On a mission to leverage the St. John brand and establish it as an international luxury house, the company’s accessories categories are undergoing a major overhaul, marked by a rare decision to look outside for collaborative input on design and production.

This story first appeared in the June 18, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Last summer, the company tapped the New York-based Bolan Group for handbags and small leather goods, and teamed up with Italian footwear designer Giuseppe Zanotti. A limited launch bows in August, followed by a full collection debut timed to coincide with the holiday and cruise seasons on Nov. 1.

“This is a priority for Bruce [Fetter] and I and the company,” said Kelly Gray. “We want St. John to be equally appreciated in nonapparel as it has been all these years in ready-to-wear.”

Shoes and handbags now account for 3 to 5 percent of the company’s wholesale volume. (There’s also a signature gold-based jewelry collection, which first appeared in 1987, but it only accounts for 2 percent of the volume). With the new creative input, St. John hopes to boost sales to 20 percent.

It’s an unprecedented move by St. John founding designer Marie Gray and her merchandising daughter, Kelly, who have maintained design of handbags and footwear in-house since introducing the categories in 1994 and 1996, respectively.

Not that they won’t be deeply involved in the process.

Although the mother-and-daughter team are relinquishing some of the chores involved in executing the categories, they remain involved in collaborating on the design as well as editing the line to fit the St. John look.

Kelly pointed out, for example, that only 100 styles of the 220 presented made the cut. “We didn’t want to launch too wide or be too overassorted and lose any kind of identity with the line,” she said.

As Fetter pointed out, “If the Marie Gray name is going to be on it, you better believe she wants it to be what her customer wants.” But the company also hopes to lure new customers from a wider age demographic to the brand. This necessitates a much broader offering than in the past.

“We wanted to do something a little bit more than what we’ve had in the past,” said Gray. “But we still need to focus on pleasing a certain group of customers and let them drive the success of the business so that we have a solid base.”

In other words, St. John wants to avoid the pitfalls of brands that become the flavor of the month because of a certain trendy style.

Both Zanotti and The Bolan Group’s Henry and Barbara Bolan cite St. John’s obsession over quality — particularly illustrated through their company-owned factories — as factors that sealed the deal.

And both insist that success lies in balancing the expectations of St. John’s longtime customers with a world of new potential fans.

None of Zanotti’s new designs were available at press time for preview, but the designer said by telephone from his San Mauro Pascoli, Italy, studio last week that among the more important changes is the heel on pumps and slingbacks. “The heel base is a little larger for more comfort — but absolutely modern. There is the logo ornament on the back, in gold or pearl,” said the designer known for his signature sky-high sexy footwear, as well as for designs he’s sculpted for Valentino Couture and Roberto Cavalli. “There’s a client to respect, but also we must consider what’s happening in fashion — little by little. It’s an exciting challenge.”

The account is expected to generate 50,000 pairs per year, he added, or 10 percent of Zanotti’s total business.

For the 12-year-old Bolan Group, whose clients have included Lulu Guinness, Kate Spade and Cassadei, the design mission is similarly as respectful and subversive. Handbags are split into three lines. Career contains epic leather totes and handbags; Sport features soft woven leather and deerskin styles in elliptical shapes trimmed with chunky gold logo emblems and zipper pulls, and Evening is defined by sleek satin quilted bags beaded with crystals or jets. Expect to see plenty of black and white, said Barbara Bolan, who oversees the creative for the company.

“I think St. John handbags open up a new realm of possibilities. There will be a major array for current customers, but also styled to appeal to new ones. Think about it, people who perhaps want the name, but are not in a position to buy the apparel can buy a St. John handbag, a St. John Day Timer, a cosmetic case,” said Bolan. “St. J has to span generations, and Kelly and Mrs. Gray know this.”

While promoting the product will be central to next year’s advertising campaign, distribution will be handled more conservatively, said Fetter. “We don’t want to force the product out there. We want to have strong main floor business without oversaturating the market.”

The challenge is getting the product right, continued Fetter. “There’s only so many times you can enter or reenter something before you lose credibility with consumers and retailers. We believe we’re getting the right product done because we’ve partnered with the best we can find. Frankly, we’re excited.”

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