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THE FASHION GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. JOHN

Bells and whistles have never been Marie Gray's schtick. Ever since she designed that first simple little knit dress in 1962, the St. John clan has stuck with what it does best, and it has worked like a charm.<P>The early St. John Knits designs were...

Bells and whistles have never been Marie Gray’s schtick. Ever since she designed that first simple little knit dress in 1962, the St. John clan has stuck with what it does best, and it has worked like a charm.

The early St. John Knits designs were simple “out of necessity,” Gray has said. She’s never taken a knitting or design course, but ironically her early inexperience worked in her favor since simplicity was her goal from the get-go. In the Sixties, for example, the collections were created on a flatbed knitting machine in 100 percent wool, which limited the degree of intricacy. The resulting looks were offered in seven colors, and women were drawn to their comfort and ease. They packed well, didn’t wrinkle, and were relatively fuss free.

As the years progressed, so did Marie’s savvy. When she wanted to use a new yarn blending wool and rayon, she ignored the mill’s warning that it wouldn’t take color well. She went ahead and bought the yarn, but rather than risk less-than-perfect hues, she did what any good entrepreneur would do: She altered the ratios of wool and rayon and added the company’s trademark “twist.” The result was “Santana,” a resilient yarn that didn’t wrinkle. Over the next 30 years, it would comprise nearly 75 percent of the collection. While the St. John customer doesn’t go for the trend du jour, the company has managed to change with the times. In the Eighties, for instance, there were knit suits with padded shoulders, belted jumpsuits and dolman-sleeve tops with leggings. The Nineties brought shorter skirts and an emphasis on that signature suit that’s become an emblem of power in certain circles. With a nod to Chanel, St. John’s suits, complete with braid trim, gold-rimmed enamel buttons and patch pockets, are typically set off with a silk rose at the shoulder, rather than a camellia.

Sportswear, eveningwear and accessories, including handbags, shoes and items for the home, have been added over the years, and while the company keeps growing, it stays true to its signature look — and that’s exactly the way the customer likes it.