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Design Dynasty Began With Twist of Yarn

Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

As soon as the photographer stops shooting, Marie Gray lights another cigarette, drawing deeply with berry-red lips.

A Nordstrom fashion show of her spring clothing designs is about to begin, but Gray--founder of Irvine-based St. John Knits--sits calmly sipping coffee, looking dewy and relaxed despite a cross-continental flight the night before.

“I feel pretty good now,” said the native of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, with an ever-so-slight accent. “But I may fall apart later.”

A former Los Angeles fashion model and hostess on the “Queen for a Day” television show, the leggy brunette began fiddling around with yarn and clothing sketches almost 30 years ago while engaged to her husband, Bob Gray.

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“I started designing so my fiance wouldn’t dump me for spending so much money on clothes,” says Gray with a giggle. “And, of course, he didn’t.”

In the early 1960s, she spent $450 on a knitting machine, put together some dresses and persuaded her future husband--a clothing salesman--that selling 50 of her knits would pay for their honeymoon. The couple thus embarked on a partnership that in 25 years has become a $100-million-a-year family enterprise, one that includes daughter Kelly as the company’s signature model and son Michael as vice president of marketing; Bob Gray serves as president and CEO.

Devotees of the stretch ensembles say that, because of their classic styling, the apparel doesn’t go out of style. And for globe-trotting businesswomen, they serve as elegant and packable suits that never wrinkle.

It is this classic, wrinkle-proof styling that has helped the business, which began in her mother-in-law’s garage in the San Fernando Valley, grow to six factories in Southern California, three showrooms (New York, Dallas and Irvine) and 1,260 employees. The major stores carrying St. John Knits in Orange County are Bullock’s, Nordstrom, Robinson’s, I. Magnin, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

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On this day Gray is dressed in her favorite color combination: a berry-red and black two-piece suit with pale hose, black shoes and draped in St. John Knits jewelry. But her spring collection, about to stride down the runway, is a palette of soft pinks, blues, yellows, creams and whites, along with the company’s newest color, taupe linen (a kind of beige-gray).

As in previous collections, her spring line captures that comfortable elegance that has made her pricey garments the toast of the society set. Sleek, padded-shouldered dresses and jumpsuits are accented by bold, golden buttons; rich-looking two- and three-piece suits are knit in butter yellow, grays and creams; dramatic white evening outfits are topped with shimmery shoulders. In all, 60 pieces were paraded down the runway at last week’s Nordstrom Brea Mall fashion show benefitting the Assistance League of Fullerton.

The show’s crowd pleaser was a white two-piece outfit of skirt and surplice wrap top worn with a scarf and cognac-colored accessories worn by the 22-year-old Kelly. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Kelly’s Maltese puppy, Cotton, was sticking out of the cognac bag.

Along with the quieter colors were a series of startling greens and purples, many with buttons at the waist and worn beneath layers of St. John gold necklaces. Several of the dresses had deep V-neck tops and sailor collars.

Gray, who each season creates about 120 pieces (prices range from $250 to $1,000), says she designs for women like herself--successful, busy career women who are both fashion- and figure-conscious. Women who need to look dewy after a Paris-to-California flight.

“I do design for my own life, always for the things I would like to do. That’s why there is such an emphasis on comfort and ease, along with elegance. As for inspiration, sometimes it’s the color of a flower, other times I’ve stopped the car, grabbed something and rushed it to the lab to be duplicated.”

She says she often designs out of need--when her wardrobe begins to wilt, she plugs in a creation.

“If I can’t make something work, I make something that will,”, says the Newport Beach resident.

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Her fall lines will be rich and bright, she says, with pieces in grape, brown, lapis and berry.

“You will be seeing some new silhouettes and a wider range of lengths. The evening things will have sparkle. There will be elegant, rich looks.”

And she promised the return of her signature black knit suit and the jumpsuits with gold buttons.

Her favorite colors and shapes--2-piece suits in black and red with padded shoulders--appear in almost all her collections.

“I like all things that make women look tall and thin,” she says.

Although Gray insists she wears nothing but St. John Knits, she confesses to loving Valentino and Coco Chanel, who inspired Gray’s continuing love affair with knit suits.

“Valentino is spectacular,” she coos. “I really admire his work, and of course, Chanel. She had such innovation, wonderful ideas for women, the flowers, the neck details. But Valentino is to die over too.”

As for Americans, she likes Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Bill Blass. She just won’t wear their clothes.

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