SHADES OF GRAY
Byline: Kristin Larson
It was an evening dripping in glitz, glamour and plenty of St. John. Which was only fitting, since the honoree of the gala was the founder and chief designer of St. John Knits, Marie Gray.
The Fashion Group International of Chicago honored St. John and Marie Gray with its Distinction in Design Award at its 15th annual fund-raising gala, which was held Oct. 27 at the Four Seasons Hotel.
The aim of the prestigious design award is to recognize leaders in the fashion industry who have also played a significant role in Chicago’s retail and design community.
“Marie Gray is a fashion legend,” noted Pamela Iannotta, president of the fashion group. “We like to identify the most important players in the business, and St. John was really a natural.”
Sandy Kagan-Angell, who co-chaired the award committee, agreed, saying: “Chicago is a corporate town, and women in business love her. You can take her clothes from the boardroom to the bedroom and from breakfast to the bar; they just work.”
Previous FIG awards have gone to Tiffany & Co., Escada and Chicago fashion photographer Victor Skrebneski.
Despite being in such illustrious company, Gray was rather modest about her honor, passing the credit over to her husband, Robert, who had “the grand vision, drive and the enthusiasm” to turn her handmade knitwear into a thriving, worldwide retail business. “My vision was a vacation in Hawaii. I dreamed of spending a month on a beach, and he had a five-year plan,” Gray told a packed room of 300 guests in attendance. “He made it all possible.”
Perhaps, but it was Marie Gray, then Marie St. John, who invested $450 into a knitting machine back in 1962 with the intent of creating stylish clothing on a slim budget. It was Robert Gray who then presented the designs to a buyer, who purchased 36 pieces and — voila — the business was launched.
Looking back, Gray said she never really thought about growing the brand and becoming a huge design empire. But each time a new office opened, she thought to herself, “We must be busy.”
“I just struggled to do the collections, and make clothes that were salable, fashionable and of very high quality,” Gray said.
In total, the gala raised $60,000 for the fashion group’s foundation, which contributes more than $40,000 each year to talented design and merchandising students through grant and scholarship programs.