By  on September 13, 2005

LOS ANGELES — First Kelly, then Gisele and now Angelina.

Following the surprising replacement this fall of longtime campaign model and founding daughter Kelly Gray with supermodel Gisele Bündchen, the St. John knitwear brand is said to have signed on statuesque superstar, U.N. ambassador and tabloid favorite Angelina Jolie for its 2006 run.

The move — which the Irvine, Calif.-based fashion house is expected to announce in a press conference this week — is only the latest in chief executive officer Richard Cohen's dramatic remake of St. John.

There has been no shortage of surprises since the British-born Cohen assumed the reins from the founding family of the 40-year-old brand a year ago.

Cohen's leadership was underscored following months of executive announcements when in late July, company co-founder and designer Marie Gray and her daughter, Kelly, the creative director and perennial ad star, submitted their resignations. Although expected — Marie Gray's contract was up in December — the timing came as a surprise to many longtime employees within the company.

A new head designer has yet to be announced. But industry veteran Tim Gardner, who's worked as creative director for Calvin Klein and, most recently, PHI, has been consulting with the in-house design team since at least the start of the year.

The Grays' departure came on the heels of the announcement that the Brazilian glamazon Bündchen — a 360-degree departure from Kelly Gray, who posed for the signature ads for more than two decades — would personify the company's new image.

In a prescient sign, the Mario Testino-shot fall campaign featured Bündchen as a star "on set," surrounded by several beefy extras in costume. It was a nod to the past campaign with Gray and her constant cadre of boy toys and now, it appears, the future.

The din that the 30-year-old Jolie would be Bündchen's successor, as WWD reported this summer, has been intensifying recently. But Cohen and St. John representatives declined to comment whether any A-list star would step into the role.

The red carpet, of course, tops the list of any successful fashion brand marketing program. And despite efforts even before Cohen's arrival, such a moment at an awards show or even lowly film premier long eluded St. John.Off the record, many Hollywood stylists insisted the house would need to shake off its musty image as the practical source for political power women and Ladies Who Lunch before they would consider showing the clothes to their celebrity clients.

Given Jolie's image, the choice will present St. John in a striking new light. Very few in the congested celebrity landscape can claim a glamour — and cool — quotient like Jolie's.

Attracting a wider and younger clientele base, and thereby upping its appeal and sales, has motivated the changes at St. John.

Although it remains one of the best-selling brands at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, with a cult following for its crease-free knit suits and gowns, profits have tipped in recent years.

While sales rose 7 percent to $395.6 million in fiscal 2004 from the previous year, profits dropped to $13.4 million, according to the company's earnings report. That is 10 percent less than in 2003 and 44 percent lower than in 2000. The falling profits appear to be largely because of remodeling and expansion costs for St. John's 31 signature retail doors worldwide, propelled partly by the slowing growth at department stores. A new look is set to bow in coming months at St. John stores.

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