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LOS ANGELES — As the long-time face of St. John, Kelly Gray placed herself in some pretty exotic situations.

King Kong, a mafia clan and a battalion of gladiators, however, did not factor into the jet-set lifestyle of the brand’s ads during Gray’s 22-year reign in them.

But as the Irvine, Calif.-based brand enters a new phase, with its $5 million campaign starring Gisele Bündchen that will break in September, the brand is striking out in the kind of dramatic fashion that makes it clear where the company is from — and where it’s going.

“Everything is about positioning the brand as an American luxury house,” said David Lipman, chief of New York-based ad agency Lipman. “It’s based on this California-centric world. Hollywood is the sizzle and California is the soul.”

The Lipman agency was hired last fall and was given the mission of overhauling the company’s image as part of its repositioning strategy. 

Bündchen is from Brazil, but Lipman is quick to note that she “is now in L.A.; she’s somewhat of a starlet.” As the on-again-off-again-on-again girlfriend of Leonardo DiCaprio (she attended the Academy Awards with him this year), she certainly sees her share of the red carpet.

“It was important to have someone with a bigness of personality who could deliver that theatrical side to the campaign,” Lipman said. “No matter what you have to say about Kelly Gray [daughter of company founders Robert and Marie Gray] in those ads all these years, she has a theatrical side, and I respect that. Replacing that face of 20 years is not easy. But Gisele could do it, and that was an important first step.”

And nothing says theatrical more than a story of a glamorous Hollywood actress hard at work both behind the scenes and on set. Based on the idea of film outtakes, the dozen images were photographed in mid-June by Mario Testino and styled by Camilia Nickerson at a private home in Hollywood.

In the images, Bündchen appears seated on a sofa in a snug-fitting paillette-studded sweater and pencil skirt, reviewing a script with a director. In another, she’s seated in a director’s chair. The script is still in hand as she stands at a marble stairwell in an evening gown, with an extra dressed in a gorilla costume holding his costume’s head.

This story first appeared in the July 25, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

There are even a couple of nods to Gray’s ads: in one, a matador, in another natty extras in white navy uniforms. And in almost all of them, the cameras, cables and lights associated with filming a scene are part of the shot.

The first images will bow in the September issues of Vogue, W, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest, Departures and Town and Country. The next five will break in October.

How will this departure resonate with St. John devotees? The hundreds who fly in from around the country twice a year to watch the company’s runway shows in Irvine have always oohed and aahed over the video segments of photo shoots showing Gray rolling on the sands on some faraway island or striking a pose on a sandy desert — always surrounded by beefcake.

The new concept, noted Lipman, is “where St . John was — but takes it 20 degrees further. It’s not Gisele and her boys. It’s not that at all,” he pointed out, in reference to the many hunks who endlessly inhabited the ads featuring Gray. In this new world, the men are still extras — but literally, in the movie sense.

 “We’ve taken the past and modernized it, made it more current, a little more fashion. And made it a lot bigger than what it was. We haven’t walked away from anything from the last two decades of St. John. What I really respected that Kelly Gray did is that you could put your hand over the logo and still know it was a St. John ad.”

Going for the “wow” factor was a goal, he added, “but we wanted to take it seriously. There is a sense of humor in some of the setups, sure. But in the end, it’s very glamourous. These images are saying this is going to be a luxury brand.”

As for whether Bündchen will be back for spring, Lipman and St. John company sources insist they are only now considering the next campaign. Part of the reason, he said, was that this campaign was not only shot so late, there were also stressful delays because of the July 7 terrorist attacks in London. “The ads were being retouched there when the bombs went off, and it detained the process for days,” he said.

Lipman explained that the mission is about “evolving the company into a new identity. This was the first step of the first campaign of the new regime,” he said.

The Gray family sold a majority in St. John to Vestar Capital in 1999. In the past year, there have been several key executive changes at the company as it primes for a new emphasis in the market, particularly attracting a younger consumer share.

“The next step, we’ll go forward even more,” said Lipman, “and even more the next time after that — there will be bigger changes to come.”

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