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GOING COASTAL

When Robert and Marie Gray moved their fledgling, nine-year-old company from North Hollywood to Irvine in 1971, the Orange County enclave of developing tracts, lima bean farms and horse ranches was just undergoing incorporation as a city.<P>Also in...

When Robert and Marie Gray moved their fledgling, nine-year-old company from North Hollywood to Irvine in 1971, the Orange County enclave of developing tracts, lima bean farms and horse ranches was just undergoing incorporation as a city.

Also in its infancy was the county’s apparel industry. Yet, some three decades later, Orange County’s billion-dollar business has earned the nickname Velcro Valley, as it is home to a number of junior and streetwear apparel companies. Design and production based in Irvine tends to be of the quick turnaround variety — meaning T-shirts, jeans and boardshorts.

It’s not exactly the stuff of St. John’s sophisticated world of Ladies who Lunch and executive women who run governments and corporations. But just as the surf-happy owners of Quiksilver, Stussy and Ocean Pacific set up shop in Orange County, enamored with the coastal county’s quality of life, so the Grays have opted to maintain their headquarters here.

It’s had its challenges, acknowledged Robert Gray. The easy-to-wear knits are not easy to produce under the family’s strict standards.

As the company found the production, yarn processing and dyeing by its outside contractors to be unsatisfactory, it brought the work in-house. Factory workers undergo months of training before working the high tech linking machines or in the hand-finishing plants. A “cross-training” program allows skilled laborers to move from one kind of apparel construction to another or from season to season.

“Quality of product remains the motivating factor for staying here,” Gray noted. “But the quality of life has also been good for us and good for hundreds of our employees.”

The factories are only a walk or short drive away from the executive offices, which is key if the company is going to keep a close eye on quality, he added.

The main campus, which includes the studios, offices and some manufacturing, has expanded to 161,000 square feet. Another 470,000 square feet of factories are spread out in the Orange County cities of Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, in addition to Alhambra, San Ysidro and outside of Tijuana, Mexico. But even the last locale, chosen because of its lower labor costs, is only an hour flight away.

“I’m very proud of the fact that St John is an integral part of Orange County,” added Gray.

Not all the Grays have always been so enamored of the place. Not surprisingly, Kelly Gray had reservations about being so far from Seventh Avenue.

“You know, when I was younger I thought that it would be very hip and cool to be in New York and show on the New York runways,” said Kelly. “My father would have to tell me `It really would only hurt us. We’ve got this loyal customer following. If an editor decided that it wasn’t perfect for that season, you know it might jeopardize how our customers feel about the clothes. And they already feel so good about them.”

Years later, the younger Gray said she asked Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis what she thought of the company’s home base. “You know what she said? `You really don’t need to move, and thank your lucky stars that you don’t need to.’ She and my dad were right.”

St. John’s controlled growth has been as much about the company’s conservative strategy as it has been out of necessity, she added. “When we want to grow, we have to decide months ahead of time because we have to go through the whole training process to build up any particular department. It’s not as easy as just putting the word out and finding the right people on the spot. The challenges in the production are beyond what you can imagine. But the rewards — like being able to control the quality of the product — always pays off.”