IRVINE, Calif. — For Susan Schwab, the Bush administration’s chief trade negotiator, a trip to California last week had an essential element — fashion.

On the final day of a week-long stay on the West Coast, Schwab visited St. John Knits’ headquarters here to see firsthand how the $400 million company produces its basic yet classic knit suits that have become an integral part of her own wardrobe.

“It’s U.S. made, it’s quality, it’s value for money,” Schwab said, as she enumerated St. John’s appeal to women like herself, as well as public officials ranging from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) to Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi, whom Schwab confided that she has given St. John accessories.

Schwab bought her first piece by St. John in 1989, when, as assistant secretary of commerce in president George H.W. Bush’s administration, she logged many days on the road, as she still does.

For last week’s trip to Los Angeles — her first since she was nominated to the cabinet-level post of U.S. Trade Representative in April 2006 — Schwab packed a St. John-exclusive wardrobe to visit Hollywood studios and meet with music industry executives, members of the Korean-American community and other business groups in Los Angeles and Irvine. She also traveled to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show.

St. John was the only apparel company Schwab visited. In addition to being one of her favorite labels, the 46-year-old company, which produces 90 percent of its garments domestically, represents an American firm that has survived drastic changes in the apparel and textiles industry, where jobs have increasingly migrated overseas during the past two decades.

Along with an hour-long tour of St. John’s design and production studios with president and chief operating officer Bruce Fetter and a visit to a warehouse filled with clothes ready to be shipped to outlet stores, Schwab held private meetings with chief executive officer Glenn McMahon and co-founder Marie Gray, who unveiled the latest designs.

“It’s always good to see thriving, successful U.S. entrepreneurs,” Schwab said. “I like to support them.”

Because Schwab also is a St. John customer, the tour was a particular treat for her. Following Fetter through rooms dedicated to knitting, embroidery, appliqués, digital printing and other jobs, Schwab punctuated her host’s descriptions with spirited comments.

This story first appeared in the January 16, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“I own that,” Schwab said, pointing to a magenta-hued knit jacket hanging from a rack in the pressing room. “Look at this!” she exclaimed as she led her entourage of aides and Secret Service agents past a purple sequined blazer framed on a wall. “Very cool” was her assessment of a rainbow of metallic paillettes.

Schwab also asked pragmatic questions about production, such as the challenge of a quick six-month turnaround between taking an order and making a delivery. She also noted how St. John is both a domestic company and an international player, because it relies on scores of knitting machines made in Japan and Germany as well as a Swiss manufacturer to drill sheets of metal into molds that cradle tiny beads.

“What we wanted [Schwab] to understand is we’re proud of being a ‘Made in the U.S.’ brand, but we’ve definitely followed what’s happened in the world,” Fetter said, listing concerns such as apparel quotas and trade relations with Vietnam and China. Although international markets represent about 10 percent of St. John’s total sales, the company is seeking to boost its foreign business.

“I’d love to see them do more internationally and export more, maybe to Korea,” Schwab said.

In her final year as USTR, Schwab is trying to promote more foreign trade for U.S. companies with an agenda that includes reviving the global Doha trade talks and congressional approval of free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and Korea.

Her frenzied schedule seems a good fit for St. John. “That’s been the strength of St. John. We do clothes that can be worn for business,” Gray said, adding, “I like powerful women.”

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