Designers Dish: Johnnie-O Founder John O'Donnell

Courtesy of Johnnie-O
John O'Donnell

Chris O'Donnell's brother, John, dished on what separates his Johnnie-O label from the competition and how he really feels about celebrity fans

John O'Donnell has good ideas.

He had one in 2005: While on a group golfing trip, he wanted to give his buddies more stylish options for their closets by creating preppy-meets-surfer-dude pieces fit for the course, the beach, the bars or even the boardroom. That idea became the successful L.A.-based label Johnnie-O.

In the years that have followed, John has used bold colors, classic cuts and one-of-a-kind enhancements to attract a broad consumer base (Johnnie-O now produces womens' and kids' lines) and a dedicated following of boldfaced names (Bradley Cooper, Molly Sims, the Farrelly brothers, Adrian Grenier and Drew Brees are fans). He's also got a famous family member — his brother is actor Chris O'Donnell — and well-known investors, including Untitled Entertainment founder Jason Weinberg

But the affable man behind the line seems more stoked to talk business rather than celebrity. And he's got some new ideas, too. Johnnie-O just moved into new offices on Cotner Avenue, has expanded to include sporty offerings (dubbed "prep-formance") and is pushing a trademark on the "tweener button" for button-down shirts. We met up with John at Johnnie-O's cozy Santa Monica shop on Wilshire Boulevard to chat about all his new ideas and what really bugs him about fashion for the male set. (Hint: It involves Las Vegas!)

The new news in your life is that you have new offices, right?

The new office space is great. We are transitioning there now, to a building on Cotner (Avenue). It fits our personality with a rooftop deck, a couple of kitchens, open ceilings and brushed cement floors. The other new news is people. We’ve been on a hiring rampage and not because we feel like hiring new people, but because there’s been such a demand for Johnnie-O. We’ve got more moving parts and we need more man and woman-power. And product. We’ve extended the product lines dramatically with all new categories with pants and swim and sweaters.

And I hear there's some golfing going on up on the roof?

Yeah, we’re putting up a net on the roof so you can work on your golf game during lunch hours.

Is that where you will be at lunch?

Yes! I wanted to have an office space where people actually want to go to the office. So we’ve got a couple kitchens, a great social area, people on the roof deck getting some sun any time of the day. We (allow) dogs in the office. It’s a real community environment. You can hang after work and have a couple margaritas on the roof and listen to music.

You’ve had a good celebrity following. How important has that been in your business?

I’ve never wanted to hang my hat on celebrity because it can only get you so far. You’ve seen these other brands that have had a meteoric growth because X,Y, Z celebrity wore it. But down to the actual product line, it wasn’t all that great and it crashed just as fast as it rose. The celebrity has been a bonus for us. Of course, I lean on my brother Chris, but I never lean on him too much because I don’t want it to be too contrived.

L.A. is an interesting city for fashion. There’s a different style east of the 405 than there is west of the 405. Would you agree?

We are definitely making a little more hay on the west side of the 405. We just don’t do as much black. It’s not a big color for us. I’d say on the other side of the 405 we are doing bigger business with the kids. Hollywood likes us, but people aren’t hanging out at the hottest nightclubs on Saturday nigh wearing Johnnie-O. But they might be walking around on a Saturday with their kids at the Brentwood Country Mart.

Do you have a favorite Johnnie-O piece?

I’m not a favorites person. People always ask, “What’s your favorite car?” or “What’s your favorite food?” I just love so much that I can never come up with one single thing. But right now, one of the leading categories is the new Johnnie-O pants. They are a pair of jeans meets a pair of khakis. Mine are actually in the wash and I also gave some away. They work on the golf course to the bar to out to dinner. You won’t look like a nerdy golfer, they have style. But my favorite feature right now is our “tweener” button. It gives that perfect message: I’m not too buttoned up and I’m not too casual. It’s an absolute home run for us.

Do you have a pet peeve about mens’ fashion.

I’m not huge on the untucked, button-down woven shirt look when they are big billowy shirts that are perfectly pressed. You go to Vegas and there are 12 guys walking around and they’ve got $200 perfectly pressed shirts on, all untucked. They look like blouses. I just want to tell these guys, “Come on.” It’s a bad look.

Do you represent the Johnnie-O guy?

I do. I try to build our product around Chris and me and our buddies and what we would like. Chris has impeccable style — he really does. I don’t worry so much about what the industry or the big trade magazines are saying. If someone tells me that burnt orange is hot for fall ’15, I don’t care. I’m not going to make a burnt orange shirt because my customers probably aren’t going to buy burnt orange. I try to build a lifestyle that fits guys like me.

You beat me to the punch. That was my next question: Who has better style — you or Chris?

He’s got really great style. But it’s the same old story, the rich get richer. He gets all these free expensive clothes and I have to go out and buy my stuff at the thrift shop. But it’s always great to see him in our product.

Who’s a better golfer, you or Chris?

If I give him enough shots, we’re about the same (laughs).