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LAYING IT ON THE LINE : St. John Spins Off Griffith & Gray to Lure Fashion Smart, Youthful Career Women

January 18, 1996|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If Diane Griffith and Kelly Gray, co-designers of the Griffith & Gray division at St. John, are feeling any pressure about starting a new line for a company that already has a large, devoted following, they're not showing it.

They are sitting in their Irvine offices surrounded by racks of tailored wool suits, embroidered silk blouses and little black dresses from their latest collection. Both women are perfectly poised and immaculately dressed.

Gray, the daughter of Bob and Marie Gray, who founded St. John in 1962, wears a simple navy suit with a mandarin collar, her blond hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. Griffith sports a chiseled blond bob and a navy skirt and jacket with a crisp white blouse.

The designers look the very picture of the kind of customer they want to attract: young-spirited, career-oriented and fashion-conscious.

They created their first collection under the Griffith & Gray label in fall 1994. Since then, many in the fashion industry have been watching the designers closely to see whether they can match the success of their parent company.

"Measuring up is difficult," Gray says. "We get support, but we have huge expectations on us."

Their dream is to build the same kind of loyal following that has turned St. John into a $150-million-a-year knitwear giant. There are customers who spend thousands each season buying their new St. Johns. Others cling to their classic St. Johns for years.

"St. John is almost like a cult," Griffith says. "Women live and breathe the knits. That's our hope for Griffith & Gray."

Despite the expectations placed on them, neither Griffith nor Gray is complaining about falling under "this phenomenal umbrella," as Gray calls St. John. Most designers of a new fashion label spend their early years toiling away in near obscurity. Griffith & Gray already has a recognizable name behind it.

"Our directions are very similar to St. John," Gray says. "Our core customer is the same--someone involved in career, family and an active social life. A woman who wants to invest in quality pieces."

Still, Griffith & Gray wants to prove it is no St. John clone. The fact that Griffith & Gray makes wovens, not knits, goes a long way to establishing a separate identity.

"We're able to do things St. John can't do," Gray says. "Griffith & Gray is more tailored, more fitted. It's young in spirit and a little more detailed. We put more into our jackets to be different."

Griffith says the collection was built on jackets with special details that make the garments more versatile. She demonstrates by showing how the pointed collar on her navy jacket can unfold into a mandarin collar, making it two jacket looks in one.

Many of their jackets come with detachable collars and cuffs, scarves or chain drapes (decorative pins with chains attached). Of course, these extras cost money--a Griffith & Gray wool crepe jacket runs about $800.

"We try to offer things that look put-together," says Griffith, who enjoys creating the "nitty-gritty details" for each garment.

Blouses and jackets are often embellished with bound buttonholes, ribbon trim, matte gold engraved buttons and signature trim on the backs of the necks. Griffith and Gray hope such details will help them compete with Donna Karan, Armani and other masters of the jacket genre.

"We don't have the publicity of the New York [runway shows], but that allows us to focus more on the customer," says Gray, who adds that they don't have to create outlandish outfits just to attract the media.

The pair has expanded the line beyond career wear to include glamorous evening wear and fun, sporty looks, from bomber jackets to ball gowns.

For winter, they offer brightly colored quilted satin parkas (about $500). Gray says they're perfect for Newport Beach parties. Other classic looks, such as their halter-style tuxedo blouse and cigarette pants, are staples in the line.

"We don't want to change the collection so much from season to season that the customer doesn't recognize it," Gray says. "We want to be like Armani. His collection has consistency of design."

While Griffith and Gray appear to be enjoying overnight success, the two have put in many years with St. John.

Gray, 29, began spending her summers working for the company when she was 12. She wrapped gifts, answered phones and tallied time cards. She even worked briefly as a substitute for her father's secretary.

"I was fired by noon," she says. "I kept someone waiting for him for hours."

At 15 and measuring 5-foot-8, she became a model for St. John, working runway shows and posing for national ad campaigns. She now wears numerous hats at the company, including that of senior vice president and creative director. She has worked on the company's advertising, merchandising and product design.

Griffith, 44, a senior vice president at St. John, graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and has been designing for St. John for 22 years.

The women say they complement each other well.

"Diane does most of the sketching," Gray says. "She's better with silhouettes."

"Kelly has background in merchandising. She can see holes in groups, to make a cohesive story," Griffith says.

Both like to work on the line's color and fabric. Recent collections have featured wool crepe, silk linen and viscose crepe in a color palette of black, vanilla and iced pink.

"We work as each other's sounding board," Gray says. "It's really a collaboration."

Looking at the numbers, their system appears to be working. Gross sales for Griffith & Gray are estimated at $8 million annually for their collection, which already numbers 40 to 60 pieces.

"Our joy comes seeing someone dressed head to toe in our outfit who looks great," Gray says.

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