Chairman of St. John Knits to Retire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert E. Gray, who with his wife founded upscale women's clothier St. John Knits International Inc. four decades ago, will retire at the end of the year, the Irvine company said Thursday.

The announcement comes five months after Gray, 75, stepped aside as chief executive and was succeeded by Hugh Mullins, a former Neiman Marcus executive. St. John said then that Gray, who had retained his role as board chairman, would remain active with the company.

A statement released by St. John on Thursday said Gray was "very pleased with Hugh's ability to adapt to his new environment so quickly." Gray will retain a seat on the board and serve as a consultant to the company.

Neither Gray nor Mullins could be reached for comment.

Mullins will assume the chairmanship. No other top management changes are anticipated, the statement said.

Marie St. John Gray, Gray's wife, will remain chief designer. Their daughter, Kelly Gray, will continue as president and chief creative officer.

It was unclear what effect Robert Gray's departure will have on the company. The patriarch was known as a hands-on boss who guarded his company like a hawk, even visiting stores to examine merchandise to make sure they had no imperfections.

The Grays launched their company in a garage in 1962, when Marie St. John began creating Chanel-like designs with a knitting loom and her then-fiance began selling them. By 1969, the company had sales of $1 million. Last year, St. John reported sales of more than $336 million.

The company went public in 1993. In recent years, Gray guided the company through a tumultuous time. In 1999, his family partnered with Vestar Capital Partners to buy back the company for $522 million.

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