By  on May 1, 2006

NEW YORK — Get ready for chapter three at St. John.

With the abrupt departure last month of Richard Cohen, its president and chief executive officer, and the naming of board member Philip Miller as interim ceo, the company hopes to put the past rocky 18 months and recent declines in sell-throughs behind it.

The 44-year-old St. John, which was run for more than four decades by the Gray family, has been the talk of the industry lately as Cohen heads back East, and Miller heads West to stabilize the firm while setting a new strategy focused primarily on product.

During his controversial tenure, Cohen, a former ceo of Zegna North America, initiated a series of sweeping changes in design, pricing, management, image and advertising at the $400 million company in an effort to shore up its lagging profits and attract a younger customer. While some of the changes were undoubtedly necessary to reinvigorate the company — historically a top retail performer — their abruptness and the firings wreaked havoc on the business. Changes in fit, pricing and design led the brand's loyal, mature customer to wonder whether St. John had abandoned her for a younger woman, and the highly publicized naming of Angelina Jolie as the company's spokeswoman in a reported $12 million multi-year deal led some observers to question whether the company was grappling with a fundamental identity crisis.

"I don't think they realized what a gold mine they had with loyal ladies like us," said Maria Camello, a 45-year-old yacht club owner in San Pedro, Calif., who has been collecting St. John for over 20 years. Camello, who used to spend $50,000 a year at St. John, and this year has spent about $5,000, is upset with the fact that she can no longer fit into the mediums anymore because the company changed the fit. "It is so insulting to go in and have the clothes not fit. Marie Gray [co-founder and former chief designer] never made me feel fat," said Camello.

Miller acknowledged that perhaps the company moved "too far, too fast," but feels strongly that St. John should reach out to a younger customer while keeping its core base. Ideally, 90 percent of the business should be generated by core customers, and 10 percent by younger customers, he said.

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