Mary Carole Lenski was born September 27, 1934. After studying fashion design in Los Angeles, she started her fashion career as a secretary at swimsuit maker Rose Marie Reid. She married her boss, James Little and by the early 1970s Carole was designing hot pants for junior sportswear manufacturer Jasper Brothers.
In 1974 she struck out on her own with Leonard Rabinowitz, her division manager from Jasper who bankrolled the venture with a $20,000 loan from his parents. The company initially sold clothing under the label Saint Tropez West.
Little had noticed how young Parisian women were so adept at putting together chic outfits on limited budgets. In 1993 Little reminisced to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch how “Instead of all these throwaway clothes, they would wear a very expensive designer blouse and jeans, the next day, it would be the same blouse with different accessories.”
Little felt American women could benefit from using separates for creating different looks. Her first hit design was a crepe de Chine shirt with epaulets and front pockets. It became a huge hit after Lauren Hutton wore the blouse on the cover of the May 12, 1975 edition of People magazine.
In 1979, Little and Rabinowitz married, and the company was booming. The clothes were selling through high end department stores like Bloomingdales and Saks, alongside labels like Jones New York and Liz Claiborne. Sales peaked in 1994 at 375 million — then everything started going wrong.
Department stores were in trouble and cutting back on the number of vendors. Little had to broaden her line to service more stores, not just the upscale locations. That meant diluting their designer image with mid-market saleables. Profit margins shrank, and Little’s company had to pay back markdown costs to department stores for merchandise sold below expected retail.
Around this same time, two of the company’s top executives, the Vice President, and Chief Financial Officer, were gunned down in separate instances – the motives presumably related to subcontractor cutbacks by the company.
In 2001 Little and Rabinowitz divorced, and the following year, the company was sold to Cherokee Inc. The company still exists, selling through department stores, and online.
Carole Little passed away from cancer in 2015 at the age of 80.