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Brand Hopes to Go From Staid to Sexy

To attract younger customers, clothier St. John replaces its longtime model.

June 15, 2005|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

Moneyed matrons built the brand. Can a Brazilian supermodel make it sizzle?

St. John Knits International Inc. said Tuesday that it was replacing longtime model Kelly Gray, daughter of the company's founders, with supermodel Gisele Bundchen in its fall advertising campaign. It will be the first time in 15 years that someone other than Gray, 38, has represented St. John.

The marketing maneuver is a major shift for the Irvine company, which has been struggling to attract young shoppers without alienating loyal customers who helped establish the brand.

Not everybody thinks it's a brilliant idea.

"I could have picked 50 other people who could have made the transition better between the old St. John customer and the one they're going after," said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Assn.

Bundchen's sultry image contrasts with the cool, controlling persona that Gray has perfected in St. John ads, which often pictured her in exotic locales surrounded by male attendants.

Ads featuring Bundchen, 24, will be inspired by the "ease and spaciousness of St. John's native California, seen under the bright lights of Hollywood," the company said in a statement. She was photographed Monday with the Hollywood Hills as a backdrop.

The ad campaign is a step toward "rebranding" the company, a spokeswoman said.

Marie St. John, Gray's mother, launched the business 43 years ago when she sat down at a knitting machine and began making sleek, sleeveless dresses, creating a brand that would grow to nearly $400 million in annual sales. Today, as St. John enters middle age, many of its core customers are becoming senior citizens.

St. John has been trying for years to lure younger customers after decades of cranking out classic knits.

"Now, the ladies who lunch are less and less a foundation for a dynamic growth business," said Bill D'Arienzo, chief executive of WDA Marketing Solutions, a fashion brand consulting firm in Princeton, N.J.

St. John would not say who will represent the brand after the fall campaign, except that it would not be Gray.

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