Obituary: Designer Carole Little, 79
Known for her signature mixed prints and California casual chic sportswear, designer Carole Little died on Sept. 19 at her home in San Diego following a long illness. She was 79.
At its height in the early 1990s, Los Angeles–based Carole Little Inc. had grown to a $350 million enterprise employing 1,200 people.
Little founded the company with Leonard Rabinowitz in 1974 when they spotted an untapped niche in the market between moderate apparel and designer labels. On a trip to France, the two recognized the need for better clothing and an opportunity to open a new market.
“She really created this category that fell in between moderate and designer called better,” said Rabinowitz, who was Little’s close friend and business partner during and after their 22-year marriage. “There was no alternative at the time for a woman to buy a $58 silk shirt instead of spending $100-and-something for designer or $18 for polyester. The whole concept of the better market was spawned from that.”
Ilse Metchek, president of the California Fashion Association, described Little’s design sense as “very, very prophetic,” ushering in a new category of merchandise, which was sold in department stores in Carole Little in-store shops.
“She deconstructed dresses and made them two-piece,” Metchek said. “It was everybody’s uniform. But it defied any kind of regimentation [at the time] because it wasn’t sportswear and it wasn’t dresses. But it was important enough for her to have her own department. That was a first.”
Sandy Richmond, founder and president of Directives West, recalled Little’s talent for driving trends.
“She had a tremendous impact on the women’s apparel industry for trend,” Richmond said. “She was a leader in being first [with] an eye for prints that no designer has yet to live up to.”
Initially, Little focused on providing women with an easy chic uniform of silk shirts and trousers. After People magazine featured model and actress Lauren Hutton on the cover wearing one of Little’s silk blouses, people started to recognize the Carole Little brand, Rabinowitz said.
But it was a series of television commercials that the company ran in the 1980s that garnered Little a fan following.
The ad showed a woman wearing Carole Little clothing at the office, then out at night. Little appeared in the commercial at the end with the tagline: “I’m Carole Little and I can work for you.”
After that, people began to identify with Little and began collecting her designs.
“We would go to Dillard’s in San Antonio and there would be 300 or 400 women lined up to have her sign autographs,” Rabinowitz said. “Some women brought skirts and asked her to sign the skirt. We initially called the company St. Tropez West, but when we saw that people were starting to relate to her, we changed it to Carole Little.”
Little had a gift for connecting with her customers, Rabinowitz said. When approached by fans, she would speak with them, asking what they liked about her label.
Galina Sobolev, co-owner of Gala Inc., which produces the contemporary label Single, moved from New York to work for Carole Little as senior designer in the company’s career division.
Sobolev recalled fans sending Little photos of themselves wearing Carole Little clothing. Many collected several versions of Little’s signature tiered skirt.
“One lady sent a picture of herself, and her entire bedroom was covered in those tiered skirts she had collected over the years,” said Sobolev, who remained with the company until 1995, when she founded her own label.
“[Carole] taught me everything there was to know about engineered prints,” Sobolev said. “I really owe our success with our silk kimono dresses to her. I learned so much about print techniques, the mixed prints, the border prints. [At Carole Little], we designed our own prints and we worked with the [in-house] art studio. Carole would bring in a vintage swatch from a handkerchief from some vintage store or she’d bring in some beads. It was very special and unique in its time.”
A few years ago, Sobolev said, she noticed a new generation discovering the Carole Little collection for the first time.
“We had a casting call and some of the girls came in wearing some of the skirts I designed,” she said.
“Carole was my mentor,” Sobolev said. “She was such an amazing, creative influence. And fun and edgy. She always had that whimsical streak in her.”
Little’s knack for connecting with her customers carried through to her employees, who remember her kind and generous demeanor.
“Carole had a way of making you feel like you were the only important thing,” said Pam Ambeau, who joined the company in 1989 as an intern and remained as an assistant to Little and Rabinowitz until three years ago.
“She was such a great lady, so creative,” Ambeau said, recalling Little’s chic personal style and sky-high heels. “I thought, ‘When I grow up, that’s my goal,’” she said.
“It was an amazing company. It brought together everything you learned in design school. It was a well-oiled machine and an amazing place.”
Sobolev also described the company as “an incredible place to work” and offices that were “magnificent.”
“In our design building alone, I think we had 13 designers in career and dresses and sports and plus,” Sobolev said. “Each one of us was responsible for a lot of groups. We had 33 sample sewers and we had a sample-room coordinator. We really churned out a lot of product.”
And the company sold a lot of product. Sobolev recalled one group—“a denim-washed, indigo-dyed, patched mixed-media group—that booked $19 million in sales for one month,” she said.
“Dillard’s alone bought, like, $6 million, I think. There were these deliveries that were just tremendous. Some of the tiered skirts, we would cut like 12,000 of one SKU. They had rounders and rounders of them in all of the department stores.”
The company’s headquarters were in a compound on Martin Luther King Boulevard in South Los Angeles. When the Los Angeles riots erupted in 1992, the compound was looted and the company suffered about $9 million in damages and stolen goods, including samples, raw materials and supplies.
Rabinowitz said the loss could have been greater, but the area residents came to the company’s aid before rioters could set fire to the buildings.
“When the people started looting, neighbors came with shotguns and hoses, and they put out the fire,” he said. “They saved the building because we were a great neighbor and a good employer.”
In 1994, the company faced an even greater setback when two executives were murdered in drive-by shootings, part of a series of incidents thought to be caused by organized crime operating within Los Angeles’ contracting community. As police and the FBI investigated the murders, news helicopters circled over the company compound and reporters waited at the entrance to try to speak to employees.
At the time, the company was in the process of renovating the old May Co. warehouse building on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles into a 288,000-square-foot state-of-the-art workspace to house the company. The next year, the company moved in and donated the previous property to The Accelerated Schools, a neighborhood charter school.
After the riots, Rabinowitz said he and Little wanted to do something for the neighborhood to thank the residents for their help. They approached the local public elementary school, which typically closed its doors and locked the gates surrounding the playground each day at 2:30 p.m. Rabinowitz and Little offered to cover the annual cost of keeping the school open until 6 p.m. and provide after-school programs, but the school declined the offer.
“They wouldn’t take the money,” Rabinowitz said. “So we heard about this little charter school with 30 kids [nearby].”
They offered the same deal to The Accelerated Schools, which accepted.
“In time, we ended up giving them the whole place,” Rabinowitz said.
Even after the company moved to its new May Co. location, Rabinowitz and Little continued to support The Accelerated Schools. In the new space, there was room for about 800 kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, Rabinowitz said.
“When they got to eighth grade, the kids had to go out into the system again. They didn’t have a high school,” he said. “So we went out and had a capital campaign.”
Little and Rabinowitz were able to quickly raise $30 million of the $40 million required to build a high school.
“Wallis Annenberg came in and gave us the last $10 [million], so we named it the Wallis Annenberg High School,” Rabinowitz said. “Right now, we have 1,600 kids. Last year, 100 percent of our kids graduated high school, and 80 percent of them went on to four-year high schools.”
The Accelerated Schools recently broke ground on a new project that will add another 500 spaces for the school’s English Language Learner program.
“The school has been a real joy,” Rabinowitz said. “And that will go on forever.”
There were other non-apparel projects that saw successes as well. In 1997, the film “Anaconda,” produced by Rabinowitz and Little, was released. The movie, staring Ice Cube and Jennifer Lopez, was critically panned but soon became a sleeper hit and a cult classic.
With the success of the film, Rabinowitz said he and Little had an opportunity to transition in the film industry, “but we decided we liked the fashion business better,” he said. “We had a bunch of films in development, but we sold it all and decided to stay with fashion.”
Three years later, the company merged with another Los Angeles manufacturer, Chorus Line Inc., maker of several moderate junior and misses labels. Together they formed a new company, CL Fashion Inc., but the partnership was short-lived and disastrous. Within a year, the company closed its doors in the wake of the Chapter 7 petition filed by three creditors of Chorus Line. The company found itself embroiled in litigation with Chorus Line Corp.’s parent company, Levine Leichtman Capital Partners.
In 2002, Cherokee Inc. picked up the CL Fashions brand names—including Carole Little, CLII and Saint Tropez West, as well as Chorus Line’s brands—for about $2 million. A deal was struck with TJX Companies, parent company of TJ Maxx and Marshalls, for merchandise under the Carole Little label.
Little and Rabinowitz went on to form StudioCL Corp., which worked on several private-label projects as well as a contemporary tops line,Linq, which launched in 2005.
Little will continue to impact the next generation of designers thanks to the Carole Little scholarship, which is given annually to two fashion students at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.
In addition to Rabinowitz, Little is survived by her daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters.
In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested gifts be made to The Accelerated Schools or to St. Madeleine’s Center for Children.
Many of the designers and associates who worked with Little, describe her as a creative force and a mentor. Former Carole Little employees (including this reporter) are spread across the creative community in Los Angeles and New York. As news of Little’s death broke, many sent memories of their time with Little and her impact on their lives and careers. Their messages are below:
Carole Little was an inspiring and creative mentor to many artists and designers. She offered me, and so many others, creative opportunities, experience and trust. She was a quiet, shy person, but her voice continues to resonate within me and I hear her spilling out, informing and lighting my classrooms still.—Anne Bennion, department chair of Fashion Knitwear Design and Textile Design at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, who was one of the company’s in-house textile artists
I will always remember Carole for her youthful outlook and girlish giggle. I’m forever thankful for everything she taught me—not just about talent but about people. I remember how she would gently guide me on how to be sensitive to the feelings of the designers that worked under me. She had the best eye for color that I’ve ever worked with in my career, and whenever I’m creating palettes I think of Carole hunting around the office amidst the infinite amount of fabrics, color chips and silk swatches looking for that perfect shade of green to fit in the palette. I would be impatient with her, but when she found that perfect green I realized why it had to be that green.
The company she started created more than just a place for people to work. I realized this today, when speaking to some friends about her that worked at CL. If it weren’t for Carole and Leonard, there wouldn’t be these lifelong friendships that have lasted for over 20 years.
Carole last wrote to me to congratulate me on my wedding a year ago and reminded me about the importance of family and staying close to them. I will miss her a lot.—Victor Tanisaka, director of operations at Alexandra Von Furstenberg, who worked in several positions in the design department at Carole Little and Studio CL, ultimately serving as vice president of design and merchandising
Suffice to say that the CL family is shocked and saddened by the news of Carole’s passing. Everyone has expressed sadness, and some have mentioned a few different memories of time spent with Carole. She will be missed by many.
Carole was a force to be reckoned with—strong, determined, tireless, dedicated, inspiring, energetic and creative. The company was a huge part of her life and she loved it.
Carole (and Leonard) changed the face of LA fashion, bringing Carole’s easy brand of style to thousands of customers nationwide over the years.
Carole welcomed change—in seasons, styles and even in her workplace. When her offices moved for a third time [to StudioCL], she said that it was a good thing to clean out and down-size so you just had the essentials and could start fresh again.
It is a true testament to Carole’s leadership that so many of us who once worked there are still friends and still lean on each other in our daily lives. Her talent and success helped bring together the best of the best in Los Angeles. There is no way to measure the magnitude of the experiences we had at CL.—Karen Kananen and Samantha Robinson, owners of the eco-friendly contemporary label Raw Earth Wild Sky. The two met at Carole Little, where Kananen served as design director for the Career division and later also design director for the Sport division and Robinson was the senior designer for the Sport division
Carole introduced me to the world of fashion, design, manufacturing, but more importantly Carole showed me what it was to be a woman in business and a leader, which she did with tremendous style, talent and generosity. From the meticulous and thoughtful way she selected her colors for her inspiration boards and prints to my first trip to Paris, I will never be able to fully express how much she has influenced me and the way I look at design.—Sara Stein, owner of home decor and gift company Sisters of Los Angeles, who worked as an assistant to Little
I met Carole in 1992 when I graduated from Otis/Parsons and started working for the company. Carole took me under her wing and helped guide me both on a professional and personal level. Her talents were second to none, and her vibrant attitude toward life and work made what many consider a tough industry pleasant and fun. Her creativity inspired me and everyone around her, and her guidance shined clarity on an unclear world.
Carole was a true artist in both soul and spirit. Carole was a woman who cared about the people around her on both a personal and professional level.
Even though she was a very private person, she expressed much love for her family. My heart was broken when I heard of her passing. She will always be a shining light to me and to everyone that had the pleasure to have known her.
Her love for fashion and creativity will always be with me. Carole will be deeply missed but never forgotten.
—Christy Whitley, who worked for the company for eight years as a senior designer in the Career division and who is currently the head designer for the “4 Love and Liberty” division of Johnny Was