An outfit from St. John Knits newly launched Sport collection.

HONG KONG — Bruce Fetter, chief executive officer at St. John Knits, is upfront about why the brand is relaunching its Sport collection.

“We probably shouldn’t have ever stopped it,” he said. “I wasn’t at the company at the time but my impression is I think we lost our way a little bit.”

The luxury California label, known for being a staple in the wardrobes of older working women, is trying on a new look. With a casual Sport collection launched at the start of the month, averaging $595 a piece compared to $1,095 for its main collection, the brand is going after a younger demographic.

“I think that people have an idea of what St. John is. We’re building on the things that are positive but also letting them know we’re a very fashion relevant company,” Fetter said. “They think that it’s the beautiful thing that their mother wore and maybe it’s not for them. We don’t agree with that. It may be something your mother wore but it’s beautiful for you as well.”

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Looks from the St. John Knits SS 17 collection.

Looks from the St. John Knits spring 2017 collection.  Courtesy

The ceo was speaking in Hong Kong after the brand held a viewing of its spring 2017 collection. It’s the second time the company has done the show in the region, also inviting guests from Japan and South Korea.

Fetter quietly took over the helm of the brand a year ago though not as a newcomer to the company. He started with the brand in 1997 and worked for nearly a decade there. He returned as interim ceo before ultimately assuming the title permanently.

“My task in coming back was really strengthening the design team and working out our product offering,” he said. “Adding or subtracting, which we did, and one of the outcomes of that is our casual lifestyle line which is Sport, literally hitting stores right now.”

The brand has tried to shake its fusty image off before. Most notably back in 2006 when it hired Angelina Jolie to star in its advertising campaign. Fetter said the decision to hire Jolie had simply coincided with a new design team that tried to make St. John look more European and figure-hugging. Customers hated it and blamed the actress for the changes to their beloved label. By adding a younger, secondary line this time around, they hope to avoid the same sort of revolt.

Bruce Fetter, chief executive officer of St. John Knits.

Bruce Fetter, chief executive officer of St. John Knits. 

Fetter’s other big priority is to grow the brand globally. International is 20 percent of the business now but he’d like to see that rise to 60 percent. He declined to release sales figures.

“I think that the biggest opportunity is certainly outside the U.S. now. We’re a major client for all the domestic specialty stores where it’s appropriate for us to be in,” Fetter said. “We are underdeveloped here. We had distribution in Singapore 20 years ago. We’ve been in Landmark [in Hong Kong] since 1999 and had a very nice business with Lane Crawford with many years, but we are definitely underpenetrated.”

St. John has a smattering of stores in Asia — three in Hong Kong and six, soon to be seven, in mainland China. South Korea will see 11 boutiques by the end of the year. It is also making moves in Europe, where it just opened with Selfridges a few weeks ago.

Fetter said its boutique business has been showing single-digit growth over the last two years, while its wholesale accounts were a mixed bag. It also started its own e-commerce business last November. Fetter said the site is exceeding the company’s own targets by 50 percent in the first year. St. John wants e-commerce to become 20 percent of the total business.

“What I’m confident in is that we have the design team right, our product assortment right. Now it’s just getting out there to tell our story, getting people to believe in it,” he said.

 

Looks from the St. John Knits SS 17 collection.

Looks from the St. John Knits spring 2017 collection.  Courtesy

The recent U.S. presidential election has thrown in some bumps along the way. The anxiety over this year’s particularly divided race hit the business in a “meaningful way,” Fetter said.

“It was confusing why people were not shopping the way they usually shop. We had two or three weeks dramatically where the business was lower than what we expected and we couldn’t understand it,” Fetter said. “Right before the election it picked up some but it wasn’t unique to St. John. We heard it from Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstrom. It was a broader industry thing. Everybody took a time out from shopping for a couple of weeks.”

Overall, shoppers have returned except in its New York store which has been hurting in the last two weeks from the protests against president-elect Donald Trump. The St. John store on Fifth Avenue is located two blocks from Trump Tower.

Nevertheless, as a brand favored by many of the political class including Madeleine Albright, Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, St. John is eyeing the new first family.

“It certainly will be an interesting opportunity for us to try,” Fetter said. “It’s challenging to get into those things oftentimes. Somebody needs to know somebody that can connect you, but we’d like to think that an American designer brand would be something right in their sweet spot. [Melania and Ivanka] are beautiful women and they look great in everything that they are wearing and we’d be proud to dress them.”

Is he not worried about a potential backlash?

“I think a beautiful woman wearing a great outfit is something that’s a nice story,” Fetter said. “If Hillary was wearing it, I don’t know that it would’ve been a lot different.”

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