By and  on February 4, 2006

NEW YORK — First Angelina, and now Vera?

St. John continues to surprise as it rushes to reinvent itself, and the latest development is that Vera Wang is said to be in intense negotiations to become creative director of the 40-year-old Irvine, Calif.-based apparel firm.

"We don't comment on rumors," a Wang spokeswoman said Friday. Richard Cohen, chief executive officer of St. John, sidestepped the subject of Wang altogether and threw his support behind the company's design consultant, Tim Gardner. "Tim Gardner is our creative director and we have great confidence in both him and his team," he said Friday.

However, sources close to the company said St. John is heavily negotiating with Wang, and that she could be on board in time for next month's fashion show during L.A. Fashion Week. While a deal could fall apart at any time, sources said the talks are serious.

Despite Cohen's outward support of Gardner on Friday, it was unusual the designer did not take a bow at the end of the company's runway presentation in Los Angeles in October. Asked at the time about Gardner's fate at St. John, Cohen said a "brand new" designer would be announced in about a month and sources indicated at the time that it would be a major name.

The appointment of Wang would be a boon to St. John, which is on a mission to attract a wider and younger client base. Last fall, the company rocked the industry by naming Angelina Jolie to a multiyear advertising contract in an effort to shake its musty image and gain a glamorous cool quotient. One of its other initiatives is to become a resource for the red carpet, a venue that has long eluded the company. Most stylists agree the house would need to shake off its staid image as a practical source for the Ladies Who Lunch and female business and political leaders before they would start showing their clothes to their celebrity clients. With Wang behind the St. John label, the company could start getting the attention of stylists who make those decisions.

Although St. John remains one of the best-selling brands at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, with a cult following for its crease-free knit suits and gowns, profits have tipped in recent years. While sales rose 7 percent to $395.6 million in fiscal 2004 from the previous year, profits dropped to $13.4 million, according to the company's earnings report. That is 10 percent lower than 2003 and 44 percent lower than in 2000.

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