Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — H.W. Mullins has signed on as chief executive officer of St. John Knits International, after stunning the industry by quitting as chairman and ceo of Neiman Marcus late last year.
The naming of Mullins to the St. John Knits post on Thursday confirms a report in WWD on Nov. 30.
Mullins will assume his ceo role at the end of this month, moving from his home in Dallas to St. John Knits headquarters in Irvine, Calif. He succeeds Bob Gray, who will continue as chairman.
St. John Knits is Neiman’s biggest resource, with a companywide volume approaching $400 million. Reached by phone, Mullins said he sees a lot of potential for the brand, particularly by building on his retail expertise and by expanding into various accessories areas.
“I feel very fortunate to be going to a company with a lot of pluses,” Mullins said. “The company is already doing very well and is very profitable, so it has the assets to do what we all want to do. It is also a private company, so we can make investments in the future without worrying too much about Wall Street.”
St. John Knits is also one of Neiman’s fastest-selling brands with the best regular-price sell-throughs in the chain, according to Mullins. It also has a strong brand name associated with luxury knits and growing sportswear and eveningwear businesses.
“I have a good idea of what it means to build a luxury business,” Mullins said. “I also feel there is a big opportunity with the boutiques in the St. John retail division and hopefully my retail experience will translate into that area of the business.”
The company’s retail division operates 23 signature boutiques and 10 outlet stores. Mullins said his first priority upon joining the company will be to focus on translating his strengths on its retail side, after which he plans to spend at least six months studying the company’s operations and learning the wholesale side of the industry.
Mullins said he also expects that transition to be aided by the fact that the Gray family, which runs St. John Knits, will remain in place at the company. Kelly Gray, daughter of founders Bob and Marie Gray, will continue to be St. John’s president and creative director.
“I understand the relationship between the manufacturer and the retailer, and I understand the retail business, but as for production, especially in knitwear, there is a great deal to be learned,” Mullins said. “But there is a great deal to be leveraged, as well, and living in California is not the end of the world, either.”
Mullins said he was also heartened that, in his new position, he will be able to continue to work with Neiman’s management, as well as work with longtime retail colleagues from Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom in a new light. His comments were diplomatic, considering the shock of Mullins’s announcement that he was leaving Neiman’s just nine months after being named its ceo.
In a statement, Bob Gray said: “Neiman Marcus has been a valued customer and partner for more than 20 years and continues to be one of our major accounts. We would do nothing to jeopardize that relationship. However, when Hugh announced he was leaving Neiman’s, we could not pass up the opportunity to add a superstar to our team.”
Mullins, 49, joined Neiman’s in 1991 as vice president and divisional merchandise manager and worked his way up the ranks, as senior vice president and general merchandise manager and then executive vice president of merchandising. He had previously held positions at Macy’s in San Francisco and Foley’s in Houston.
“His experience at Neiman’s speaks for itself,” Gray said. “Not only has he compiled an impressive track record as an operating executive and a merchant, but he has also demonstrated the ability to develop managerial talent and motivate employees to perform.”
It’s exactly that reputation that made his departure from the nation’s top luxury retailer all the more surprising. At the time of that announcement, Mullins said he had lost his zest for retailing after a short time in the role as ceo.
Those titles at Neiman’s have since been absorbed by Burt Tansky, president and chief operating officer. And while a search has been initiated, there does not appear to be any set deadline or urgency to find a successor.
As for Mullins’s specific goals for St. John, much of his action will be dependent upon his review of the company beginning next month. But he did cite one area that will likely be a key growth channel for the vendor in the near future — the ultra-hot accessories market.
“The biggest opportunity is to leverage the power in its apparel into the accessories world, much as Gucci, Prada and Chanel have done,” Mullins said.
Beyond its St. John, Griffith & Gray and Marie Gray labels, St. John Knits has small collections of shoes and jewelry, licensed fragrance and eyewear and a wholly owned St. John Home subsidiary. But Mullins expects that its brand name can be further leveraged into these categories, building on his experience of developing accessories brands in the luxury sector at Neiman’s.
“I believe one problem is that St. John has tried to make accessories too congruent with the apparel customer,” Mullins said. “With brands like Chanel and Prada, the accessories have a much broader appeal than the ready-to-wear. We can use the power of that name to attract a new customer and keep the core customer by leveraging the name to home and accessories.”

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