By  on April 17, 2007

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Angelina Jolie, fashion muse?

The much second-guessed decision to tap the Oscar-wining actress and global activist as the face of St. John might not be so easily dismissed after all. In fact, Jolie appears to have inspired parts of the $400 million fashion house's pre-fall and fall collections, which were shown here Friday in a tent at the Island Hotel for about 350 loyal fans. The show marked the return of the St. John cult-like event after a two-year hiatus.

"It's been wonderful having Angelina as a muse. We've gone a little more directional with a short silver dress, a white wrap top, the soft dressing, the little cropped jacket over a dress. All those things are key pieces for us. For me, that was pivotal to move the collection forward," said Kelly Gray, who returned to the company last fall, along with her mother, Marie Gray, to work as a creative consultant. "It's exciting to have a little bit of a muse to play with that percentage of the line where you want to reach out to a different customer, and yet we still have plenty of things for our loyal customers."

Gray summed up the Irvine, company's m.o. for the past year following a tumultuous 18-month period that included the appointment and resignation of chief executive officer Richard Cohen and creative director Tim Gardner, and the departure of the Grays, chief operating officer Bruce Fetter and senior designer Maria D. Lopez. Fetter has since returned as chief operating officer and this month took up the interim ceo role from Phillip Miller, and Lopez has also returned as vice president of design.

Ironically, though he was blamed for changing the product too drastically, slipping sales and the departure of hundreds of employees, Cohen was responsible for hiring Jolie with a multimillion-dollar, multiyear contract. For the past three seasons, the black-and-white Mario Testino-shot print ads, directed by the Lipman Agency of New York, have featured Jolie's face prominently, but little was seen of the clothes. This season, according to Kelly Gray, the ads, which were shot in Beverly Hills by Testino last week and will break in August magazines, will have a different focus."There's more of an emphasis on fashion in this campaign. You definitely see the clothes. But I don't want to give away anything about the campaign because we hold on to that really tight," said Gray after the show.

Perhaps the customer's connection with Jolie simply took time to build, and now that her face is associated with the brand, the ads are taking the next logical step. Or more likely, the company has more confidence in the updated yet classic line, shown by the return of the Orange County runway show after two years. (The spring 2006 collection was shown at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Smashbox Studios in October 2005).

"With Kelly and Mrs. Gray back, it's similar [to when I was here before], but not exactly the same," said Fetter. "What's always made St. John successful was that any woman who was a true shopper of ours felt great in the clothes that she wore. That's what we are trying to get back to. At the same time, we've got to keep the product moving forward. You can't do the same thing over and over again, and that's what Kelly and Mrs. Gray have done for us. They are constantly looking at things and saying, 'Hey, let's move it forward,' and that is the direction they are giving the design team."

From the gaggle of knit-clad women at the cocktail reception and show, it was clear some fans agreed.

Carol Lee, a Newport realtor and Republican campaign fund-raiser who has been wearing St. John for 20 years, has taken to some of the changes in the product. "I used to stick to all black and white, but I just bought this coral suit for a change and I love it," she said. "And I loved the suede pants from the show. It was great to see some new pieces."

Gloria Harris of Newport, who was decked out in a turquoise pantsuit with jewels to match, said she had been collecting St. John for over 30 years. "I wouldn't tell you how many pieces I own, but it's more than a closetful," she said. Though she raised an eyebrow at some of the 114 runway looks, she still wears her vintage pieces. "I have a black dress with ostrich feathers at the neck that still fits me after 30 years."The crowd was made up of an invitation-only group of the company's best customers, and women traveled from near and far, some showing up as early as three hours before the show. Diana Poeschel, 63, has been collecting St. John "since I was 20." Poeschel flew down from Fresno for the occasion with seven friends, including Nanette Mathias, who got married in a cream and gold St. John outfit. Angelica Zienterra flew in from Germany. Gail Balocca of Glendale arrived by stretch limo with four other women with a St. John saleswoman from Nordstrom in Pasadena.

Fetter said managing two jobs "is not as difficult as one might think." To the obvious question of when a permanent ceo would be named, he said, "Going out and trying to bring somebody in just to bring somebody in….We saw how that can work and so we are going to be very careful. I think we are moving the brand forward and moving product forward without somebody in that chair right now.

"It's important that whomever comes in really embraces that and understands the intricacies of the manufacturing business and that is where we lost our way a little bit," he added. "It seems simpler than it is. When you start by twisting your own yarns and running your own dye house and making your own buttons and garment closures and that kind of detail, it's tricky."

St. John has always maintained tight control over its operations — most production takes place on its compound in Irvine — but the company may finally be taking some of its manufacturing overseas. "We've had to organically grow this business and add knitters and equipment as we go along because we wanted to be able to control the quality of everything. The knitting we do here has always been very cutting-edge with regards to technology, but the rest of the world is catching up, so that opens other doors," said Fetter.

Last year, the company sold its largest manufacturing plant as well as part of the land the compound sits on. "Everything we have done has been more of a financial play than anything else," said Fetter. "We leased back the property we sold, and our largest plant we did sell, but we intend to move from that location closer to where our employees are from. The bulk of them live about 10 to 15 miles northwest of where we are now, and they are a resource in this company that we value and we can't let them go. We are actually trying to do better for them."Fetter added that the sales team, much of which was slashed under Cohen's tenure, was now "stronger probably than we have ever been. We've strengthened our presence in New York and still continue to have a very strong staff here. Our wholesale partners have been very supportive as we've gone through changes here. They are thrilled to see the direction the company is going. There may have been various opinions before now. Everyone has a vision and that is what Kelly and Mrs. Gray have helped supply."

As for the executive design team — the Grays, executive vice president and chief merchant Lowell Breving and vice presidents of design Lopez and Tiffany Pepys-Hoey — who took a bow together on the runway, Fetter said, "They are taking the mentoring from the Grays and growing every day."

Breving, who joined the company two years ago from Hermès and before that was with Tommy Hilfiger, noted, "We also have some new people coming into the mix, and it's nice to get fresh eyes," referring to designers Christian Lippich (from Elie Tahari) and Greg Myler (from Byblos).

But will the company be adding a new creative director? Last year, rumors swirled that Vera Wang and Tom Ford were being considered.

"I think it's something we've got to keep in mind since the Grays have a consulting role," said Fetter. "It's something we want to be cognizant of, but at the same time, I wouldn't change a thing because the Grays have been just perfect for us. So are we running around and looking to hire somebody? No, absolutely not. We hope that [the Grays] are happy with what they are doing because we are thrilled with the results. But I wouldn't rule anything out."

Said Kelly Gray, who's now splitting her time between St. John and her six-month-old, rock-inspired company Royal Underground, "I'm always open to anything. I take each day as it comes. It's fashion, so I live in the moment."

Marie Gray said, "To work with the creative team has always been a joy for me. Looking back, it's the part I've missed most."But she stressed she's enjoying the new direction her life has taken since she left the company's day-to-day operations in July 2005. "I'm trying very hard to balance my life today because I don't want to be working 120 hours a week. I want to play some golf; I want to have some fun. But I do enjoy the process and, as long as it's exciting, I will always be a part of it."

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