Mother-daughter designing duo Marie and Kelly Gray are back in business together with a new label called Grayse, eight years after stepping down from their day-to-day duties at St. John when a private equity firm bought the company and cleaned house in a rebranding effort that famously also involved hiring Angelina Jolie as spokesmodel and alienating hordes of loyal customers.
Although St. John is best known for creating the conservative, Crayola-colored knit suit uniform worn by a generation of women in the go-go 1980s and '90s, Grayse taps into the more recent trend of casual luxury and seasonless, day-to-night dressing.
Instead of a matchy-matchy look, the focus is on dresses and separates, such as embellished statement tops and laser-cut Italian leather jackets designed to be worn over jeans, pants or shorts.
"Culturally, society has changed so much in the last seven to eight years," Kelly, 46, says on a recent afternoon at the Grayse studio in Irvine, sitting at the head of the conference table with mom Marie, 76, at her left. "Used to be, it was important for women to have a uniform for success. But now, your personal style is your business card for success and for your personal brand. We spent years [at St. John] asking women to invest in us head-to-toe. With Grayse, I love the idea that we can contribute to a woman's personal style with a piece here and there."
A former model and hostess on the TV show "Queen for a Day," Marie and her late husband, Robert "Bob" Gray, started St. John in their garage in 1962. They nurtured it into a global luxury brand and one of Southern California's biggest apparel success stories, staging runway shows not for buyers and editors in New York, but for fans around the country who came to Orange County for the blockbuster events.
Kelly, who started working at St. John at age 12, later became the face of the brand and later still its co-chief executive and creative director. Kelly's classic all-American look helped sell St. John, and a wall in the back of the studio is plastered with images from those campaigns shot in exotic locales — Kelly on a speedboat in Venice, Kelly posing with a lion in a white sand desert.
After leaving St. John, Kelly let her inner wild child out, launching the rocker-inspired apparel line Royal Underground with Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx, and Marie hit the golf course.
Then last summer, they found themselves together again. Sidelined from the links by a knee injury, Marie tagged along with Kelly on a materials sourcing trip in Asia, and Grayse was born.
"We came across a unique way to construct lattice-like leather on tulle so it's sheer and lightweight, but still has the formality and significance of leather," says Kelly, dressed this day in jeans, combat boots and a black jersey Grayse top embellished with black stones as smooth as river pebbles that are applied with epoxy heat transfer, another technique discovered on the trip.
The ladies Gray came back inspired, and they started collaborating. By January, they were in business, working out of Royal Underground's former headquarters. They called some of their retailer friends, people they knew would tell them if they had "anything relevant to say anymore," Kelly says.
Apparently, they did. The first Grayse collection, priced at $195 to $1,195, hit a few weeks ago at retailers including NeimanMarcus.com and SaksFifthAvenue.com, plus select Neiman and Saks stores. (A list of retailers can be found at MKGrayse.com.)
Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, says the line is appealing because "it has great novelty items that are on-trend and appropriate for women of all ages, with prices that will not break the bank."
A ladylike black ribbon leather jacket with baguette crystal details nods to Coco Chanel, just as St. John's knit suits did. But that's where the comparisons between St. John and Grayse end.
There is no knitwear in the Grayse collection, at least not yet. But there are a lot of versatile pieces that can work for different styles and age groups, including a gold laser-cut leather bolero with ruched cap sleeves, an orange suede grid cutout cardigan jacket, a gold-studded cream jersey top with a gladiator vibe, a printed stretch silk chiffon poncho with drawstrings at the hem to adjust the length and stretchy minidresses that skim the body but don't cling.
"My ideas always come from need," says Marie, dressed in a lightweight black suede coat and black trousers. "I'm always trying to figure out how to dress well in hot weather. And Kelly has great vision. She saw that dressy tops were something that women enjoyed."
"When I go out to dinner, I want to throw something on over whatever I'm already wearing. I don't even want to change my shoes," Kelly says.
Working together the second time around is different.
"As a girl in my 20s, I thought I knew everything, I was absolutely certain of it," says Kelly. "That combativeness contributed to our success. St. John ballooned and grew because we were figuring out how to get both our needs met. But we're much more civil now."
"If we really can't come to an agreement, we sleep on it," says Marie. "And there are a lot of cases where we agree to disagree. Ultimately, the person who is right is the customer."
The design process has changed too.
"At St. John, we used to do a lot more storyboarding, and everything in a collection had to relate," says Kelly. "Now, we start with color and think about how we are going to differentiate from everyone else. Then we start building important looks, and they multiply. One day you have four pieces; then a month later you have 40."
Samples are made on-site, so the Grays can design something in the morning and see it that afternoon.
"You can't put a price on that kind of quality control," says Marie. Both women are committed to keeping production as local as possible.
(In 2005, when they left, St. John had 5,000 employees; Grayse has launched with about 20.)
Marie still sits on the board at the company she founded more than 50 years ago. And although she no longer has creative input, she still wears St. John clothes from time to time. Kelly, not so much.
"It was hard to get her to wear the clothes even then," says Marie. "She was the black sheep when she worked there."
"I do have a few pieces I've kept with my vintage collection," says Kelly, who namechecks Dolce & Gabbana, Tom Ford and James Perse as go-tos. "But I mostly wear Grayse now."
Asked whether she would consider modeling for Grayse as she did for St. John, she demurs.
"Having my photo taken is something I excel at, but I don't particularly like. The whole 15 years I did those St. John campaigns were spent in a variety of anxiety attacks... This time, I would rather be behind the camera."