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THE POWER OF THREE

St. John Knits Inc. is, if anything, an anomaly. While the very idea of fashion is contingent on change, the house the Gray family built is solidly founded on clothes that never go out of style and, frankly, never dictate style either. Sure, they're...

St. John Knits Inc. is, if anything, an anomaly. While the very idea of fashion is contingent on change, the house the Gray family built is solidly founded on clothes that never go out of style and, frankly, never dictate style either. Sure, they’re classic. But more importantly, they’re not trendy.

Founding designer Marie Gray has often said that she designs with herself and the women she knows in mind. She considers what they need, not what the market says they can’t live without. It’s an anti-edgy formula that built the brand into a multimillion dollar fashion empire in 2001. Even Gray said she has difficulty discerning one season’s collection from another, whether it’s from last year or another decade altogether. A full-time chemist ensures that one batch of dye matches the next, so that a black from 1982 is indistinguishable from 2002’s version.

Such consistency is what has won the brand fervent devotees (and they are fervent) over the company’s 40 years in business. They gush about a decade-old dress that “remembers” its shape after umpteen wears, thanks to the specially cultivated Australian wool that St. John processes in the company’s U.S. factories. Yes, these fans can rattle off this detail and much more, and they do it rather proudly, as if it were something their own sisters discovered.

And as far as many of them are concerned, there is a kind of sisterhood among St. John customers. Finally being able to shell out the $1,100 for a St. John Knit suit signals the entrance into a special club. Membership was once the domain of the Ladies who Lunch. Now, as Los Angeles Times society writer Ann Conway noted, “The political women, the professional women have adopted St. John as their uniform, so society women have had to move on to something else. You still see them wear it, of course, the glitzier styles to the galas.” But as Capitol Hill and Madison Avenue, Wall Street and Silicon Valley increasingly count women in their ranks, so St. John has become standard issue. (That adds up to a house full of St. John branded goods among those more ardent fans who spend upward of $100,000. Only their accountants and St. John sales associates know who they are.) For them, it’s a badge of success. And among many, its “Made in USA” tag is also a badge of honor.

For the dyed-in-the-wool fans, there are other rites of passage. The Grays — including Marie’s husband and co-founder Robert and their daughter and company co-president Kelly — have nurtured a culture that recognizes their best customers. Trunk shows featuring rare family appearances are only the beginning. Biggest spenders from as far as Boston and Chicago swoop into Irvine, Calif., the immaculately planned suburb an hour south of Los Angeles that is home to St. John headquarters, to catch the runway show staged there biannually. It’s far away from the Seventh Avenue circus of Fashion Week, yet choreographed and videotaped like a big-city production. Instead of basketball or rock fans, the Bren Center on the campus of the University of California at Irvine is filled with some 1,500 St. John boosters. (Five years ago, the audience was only a hundred strong, with just enough guests to line the catwalk.) But now, the series of pre-show and post-show cocktail parties plus the two-hour-plus Big Event have made the evenings a kind of mecca for St. John apostles.

They exuberantly, if not politely, cheer the various collections — two groups each of St. John Knit, St. John Evening and St. John Sport per season. But, for them, the moment of nirvana comes when Kelly or Mr. Gray (as the patriarch is called by everyone, including his daughter) walks out on the runway in between run-throughs. Mr. Gray updates the guests on the company’s financial progress. Kelly reminisces about the latest exotic location she and her crew haunted to shoot the upcoming season’s ad campaign — the latest chapter in an ongoing series that she’s starred in for two decades. Video from the shoot rolls on a big screen. The company’s newest executive reveals she’s not above rolling around in the tropical sand or frolicking in the crystal blue sea with a hunk, or two. The audience coos giddily.

Chalk the entire experience up to another example of the St. John dichotomy: The clothes may be touted as the epitome of restrained good taste among its fans; yet among its most fanatic, the early evening extravaganzas on this college campus are cause for pulling out the paillettes. These devotees have even been dubbed a kind of, well…

“You mean `cult’?” asked Kelly, smiling. Yes, cult. But in the most benign sense of the word, of course. “The fact that all these women pay a world of tribute to my mom and to the brand is really phenomenal,” she reflected, several weeks after the fall 2002 show. “They feel very close to her, as though they know her. They kind of talk to her and write her letters as though they’ve known her for years.”

Deborah Freeman is a regular at the taped fashion shows. “I also go to every trunk show at the South Coast Plaza boutique. I spend a lot of time there. I’m a real St. John shopper.” The human resources professional for the county of Riverside, an area east of Los Angeles, exclusively wears St. John. She lives in Collection during the week; kicks around in Sport on the weekends. “It’s comfortable, it’s beautiful, it travels well. St. John is also American, you know.”

In the ultimate expression of brand devotion, not to mention marriage, Freeman’s husband Calvin sets aside one week of his yearly vacation to participate in what’s become the supreme rite of the hard-core enthusiast — the Grand Prix of sample sales. Each November for the last five years, Freeman, who works as the chief of investigations for the Riverside County public defender’s office, arrives before sunup at St. John headquarters. There in the main parking lot, he pitches his tent, unfolds his beach chair and takes his place in a queue that snakes across the blacktop, ever lengthening through the five days leading to Thanksgiving Thursday. On Friday morning, about 800 campers receive their numbered tickets allowing them entrance to the sale, which begins early the next day. (The company said a total of about 4,000 shoppers attend the five-day sale where they buy previous season’s apparel and accessories at up to 70 percent off.)

Calvin has been first in line for two years running, arriving at the crack of dawn Sunday to nail down the top spot. Sure, he loves making his wife happy. But he insists it’s more than the clothes. “It’s difficult not to want to go: we see old friends, eat good food. It takes on a festival-type atmosphere.” Indeed. Thanksgiving dinner arrives delivered by local restaurants or sympathetic family members. Turkeys are barbecued on the spot. Many women in the crowd have often joked the sales have been the best way to get out of an otherwise labor-intensive holiday. Eventually, Deborah joins Calvin, with their young son in tow.

The First Family of the event even makes several appearances. “Last year, I had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Gray,” Calvin said. “He just purchased one of the new Ford Thunderbirds. The Grays are really down-to-earth people. With all their success, they still hold this event so people can purchase good quality clothing at good prices. They make it fun.” Just don’t press either Freeman on what Deborah spends at the sale. That would ruin it, they teased.

Maria Camello can’t put a price on her happiness either. Six armoires and several closets in her San Pedro, Calif., home are filled with St. John suits and gowns, as well as several fur coats. At last count, she had some 100 pairs of St. John shoes. The Beverly Hills signature store considers her among its best customers. “I think I was number one last year,” said Camello, 41, who oversees her family’s marina and boat repair yard in neighboring Wilmington. “My clients say I’m the best dressed in the marine business. So what if my dry cleaning bill is enormous? When I put on St. John, I’m empowered. It changes my whole outlook. I feel so good about myself.”

In her 20s, Camello began buying vintage St. John in thrift stores. It was all she could afford at the time. She bought her first new pieces — an emerald green and purple skirt and top covered in paillettes — in 1982 at Saks Fifth Avenue Beverly Hills. She finally ventured into the St. John flagship nearby in 1988. The same sales associate who helped her that first time continues to shop for Camello and her mother today.

“She’s got it right 98 percent of the time,” said Camello, a perennial size 4. “I never ask how much it is when I get a call about a new arrival. It’s not that I like to burn money. It’s just such a good investment. I still have my vintage ones after all these years.”

Editor’s Note: This is part of the ongoing WWD Milestones series, which profiles companies or people marking significant achievements or events.