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Richard Carroll, 80; Haberdasher Helped to Fashion Rodeo Drive Style

March 19, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Richard Carroll, who was haberdasher to such well-dressed Hollywood stars as Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Fred Astaire and whose shop was a cornerstone of Beverly Hills' fabled Rodeo Drive for 44 years, has died. He was 80.

Carroll, who founded Carroll & Co. in 1949 after getting laid off as a Warner Bros. publicist, died Saturday of a heart attack while attending a civic meeting at Beverly Hills High School, said his son John.

Specializing in what he called the natural-shoulder suit, Carroll built a client base of celebrities and public figures with his adherence to meticulous service, impeccable tailoring, European fabrics and discretion. Especially discretion.

He didn't have to name names, however. The celebrities were perfectly willing to do it themselves -- bragging about this wonderful place to have a cup of coffee, meet friends and buy superb English-style clothes.

Among those Carroll dressed were actors Richard Crenna, Gene Kelly and Jack Lemmon, director Billy Wilder, studio mogul Lew Wasserman, and political figures Ronald Reagan, Warren Christopher and George McGovern. When the shop moved to 425 N. Canon Drive in 1996, Lemmon and Wilder were there to help open up.

The haberdasher curried favor by keeping clients' sizes, measurements and clothing preferences on file, and calling each when something came in that might appeal. Carroll knew, for example, that Frank Sinatra liked anything orange, said Paramount producer and longtime client A.C. Lyles, and once called to say four orange sweaters had just arrived in stock. "I'll take them all," the singer replied.

Born in Brooklyn, Carroll worked his way through college in the restaurant business and didn't like it much -- although in the 1970s he would help friends open the English-style pub called the Saloon on Santa Monica Boulevard.

Carroll served as a Navy pilot in World War II, and after the war stayed on in Los Angeles to become a publicist at Warner Bros. and write fiction on the side.

About the time he was losing his job because of studio cutbacks, he had to drive his brother, screenwriter Sydney Carroll, downtown to Brooks Brothers to find button-down shirts -- complaining all the way about the long trip to shop for clothes because nobody on the Westside was filling the need.

"Why don't you do it? You've always wanted to be in business," his brother challenged.

"I drove along for a while and I said, 'Yeah, that's exactly what I'm going to do,' " Dick Carroll once told The Times, "and from that moment I never stopped."

His first shop in 1949 was a second-floor office in a Beverly Drive building owned by film star Corinne Griffith. Next came a store on Charleville Boulevard, and then in 1952, with the financial backing of a dozen film folk, he opened what became his longtime location at Rodeo Drive and little Santa Monica Boulevard.

At the time, sleepy little Rodeo still had a gas station and a hardware store. Carroll is credited with helping to build the area into the shopping destination it is today, and, eventually, prompting his own move two blocks east seven years ago.

Carroll, through his work on the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, Beverly Hills Planning Commission and the Rodeo Drive Commission, instigated such improvements as the median strip for flowers and shrubs along Rodeo. He set the scene for such pricey specialty tenants as Hermes, Ferragamo and Gucci.

In the early 1950s, Carroll became one of the first Los Angeles retailers to roam London's Saville Row, Scottish villages that produced tweed, and markets in France and Italy to find the quality merchandise his customers required.

His business thrived and Carroll & Co. expanded to 10,000 square feet with more than 4,000 suits in stock. Carroll was so popular with the motion picture industry that in 1974 he launched a "studio division" to costume the casts of various films.

Carroll & Co. has clothed performers in more than 300 motion pictures and TV shows, said Lyles, including both the Humphrey Bogart and Harrison Ford versions of "Sabrina" and the "Frasier" and "Seinfeld" series.

Carroll always avoided designer labels, preferring the Carroll & Co. mark on everything he sold. In 1996, the influx of designer shops on Rodeo Drive forced his store to relocate.

At the time, Carroll's son John, who began working in the family shop in 1986 and now runs the stores on Canon Drive and in Pasadena, said Rodeo Drive traffic had evolved into 80% tourists -- all seeking internationally known designer labels. Because Carroll & Co. specialized in local customers, he said, the company no longer belonged on Rodeo.

In addition to John, Carroll is survived by his wife, Judy; son Tom; daughters Abbe Horsburgh, Carey Pearlman and Jennifer Carroll; sister, Rita Wainer; and nine grandchildren.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to a charity of the donor's choice.

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