The long-running executive of Irvine luxury knit house St. John stepped down from steering the business earlier this year. Fetter, fresh off some recent traveling, spoke with WWD about his decision to retire, how he left the business, where luxury’s going and the streetwear effect on the industry.
“I’m getting old enough so retiring does make some sense as my friends and family members are all beginning to stop working,” Fetter said. “I really don’t want to talk about St. John. Their ownership situation had changed and they were looking for fresh ideas and maybe a different perspective on how the company should be run. It’s given me a chance to spend more time with my grandkids and do some projects around the house with my wife.”
Fetter, who splits his time between a home in Lake Tahoe and another in Newport Beach, clocked more than 15 years at St. John, originally joining the firm in 1997 as copresident and cochief executive for eight years. He returned in 2007 as president in a role he held for four years before leaving and then rejoining a final time in 2015 as president and chief operating officer. He later added ceo to his title.
Eran Cohen, who most recently served as PetSmart Inc.’s executive vice president of customer experience, succeeded him in the position. Cohen’s also served as chief marketing officer and executive vice president at New York & Company Inc. and senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Payless ShoeSource.
“I think I left the company in a very good financial position and it is chock full of great talent,” Fetter said. “The prospects for St. John are terrific. The brand still is very important and has a very loyal following and a great reputation. All of those things are intact and are all things that can be built on.”
Fetter left the business at a turning point for the industry where traditional modes of operating have been upended by digital, dressing has generally gone more casual and streetwear has become the new luxury in some cases.
“There was a time when all a popular brand really had to do was put a logo on a quality product and that was enough. Today the business is much more complex,” Fetter said. “Running an ad in Vogue magazine is not enough anymore. Social media has brought a completely different way of having to go to market and having to speak to clients. Customers today are also more interested in quality and fashion isn’t about necessarily the label. There was a time when I first started where it was about accumulating things. Luxury things made people feel good. Today, luxury brands are competing with people who would rather spend that money traveling or dining out and enjoying fine wines.”
One also can’t think about the state of the luxury market today without also considering what mark streetwear will ultimately have on the industry. It’s certainly not something St. John — long viewed as the prim and proper go-to for Ladies who Lunch, politicians and socialites — has dabbled in.
“It’s something I struggle with a little bit because it certainly wasn’t something that I had been exposed to,” Fetter said when asked for his thoughts on streetwear. “It’s certainly working for the brands that are doing it. The real value of it is they have been able to engage Millennials and get them excited about luxury brands maybe in some cases for the first time. To me, fashion is always changing. Nothing’s here to stay. I guess it’s right for some brands; I’m not sure it’s right for every brand. And, it’s something I personally don’t relate to and it’s something that the clients I work with don’t necessarily relate to, but I see how excited twentysomethings and thirtysomethings are getting about luxury again.”
What could make people excited about retail is another question. Fetter himself said he shops online for commodity purchases and specialty stores for more fashionable attire.
“It’s tough,” he said of department stores in general. “There are department stores that have become just same-old, same-old. You go into a department store and you’re going to find the same brands, the same looks, the same everything and it’s not that interesting. To me, retailers need to be looking at what are we going to do that’s worth getting out of the chair and driving in a car. Being in a great mall isn’t enough for a retailer anymore. When I think about department stores, I immediately think of malls and when I think about malls I don’t want to be there and my friends don’t want to be there. They want to be out and about where there’s dining and movie theaters and some kind of activity.”
In a period of change, Fetter may be taking a breather at just the right time, although he said consulting or more board work could very well likely be in the cards. For now, though, it is summer and the Fetters are a family of boaters.
“I think the day-to-day challenges of running the business, it’s nice to get a break from that,” he said. “I’m just enjoying not knowing whether today’s Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday. That’s nice, but I suspect there will be a time where I think ‘Gee, I’ve got to be productive,’ and I’ll start looking.”