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."

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