Building a New Era at St. John Knits

The American fashion house has been going through change in order to reach its global potential.

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NEW YORK — When Michelle Obama wore a chic, black St. John jumpsuit on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” late last month, she garnered positive reviews for the look. To executives at the Irvine, Calif.-based firm, that moment also signaled a message loud and clear: St. John Knits’ future under new management is off to a good start.

This story first appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Since Bernd Beetz invested in St. John last year, became its chairman and poached Geoffroy van Raemdonck from Louis Vuitton to be chief executive officer, the American fashion house has been going through change in order to reach its global potential, not least of which was an investment by Chinese conglomerate Fosun International. Since taking up their posts, the two executives have closely studied the house’s history and business structure to understand the foundation and develop a blueprint for its future. They have now come up with a multifaceted vision that includes the hiring of a creative director; increased innovation in knitwear, which is the brand’s core category; a larger assortment of special occasion and casual luxe lifestyle clothes, and international expansion, particularly throughout Asia.

“Geoffroy and myself have a very similar philosophy on how to approach a brand, so we looked at the organization and the heritage,” said Beetz, who was one of the beauty industry’s top executives and played an instrumental role in transforming Coty Inc. during his tenure as ceo. “That has been the platform for all the things we have been doing up until now.”

The vision is strongly rooted in founder Marie Gray’s story, though that is being updated to suit more modern sensibilities. The aim — as in any brand reinvention — is to cultivate new customers without alienating the loyal existing base.

“We want to be the accomplice to accomplishment for women around the world,” van Raemdonck said during an exclusive interview with the duo at St. John’s showrooms on Fifth Avenue here. “This really goes back to how Marie Gray started, knitting a shift dress for herself in 1962. Her desire was to outfit women of success. She believed strongly, and we believe strongly, that living well is wearing well, and that women have a desire to wear clothes to accompany them in life.

“Our approach is one that doesn’t look at the age of the customer,” he added. “It’s an attitude and outlook on life.”

To realize this, St. John has started the search for a creative director, who is expected to oversee all design elements and work with senior vice president of design Greg Myler. The new hire will “translate our vision on every touch point, from the product to the imagery to the windows and the store concepts,” van Raemdonck said. “The notion of ‘of-the-moment’ is really important. This woman lives in this world, and in a sense, we rise above fashion. Fashion is a key element and we want to be of the right moment and speak to the trends of the moment, but most importantly, we want to deliver clothes that work for the woman.”

The modern sensibility will extend to all brand areas. “We are developing a new approach to our look book and our photo shoots that is much more inviting,” van Raemdonck said. “They will tell a story that helps the customer project themselves into our lifestyle. We are investing in windows. There are a lot of things we are doing right now to signify change, but the big change will come when we present a collection that we are responsible for. That starts a year from now as we design a year out.”

Knits will play a key role, but innovation will become an important factor. St. John has its own domestic workshops and manufacturing facilities, which it can use to develop new knits. “That’s something that has not been reached in the past, and we want to put much more focus on it,” Beetz noted.

While the brand’s core continues to be daywear, about one-third of the business is in evening, or, as van Raemdonck noted, “going from a restaurant to a formal gala or mother-of-bride.” The company is looking to build on this category, as well as more casual work and weekend clothes.

The duo see potential both in North America and worldwide. Fosun is expected to hasten further expansion in China and beyond (in fact, Beetz’s opportunity to invest and take a leadership role in St. John came to him via Fosun and his friendship with Patrick Zhong, its senior managing director). Vestar Capital Partners continues to be the majority investor.

Beetz and van Raemdonck declined to disclose St John’s volume — estimated to be about $400 million a few years ago — but said that 80 percent of the company’s business is still in the U.S., though that ratio is likely to shift in the future.

“Greater China will be a prime focus internationally,” van Raemdonck said. “We have been there since 1992. We have 21 locations; 18 are individual boutiques, and we want to grow in that market. We are reopening a store in Hong Kong next month and are signing a couple of leases there in the most attractive malls.”

He called the region’s potential “really critical” to St. John’s future growth, with further opportunity to amplify the brand presence in Japan and Korea.

Equally key are the Middle East, where St. John already has two units in Dubai, and Europe, where it has had a strong presence and sell-throughs at Harrods since 2008, as well as KaDeWe in Berlin and Tsum in Moscow, for example.

“It’s a great U.S. brand that we can really internationalize,” Beetz said. “We have a vision and a target. We have a clear understanding of what the basis has been. I think we have the way to contemporize that, and capture the zeitgeist of where we are today.”

Van Raemdonck added, “Once you establish that, then accessories, sunglasses, handbags and fragrance become also very relevant. We want the woman to enter our lifestyle and we are there to outfit her for success, and that’s encompassing of everything.”

On the more immediate horizon is the reopening of the Vancouver boutique at the Hotel Vancouver on Wednesday, followed by another reopening at the Landmark mall in Honk Kong on March 31. In November, the company plans to unveil a new store concept in its location at the Americana Manhasset on New York’s Long Island. The look is still in development.

Since the two executives joined, Gray, who is on the company board, has been a key source of information. “She is a great inspiration,” van Raemdonck said. “She is a great voice of the spirit of the brand, and makes herself available at any time. We have both spent a lot of time with her to get the gist of what she has created, and understand the love and the passion that she has had for her customer.”

That essence won’t be changing. “The spirit is the same,” Beetz said. “She is very helpful, but also very supportive of what we’re doing. To succeed in life and to succeed in your career — that’s something she wanted to address, and that’s something we really want to reactivate.”

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