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St. John Clicking as It Turns 45

After a year of wooing back customers and reworking product, sales at St. John are rising and retailers appear encouraged.

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IRVINE, Calif. — After a year of wooing back customers and reworking product, sales at St. John are rising and retailers appear encouraged.

The $400 million company based here says it has something to celebrate as it marks 45 years in business. Looking ahead, St. John plans brand extensions into shoes, jewelry, handbags, eyewear and eventually fragrance, as well as a facelift for stores.

“Sales are up and our wholesale partners are pleased,” interim chief executive officer Bruce Fetter said. “The customer has been responding well to pre-fall and we’ve seen that through interaction and improved sell-through.”

Ann Stordahl, executive vice president of women’s apparel at Neiman Marcus, echoed Fetter.

“[Sell-through] has been very strong,” she said. “We have had a marketing campaign to target the core St. John customer who may have temporarily left the brand or was buying less, and we have had good results starting with the pre-fall collection. Our core customers have been purchasing more than they have in the past. Customers are very aware of [co-founder] Marie Gray being back and are very excited by that.”

Stordahl said the customers are most pleased with St. John’s return to a traditional fit. “The change in fit was the biggest hindrance to sales, and customers are now telling us they are very comfortable with the new fit…the evolution of the brand, the new marketing and the strength of the dress classification, which has had a bigger penetration in the brand, has all helped.”

Debbie Palazzo, president of Miss Jackson’s in Tulsa, Okla., which has been selling St. John for decades, said, “You can see the difference very quickly. It’s probably too early to tell on a long-term basis, but we are very encouraged and pleased with the new direction [of the line].”

Fetter attributed the brand’s change of fortune to chief merchant and head of design Lowell Breving, and Marie Gray and her daughter, former creative director Kelly Gray, who are consulting. The Grays, along with Fetter, who had been co-president and chief operating officer, and vice president of design Maria D. Lopez all returned to St. John after the departure of Richard Cohen as president and ceo in April 2006.

Part of Cohen’s strategy to reverse shrinking profits was to entice younger customers to St. John, a plan that fell short. 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.

“Most of our designers have been here prior to the Richard Cohen days and they understand the customer,” Fetter said.

St. John, which is still seeking a permanent ceo, implemented a “win back” program targeting its best customers.

“We took a real rifle-shot look at our most loyal customers who had not been shopping as of late, and we reached out to them with special marketing materials and incentives to let them know St. John is back doing the kinds of things they would recognize,” Fetter said.

To celebrate the milestone year, the company created an anniversary collection of signature knits inspired by classic styles in the St. John archives. The gold, silver and black pieces will hit stores in September.

“It’s a lively collection based on a lot of the vintage pieces Mrs. Gray started the line with,” Kelly Gray said. “There is a lot of eyelet and stitching detail and very fluid, deconstructed silhouettes. It’s versatile and seasonless and the metallics bring to mind anniversaries and celebration.”

Also in September, the company will stage another runway show in Orange County to present its resort and spring collections.

The company, in partnership with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization, created the St. John Collection for a Cause, eight limited edition looks in pink with dark brown and cream accents that will go on sale in St. John boutiques in October, with 10 percent of proceeds going to the foundation dedicated to finding a cure for breast cancer.

“Mom, Lowell and I agonized for weeks over that pink, and we changed our minds three times before we decided on it,” Kelly Gray said. “We wanted the line to integrate with what we’ve done for fall.”

The company is also venturing back into nonclothing categories. Shoes and jewelry will be back in boutiques for holiday, handbags and eyewear around Jan. 1. The company has found licensing partners, but declined to disclose them. “We would rather make a big splash with our partners,” Fetter said, adding that St. John is also looking to reenter the fragrance market.

Although the product seems to be finding a balance again (the classic suits are more visible in the latest batch of ads starring Angelina Jolie), the stores are due for freshening. The appointment of former Cole Haan and Nordstrom executive Rick Chilcott as executive vice president of retail comes as the company is working to create a prototype for a new look. It should be completed in four months, then installed in three stores: at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., in Dallas and Palm Beach, Fla.

“The idea is to take a look at three different-sized stores and see how concepts work in different formats and from there we will develop strategies to take the concepts further,” Fetter said. “We’ll have to see how the customer responds before implementing it in other locations.”

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