent onscreen by Carroll & Co. clothing. On Oscar night, the family firm — which employed a cadre of staffers and operated out of a sprawling Golden Triangle storefront — was the go-to for tuxedos, whether you were a bold-faced Walter (Matthau), a grandee Walter (Mirisch) or just an anonymous vote-tallying, briefcase-carrying Walter with Ernest & Young.

That was then. Now, Carroll and Co.’s scion John Carroll, 59, is more quietly attiring the town out of a tiny successor shop on Canon Drive. It’s just him and a part-time tailor. His Carroll Custom, a specialty retailer focusing on made-to-measure suits and other garments crafted from some of the world’s finest fabrics, is a holdout in what had once been a crowded neighborhood for independent men’s clothiers.

“Not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t come in and say, ‘You’re the last of the Mohicans,’ ” says Carroll, “which doesn’t really make me all that happy, because there’s certainly still a customer for what I do.”

The interior of John Carroll’s Carroll Custom menswear shop, located at 427 N. Canon Drive.

Photographed by Emily Malan

Carroll fils doesn’t speak about clients, at least for the record. It’s something instilled in him by his discretion-minded father, Dick, who founded Carroll & Co. after a career in press relations at Warner Bros.

John will make an exception, though, regarding clients who are no longer with us. Cary Grant was “very nice but impossible to please.” Frank Sinatra arrived “low-key” through the rear, “no hairpiece,” with his aide Jilly Rizzo. Scoliosis sufferer Don Rickles (“a joy”) received haberdasher house calls, which ran long because he’d start doing patter. Über-manager Bernie Brillstein would put a morning aside in the middle of November to personally select upward of 100 holiday gifts: “It would be, ‘We need a jacket for Jim Henson.’ ‘Maybe this for Lorne Michaels.’”

In Dick Carroll’s day, Clark Gable read the newspaper in the sitting area at the back of the store, sometimes nodding off after a few martinis, and MCA/Universal head Lew Wasserman, who purchased his trademark Oxford suits from the store, often dropped in just to kibbitz after visiting Nate ‘n Al’s. “The modern agent dress code, that uniform, was set by Carroll & Co., starting with MCA and continuing through William Morris and CAA,” explains Motion Picture Corporation of America CEO Brad Krevoy, who worked the floor during his high school summers in the 1970s and now himself is a Carroll Custom client.

Carroll acknowledges a falloff in A-list celebrity customers. He notes of this era’s male A-list that they’re far more likely to be tied into global brand ambassadorships. His core clientele remains, as ever, dealmakers who often feel lost when it comes to the risk management of expressing taste. “It’s just out of their realm,” he says.

A photo displayed inside Carroll Custom of Carroll & Co. founder Dick Carroll measuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for a suit.

Photographed by Emily Malan

It hasn’t helped that casual Fridays have become casual every day in many offices and remote work is sometimes the new norm. At least vests, though, “have really taken off” in recent years, Carroll says, thanks to COVID’s boom in outdoor dining as well as, perhaps, the ascendance of finance and tech guys in Hollywood. “John’s adapted along with these changes,” says Carroll & Co. client John Cooke, a former executive vp at The Walt Disney Co. and chairman emeritus of the American Film Institute.

Today, the Carroll Custom ethos could be described as understated style and maximum comfort without appearing vain. “The clothes are appealing; I don’t like to say ‘chic,’ they’re nice,” explains producer Burt Sugarman, a longtime patron.

“I have a client — I won’t tell you who it is, but you know who it is — who was going to the Sun Valley conference and he said, ‘I need to look good, but I don’t want to look too good,’” Carroll says, adding, “most men don’t want to dress like Billy Porter,” referencing the actor and avant-garde fashion icon.

Manager Alan Margulies, who met John years ago when he returned a cashmere sweater that Ann-Margret had gifted him (right look, wrong size) and later brought in his clients like Burt Reynolds, observes that John is able to put often sartorially anxious alpha males at ease. “He has a way about him,” Margulies says.

Carroll Custom’s demo, centered in their 50s, are navigating a world where even old-school power lunch sanctums like The Grill on the Alley no longer enforce a dress code and tailoring is pendulum-swinging yet again, from Thom Browne’s tight silhouette to neo-billow Balenciaga. For Carroll, the 1994 announcement of DreamWorks SKG was the Hollywood executives’ style equivalent of John F. Kennedy going without a hat at his inauguration. Acknowledging that Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen have not been known around town for their passion for traditional men’s attire, Carroll still marvels, “They were wearing black T-shirts. If ever there were a moment to put on a tie, it’d be to announce a multibillion-dollar company.”

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These days, hardly anyone’s buying ties. That’s unfortunate because it was to the haberdasher what liquor is to a restaurant: “You’d sell the hell out of them for a good markup, and they were never returned.”

A 1967 note from loyal Carroll & Co. client Walter Matthau inquiring about clothes for the Academy Awards.

Photographed by Emily Malan

Back in the day, Dick Carroll along with fellow storied local retailers Fred Hayman and Jerry Magnin turned an unprepossessing Beverly Hills boulevard into the glitteringly iconic shopping destination known as Rodeo Drive. Yet Carroll & Co. was a victim of this success, forced off the burnished blocks by international designer brands willing to pay any real estate cost to open tourist-oriented showrooms — including some, like Zegna, who’d previously sold their fabrics to the company.

Carroll is proud of his roster of mostly under-the-radar, family-owned fabric manufacturers and mills. (An exception among his suppliers is LVMH-owned Loro Piana, which has become popular shorthand for stealth wealth style due to its association with Succession.) He contends these partnerships with what he sees as true quiet-luxury brands in Belgium, Italy and across Great Britain — who don’t build in advertising costs to their sticker prices — allows him to offer made-to-measure suits at a comparatively modest cost (typically in the range of $2,000) given the caliber of the materials: “I can get very, very high-quality garments at prices that aren’t going to be astronomical because I do business with people that don’t focus on marketing.”

Carroll’s not a believer in online custom tailoring “because most men don’t know how to measure themselves.” Also, in-person discussions allow for the gentle dissuasion of the frequent delusion that by the time a purchase arrives in five weeks the buyer will lose enough weight to go from, say, a 36 to a 35 waist. For clients, a visit with Carroll at his shop is also just about obsessing over the details. “He’s there to tell you whether it should be hacking pockets or ticket pockets on your suit jacket,” says Josh Berlin, who runs a boutique insurance brokerage that services the entertainment business.

Carroll, a married father of three, has a 26-year-old son who works for a different menswear company, on the wholesale side, but he doubts a third generation will take over. For now, though, he’s signed a new six-year lease. “When the day comes that he goes, what’ll we do?” Krevoy ponders. “Let’s try not to think about that.”

This story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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