Robert E. Gray, St. John Co-Founder, Dies at 86

He remained honorary chairman of the firm.

LOS ANGELES — Robert E. Gray, who co-founded St. John in 1962 with his wife, Marie, died Tuesday at his home in Shady Canyon, Calif., after a long illness. He was 86.

This story first appeared in the February 29, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“There are so many people whose careers he built and whose lives he touched. He will be remembered by many,” said Marie Gray.

Bob Gray was chief executive officer and chairman of St. John until 2002, when, at age 77, he handed the reins over to daughter Kelly Gray and then-chief operating officer Bruce Fetter. He remained on the board of trustees of the privately held company and had the title of honorary chairman.

In 1999, the Gray family sold a majority of St. John to Vestar Capital Partners for $520 million, but retained a minority stake in the company.

“I first met Bob in 1998 and, until a couple of years ago, worked really closely with him. He not only was this iconic figure in the fashion business, he was one of the most astute businessmen I knew,” said Jim Kelley, co-founder of Vestar Capital Partners. “The guy had incredible wisdom that I think a lot of people weren’t really aware of. People think of him as the co-founder of St. John, but he was even more than that.”

His 2002 retirement actually was the second time Gray tried to step down. He originally was meant to retire in January 2002, but postponed the move until later that year.

Gray, the son of a Hollywood stuntman, went to work for a classmate’s father at a small sportswear company after graduating from the University of Southern California. He fell for a fit model named Marie St. John, who had been born in Austria and raised in Canada, and moved to Los Angeles with her family in the Fifties when her father was offered a job as maître’d at the famous Brown Derby restaurant. She was designing her own clothes because she couldn’t find anything that suited her taste.

As a couple, they worked to sell enough of Marie’s hand-knit dresses to get married and take a honeymoon in Hawaii, but found that the dresses were such a success that they started a business in 1962, named after Marie’s maiden name.

Together the Grays built St. John from a business they ran out of their garage into the international company it is today in Irvine, Calif. “He had a much greater vision than I ever did. I’m sure he knew what it would become, and he loved to see the product grow,” said Marie Gray.

St. John became known as one of the leading vertically integrated fashion companies in California, focusing on everything from sourcing the special yarns used in its knits to sewing the garments and, eventually, setting up its own retail stores. The label was a major resource for department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, and is renowned for the loyalty and passion of its customers, as well as its former ad campaigns featuring Kelly Gray.

Gray is survived by his wife and daughter, both of whom stepped down from day-to-day duties in 2007 and now act as marketing and design consultants.

Funeral arrangements will remain private.