By and  on January 24, 2008

COSTA MESA, Calif. — When St. John unveiled its fall 2008 collection Tuesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center here, there were plenty of classic knit suits — what the company refers to as legacy pieces — to appeal to core customers.

But there was more, too. Among the 80 runway looks in the "Bright Lights, Big City" show theme was fashion-forward apparel such as wide-legged and slim-legged pants, bell-sleeved Mod-inspired dresses, graphic patterned knits and sleeveless embellished blouses. All were in bright colors and graphic black and white.

"We wanted to revisit our roots in terms of color; we had gotten away from that," said Kelly Gray, who, along with her mother, St. John co-founder Marie Gray, is back at the Irvine, Calif.-based company to consult on design.

The Grays know better than anyone how to serve their customers — 450 of St. John's most loyal fans attended the show — which is the reason chief executive officer Glenn McMahon and chairman Jim Kelley are pleased to have them back after a two-year absence precipitated by former ceo Richard Cohen.

"I go out to the stores a lot, so I know what's working and what's not,'' Kelly Gray said. "You have to be sensitive like a cat to stay alive in this business."

Marie Gray said her inspiration for this and almost every collection "is a woman — what she is doing and where she is going. This year is so important with the election, and there are so many strong women. I want to dress them all, so I started with that."

But for Marie Gray, dressing a powerful customer doesn't mean constricting cuts or fabrics. "We did a lot of soft, easy-looking skirts, but they are sophisticated and anything but simple,'' she said. "The modern woman is all about comfort; they do not want to suffer."

Another comfort piece that continues to be important for the 46-year-old company is the dress, which Kelly Gray said is a key piece for St. John. This season, dresses ranged from Mod-inspired minis to fitted knee-length frocks in metallics, jewel tones, primary colors and animal prints worked into their signature knits. The group showcased the company's strength: domestically produced, advanced fabrics."The new fabrics are more of a technical innovation than anything else; they are so lightweight and easy to wear,'' Kelly Gray said. "With all the climate change going on, there has to be versatility for the seasons. It's really a breath of fresh air."

Versatility was also the name of the game in the evening category, which represents 20 percent of St. John's business. "Not everything is about black tie or red carpet, there are tops people want to wear either over a sophisticated dress pant or over jeans, and people want a top as appropriate in Aspen as it would be at the Super Bowl," Kelly Gray said.

The show was more heavily edited toward showcasing the evening looks, a move that McMahon said was a response to the customers' needs.

"We just want to make our customers happy; that's most important," he said. "The theme was 'Bright Lights, Big City,' so it was very appropriate that we elevate the novelty and color in the collection. It was also an opportunity to showcase some architectural and structured shapes."

Another category that has seen growth is casualwear, done under the Sport label that Kelley referred to as a "category with a lot of growth potential."

Kelly Gray noted that the company "gets in trouble if we try to go too young and contemporary," as evidenced by the change in product during the tenure of Cohen and then-creative director Tim Gardner.

Marie Gray said St. John has done a lot to expand its casual offerings, though eveningwear may have gotten the lion's share of exits on Tuesday. "There is a lot that people didn't see tonight, but we didn't want to make the show too long,'' she said. "We will probably have a separate show in the future."

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