At first, the only thing glamorous about Carole Little’s clothing business was its name—Saint-Tropez West. Little and husband/business partner Leonard Rabinowitz’ fledgling firm was crammed into a dreary garage in a rundown part of downtown Los Angeles. Space was so tight there that the day Farrah Fawcett came by to try on a silk blouse she had to change in Little’s closet-size office with the door ajar. The company lost $250,000 in its first year of operation.
There’s nothing little about Carole’s business any more. At 43, she has emerged as one of the unqualified success stories of the rag trade; her clothes for women intent on scaling the corporate ladder have turned Saint-Tropez West into a $60-million-a-year business. Little’s label sells in 1,800 boutiques and department Stores (including Bloomingdale’s and Saks) around the world. A firm believer that office wear needn’t be “boring,” Little’s line of clothes is sleek, sexy and all mix-and-matchable. The medium-price outfits have a distinctly Continental air. “I think we woke up America,” says Carole. “Now everyone is doing the chic French look.”
Little discovered the look during a 1975 pilgrimage to Saint-Tropez. On her way home, she stopped in Paris and in a Left Bank boutique found a gray two-pocketed silk shirt with epaulets. Back in the States, she quickly knocked it off in 88 different colors. Called the Lauren Hutton, the blouse became an instant hit after the model was seen wearing it. “I just never had the courage to design what I really wanted to wear,” says Carole. “After Europe I did.”
Little grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of Walter Lenz, a shoe executive for Sears. “I never wanted to be a wife and mother like all the other girls,” she says flatly. After a brief first marriage that produced daughter Jenny, now 23, Little went to work at Rose Marie Reid, the swimsuit company. Yet it wasn’t until 1970, when she enrolled at Los Angeles-Trade Tech to study pattern making, that she really learned the fashion ropes. Little landed her first big job at Jasper Bros., a junior sportswear house in California. But she wasn’t happy designing miniskirts for teenagers. “Everyone had forgotten about women like me who wanted quality clothes put couldn’t afford $150 for a pair of wool gabardine pants.” Meanwhile, a second marriage, to James Little, her boss at Reid, also ended in divorce.
It was at Jasper that Carole met Rabinowitz, nine years her junior and a division manager. Leonard says he wasn’t planning to take the job until he discovered Little worked there. Two months earlier, he had spotted her in a grocery store. When romance blossomed, could a business be far behind? Backed by a $20,000 loan from Leonard’s family, Little and Rabinowitz took the plunge and launched Saint-Tropez West in 1975.
Seven years later, they are reaping the rewards of Carole’s savvy designs and Leonard’s skill as chairman of Saint-Tropez West. They drive to their chichi gray flannel and chrome headquarters in downtown L.A. in separate Mercedeses and occasionally talk business over their mobile telephones. They have adjoining offices (although the connecting door stays closed). After a typical 14-hour day, they repair to their hillside aerie in Mandeville Canyon. Around the house, Carole wears blue jeans and second-hand clothes from thrift shops. Little and Rabinowitz also own a $1 million pad in Manhattan where they spend seven or eight days every month.
Married since 1978, Little finds working so closely with Leonard stressful but satisfying. Explains Carole: “I wouldn’t want to have a husband at home who would say, ‘What do you mean you’re going to Paris for three days with your boss?’ ”