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Wave of Knits Arrives at Newport Beach

August 22, 1986|DIANE REISCHEL | Times Staff Writer

It was strictly a silk-dress and pastel-suit crowd. Society, tan Palos Verdes style.

And the image from the runway was definitely their style: the kind of ladylike knits Nancy Reagan might wear.

The only thing jarring about the recent Bullocks Wilshire show of St. John knits (a benefit by the Peninsula Committee of the Childrens Hospital) in Palos Verdes was the thought that these largely dark, Eastern Establishment-genre fashions emanate from Newport Beach.

Family Business

Designer Marie St. John Gray agrees her clothes don't reflect local sandy culture--or any design cult. She says she finds inspiration "sitting at the knitwear machine, combining textures and colors." She's been turning out her crisp, tailored designs for 23 years in a family business that's almost sufficient unto itself.

Gray's husband, Bob, is president and CEO. Her stepson Michael is vice president of marketing, and her daughter Kelly is the company's signature model.

But for all this self-containment, St. John styles do speak to fashion's mainstream, especially in what could be dubbed "the year of the knit" for American fashion.

At the show, preceded by cucumber sandwiches and glasses of blush wine, Gray offered no shortage of classic sheaths and Chanel-inspired suits, mostly in charcoal mixed with vivid color.

Gray's sportswear collection had a more forward note: swirling long skirts, cowl-neck tops, padded shoulders and even some stirrup pants.

Some of her evening knits were punched up with Art Deco chrome appliques.

None of this crosses the trendy barrier. She insists: "I don't like the word trendy. It comes in conjunction with discard. "

A low-profile firm in an often showy trade, Gray forgoes the extravagant seasonal openings for her collections.

"At first we couldn't afford it. Later we decided the ego trip could go to better use," she says.

Instead, the firm has opted for slow growth and return customers. That growth has accelerated in recent years with the addition of evening and sportswear collections and a new shoe line this fall.

Sales for 1986 will reach $80 million, says Gray, who remains vaguely surprised that her youthful foray into knitting has taken on such proportions.

Study Was Required

She says the craft was mandatory as a student in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

"I hated it. My project one year was to knit a pair of socks. I know I only knitted one."

But as a fashion model in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, Gray says she developed an eye for design.

"In my mind I was changing things: add this bow, take off this flower . . . ."

Hand-Knit Dresses

When she cranked out a couple of hand-knit dresses for herself to save money at about that time, she mentioned to her future husband that he should try to sell her work to Bullocks Wilshire to finance their honeymoon. Her first order, for 36 dresses, arrived.

Gray says success came almost in spite of herself. "I was a flighty model who had very shortsighted goals: Make a bunch of money and loaf between seasons. Bob was the one who saw the potential to do something special."

Since then, their lives have come to include a La Costa home, a Newport Beach condo and plants throughout Southern California.

Their fashions, priced from $300 to $1,000, are worn by such notables as San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and newscaster Jane Pauley, plus a share of St. John groupies who cling to their knits indefinitely.

"I have seen things come in for alterations that are more than 10 years old," Gray notes. "That's longer than even I like to see them in circulation."

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