A woman spurned

Times Staff Writer

HERE come the St. John ladies. Strolling into the richly remodeled Fairmont hotel in Newport Beach, radiating an expensive gloss in perfectly matched ensembles, golden chains and glittery jewelry.

Two hundred of them are filling a ballroom on an August Tuesday afternoon, to see a charity fashion show of the St. John Knits fall line and, especially, to see Marie Gray, the founding designer who stepped down a year ago. It is the kind of occasion that calls for pulling out your St. John best.

And they did -- their old St. John.

Most of the loyalists, some of whom had driven more than an hour to attend the $95 luncheon, wore looks from two, three and five years ago. That’s when St. John was known for classic, forgiving wool knit suits trimmed with glittery buttons, vivid colors and heat-set paillettes. The only women wearing the new look -- unadorned, sleeveless shift dresses, earth-tone sheaths with matching wide shawls, or clingy, plunging cocktail dresses -- were those paid to wear it: publicists, saleswomen and St. John employees.


When the show was over, you could practically hear the raspberries.

“It didn’t give me that ‘wow’ that makes me want to go out and buy,” said Marsha Calig, president of Calig Travel, an Encino travel agency, who wore a square-cut jacket from several seasons back.

“I wish I was skinny,” lamented her statuesque friend, Phyllis Cohen-Edwards, a longtime South Bay real estate agent who devotes a third of her wardrobe to the line, but who hasn’t bought much of it lately.

Here’s a lesson: Never spurn older women with money. St. John’s year-and-a-half-old plan to capture a younger customer and update the luxury company’s fusty image has backfired and killed the cash cow -- the loyal, mature customers who built the Irvine-based knitwear maker into a $400-million luxury apparel powerhouse.

It was with the spring 2006 collection that St. John announced to the world that it was after a younger woman. Practically overnight, the 44-year-old company seem to change from the conservative standard-bearer for serious professionals like Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Los Angeles lawyer Gloria Allred to a sexier, sophisticated brand, hoping to be the next Burberry, Gucci or Chanel.

The surface changes were big. After more than two decades, St. John heiress and longtime company model Kelly Gray was out of the ad campaigns, and leggy Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen was in. A month later, St. John hired tabloid sensation Angelina Jolie for a reported $12 million to star in ads, lead a new charity and presumably connect with Hollywood and younger customers.

‘Direction has changed’

Behind the scenes, new executives and designers replaced the old guard -- including the company’s founders, the entire Gray family. Only Marie Gray remained in a board position, but her touch was lost on the clothes.

Gone was the forgiving fit. The new styles were cut so much smaller, the company developed a two-tier sizing system: the classic “Rodeo” fit and the sleeker, new “Melrose” fit.

Gone were the complexion-friendly colors and the twinkly sprinkles. Now the clothes come in earth tones, have fabric-covered or wooden buttons and asymmetric necklines and require, perhaps, what used to be called a girdle.

“They didn’t want us anymore,” said Noreen Wood, a longtime customer. “Isn’t that awful?” Wood arrived at the Newport Beach event in a stretch limousine wearing all St. John: gold-trimmed ivory suit, matching hat, bag, jewelry and shoes. She made a sour face when asked how she liked the fall show. “I like the traditional look.... I don’t want trendy, young things. I want classic pillars.”

Her limo partner, Marlene Madsen, a Seal Beach interior decorator also dressed head-to-toe in vintage St. John, said the company has abandoned what made it good. “Everybody knows when you have a St. John you know what you’re doing,” she said.

But now, no one is quite sure what St. John is doing. The company’s spokesmen have refused interview requests with executives, and controlled reporters’ access to Marie Gray at the event. They’re tight-lipped on plans for Jolie’s charity or other initiatives. There are also none of the standard company-issued statements about positive customer reactions, such as record-setting trunk shows. The designer hired to update the look, Tim Gardner, left the company earlier this month and hasn’t been replaced. But for months before his departure, the fashion press has speculated about a different designer taking the helm -- a long list including Vera Wang, Narciso Rodriguez, Behnaz Sarafpour and Derek Lam.

Meanwhile, to right the ship, Marie Gray is returning to the company’s design studio every week as a consultant, “to perhaps instill some of the philosophies that were very important to me and the St. John customers and members of the team,” Gray said at the luncheon.

She wasn’t wearing the new look either.

At the lunch, longtime members of the St. John design team said customers have been vocal about their displeasure with the changes in everything from buttons to color choices.

“She spoke up clearly and we heard her,” said Mdivani Monroe, a senior designer, of the loyal customer. “The direction has changed.”

And that includes the fit. In coming collections, silhouettes will again be roomier, armholes larger and fits adjusted so that a size 6 is no longer a 4. (Still, a St. John 6 is like a 10 elsewhere.)

“The new direction was too far from what our customer relies on and needs for her lifestyle,” said Dorie Wishmyer, a senior designer with St. John for 19 years. “The change was for a different customer and too much of the line was devoted to it.”

Now the updated looks -- those with a lean silhouette and less ornamentation -- will represent the smallest share of the line and the classics will make up the majority, the designers said. Further, upcoming collections will return to the jewelry-type buttons and clear, vivid colors.

On the sales floor, the changes require a willingness to experiment. Kimberlee McKeon, a personal shopper for Nordstrom in Brea, has been successfully selling pieces of the new fall line to match the old basics. (Prices have also jumped higher in the collections, making a jacket that used to be $900 cost up to $1,300, for example.)

McKeon isn’t selling as many full ensembles, she said, but has been coaxing reluctant buyers into leathers, softer colors and, because of a slimmer silhouette, bigger sizes. “I tell them, ‘Don’t look at the number,’ ” McKeon said.

The retooled spring collection that Gardner presented in October at Los Angeles Fashion Week was greeted warmly by the media, but it wasn’t featured in fashion magazine layouts. Sally Singer, the fashion news and features editor for Vogue, said the new collections don’t go far enough.

“There was a radical shift in image, perhaps, before there was a radical shift in design,” Singer said. St. John has “all the right elements to become a top American luxury brand on a broad scale,” she said, but that won’t happen it finds the right person to design the clothes. Until a new designer is named -- probably many months from now -- Marie Gray is the guiding light.

For all its high-fashion aspirations, St. John has apparently stopped doing Fashion Week runway shows. It abruptly canceled its fall show at Los Angeles Fashion Week in March and will not be showing its spring line here or in New York this fall.

Angelina Jolie? Seriously?

The West Coast’s largest designer apparel company is also without a permanent chief executive. Menswear veteran Richard Cohen, who launched most of the big changes, left the company in April after less than a year on the job. Philip B. Miller, a former Saks Fifth Avenue chairman and a current St. John board member, has been interim chief executive since Cohen’s departure. He said the company was closing in on a new CEO, who will have the task of choosing a new designer.

They will have a lot of work to do, starting with the ads. Though many admire Jolie, longtime customers don’t find her a credible choice for St. John.

“The Angelina Jolie thing is just silly,” said Priscilla Wright of Hancock Park. “She is so far removed from who their customer is, it’s just kind of laughable. You know she would never wear those clothes.”

As a former executive at Gray Advertising in L.A., Wright relied on the classic knits, but now, she and her friends rarely consider it. “No one says, ‘Did you see what they had out for fall?’ ” Wright said. “No one would be caught dead in it.”

“I think Angelina Jolie is tacky. St. John is elegant,” said Rebecca Goodell, a Los Angeles attorney who has worn the line for years, but not lately.

Lori Dolan Frymark, a Pasadena stockbroker, moved on to Giorgio Armani and shipped her St. John to her mother. No matter that the clothes were classic and well made. Said Dolan Frymark, “I shop and think, ‘What happened to this brand?’ ”