Gardner Said Exiting St. John

Tim Gardner, creative director of St. John during its recent period of turbulence, is expected to leave the company by the end of the month.

LOS ANGELES — Tim Gardner, creative director of St. John during its recent period of turbulence, is expected to leave the company by the end of the month, sources close to St. John told WWD Monday. While no successor has been named, sources speculated that retired co-founder Marie Gray could be preparing a return to the company in an unspecified design role.

Under the direction of former chief executive officer Richard Cohen, Gardner redesigned the line beginning with the spring 2006 collection to appeal to a younger and hipper customer. He brought in new fabrics such as silk, chiffon and gabardine, reduced the sizing and cut slimmer, less forgiving silhouettes. Loyal customers immediately rejected the changes, which led to a sharp decline in sales.

Discussions had been held with Narciso Rodriguez, Derek Lam, Behnaz Sarafpour, Proenza Schouler and Vera Wang about taking over as creative director of the brand, but none of those negotiations resulted in a deal.

As recently as May, interim ceo Phillip Miller pledged his allegiance to Gardner, saying, “We’re not looking to bring a designer in. Tim Gardner is heading up the design team of very competent people who have been there for years. Right now we’ve got a design team in place that will finish this year out.”

Instead, the firm addressed design and merchandising problems by naming Lowell Breving, who had been head of St. John stores, to the new position of production development head, working with Gardner and Max Weinstein, executive vice president of operations and production. Ralph Polese, head of St. John Asia, succeeded Breving last month.

Gardner, who became creative director last August after Marie Gray stepped down as head designer, joined the company in early 2005 as a consultant. Prior to St. John, he was creative director of Susan Dell’s Phi company, and before that he held the same title at Calvin Klein from 1996 to 2002. He also worked as a key designer for Jil Sander.

Neither Gardner nor Miller was available for comment at press time.

At the moment, it looks as though the $400 million company is without a designer, at least at the senior level. Gardner’s second-in-command, Maria D. Lopez, resigned in May. Over the summer, a junior designer who had worked under Marie Gray was rehired and remains at the company.

This story first appeared in the July 18, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

And while it is unclear whether Gray plans to step back into action, last May — in the period shortly after Cohen’s departure — she said, “Never say never.”