Leaf through any top fashion glossy of the last 20 years and chances are — sandwiched somewhere between Christian Dior and Chrysler — is an image from a St. John advertising campaign shot in a seemingly fabulous globe-trotter friendly locale. The ads typically feature founding daughter Kelly Gray, a stalwart in the fashion brandscape.
They haven’t quite earned the collector’s cache of the Absolut ads, but St. John’s campaigns are moving into `recognizable-at-50-paces’ territory, due in part to their consistent look, a multigenerational effort on the part of the Grays.
Gray’s tousled platinum ‘do flashes out from nearly 200 pages a year, in titles ranging from Vogue to Departures.
During the Sixties, ads featured simple sketches highlighting matriarch Marie Gray’s designs. Teen-aged Kelly ushered in a glossier era of power shoulder pads and coin earings, with her debut placement in blueblood bastion Town & Country magazine in 1982. Today, Gray has a salary of $400,000 annually for her role as company model, on top of her executive salary.
Since then, the company has progressively focused on advertising as a means to spread its message beyond Orange County. Last year, for example, the company spent $15 million on advertising. Chief financial officer Roger Ruppert said the company earmarks between 3 and 4 percent of its volume to fund advertising initiatives.
Many advertising executives laud the St. John campaign’s consistency: Gray’s lengthy tenure aside, photographer Neil Kirk has also been shooting the campaigns for 11 years. “They provide constant reinforcement of where they stand,” said Don Ziccardi, chief executive officer of New York ad agency Ziccardi Partners Frierson Mee.
Remaining consistent and true to its roots is brave in an industry that in recent years has churned out some outlandish campaigns. While others were lured into “heroin chic,” references to bestiality and other fetishes, St. John adhered to its vision: A seasoned gal who has the world on a string — and the confidence to give it a good yank.
“Each time I review Vogue, their ads stand out for me,” said Marc Gobe, president of New York brand consultancy firm Desgrippes Gobe. “That’s not to say I like the ads or find them exciting, but I’m very intrigued by the confidence she projects.”
Armored in knit suits with gilded buttons, Gray strikes power poses in exotic locales — usually with wild beasts or a squad of alpha-type males (hockey players, bullfighters and cowboys, to name but a few).
Gray said the two-week, semi-annual photo shoots are “the best weeks of the year for me.” Her mother, recalling the first photo shoot, when Gray was 15, said, “She was like a duck to water. She loved the camera and the camera loved her.”
In fact, Gray and her longtime vice president of advertising and promotion Tiffany Anastasakis have the process down pat, creating six months’ worth of mailers, brochures and glossy spreads in a tightly scheduled fortnight.
Over the years, Kelly has sported many looks, including a brunette bob, an ash-blonde pageboy and even, for a nanosecond, red tresses. “Bob Gray said red wasn’t in keeping with the company image,” Kelly Gray said.
On a shoot in Australia years ago, photographer Kirk suggested peroxide.
“I’m a little bit Pygmalion to him,” she said. “I’ve evolved into someone we’ve both worked hard to create.”
Despite these tweaks, the campaign is clearly laying out a progressive story, adding a chapter every spring and fall to Gray’s travelog.
Every six months, the core team of 10, saddled with nearly 100 outfits, is dispatched to glamorous international points to sojourn in five-star hotels.
Charles de Caro, partner in ad firm Rocco Laspata, photographed the campaign in the late Eighties. He remembers being on location with St. John as “pleasant and luxurious.”
“They were always extremely generous, the best hotels with every possible amenity,” he said. “Even when I run into Kelly today, she’ll tell me about the newest place she shot or a fabulous hotel or restaurant. The whole travel theme is inspired by her vision and wanderlust.”
But it’s not all fairy dust. Conditions during the daytime shoots can get a little rough, particularly for Gray, who could submit a reel to “Funniest Animal Home Videos” given the assorted cheetah swipes, nips from peeved horses and the elephant who stumbled onto her sandaled foot.
“Actually, it felt like a tire — really soft,” Gray said. “The elephant’s name was Kelly, too, and I think she didn’t know who was being asked to move.”
Anastasakis has also had her headaches, like the time she cooled her heels for two days in the Cairo airport while Egyptian customs officials rifled through the wardrobe cases.
“That was a turning point in our level of planning,” Anastasakis said. “Now we send two people ahead with all the garments.”
The firm makes a Herculean effort to spice up its long-standing fashion recipe — knit suits for daytime, glittery gowns with modest decolletage for evening — by showing the goods against a changing palette of off-the-beaten-track locales.
“I kid you not, I have a map on the wall of my office with pins where we’ve been,” said Anastasakis, reeling off Kenya, the Seychelles, Australia and Jaipur, India, for starters.
St. John recently began tagging the ads with the location (“Kelly Gray wears St. John Collection at Four Seasons Resort, Maldives,” for example) because it believes customers want to participate fully in the lifestyle: wearing the togs, hopping in the sea plane.
Next up: a trip in July to the Greek isles Santorini and Mykonos, an apt place for Gray, who is often dubbed “statuesque.”
No one argues that formula hasn’t connected brilliantly: the 40-plus, affluent suburban customer gobbles it up. Still, ad execs say for the campaign to continue to be effective over the next decade it needs to start planning an evolution to capture a younger customer.
“Everyone in luxury runs into the same situation: They’re successful, fabulous, great and then one day `What happened? We don’t have the younger customer,”‘ said Sam Shahid, president and creative director of New York-based Shahid & Co.
Ziccardi cited Burberry — whose ad campaign in 1999 got an injection of youthful energy with the addition of Kate Moss — as a role model for St. John. “They’ve proved the more things change the more they stay the same,” he said. “They’ve used the heritage of the traditional plaid to court a newer, fresher audience. Mercedes has done the same thing in the car arena.”
Gobe suggested the ads introduce “the concept of a daughter,” by bringing in a younger model resembling Gray to be shown together in the ads.
“Someone consistent with Kelly and having a similar emotional impact, but showing people there’s a younger generation coming on board,” Gobe said.
Art Snyder, owner of Snyder Group, a Los Angeles design and marketing firm, is somewhat more critical of the ad formula and said he’d like to see St. John raise its profile by hiring high-profile shooters, such as Herb Ritts or Annie Leibovitz. “They could afford these people,” he said. “They’re doing that kind of advertising.” He described the current ads as beautiful but “contrived…The level of sophistication that St. John Knits could represent isn’t there. Although it is slick and beautiful, it isn’t a real moment. It’s a cliched moment.”
Whatever creative direction the future might bring, there’s still one major question: Will Kelly Gray’s workload as president, creative director and heir apparent, fatigue the famous face? She hopes that doesn’t happen soon.
“If I can physically hold out for a few more years, then we’ll begin to look for someone else,” Gray reflected. “I know I can’t do it forever, but I’m not ready to pass my pumps along to someone else just yet.”