Johnny Carson’s line of polyester suits was a huge seller in the ’70s

See Johnny Carson's line of polyester suits that were big sellers in the '70s

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Here’s Johnny – A natural trendsetter: Clothing venture a boom

By Leonard Sloane – Fort Lauderdale News (Florida) Dec 17, 1972

NEW YORK — When Clark Gable appeared without an undershirt in the 1934 movie, “It Happened One Night,” he threw the male apparel industry — and undershirt manufacturers in particular — into a tizzy as men by the thousands stopped wearing undershirts, too.

Over the next four decades, there have been other entertainers who have had an influence on men’s fashions, such as Adolph Menjou, Caesar Romero and Sammy Davis Jr.

But probably no performer in the modern era has had as much impact on style trends as Johnny Carson. When he wore turtleneck sweaters on his late-night television program, “The Tonight Show,” men throughout the United States bought turtlenecks.

When he appeared before the cameras wearing Nehru suits, the fad was picked up by television viewers everywhere. Retailers in small towns as well as big cities watched his show, and heard customers ask the next day for the same type of clothing they had seen.

Johnny Carson was making some menswear producers rich.

Vintage Johnny Carson suits from 1970


And so Carson — whose salary as a National Broadcasting Company star reaches into seven figures and whose income has already been augmented by other financial ventures — was approached three years ago with the idea of selling his own clothing rather than someone else’s.

The rest, as they say, in show business, is history.

Johnny Carson Apparel, Inc., the company that grew out of this approach, has become one of the fastest-growing concerns in the history of the menswear business. And its suits, selling for $100 to $120, and sport coats, selling for $75 to $85, are among the best selling male fashions today.

Retail sales under the Carson label are expected to total $35 million in 1972 and $50 million next year. A volume of more than 400,000 units of tailored clothing has been projected for next year, with additional revenue coming from Carson shirts, ties, jewelry, belts and other items made by licensees.

“I’m seen in public a lot,” said Carson, president of the company, with a trace of understatement, “and I like to think that the clothes I wear and talk about on the show have some kind of influence on viewers. So we went into this thing to present the public with a line that has fashion styling yet is fairly simple.”

Vintage menswear: See some old-school suits & ties that guys were wearing back in the '70s

The “we” in this case are the three stockholders in the Johnny Carson Apparel marketing organization: Carson, David A. Werblin, the former president of MCA-TV, former owner of the New York Jets football team and a well-known entrepreneur; and Hart Schaffner & Marx, which makes the garments.

Hart Schaffner & Marx, the apparel manufacturing and retailing complex, owns 51 percent of the joint venture, while Carson and Werblin have equal shares of the minority interest.

Thus Carson both draws a salary and participates in the profits of the company bearing his name. In return, he wears Johnny Carson clothes onstage and off, and doesn’t hesitate to call the attention of his millions of nightly viewers to the type of apparel he wears by contrasting it with the more flamboyant garb of his bandleader, Doc Severinsen.

Vintage Johnny Carson suit in yellow - Retro menswear from 1974 (2)


Direct plugs for his company are not permitted by either the network or by federal regulations, but periodic paid commercials on his show, coupled with magazine advertising, let his fans know that Johnny is in the soft-goods business, too.

The impetus for this unusual merchandising apparatus came after Hart Schaffner & Marx surveyed the field to find a way to expand into another name brand at the grade 2 level.

Grade 2, a trade designation of clothing price range and quality, is the category produced by a Buffalo-based division of the corporation called M. Wile & Co. In contrast, the Hart Schaffner & Marx brand carries the higher grade 4 designation.

“We thought that there was a tremendous opportunity to build a solid branded clothing business in a price range that was non-competitive with our other lines,” said James K. Wilson Jr., executive vice president of Hart. “M. Wile produced unbranded clothing and its facilities could be used to manufacture a brand, too.”

Wilson and his associates went to Carson with the proposal to use his name, fashion talents and creative ability to help start a new menswear company.

ALSO SEE: 1970s men’s shoes came in a variety of bold (and sometimes offbeat) styles

Carson had been involved in some franchising deals during their heyday of the 1960s, and knew by this time the pitfalls that could arise from the sale of his name to others, for a royalty fee without any involvement in the product.

Johnny Carson vintage Bullwhip Twill suit


The television and night club star was as-sociated in a number of ventures at this point with Werblin, to whom he turned for advice regarding the Dart proposal. He investigated the offer and gave an affirmative answer.

Werblin envisioned the Carson Apparel concept as one that could he both strongly promoted and easily sold. And he encouraged his partner to go into the deal not only by licensing his name, but also by participating actively and giving his personal attention to as many aspects of the business as possible.

“It’s the perfect wedding of a personality with a product,” Weblin asserted. “Johnny was a brand name the minute we started.”

Here’s Johnny! (1974)

…putting fashion in his pocket with this sport coat and suit of double-knit Trevira polyester. Color-blended plaid slacks — Trevira, too, with a touch of linen-and Johnny Carson coordinated shirts and ties complete the wardrobes. 

Vintage Johnny Carson suit in yellow - Retro menswear from 1974 (1)

Johnny Carson suits

“Confidence. Whether you’re out on the court or behind a desk, you have to have it. And even the clothes you wear can help you feel in control. Especially when they’re as comfortable and stylish as all the suits you’ll find in my new spring collection. They’re confidence you can wear… anywhere.”

Johnny Carson Apparel, Inc.

Also: Presenting the Johnny Carson cologne and all-weather skin shield

Johnny Carson - 70s fashion

MORE: Vintage gift sets for men: After-shave, cologne & other grooming gifts for him

“I’ve always been fascinated by the stars.” (1976)

I’ve always been fascinated by the stars. And since I’ve become interested in astronomy, I’ve discovered that each star has its own precise position, yet the whole sky is constantly changing.

“I look for the same things in the clothes I wear: precision with variation. These two vested suits from my new Fall ’76 Collection fill the bill.

“Each is styled for my kind of living and both have the precise attention to detail a good suit should have. And they feel as comfortable as they look. If you like clothes like this, you’ll find them in my new Fall Collection.”

Johnny Carson in a vintage suit from 1978

Doubling up on Double-Knits for spring

Vintage Carson suits - Doubleknit spring

Estate vested suit: Country Manor Tweeds (1979)

An exclusive innovative fabric by Klopman for Johnny Carson Apparel

Here’s an entirely new look for this fall and only Johnny Carson has it. Developed by KlopmanP Country Manor Tweeds are woven with a distinctive lick” effect in 100% Today’s Dacron polyester.

This tweed holds its tailored shape, never rumples, never bags. It’s a natural for the trim and lively lines of this vested “Estate” suit. Country Manor Tweed — in the Johnny Carson grand manner.

Johnny Carson Estate Vested suit from the seventies

Here’s Johnny… proving a stitch in time looks fine

Amazing what a little topstitching can do to accent the clean lines of this pure cream-colored suit. It follows the uniquely rounded shape of the pockets. It contours the fashionably wide lapels. It adds just the right touch of difference to this polyester/wool texturized woven fabric.

Johnny’s texturized polyester/wool sport coat and double-knit slacks are especially created to go together. Their harmonizing earth and sky tones create a pleasing picture for any casual occasion.

Custom-created Johnny Carson shirts and ties complete the total look. See the Johnny Carson Wardrobe at fine stores throughout the United States and Canada.

Johnny Carson suits and retro menswear

And a polyester-wool blend from Johnny Carson suits

Johnny Carson's polyester suits from the 70s

“Let me tell you, skydiving is a lot harder than it looks.”

Johnny Carson in vintage suit style from 1970s

Here’s Johnny! (1978)

…in trailblazing fashion with his off-white suit of “Bullwhip Twill” fabric by Klopman. And for extra eye and texture interest, there’s a dash of rich suede cloth trim.

Johnny Carson shirts and ties, specially designed, complete the wardrobe. See it all at fine stores throughout the United States and Canada. Johnny Carson Apparel, Inc.

Johnny Carson Apparel inc clothing from the 1970s

Johnny Carson suits: Presenting his Globe Circler (1978)

My new Globe Circler Suit is comfortably right almost anywhere. It’s tailored of a texturized 100% Today’s Dacron polyester fabric in a midweight that’s cool where it’s hot, worm where it’s not.

Styled in trim, clean-cut lines, the Globe Circler looks right anywhere and stays unrumpled, wear offer wear. Get into Globe Circler — the going’s great.

Johnny Carson in vintage suit style from 1978

Casual '80s menswear from the 1983 JC Penney catalog

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. Only uber-cool dude Johnny Carson could take the fashion trends of the 1970’s, in all their Polyester/Dacron glory, and make them look really good and stylish.

  2. I have a jacket with Johnny Carson’s name on the inside I’m assuming it’s one of his line of clothing like I see here in the footing are these worth any money?.

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