NEW YORK — St. John Knits plans to stay on a steady 20 percent annual growth track by increasing space with its main retail customers and opening new retail stores. Two new stores are set for this year.

Robert E. Gray, chairman and chief executive officer, speaking Wednesday at an investor conference sponsored by PaineWebber Inc. at its offices here, said the company’s three key customers — Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus Group and Nordstrom, who together accounted for 52.1 percent of St. John’s sales last year — are expanding their St. John areas.

In addition, Gray said he expects all of the firm’s customers to give St. John a boutique environment by the end of the year, noting that the boutiques average between $700 and $800 in sales per square foot.

As for the new signature women’s fragrance line, which will hit the stores in November, Gray said it will “at worst, break even or turn a profit in its first year.”

He said St. John has proceeded cautiously with the scent, prepaying the launch costs and including those expenses in figures reported earlier.

“We think it will be a major event and a boost to sales,” he said.

The scent will be introduced in all of the 200 doors in which St. John Knit products are sold, Gray told WWD after the meeting. He said that a 1.7-oz. eau de toilette would retail for about $60 and that there would be “minimal advertising.”

He cited the success of St. John’s own stores, which started in 1989 and now account for about 20 percent of sales, second only to Saks.

“They’re performing very well,” Gray said of the 12 stores currently in operation. He noted that the firm’s 6,200-square-foot flagship in New York turned a profit last year, which was its third year in operation. St. John’s typical store is about 2,200 square feet.

Gray also said the company expects to open a 3,000-square-foot store in Charlotte, N.C., on June 27 and a 2,500-square-foot store in Bal Harbour, Fla., on Oct. 15.

The new Griffith & Gray line, which will be headed by Kelly A. Gray, creative director and senior vice president. Diane. M. Griffiths, who is the senior vice president of design, will replace the Sophie Philippart line in stores this fall. Gray described the Philippart line as “too couture” for St. John’s target customer and said the Griffith collection will have a “younger and more wearable look.”

For the year ending in May, retail sales for St. John advanced 21 percent in the East, 24 percent in the Midwest and 22 percent in the West.

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