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Vera Wang and St. John: Retailers Are Lauding Possible Design Union

Retailers surveyed at the Bryant Park shows on Monday applauded the possibility of Vera Wang taking over the top creative role at St. John.

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NEW YORK — Retail executives on Monday generally gave a thumbs up to the possibility of Vera Wang taking over the top creative role at St. John.

As reported exclusively in WWD Weekend, Wang is currently in talks with St. John to become the company’s creative head, according to sources. While a deal is far from certain, sources said Wang was spotted at St. John offices in Irvine, Calif., several weeks ago.

The designer is said to be involved in a variety of discussions about deals at the high, middle and low end of the market and one source noted an agreement with St. John will come to fruition only if it’s well structured and financially lucrative for Wang.

“Vera’s a very talented woman,” said Joseph Boitano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue here. “She’s expanded her collection to include sportswear and she’d be terrific. She’s very clever. She has the ability to move [St. John] forward.”

Robert Burke, former senior vice president of fashion and public relations at Bergdorf Goodman, who now heads his own fashion consultancy, said, “I’ve always thought Vera was incredibly talented and is really showing her range and true colors with her ready-to-wear collection. If it happens, it’s a brilliant move for St. John because Vera really speaks to a modern woman.”

Furthermore, Burke, who bought Wang’s rtw for Bergdorf, noted, “I think Vera is a smart businesswoman and understands the importance of not losing their customer base. The biggest challenge St. John has is maintaining their customer base and then adding on, and she’s seasoned enough and experienced enough to address those needs.”

Nicole Fischelis, fashion director of Macy’s East, said, “She can take [St. John] to a whole new level of luxury and modernity. It’s another edge for her career and will bring her a lot in a different way.”

Ellin Saltzman, fashion director at Bluefly, called Wang “a very ambitious lady” and said it made sense that she’d want to take this on, especially if St. John intends to name several new designers and Wang could oversee the design process.

Jim Gold, president and chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman, declined to comment on what it would mean for Vera and St. John. “[The] Vera Wang [collection] is beautiful and we’re very happy with it. We don’t carry St. John,” he said. And Karen Katz, president of Neiman Marcus Stores, a huge St. John customer, declined to comment until she heard more about the situation.

Gilbert Harrison, chairman of Financo Inc., the investment banking firm that represents Regatta Pacific Alliance, which has been in talks with Wang for more than two years about doing a mainstream sportswear line, believes strongly in the designer’s talents.

“Vera is one of the most talented people I know. She is a star in whatever course she decides to take,” said Harrison.

Some executives think a Wang-St. John liaison could send a confusing message to the market.

“I’m surprised,” said Alan Ellinger, senior managing partner at Marketing Management Group. “She’s building a wonderful brand of her own. To me, it’s going to send a mixed signal to the marketplace and the consumer. St. John has a very particular point of view, which may or may not be what Vera Wang stands for. She should focus on continuing to build her own name.”

Although St. John 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 lower than 2003 and 44 percent lower than in 2000.

Sources believe that St. John wants to move quickly, and Wang could be on board in time for next month’s fashion show during Los Angeles Fashion Week. Richard Cohen, ceo of St. John, was in meetings in New York Monday and unavailable for comment. Wang could not be reached for comment Monday.

Since Cohen came aboard as ceo of St. John in mid-2004, the company has moved in a dramatically new direction. For starters, it severed its relationship with co-founder and designer Marie Gray, as well as the founder’s daughter and creative director, Kelly Gray. It also brought in an outside ad agency, shook up employees from the executive ranks on down and retained industry veteran Tim Gardner as a consultant to work with the design team since January 2005. Its biggest change was to sign Angelina Jolie to a multiyear advertising contract in an effort to shake its traditional image.

Despite Cohen’s outward support of Gardner, it was unusual the designer did not take a bow at the end of the company’s runway presentation in Los Angeles in October. Asked at the time about Gardner’s fate at St. John, Cohen said a “brand new” designer would be announced in about a month and sources indicated at the time that it would be a major name.

In addition to Wang, sources said St. John could be hiring three new male designers by March 1 to head up its various divisions. All three prospects hail from companies such as Louis Vuitton and Prada, although their names couldn’t be learned. St. John plans to show its fall collection on March 22, as the last show during Los Angeles Fashion Week.

Wang, in the meantime, has been expanding her $300 million business on several fronts. In addition to her successful bridalwear line, she has a small but growing rtw and dress business, as well as numerous bridal-related licensees in a slew of categories. The company has been looking to add nonbridal licenses, particularly in sportswear, and has been in talks with Kohl’s about a mass distribution deal that could be a multimillion-dollar contract for the designer. In fact, it also has been involved with talks with Haim Dabah, chairman and ceo of Regatta Pacific Alliance, for two years about doing a sportswear line for mass distribution.

Wang also plans to expand her rtw collection globally, and will show her fall line in Paris at the Hotel Meurice.

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