The New Faces of St. John

Kelly Gray isn't striking a signature pose with an entourage of scantily clad men, but she is back working on St. John ads - as a creative force.

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Kelly Gray isn’t striking a signature pose with an entourage of scantily clad men, but she is back working on St. John ads — as a creative force.

This story first appeared in the June 12, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The $400 million knitwear giant is unveiling four new faces in its fall print advertising campaign, marking the end of Angelina Jolie’s three-year stint as the brand’s spokesmodel.

And Gray, who was creative director and the face of the company in more than 20 years of iconic ads, helped shape the message.

The campaign, using models who aren’t household names, departs from the black-and-white images of Jolie shot by Mario Testino under the direction of David Lipman. It consists of four color vignettes shot at night in New York City locations, including Times Square and Central Park. Each captures a specific color palette and group, from daywear to cocktail to evening. The ads will launch in the August issue of Vanity Fair.

“It was a great run we had with Mario Testino, David Lipman and, of course, Angelina Jolie,” chief executive officer Glenn McMahon said in an interview. “Three years is a long time to maintain any campaign, and we felt it was time to do something new and different. [The campaign] ties in nicely to our whole rebranding initiative.”

McMahon emphasized that the goal was to move forward. “We didn’t want to look like we were trying to recapture the Kelly Gray ads,” he said. “It was a mutual decision to not put Kelly in front of the camera, but she was involved in all aspects of the campaign.”

The ads are intended to evoke a cosmopolitan feel in keeping with the brand’s DNA and sense of adventure, but stop short of appearing New York-centric.

“We didn’t want to show the New York skyline because we felt that Donna Karan owns that,” McMahon said. “This could be anywhere in the world, which is one of our other big initiatives — pushing business internationally in Shanghai, Beijing and Dubai.” St. John is also launching in Harrods in December.

The campaign is the first under McMahon, a former president of Dolce & Gabbana USA who was named ceo in August.

Jolie was hired by then-ceo Richard Cohen to replace Gray as St. John’s face. Cohen took the top job in 2004 amid shrinking profits and sales and departed in April 2006 when his strategy to attract younger customers with a new fit fell short because of resistance from loyal and mature clientele. Kelly Gray and her mother, St. John co-founder Marie Gray, who had left the company under Cohen, returned as consultants in September 2006.

The firm has brought its advertising back in-house. The new campaign was photographed by Mark Seliger, who shot recent campaigns for Macy’s and Bebe and is known for his work in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and GQ.

“Everyone felt that, with so many new colors, textures and patterns, it would be fun to show multiple looks,” McMahon said. “And going back to models would signify a departure from the old campaign. How do you top Angelina after three years?”

Kelly Gray said the concept plays to one of Seliger’s strengths. “There is a cinematic quality to Mark’s work that feels like a film set, and we wanted to combine location and fashion to show where the brand is today — elegant, sophisticated and glamorous,” she said.

Kelly Gray said the mix of colors was an homage to St. John’s heritage, but her favorite image is one of all-black eveningwear. “It felt really editorial, like we were pushing the envelope a bit. I called Glenn from the shoot and said, ‘We’re going to go for it.'”

The creative team already is working on the spring 2009 ads, which will convey the same cinematic feel and use location settings. Stand-alone ads for nonapparel brand extensions are on the agenda for the future.

The company has a lot on its plate in the next six months, including a spring runway show on July 22 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, Calif.; the redesign of its freestanding stores and shop-in-shops, and a new, elevated sportswear collection, formerly St. John Sport, which will make its debut in the spring.

“The old Sport concept had seen its day,” McMahon said. “We’ve elevated and migrated the collection so that we have wear-to-work options and sophisticated casual options. It was important for the new store design, the advertising campaign and the evolution of the collection to all relate. Now the words and the pictures are starting to match.

“Fortunately, in the dismal field of retail, our business continues to hold its own, so we are really encouraged,” McMahon said, without providing details. “We feel confident that, when the economy turns around, we are going to be positioned for significant growth.”

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