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STYLEMAKER / The Gray Family : The Irvine maker of
fine knitwear builds a devoted following with attention
to detail.

The Apostles of St. John

April 16, 1999|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

Immaculately groomed women wearing perfectly hemmed suits with matching shoes and handbags arrive in shiny luxury cars and limousines to begin their twice-yearly ritual. Nearly 1,500 of them have come to the Donald Bren Center at UC Irvine to pay homage to their clothier--St. John Inc., an international knitwear firm based in a nearby industrial park.

They are the best-dressed guests ever to warm a bleacher seat at the sports arena where St. John holds its runway shows--thousands of miles away from Manhattan's Seventh Avenue. Top customers have flown in from Arizona, Chicago and New York not just for the preview, but for pampering at company-hosted receptions and dinners that reinforce that they're part of a special group.

St. John is legendary among customers and stores that trade in $1,000 suits, but not because the collection sets fashion trends or inspires gushing editorials. In boardrooms, ballrooms and beyond, St. John has become a standard bearer among women who want classic style, unwavering high quality and personal service. Its fans include political wives like Hillary Clinton, journalists like Barbara Walters, entertainers like singer Toni Braxton, as well as suburbanites from the San Fernando Valley.

"My kids call me the St. John queen," joked Tarzana resident Cathy Davis, who for seven years has worn St. John to travel or entertain with her attorney husband. "It looks wonderful on all body types. All the blacks match. All the navies match. It's basic, classic lines," Davis said.

The springy knit fabric that founder and chief designer Marie Gray, 62, helped develop is key to the collection's success. The wool-and-rayon yarn is twisted twice, which coupled with a tight weave, gives the fabric "memory." The fabric keeps its shape, instead of clinging to the wearer's every bump and curve. The knits' ability to be "blocked" with steam and pressure allows a garment to accommodate size variations, a trait that fuels the fans' loyalty.

"While I was having babies and going up and down in size, I wore St. John," said insurance agent Judith Brown-Williams of Chatsworth. "And I'm 6 foot 2 and I don't have to do anything to it to make it fit." For 12 years, she's been buying several St. John outfits a month.

Helen Williams, a Woodland Hills headhunter who is more than a foot shorter than the other Ms. Williams said such size differences don't matter--the sales associates are trained to suggest properly proportioned clothes and the knits are easily altered. "Once you wear it, you are forever spoiled for anything else," she said.

The almost cult-like devotion to St. John keeps cash registers-the line ranges from $100 for T-shirts to $6,000 for top couture suits--ringing at major stores. Retailers like Hugh Mullins, the vice chairman of Neiman Marcus, can rattle off the many reasons his customers buy more apparel from St. John than they do from Giorgio Armani, Donna Karan, Chanel or Gucci.

"They are acutely aware of quality. They do a tremendous job of making sure there is value in their product. The customer perceives it at a fair price. Their knitwear lasts a long time, travels well and it works over the long haul. As for their fashion point of view, they are not cutting edge, they are not conservative. That appeals to a lot of women."

Many companies try to re-create the St. John look at a lower price but discover that "it is very hard to do what they do," said Alan Grossman, a Saks Fifth Avenue vice president. Even St. John couldn't knock itself off in a lower-priced bridge collection called SJK. It was discontinued in November after only three seasons.

St. John was founded 37 years ago when Marie Gray worked as a model and hostess on the "Queen for a Day" TV show under the stage name Marie St. John. To make extra money, she sold her model friends dresses that she made on a knitting machine. By 1962, she had convinced her husband, then a sportswear company executive, to show them to his store clients. Bullocks Wilshire and a second store bought 84 dresses. Soon after, they were making dresses in a 500-square-foot warehouse in the San Fernando Valley.

Now nearly half of St. John's $281 million annual sales come from the nation's toniest retailers--Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, which rank the brand among their top five sellers. Every knitted item in the St. John empire is still made in Orange County.

Yet St. John is an anomaly among fashion companies. The Grays have astutely built the St. John image apart from the New York fashion nexus, steadfastly avoiding staging New York runway shows, traditionally an important source of cachet. They've kept management within the family when they appointed their daughter, Kelly, 32, as president three years ago, after a dozen years as the company's model.

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