The signature scent — introduced in 1994 and bottled in a round, fanned-out flask with a shiny gold top that was designed in-house by Marie Gray — is a floriental, with fresh night-blooming florals such as jasmine, moonflower and gardenia at its heart.
White Camellia bowed four years later, its top notes including mandarin, cassias buds, jasmine and Bulgarian rose, with a heart of peony and geranium and a dry-down of sandalwood, amber and musk. Its lightness is embodied in the clear, modern bottle topped with a frosted silver cap.
Yet St. John hasn’t quite smelled success with its two offerings; the company won’t even comment on sales. Evidently, figures have scarcely registered in the company’s overall take, which includes ready-to-wear, jewelry, accessories and home products.
Although distributed in its 250 retail doors, including all of St. John’s 26 signature boutiques and 10 outlet stores, the fragrance and its stable of scented spinoffs — bath salts, body creams, shower gels and candles — remain novelties.
There was a concerted push to promote them through the Nineties, as evidenced by the ad campaign’s central image: that of Kelly Gray, dressed in black and standing against a black background, all the better to focus on her platinum-haired head, her chunky gold earrings and grand necklace and an oversized version of the gold signature bottle she’s embracing. (The image also serves as the cover of the coffee table book St. John published on its 35th anniversary.)
Five years later, the two scents, created by the Geneva-based manufacturer Firmenich, don’t even warrant recognition in the company’s press kit. But the company insists the fragrances are not fading out — they’re just in a kind of holding pattern. They haven’t been dropped from the Web site, after all.
In fact, as the company enters a new era of expansion, it has hardly given up on the idea of beauty. Could lipsticks and eye shadows also become part of St. John’s overall scheme to expand its lifestyle offerings?
Chief executive officer Robert Gray’s take on the topic is brief yet direct. Asked if anything is under development beyond fragrance, he carefully answered, “Currently, no.” Yet it’s possible? “Absolutely,” he replied, with a telling grin.
Industry observers caution that the beauty game is not for the casual participant. “The cosmetics industry today is for big players with enough capital to do it right,” observed New York-based industry marketing consultant Allan Mottus.
What’s more, department stores no longer hold all the cards, with the expansion of such beauty retailers as Sephora and the growth of the mass market. And for a brand like St. John, which is heavily invested in better department chains such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, that’s something to consider in any future plan.
The company’s strategy seems to reflect this outlook. Fragrance and beauty, although admittedly not the priorities that footwear and handbags are right now, are still undergoing evaluation for new opportunities, according to the Grays and Bruce Fetter.
“We need to determine — likely in a partnership with a larger player — how significant the St. John image can be in this category,” Fetter conceded. “We’re very excited about the potential. It will certainly be a focus for us in the future. We do think it can eventually become a strategic growth vehicle.”
Mottus also cautioned that the very nature of today’s cosmetics industry seems to be at odds with the St. John philosophy. “The cosmetics game is going more to the flash, the designers who have the notoriety, the high style. The more notoriety they receive, the better it is for their sales. The game as it’s played today doesn’t really favor [St. John’s] kind of distribution and marketing.”
In fact, Motter believes, St. John may want to forgo it altogether. “The fashion scene today has nothing synonymous with high quality and taste. And that hasn’t been what St John has been about.”