For a man who didn’t grow up big into fashion, Carlton Dixon sure knows how to make a statement.
He’ll have clients on one of the biggest runways in the country when the NFL Draft begins Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Dixon will have two clients, cornerback Denzel Ward of Ohio State and defensive end Marcus Davenport of Texas-San Antonio, who are expected to be selected in the first round. They’re also scheduled to participate in the red carpet ceremony on Thursday.
"If you saw me, I was always in shorts or sweats and flip-flops," Dixon said. "My mom always jokes that she can’t believe I am actually running a suit business."
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So how did Dixon get started in the clothing business.
It started with a chance meeting with former Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo.
It takes some nerve to try and sell Izzo something, anything.
Especially if you’ve never even met the guy.
After all, the Michigan State head coach built a hall-of-fame career by convincing some of the best college and pro players of all-time (and their families) that he could make their impossible dreams of basketball fame and fortune a reality.
In late March of 2016, Izzo was down in Houston for the Final Four, even though his Spartans team (a No. 2 seed) had been upset by Middle Tennessee (a No. 15 seed) a few weeks earlier.
As one of the coaching titans of the sport crossed the lobby of a Houston-area hotel, Dixon wasn’t worried about any of that. He’d made the four-hour drive from his house in the Grand Prairie area because he viewed the event as a networking opportunity. And because he loved the games.
As Izzo stood alone for a brief couple of seconds, Dixon seized an opportunity that would make his own dreams a reality.
There was a tap on the shoulder and a quick introduction followed by his elevator pitch: I want to design and outfit you, your coaching staff and your entire basketball team with custom-made suits. The conversation only lasted for a couple of minutes, but just a few months later he and his staff traveled to East Lansing to outfit the entire Michigan State football team with suits from Simply Sophisticate, Dixon’s suit company. A short while later, he outfitted the the Spartans basketball team.
Not bad for a guy who had only been in the business full-time for just under nine months.
In addition to Michigan State, Dixon has outfitted basketball and football teams at big time college football and,or basketball programs such as Florida State, Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M and several other big-name schools in the past several years.
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This week, Dixon’s work, thanks to an agreement he made with Creative Artists Agency, will be display at the draft.
So, how did he get to such an advantageous position in such a short amount of time?
"It’s probably surprising to a lot of people who know me," Dixon said. " I didn’t grow up as the biggest fashion guy."
Preview of the 2018 NFL Draft Theater, which is being built on the field of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. This is the first time, the Draft is taking place at an NFL stadium. Max Faulkner
Even though he was born in Chicago, Dixon considers Dallas home. In 1994, he graduated from Dallas Lincoln High where he starred on the basketball team. His efforts earned him a scholarship to play for head coach Tom Penders at Texas, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in speech communications.
Once he’d finished his college education, he worked as a teacher and administrator in the Texas high school educational system. Over time, his sister him to try his hand at her chosen profession: basketball coach. In 2011, with no prior experience, Dixon was hired as the head coach at North Dallas High School. Later, he became the school’s athletic director.
But there was a very different career path that always rummaged around in the back of his brain. One that prompted him to resign his positions at North Dallas High School.
For years, he’d wondered how he could customize suits for players and teams at universities and professional teams in a clean, functional and professional way. He also wanted the teams, athletes and coaches to be able to stylize their suits, whether that be pictures of family members on the inside on the night of their professional draft, or unique embroidery on their outside of suit that made it stand-out.
In the summer of 2015, Dixon bounced his ideas off friends, family, former teammates and coaches, even opposing players and coaches from his time as a player and coach. Eventually, Dixon and his wife chartered out a course for starting his own suit business.
The first step was finding a manufacturer, which he estimated took two-to-three months and could have gone on far longer. His three manufacturers, which are located in China, ship to him for local orders or to individual and team clients who live in other areas. That distance can create some challenges on the communication and shipping fronts.
He also had to be complaint with the NCAA from a licensing and trademark perspective, which took six-to-eight months.
His production process is fairly straight forward. He sits down with an individual or a group and allows them to select materials such as fabric type, buttons, color. He also has a stylist to help those who might not know what they want.
And while he and his wife did raise some money, the business was almost entirely self-funded.
"It was all worth it in the end, but it was tough to manage along the way, especially at the start," he said.
Star-Telegram reporter Lena Blietz takes you on a quick tour of what you’ll be seeing on Thursday at the NFL Draft. Lena Blietz
In order to support himself and his wife while his plans were coming together, he served as an assistant basketball coach at Richland High School from 2015 through the end of the 2016-2017 school year.
In April of 2016, the seniors on the Baylor football team, became his very first team order. In July of 2017, he was in Tallahassee fitting 130 members of the Florida State football team.
"We were outfitting one of the most prestigious programs historically, and they were all excited about us," he said. "And they told us we were on to something, and that once people saw these suits the word would spread. And it did."
At Texas A&M, they created a dress-for-success-type of program where they provided suits for every graduating senior male and female student athlete (he estimated around 110 in total). Dixon said he was particularly proud of that endeavor because his company was equipping those student athletes for their professional lives. Now, new and old clients are interested in the same process.
On August 1 of 2017, he was finally operating his suit business full-time. While Dixon hopes to operate all aspects of his business out of Dallas in five to seven years, he’s remained disciplined in his approach. Despite all of the recent publicity, he still only has two full-time staffers, with six-to-eight part-time staffers who serve as tailors and stylists (one of whom is his wife). And he converted space in his home to his work office (his downstairs game room serves as a runway-type area), but the plan is to move into real office space this coming June.
It helps to get a bit lucky, too. One of Dixon’s friends from middle school, Katie Johnson, used to work on the sponsorship side for Dr. Pepper (which is owned by Coca-Cola). Johnson worked with individuals at CAA for events such as the Big 12 and ACC Tournaments and was able to introduce Dixon to her contacts at the agency.
A few meetings later, Dixon finalized an agreement with the organization on Feb. 1, 2018 that allowed Dixon to provide suits for a number of potential NFL rookies for the draft, as well as current NFL players. And although he didn’t disclose the terms of the arrangement, he envisioned a long and fruitful partnership.
"I still kind of shake my head about it in disbelief from time-to-time," he said as he laughed.
Initially, Dixon’s had two primary marketing strategies. First, the exposure from players, coaches, etc. would often spark interest from similar individuals. His company also sponsored local events with the hope of attracting more eyeballs.
Signing with CAA, though, brought his exposure to the next level. At the 2018 NFL Combine,more and more people seemed to be aware of Dixon and his brand. While he was in Indianapolis for the event, he was also able fit a number of CAA players (some already had individual preexisting deals with companies such as JC Penny).
For clients such as the ones who were not able to get fitted at the combine, Carlton ships the suits directly to them and has them fitted and, or altered by a local tailor. The clients are also allowed to call Dixon directly for updates and changes to their outfit.
Dixon’s experience playing Division I basketball has ensured, at least thus far, that he wasn’t at risk of getting star-struck. He joked that his tailor doesn’t follow sports and is unaware of identity of these potential NFL stars.
The few weeks leading up to the draft haven’t been quite as busy as he’s expected. On Tuesday, Dixon hosted Dixon and Ward to make sure everything checked-out alright. If he does attend on Thursday night through his relationship with CAA, it will be to enjoy the experience of it all.
In terms of what make his suits unique, he says it’s the inside lining.
The hope is that it will catch the attention of anyone who sees it. In the short-term, that means players, coaches and university administrators. In the long-term, he hopes it will expand to fans and alumni. Dixon admits that it’s a niche market, but he believes he has the ability and savvy to appeal to he can capture 5- to 10-percent percent of that target demographic at schools all over the country.
Right now, though, he’s most satisfied by what he’s provided to his current clients.
"This is a lot of these young people’s first exposure to a suit, period," Dixon said. "When they get to design it, you see this greenness in them if you will. Their eyes are big and they’re excited. They’re very grateful for the opportunity to even put a suit together. There is something about that moment when it comes back and they put it on. You seem them feeling like a million bucks. It’s very rewarding."