HOUSTON — Consider it the Gray family version of "The Great Escape." As a coda to the 40th-anniversary celebrations of St. John, the founding family set out on a nine-city tour over two days this month that had them zig-zagging the Southwestern U.S., visiting many of their stores while raising money for several children’s charities from sales."We come from a very competitive family," joked Kelly Gray, creative director, signature model and new co-chief executive officer of St. John, at a pep rally for Neiman Marcus sales associates at the Galleria in Houston. "So we’ve got to beat the Grays who are at Neiman’s in Troy, Mich., this morning. What’s their goal — $150,000? We want to win!"Gray’s obvious affection for her parents, Bob and Marie Gray, founders of St. John, doesn’t preclude wanting to beat them in a healthy game of cross-country jet-setting and spring trunk shows.The trio set out on two private jets — Gray in one, her parents in another — each with their spring collection, an entourage of models and company executives to confab with St. John’s best customers.Gray rocketed to Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta and Las Vegas over two days. Meanwhile, her parents romped to Troy, Mich.; Chicago; McClean, Va., and Costa Mesa, Calif. More than $5 million was notched in sales from the nine appearances as well as 250 events held at St. John outposts nationwide. Two percent of sales will be donated to the charities.Wearing a long black tie-back duster, black wide-leg pants, a crisp white blouse and sporting an eye-popping three-stone, emerald-cut diamond wedding ring from new husband Kurt Conrad, Gray fielded questions from wide-eyed Neiman’s associates.Net sales for fiscal 2002, ended Oct. 31, were between $360 million and $370 million.(Final tabulations are not yet in.)After the rally, 200 loyalists heartily applauded a parade of St. John fashions done up in Texas glitz with rhinestone cowboy hats topping elegant evening columns."My mother suggested that I buy some St. John because it’s stylish and has a forgiving fit," purred new mother Kym Johnson, decked out in a black knit ruffle-front shirt jacket, hailed as one of this season’s best sellers. "Well, let me tell you, I’m addicted.""Neiman’s [chairman and ceo] Burt Tansky is calling it the million-dollar jacket," Gray said, discreetly eyeing the clock. "I’ve already sold 700 of them at Neiman’s, and if we sell 900 it’ll equate to $1 million in sales."Another crowd was awaiting her arrival in Dallas some 240 miles north at an evening cocktail party. Gray stepped into a waiting black limousine, which sped to a private runway at Houston’s Hobby Airport to an idling sleek white and red striped Falcon jet. Settling back with a diet Coke in the plane’s amber leather seats, Gray shifted into ceo mode.St. John has aggressive growth plans over the next three years, she said, including the relaunch of a women’s fragrance, the debut of a handbag line this month, renovating and expanding some U.S. flagships and kicking off European and Asian retail expansions: A new flagship is set to open next June in Japan. In Dallas, a steady drizzle greeted the St. John plane as it landed on a private runway near Love Field Airport. Still, Gray slipped on her trademark oversized sunglasses and stepped into a waiting stretch limousine, which took her to the hotel for a quick respite before her next stop.The next evening, more than 600 St. John groupies turned out at the flagship at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa to exalt Bob and Marie Gray, culminating their four-city tour.The Grays arrived in McClean, Va., only hours before the reception was in full swing, after having visited in-store shops at Neiman’s in Troy and Marshall Field’s in Chicago over the weekend."I focus on the customer," said Marie Gray, looking fresh despite the jet lag, explaining St. John’s four decades of popularity. "They are the most loyal customers on the planet. I try not to worry about being trendy or newsworthy. She’s spending the money so why not make her happy?"Enamored is putting it mildly. St. John customers can border on obsessive. "I have well over a 100 outfits in my closet," admitted one of St. John’s ardent customers, Maria Camello, posing in a bronze sequined, fur-collared jacket with matching skirt."I even sleep naked in their fur coats," she whispered. "There’s nothing better after a hot bath." Carol Beckman runs up her credit card three times a month on average with St. John purchases. "I call my closet my St. John boutique," she said, sheepishly. Maggie Kavoussi joked she almost single-handedly contributes to the Irvine, Calif.-based firm’s bottom line. "It’s very bad because I’m a shop-a-holic," confessed the computer buyer, noting she spends nearly all of her $400,000 salary on St. John clothes and accessories. "I have absolutely no savings but I have a walk-in closet full of about 250 outfits."

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