When it comes to St. John’s advertising history, there are two eras: the last two decades embodied by the reign of Kelly Gray — and B.K., or Before Kelly.
In fact, founder Marie Gray served as St. John’s first model, a call that was as natural as it was necessary.
Through her late teens and early 20s, Gray had been both a print and fit model for local garment firms, as well as more established brands such as Jean Louis, Max Factor and Mr. Blackwell. It was this aspiring career, as well as her turn as a game show hostess, that led the then-Marie Hermann to adopt the stage name St. John.
The modeling gigs became fewer once her then-fiance, Robert Gray, convinced her to shift into producing her designs under the St. John Knits brand. “We never really had any money to spend on advertising, and since I had done some modeling, there was no need to hire anyone,” she said.
In fact, when she modeled during the company’s first couple of years, it was more often for other brands in order to earn the cash to meet St. John’s payroll. “Then, once we got going, I was really too busy to do the modeling. We would take some pictures of the clothes just to have. That’s where some of those early shots come from.”
The ad budget remained virtually nonexistent throughout the Seventies, recalled Michael Gray, who climbed the ranks of his father and stepmother’s company until making president in 1987. He oversaw much of the marketing and advertising through the late Seventies and Eighties, including negotiating the prime front-of-the-book real estate in Town & Country magazine, where his sister soon after appeared in her first St. John ad in 1982.
In fact, during his tenure, actress Sela Ward and supermodel Carol Alt each took turns modeling for St. John. Ward had the briefest of cameos in a mailer in the fall of 1983. She had already begun her television career, playing a scheming character on a CBS military drama called “Emerald Point N.A.S.” that didn’t last the full 1983-1984 season.
Alt stayed around a little longer, modeling for two years during the early Eighties. Shots show the model looking baby-faced, with a swath of pink blush up her cheekbone and lush, wavy hair fanned backward.
Of course, it was a third face, that of Kelly’s that won out as the St. John signature model, a title she continues to claim 20 years later.
A few images survive from St. John’s early mailers: Marie Gray, with those expressive, kohl-rimmed eyes with curling false eyelashes and hands demurely gloved, her knit dresses looking sportier and more modern than her Vogue pose.
“In pictures, except for hair color, we look very much alike,” Kelly Gray said, sounding fond of those old images. “But you can see a lot of me in both my parents. Lucky for me, because they are a beautiful couple.”