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Lights! . . . Camera! . . . Fashion!

September 18, 1997|KATHRYN BOLD | Special to The Times

It looked like a scene from a rock concert, but when 1,100 people gathered at the UC Irvine Bren Events Center recently, they came to cheer not a hot band but a fashion dynasty.

St. John, the Irvine-based fashion house best known for its knits, stages a runway show of its latest collections twice a year before a live audience. Thousands more customers see a videotape of the show that plays in St. John's 17 boutiques and the department stores that carry the line, such as Neiman Marcus.

Although St. John does not advertise the show, word-of-mouth billing draws crowds that would be the envy of a traveling band.

It's a chance to see the collection on live models, in the tradition of a Paris runway show. For St. John and other labels, it's a marketing tool. The videotapes allow customers everywhere to see the clothes as designers intended.

"We like to give the feeling to our customer of the mood of the collection and the message that Mr. Lagerfeld is trying to send out," says Anne Fahey, spokeswoman for Chanel in New York City. "It's reflected in the backdrop, the music, the runway--everything, including how the clothes are accessorized, the hair, the makeup. So it gives the customer a really good sense of what we're doing that season."

Most clothing companies show videos of their collections that are taped at the runway shows in Paris, Milan or New York. But St. John forgoes the traditional runway shows, which the company considers to be more for the benefit of the media than customers.

"We've never done them. We like to work with the individual [store] buyers," says Kelly Gray, St. John president. "Our show is not about entertaining the fashion press. It's geared to the customer."

St. John considers the video so important that the company spends more than $150,000 to produce it. Both Kelly and her mother, Marie Gray, co-founder and designer of St. John, take a hands-on role in the show.

"This is a way for us to show our customers what's new, what the colors look like and to get an overview of the collection. It thrills me that so many want to come," Marie Gray says. "I'm there to make sure the product is looking as well as it should and check the fit of the models."

St. John videotapes its cruise/spring and fall/evening collections, including the St. John, Griffith & Gray and Sport lines. The videos reach the stores just before the clothes begin to ship. Still photos from the show are used in "big books" of the collection that customers can use to order items not on the racks.

"I know our customers will often sit and buy from the video," Marie Gray says. "It's like being able to talk to our customers."

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That customer isn't interested in the funky, far-out creations that typically draw the media's attention. St. John perceives its clientele as classy and conservative, not the type interested in see-through blouses and other shock garments.

Also, St. John models don't have the "perfect, perfect bodies" seen at other runway shows, Kelly Gray says.

"There might be 20 different types of bodies in our show," Kelly Gray says, because St. John customers come in different shapes.

The company videotaped its first runway show eight years ago at its showroom, then moved to the larger ballroom at the Hyatt Regency. After outgrowing the Hyatt, the show moved to the 5,500-seat Bren Center.

"We used to wonder how we'd get 70 people to fill up our showroom," Kelly Grays says.

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Those invited to the show include St. John employees, friends and family, investors, buyers for stores and special customers. Others hear about it and ask to attend.

On the day of the shoot, the Grays attend to last-minute details.

"It's my best and worst day all wrapped into one," Kelly Gray says.

She makes sure that the outfits have the right accessories, that the models hair looks good on camera, that their lipstick isn't too shiny. During the taping, she uses a headset to direct the camera operators.

"I'll tell them if I want to see a particular shoe or an overall scene," she says.

Shannon Davidson, an independent fashion show producer in Los Angeles, spends months preparing for the hectic day of the shoot. She lines up the crew, the models and the sets.

The week before the show is spent preparing the clothes, styling the outfits from earrings to hosiery and fitting the models. It's the designers' last chance to take in a waist or lower a skirt.

"Everything leads up to this one day for it to be right," Davidson says.

For the show taped in August, which featured St. John's spring and cruise '98 collections, Davidson had to coordinate 24 models, five camera operators and four still photographers.

Each model had to have hair and makeup "that will be current in six months," Davidson says. "Kelly used Cameron Diaz as her muse. The wealthy, young, put-together look carried through everything."

Models wore their hair in a "casual twist." Their makeup was natural, with lots of taupe and brown tones. They paraded down a runway against a backdrop of 35-foot-high white walls adorned with the St. John logo.

Though the production was tightly choreographed, backstage was "organized chaos" during the show, Davidson says.

Until the moment they stepped on stage, models received last-minute primping from stylists and dressers who checked that belts and scarves were in place and that they had the right handbags.

"There's very little room for errors," Davidson says. "It's like any press show in New York. There are no takeovers."

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