Making a Full Circle: St. John Brings Back Grays in Design Roles

The search for a new chief executive goes on, but it's starting to look like old times at St. John.

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The search for a new chief executive goes on, but it’s starting to look like old times at St. John.

In recent months, not only has Marie Gray, co-founder and head designer of St. John, returned to the $400 million company, but so have Bruce Fetter, former co-president and chief operating officer; designer Maria D. Lopez, and Kelly Gray, former creative director.

“I am excited to be back as a creative consultant,” Kelly Gray told WWD on Wednesday. “And no, I’m not going to be back in the ads,” she added, referring to the iconic campaigns in which she modeled for more than 22 years.

Angelina Jolie, St. John’s current spokesmodel, again will appear in the fall ad campaign, which will be photographed soon. “You know I can’t give you the shoot dates,” Gray laughed. Lipman, an ad agency here, is guiding the overall look of the campaign, but Gray said she is “definitely a part of that creative team and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Gray declined to elaborate on her involvement with the apparel line. The clothes once again will take center stage in a fashion show at the Island Hotel in Irvine, Calif., on April 13. The event will cater to retailers and loyal customers more than the press, but it won’t be like the megashows of past years, which were held at the University of California-Irvine auditorium. The Irvine-based company hasn’t had a fashion show in two seasons.

In a telephone interview, Jim Kelley, chairman of St. John and president of Vestar Capital Partners, said the business is making a comeback, and that several former employees have been brought back. Philip Miller, who came on board as interim ceo in April following the departure of Richard Cohen, continues at St. John. However, sources said his tenure could be winding down since he’s been commuting back and forth between Irvine and New York. Kelley confirmed the search for a permanent ceo continues, but said no announcement is imminent.

“We lost our way for a while with the product. We’ve got the business back on track. Things are proceeding really well,” said Kelley.

This story first appeared in the March 15, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As for the return of Marie and Kelly Gray in creative roles, he said: “Both are consulting and working heavily with our creative staff in design and advertising. They’ve been terrific.”

The Grays both worked on the pre-fall collection that will be shown in Irvine, said Kelley.

In terms of the company’s apparel products, Kelly Gray said, “St. John has built some wonderful new business while we were gone. They have a phenomenal dress business, their flirty dresses are great and there are some new stitch developments. I’m excited about all of that.”

Marie Gray has been consulting for the brand for several months. But Kelly Gray’s return has been more under the radar, for the most part. Both abruptly resigned from the company in July 2005, almost a year after Cohen’s arrival, marking both an operational and symbolic turning point for the firm. In a series of sweeping changes, Cohen brought in industry veteran Tim Gardner as a consultant to work with the design team, switched several key executives, revamped the long-formulaic ad campaign featuring Kelly Gray and hired Jolie as the brand’s new face, all in an effort to reverse shrinking profits while positioning St. John as an American luxury house.

Following Cohen’s resignation, Gardner left the firm last summer, and Lopez returned in October as vice president of design.

Part of Cohen’s strategy was to entice younger customers to St. John, a scheme that fell short of expectations. Many of the newer styles met resistance from the brand’s loyal and mature customers, who claimed the designs didn’t have the same quality and fit as their previous St. John clothes.

Over the past year, Miller has worked to stabilize the company’s operations, regain its footing in the marketplace and resolve the fit and quality issues. Ron Frasch, president of Saks Fifth Avenue, said Wednesday that St. John, a major resource for the store, has been selling well.

Describing Marie and Kelly Gray’s roles, Kelley told WWD: “Both Marie and Kelly are providing influence in the creative direction and working with the design team.” He said Kelly Gray “provides a lot of input in terms of what’s going on in the marketplace and the way to merchandise the line.

“Each of them are doing some personal appearances,” added Kelley, noting that Kelly Gray recently did some personal appearances in Florida and at some St. John stores. He noted that Fetter has returned to his role as chief operating officer and president.

Kelley said that, when the firm finds someone “who can really add some value to the team,” it then will hire a new ceo.

During her brief tenure away from St. John, Marie Gray spent her time working on children’s charities and her golf game, while Kelly Gray became a partner with Mötley Crüe guitarist Nikki Sixx in a new men’s wear venture, Royal Underground, which she continues to do.

Ironically, in an interview last year, Marie Gray said she was happy to consult every once in a while for St. John, but doubted she’d ever return in a larger role.

“I don’t think you can ever go back,” Marie Gray told WWD last spring. “It’s important that the company moves forward….I was at it for 43 years. Now it’s good to have something else to focus on. But never say never.”

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