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The First Family of Knits : Fashion: By concentrating on classic suits and dresses, Robert and Marie Gray, with help from daughter Kelly, have built the St. John line into a $65-million-a-year business.

July 19, 1991|GAILE ROBINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marie St. John was only 25 years old in 1962, but her face was known nationwide. Her classic patrician features and mannered gestures helped her land a job as hostess on "Queen for a Day." St. John pointed to washing machines and wheeled out portable dishwashers to ecstatic applause from the studio audience.

It was a good job for a model, but the pay wasn't great. To raise extra money for her Hawaiian honeymoon with Robert Gray, she hand-knit dresses at night to sell to her friends. When a knitting machine was donated as a prize for "Queen for a Day," she bought it and upped her production.

Almost 30 years later, Robert and Marie Gray's fashion empire--St. John--brings in more than $65 million annually. (By comparison, Bill Blass Ltd. pulled in $13 million in 1989 and Liz Claiborne brought in $1 billion in the same year.) That empire includes six factories in Southern California, a corporate office with a large showroom and a separate design facility in Irvine, and five stores nationally (one in Palm Desert.) A 5th Avenue store in Manhattan is scheduled to open in September, and 10 stores are slated to open in Europe during the next five years. In addition, there are St. John boutiques in every Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus store and in selected Nordstrom stores.

Two years ago, the Munich-based fashion company, Escada AG, bought 80% of St. John. The sale, intended to lead to the Grays' retirement, has instead thrust them back to the forefront of their company.

Neither Robert nor Marie Gray ever envisioned St. John expanding into international markets, but with the Escada machine behind them, the international expansion has become a reality. The expansion--and an influx of youthful styles--marks a new era for a company long content to dress the tearoom set.

Seated at the conference table in Robert's well-appointed Irvine office, the Grays present a polished business partnership. Robert handles the business and manufacturing. He is florid, expansive and does most of the talking. She is stunning, shy and defers to Robert on most things--at least when they are together. On her own turf--the design and sample offices two miles down the road--Marie Gray becomes much more effusive.

The marriage aspect of their partnership becomes apparent when the Grays correct one another's memories.

"I knew it was going to be a big business 10 minutes after I sold the first sample," boasts Robert.

Marie gently reminds him that he did not like the dresses she had labored over. He admits that he did not see the attraction in the simple, straight skirts and shells.

Robert Gray was already a seasoned sales representative in the garment business when he and she met. He showed one of her outfits to a friend, Chris Allati, a buyer for Bullocks Wilshire. Allati immediately placed an order for 30 pieces, and she wanted to know what the line was called.

Robert grabbed the first thing that came to mind, Marie's maiden name: St. John.

That first order almost crippled them, Robert says. But by setting up a shop in their garage and enlisting the help of their mothers, they produced and shipped the first season of St. John clothing.

Robert believed St. John was the beginning of something big. Marie wasn't as confident: "I thought he was crazy." She kept her day job and continued to roll out the major appliances on "Queen for a Day" for another year.

The Grays initially disagreed on pricing. Robert insisted they produce a moderately priced garment. Marie wanted to design a higher priced, more complicated garment. Robert prevailed, for a while at least.

The first straight skirts with simple matching shells in avocado green, beige and orange sold in the stores for $45.

Today, St. John dresses start at $600. A three-piece evening suit can cost more than $1,000.

Despite the higher prices and Escada involvement, St. John is still a family business. The grandmothers no longer run the knitting machines, but the Gray's 24-year-old daughter, Kelly, designs the St. John sportswear line, is the creative director of advertising and is the model in most of the St. John ads--as she has been since the age of 15.

Kelly's design influence has given the staid St. John business a needed jolt. Five years ago, the most likely place to spot St. John clothing was in the first-class compartments of airplanes. The tidy knit suits with braid trim or signature gold buttons were favored by older women who insisted on dressing for travel. Today, that customer base has expanded to include working women in their 30s and 40s.

These new, younger customers have not escaped the attention of the powers at Saks Fifth Avenue. Last month, Saks in Beverly Hills tripled the size of its St. John boutique. "We probably do the biggest St. John business in Los Angeles," says the store's fashion director, Ginny Sydorick. "There are two St. John customers now, a young executive woman and the gray-haired lady.

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