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HEADING FOR HOME

While the hallmark of St. John Knits Inc.'s apparel may be classic, the brand takes a more whimsical approach with its six-year-old home division.<P>Napkin rings festooned with an octopus or ladybug, glass dishes brushed in silver, cocktail shakers...

While the hallmark of St. John Knits Inc.’s apparel may be classic, the brand takes a more whimsical approach with its six-year-old home division.

This story first appeared in the June 18, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Napkin rings festooned with an octopus or ladybug, glass dishes brushed in silver, cocktail shakers with a lipstick motif and fuzzy leopard-print dog beds are only a few of the signature line’s offerings designed and produced in-house at its Costa Mesa, Calif., factory. The signature product can be viewed on the St. John Web site and ordered via an 800 number.

The St. John Home stores in Costa Mesa and Palm Desert, Calif., and a third outlet store in Primm, Nev., near Las Vegas, also offer dining tables, leather chairs and other furnishings from outside vendors in keeping with the St. John aesthetic.

Yet even with St. John’s famously loyal fans, the home division has been slow to claim a meaningful piece of the company’s $366 million in overall wholesale sales. To date, according to Bruce Fetter, sales of St. John signature home accessories “account for less than a percent, maybe $1 million to $2 million wholesale.” He added that the stores, filled with both product by St. John and other vendors, make up about $5 million in wholesale sales.

In fact, the home division is in a state of reconfiguration. A signature home store in Scottsdale, Ariz., closed earlier this month, and the future of its other units with a merchandise mix of signature and outside vendor product is being reviewed, said Fetter. But phasing out the category completely is not in the cards. The company believes the next step lies in expansion of nonapparel lines, be they footwear or stemware. “We see it as a potential growth business,” said Fetter.

St. John entered the home category in 1997 in a partnership with Amen Wardy Home, a family-owned firm based in Aspen, Colo. Kelly Gray and Amen Wardy Jr. had first met in the tony ski resort town in 1990. The deal called for a 51-49 percent ownership split between the Gray and Wardy families, respectively.

Within a year, there were six Amen Wardy Home stores stocking product designed by Wardy Jr. and sold under the St. John by Amen Wardy label. Doors were added in Palm Beach, Fla.; Boston, Dallas, Las Vegas, Costa Mesa and Scottsdale, Ariz.

But almost as quickly as it happened, the deal hit the skids. Wardy Jr. filed a wrongful termination lawsuit and accused St. John Knits and the Grays of improper business practices. Despite countersuits and a nasty public trial, the families reached an “amicable” settlement by the following April when the Grays paid the Wardys a one-time settlement of $1.68 million. The Wardys kept the Aspen and Las Vegas units. The Costa Mesa and Scottsdale stores were renamed St. John Home. And the remaining doors were shuttered.

Going forward, Kelly Gray echoes her co-president in stressing the company’s renewed interest in Fetter bolstering the home business. For starters, she had a hand in designing the wine glasses and card and napkin holders decorated with painted brass roses and leafy vines. She gave the items a test run at her wedding in March.

The roses will likely appear by holiday, said Gray. For fall, St. John continues its love of safari themes with lions, zebras, monkeys and other jungle creatures embellishing crystal glassware, picture frames, and swizzle sticks, among other items.

In addition to its current variety of motifs, St. John introduced a “Salute to America” collection soon after the Sept. 11 disaster. A crystal and enamel Old Glory appears on a $130 crystal-covered pill box, $250 flag ice buckets, $75 cork stoppers, $190 flag pillows and a $60 remembrance flag pin. So far, the company has donated $498,000 from sales proceeds to the New York City Twin Towers Fund and the New York State World Trade Center Disaster Relief Fund.

With the new footwear and handbag program being the most immediate priority, Gray admitted that the home accessories development is happening at a slower pace.

“We can’t do everything at once, so we are slowly building the home product line. It takes so long to get the right product. It’s going to happen, but not overnight.”