Johnnie-O founder in t-shirt and swim trunks.

A Chat With Johnnie-O’s Founder, John O’Donnell

We had the opportunity to sit down with Johnnie-O founder John O’Donnell and chat about what makes the brand unique and why guys love Johnnie-O clothing. Check out a few excerpts from our conversation.

Bombfell: So, John, to start I think a lot of guys see a polo and think, “Oh just a normal ol’ shirt.” It seems like polo shirts are a core part of your business; do you have any insight into what makes a Johnnie-O polo special?

John: A lot has changed in the knit business over the years. For one, when I was a kid we used to think of polyester as that material that would go up in flames and you wore to the local discotheque. But it’s amazing how much polyester came back on the scene. It’s easy to wash, doesn’t wrinkle, moisture-wicking, etc. Now we also play around with other materials like spandex or elastane, things that give you a performance shirt without that shiny look.  

B: Oh yeah, hearing you say that I do associate that sheen with, I don’t know, 90’s sportswear.

J: Exactly. We don’t want that.

Another thing with the polos, you have to differentiate yourself with your cut. Our head of design likes to call ours the “Current Cut.” It’s certainly not oversize but it’s by no means a slim-fit. We try to make our fit as universal as possible.

We now offer a lot of different styles and blends. You know, the first product I ever did was that classic 100% cotton polo, 4-button placket. Something that you could wear on the golf course and not that it’s going to wrinkle, but it’s designed to get a little disheveled… but in a good way. It’s been our biggest seller. But now, we also offer polos that are a little more dialed in, maybe with a more formal collar. Depends on what you’re looking for.

Johnnie-O founder models clothes for the season.

B: I was curious if you had any advice for guys who maybe want to rock a Johnnie-O polo but don’t want to look like they stepped off the golf course?

J: I think a lot of times that can come down to the pants for guys who don’t want to look too over-golfed. The evolution of the 5-pocket, close to a jean, pant has become acceptable now on the course. It’s a great pant with some stretch and gives a much less formal vibe that can transition easily from the course to the bar or wherever.

B: So, Johnnie-O has been around since about 2005, what’s been the North Star for your business over the years?

J: Well, gosh, not to sound selfish but I think that me, my friends, and my brother Chris have been the guides. I’m always kind of doing product checks asking, “Well, would I wear this, would Chris like this?” Because I don’t want things to go too far in any one direction. I don’t want things to be too preppy. Too west coast. You have to be really disciplined to stick to a look that combines the east coast, west coast, midwest. It can be a tough task.

B: That’s interesting. So, essentially, you’re saying to your Johnnie-O guy that “John’s got you.” Try out a polo, if you like it, you’ll probably like the rest of what you have to offer since it all runs through you and your taste, which is consistent.  

J: Exactly! Yeah, I don’t over-fashion myself. I like to be comfortable. I don’t try to have an outfit that says “Look at me, dammit.” We aren’t going for something that screams, “I’m cool! Notice me!” It’s more of a subtle… stealthy sharp look. Maybe that someone would look at you and think, “I’m not sure what it is, but that guy looks sharp.” A look that is just a little dialed in but not trying too hard.

B: I have to ask about the Tweener Button because it seems like such a simple, silly thing. What makes it such a success do you think?

J: The Tweener Button is one of my favorite things that we do. It’s one of those things that you just wonder why it took so long, you know? Why has no one done this? And I think it’s because I didn’t come from a fashion background, and I continually try to come up with products and innovations that are a part of my life as opposed to what’s “trending” in fashion.

I don’t sit around and read fashion books or whatever. Essentially, I know what our guy likes and this was something I wanted myself. So, it’s been great for us because it can be hard to differentiate yourself when making something as simple as a button-up shirt. There are a lot of companies out there that do a great job with that.

But I’ll tell you what, I have a hard time now wearing another brand’s shirt because they don’t have the Tweener Button! It’s just one of those things that once you try it, it’s hard to go back. It’s a game changer.

Johnnie-O father and son by the pool

B: Awesome. So, what are you excited for going forward? What’s the future outlook for Johnnie-O?

J: Gosh, well, we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing with the shirts and pants. I do think it would be interesting if we could find the right piece of footwear that would fit into the Johnnie-O brand. I’m not saying we’re becoming a shoe company, but it could be fun if we could find the right piece.

Other than that, I’m excited to see Johnnie-O keep growing within the industry. There’s still a huge number of people out there that have yet to hear about Johnnie-O, so I’m excited to try to reach them.

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