By  on May 1, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Breaking her silence for the first time since stepping down last July from St. John, the company she cofounded 44 years ago, Marie Gray, who remains a member of its board and retains a minority stake, discussed the brand, the end of Richard Cohen's tenure last month and what she's been doing lately.

Speaking from her home in Newport Coast, Calif., Gray still sounds as vital and gracious as she did when she was the company's vocal head designer. But the most noticeable trait in her voice now is an air of relaxation and, perhaps, a bit of relief. "There were an awful lot of changes," she said with a sigh. "I hope this coming year the company refocuses on the customer and the quality."

Of the Cohen era, during which she and daughter Kelly Gray, St. John's creative director, stepped back from day-to-day operations, she was succinct: "How do I view his tenure? Brief."

When asked about the layoffs, in which Cohen downsized the workforce by an estimated 200 people, Gray paused. "We really hated that. Our employees…from the beginning, were like family, and to disrupt lives was hard."

Though she has stepped away from daily involvement, Gray continues to keep in touch with some of St. John's loyal customers. "Even today they send me photos wearing their favorite St. Johns to the most important occasions," she said.

Gray called creating the collections "my passion." Although she is no longer involved in their design, she still has opinions. "I would say perhaps [the current collection] is a little too forced."

Whether or not old and new customers respond to the clothes remains to be seen. Classic St. John suits are still a part of the fall 2006 collection, along with trendy knit dresses, balloon skirts and cashmere wraps. Since Gray stepped down and Tim Gardner became creative director, the most widespread laments from customers were that the clothes became too small and too contemporary, and that the trusty, recognizable knit pieces had all but disappeared.

"It's possibly true," said Gray. "They love what they love." Of the reported disappearance of sizes 16 and 18, Gray said: "That was an unfortunate mistake that I'm told has been corrected."Gray summed up her idea of a classic St. John look: "It was so recognizable from head to toe, sort of chic elegant. It could take you from your flight to the boardroom to dinner and you never had to worry about whether your clothes looked wrecked."

Although she deferred to interim chief executive officer Phil Miller on St. John's future, Gray noted: "It is the hope of every designer to get the chic young customer as well as the chic older customer."

When pressed about whether the company needed to take a younger, more contemporary turn, she demurred: "Perhaps. But I'm not the perfect person to ask. I never put an age on anything or even discussed the word age. It's a mental state and if you have a busy lifestyle, you lose track of how many birthdays you have. At least, you do when you get to my age.

"I know many families with multigenerations of St. John lovers. My mother, who will be 94 this year, is so vital and amazing. You should see my mother in her favorite St. John. She looks stunning," said Gray.

Above all, she said, "it was a pride in wearing something that was really beautiful and had a great reputation, and you pass that on to your next generation."

These days, Gray is focusing on other passions, such as children's charities and golf. An avid athlete in the days "before the company became all-consuming," Gray has returned to the links with a vengeance, competing in various golf tournaments around Orange County. "The mind remembers, but the body really doesn't," she said with a laugh. "But I'm very competitive by nature, and I hope to return to [my old] handicap." Her husband, Bob, who stepped down as chairman in 2002, often accompanies her on the greens, although he no longer plays.

On the future of St. John, Gray said: "I don't think you can ever go back. It's important that the company moves forward. But it will be especially important that the new ceo clearly understands the roots and history of the company."Whether Gray's role will increase in the company's next phase remains to be seen. "That's a tough question," she said, adding with a laugh: "I had a great round of golf today." Becoming serious again, she said, "I was at it for 43 years. Now it's good to have something else to focus on. But never say never."

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