By  on August 9, 2007

After a 16-month search, St. John has found a new chief executive officer.

Glenn McMahon, currently president of Dolce & Gabbana USA, has been tapped to head the $400 million Irvine, Calif.-based company, effective Sept. 1. He will report to the company's board.

"It's exciting to see their business is really back on track. It's a perfect time to be joining," McMahon, 48, told WWD on Wednesday.

His appointment was first reported on WWD.com Wednesday evening.

He replaces interim ceo Bruce Fetter, who will return to his role as president, chief operating officer at the company. Fetter had taken the reins from interim ceo Philip B. Miller, a St. John board member who agreed to take on the ceo's role for a year following the abrupt departure of former ceo Richard Cohen in April 2006. Cohen had taken the company away from its core customer.

Jim Kelley, chairman of St. John, explained that choosing McMahon wasn't a difficult decision. "It was very deliberate. Richard left March 31, 2006, and we brought back Marie and Kelly Gray [company co-founder and former creative director, respectively], Maria Lopez [former vice president of design] and Bruce Fetter. Phil Miller agreed to step in as an interim ceo and we weren't in a big rush. We had things covered and knew things needed to be done to correct the business," he said.

Kelley said the St. John business has picked up considerably in the past few months. "Our business is quite strong again, which allowed us to focus again on the search. It was a challenge to find somebody with Glenn's product sense, and we wanted to add someone with a real product sense and product knowledge, who was well steeped in the women's fashion business and had good general management sense."

During McMahon's two-year tenure at Dolce & Gabbana USA, he oversaw Dolce & Gabbana and D&G's wholesale and retail business in North America, as well as Dolce & Gabbana's business in Latin and South America. Earlier, he served as president of Ellen Tracy, executive vice president of Giorgio Armani Collezioni USA and vice president of Donna Karan.Officials at Dolce & Gabbana USA had no comment. Sources said McMahon's replacement hasn't been named yet.

Discussing St. John's business, Kelley described 2006 as "not a very good year for us. We lost our way with the product." However, this year has seen some major improvement at its wholesale accounts, which are up by double digits, and its own boutiques, "which are up significantly," said Kelley.

He said that, while Marie Gray and daughter Kelly have returned on a consulting basis, they are intimately involved with the product, and are "serving effectively as the creative directors for the brand."

"We're hopeful and believe it's a long-term relationship with Marie Gray and Kelly," he said.

Kelley said Angelina Jolie, who signed a multimillion-dollar deal to be the spokesmodel for St. John during Cohen's tenure, will be completing her three-year contract with the spring campaign. "We're shooting another campaign for the spring books and that will be the end of the contract," said Kelley. He said there are no plans to return to using Kelly Gray in the advertising (which St. John had done for 22 years), but otherwise the firm hasn't yet decided on a replacement for Jolie.

"Conventional wisdom says that campaigns do not use the same celebrity for multiple seasons. It's unusual to renew. We've been very pleased with the relationship with [Jolie] and it's been effective in terms of sales," said Kelley.

Among McMahon's first orders of business will be his relocation to Southern California. He said he plans to get to know the team and the board.

"There's a great team in place now. The agenda is in motion. With the 45th anniversary coming up [this fall], the board of directors has laid out a strategy to go forward and we agreed 100 percent," he said.

Among the opportunities are international business and refocusing their own retail stores. "A lot of exciting things are happening," he said.

Asked whether he hopes to entice younger customers to the brand or keep going after its loyal customers, McMahon said. "We have a multifaceted business. We have a loyal customer base. We did walk away from her and we're seeing her return. The challenge is to continue to keep the loyal customer, but to evolve the brand so we're attracting new customers also."According to retailers, St. John appears to be succeeding in its attempts to woo back its customers and rework its product after several disappointing seasons. While the company had been suffering from shrinking profits and sales prior to Cohen's arrival in 2004, the situation was exacerbated by his strategy to entice younger customers with a new fit. Many newer styles met resistance from loyal and mature customers, who said the designs didn't have the same quality and fit as their previous St. John clothes.

Under Miller, the company reassembled many of the executives who were responsible for its previous success, and focused on fixing the quality and fit issues. St. John convinced the Grays to return in consulting roles, and also rehired Fetter and Lopez. Two years ago, it hired chief merchant and head of design Lowell Breving from Hermès

St. John has been majority owned since 1999 by Vestar Capital Partners, a New York-based private equity firm, in partnership with the founding Gray family and several members of senior management.

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