johnnie o chris knott
by Karen Alberg Grossman
johnnie o chris knott
John O’Donnell with Chris Knott

John O’Donnell readily admits he had a problem: he’s not an apparel guy!  About ten years ago, he came up with a cool concept for a sportswear brand, nailed the perfect surfer dude logo and positioned the collection somewhere between surfwear and J.Crew. “There was never a southern California version of prep,” he explains. “It seemed all the cool new brands were either hipster-dandy or downtown denim-y. We had the cool iconic logo and the right look but to get to the next level, I knew we needed a merchant. The table was set for Chris to come in and eat on it.”

Fortunately, Chris Knott, known for turning Peter Millar into a powerhouse national brand, was up to the task. “I always loved the Johnnie-O brand: I wore it from the beginning! It’s an upbeat concept because people love vacations: we work all year to get one. So that’s the DNA—we just needed to upgrade the quality and perfect the details. We wanted a West Coast rather than Southern spin on preppy. And while we’re intrinsically casual, we didn’t want to be too denim-driven or too beach-y. It’s a relaxed lifestyle brand that’s viable 12 months a year.”

Other parts of the equation are price and positioning. “We’re affordable luxury: our woven tops are $125 which is what guys want to pay,” says Knott. “Our distribution focuses on specialty stores and country clubs but we’re being selective: it’s not about getting into the most doors but rather the most influential. We’re in select doors at Bloomingdale’s and we had a great meeting with Nordstrom. Of course we do a web business but we list our specialty store partners, offer them free shipping and do not undercut them on pricing. As for marketing, we’re working on some partnerships with TV and sports celebrities.”

Adds O’Donnell, “The best marketing is great product, and Chris has helped us tremendously with that, including subtle changes like better buttons and stitching. For fall ’17, we’ve softened the blazers, added more interesting outerwear fabrics, expanded the colorations (shades of cranberry, rust and grey), played with logo placement, created a capsule collection of shorter-length shirts to be worn out and focused on key items like our garment dyed pique knit.”

Check them out in Vegas at booth 32195 in PROJECT.