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Exclusive: Vera, St. John In Design Talks

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.

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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.

In addition to Wang, sources said St. John could be hiring three new male designers by March 1 to head up its various divisions. All three prospects hail from companies such as Louis Vuitton and Prada, although their names couldn’t be learned. St. John plans to show its fall collection on March 22, as the last show during L.A. Fashion Week.

Since Cohen came aboard as ceo of St. John in mid-2004, the company has moved in a dramatically new direction. For starters, it severed its relationship with co-founder and designer Marie Gray, as well as the founder’s daughter and creative director, Kelly Gray. It also brought in an outside ad agency, shook up employees from the executive ranks on down and retained industry veteran Gardner as a consultant to work with the design team since at least last January.

This past fall, St. John selected Gisele Bündchen as its new face, replacing Kelly Gray, who had starred in the firm’s campaigns for more than two decades. Bündchen was photographed by Mario Testino in a Hollywood Hills mansion, surrounded by several extras in costume. It was a nod to the past campaign with Gray and her constant cadre of boy toys. Then in the fall, the company signed an advertising contract with Jolie, and set up a children’s charity on her behalf. The new black-and-white spring images of Jolie, photographed by Testino, show her in an evening dress, reclining in bed and reading.

In another effort to raise its profile, St. John chose to participate in L.A. Fashion Week for the first time in October. Historically, buyers from Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and its other main accounts, as well as top customers from cities such as Dallas and Chicago, turned out twice yearly at a university auditorium near St. John’s headquarters for a runway presentation and cocktail party.

Wang, whose business has sales at retail of about $300 million, has been on a roll lately, and has raised her profile significantly in the past few years. In June, she was given the Council of Fashion Designers of America women’s wear designer of the year award, and in November, she flew to Shanghai to accept the international fashion designer of the year award at the China Fashion Awards.

Having started her bridal business at the age of 40 after stints at Vogue magazine and Ralph Lauren, Wang has been on a mission to gain acceptance as a ready-to-wear designer and to shed her image as only one of the country’s foremost bridal designers. The company has been working to extend Wang’s foothold beyond the bridal market by offering a mix of products catering to a woman’s complete lifestyle. While most of her licenses thus far have been bridal-related, the firm is negotiating for other categories, as well as international deals. Currently, her label is available on products such as rtw, sunglasses, fine jewelry, fragrance, stationery, china and crystal. The company successfully launched a lower-priced dress line in 150 doors for spring 2005. And this month, Wang opened her first lifestyle boutique at the Halekulani resort in Hawaii, showcasing her broad array of products.

Another strategy for Wang has been to reach different segments of the market. While her bridalwear and designer sportswear lines are geared to the high end of the market, Wang has shown a keen interest in targeting the mass consumer as well. For two years, Wang has been in negotiations with Regatta Pacific Alliance about designing a less expensive sportswear line for mass distribution. Haim Dabah, chairman and ceo of Regatta Pacific Alliance, couldn’t be reached Friday to comment on how those negotiations were progressing. Sources said the two parties are still in talks about a moderately priced line for a store like Kohl’s Corp., and the negotiations could potentially lead to Dabah owning a majority interest in Wang’s business.

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