Growing up in the Midwest as the fifth of seven children (one sibling is his movie star brother, Chris O’Donnell), John O’Donnell was never much interested in fashion. When he left Chicago to attend college in Southern California, his blue blazers and penny loafers got a lot less play, and flip flops became the norm.
Although not a self-proclaimed fashion lover, O’Donnell was able to fuse his passion for the casual life of SoCal with the preppy fashion vibe he still loved from childhood, and from there, johnnie-O was born.
“Listen in” as BELLA gets an exclusive “Style Profile” on the funny and amazingly down-to-earth man behind the brand.
How did the idea of “West Coast Prep” come about, and how do you define it?
We have shelved the West Coast Prep moniker a bit as we thought it could become too polarizing with respect to the word “prep.” That said, the brand does still revolve around that catchphrase. I grew up as a Midwest, preppy kid who went on to college in southern California. That’s how the marriage between prep—or classic—and the surf culture of southern California all started.
What differentiates the prep look on the West Coast vs. the East Coast?
I think the difference is just how far a “prepster” on the East Coast can go versus a “prepster” on the West Coast. The guy out east can pull off Belgian loafers, seersucker pants, no socks, a white button-down shirt, blue blazer, and a hot pink tie. The guy on the West Coast may be considered preppy if he simply puts on a Lacoste shirt.
What are your top sellers? Which are your personal favorites?
We built the company on our Original Polo Shirt—a 100 percent cotton polo that we like to call a “T-shirt with a collar.” That continues to be a top seller. I love our new pants. All of our five-pocket pants are a great cut combined with some really great fabrics. And of course, our patented tweener button is close to my heart.
Tell us about the “tweener button” and how you came up with it. [All johnnie-O sports shirts feature a patented tweener button hidden between the second and third button to bridge the gap between too buttoned up and not buttoned up enough.] Honestly, I still can’t figure out how nobody had come up with the idea in the past. All of the great brands through the years, and it took little ol’ me to figure it out.
What sets johnnie-O apart from other men’s casual attire?
I think what separates us are the nuances of what we do. Certainly, our logo is a part of it. People have always been enamored with Southern California, surfing, and beach babes. We now provide them with the opportunity to be a part of that world in a very small and subtle way. I also think innovative concepts like the tweener button and the tailgater shorts differentiate us, too. I’m always trying to figure out what I would want, and then build it from there.
What are your go-to pieces for business and casual?
Anything and everything—it all works! It just depends on what you happen to be doing. Our Prep-Formance line is great for your more athletic endeavors or warm weather situations.
What is your favorite fashion decade, and why?
Probably the early ‘70s. I loved wearing Hang Ten, and I always loved the disco era and the attire that came with it.
What’s next for the johnnie-O brand, as well as for you personally?
Next for johnnie-O the brand is to continue to provide a product and culture that people want to be a part of, both customers and employees. Life is too short not to enjoy what you are wearing and where you are working. Me? Just to keep the hammer down and love my boy Jack as much as I can.
Finish this sentence: When you dress well, you…
… can really fool people into thinking you’re a playa.
By Courtenay Cooper Hall