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St. John deserves a look


Sometime in the past year, "fashion" became a dirty word, symbolic of all the label-hounding, buy-today-discard-tomorrow excess that got us into this global economic mess. Which is why St. John Knits, perennially pegged as in need of a face-lift, is in a very good place.

The Irvine-based brand is more often associated with Republican power brokers of a certain age than the real housewives of Orange County. But in truth, it dresses them both. And while St. John Knits may not be very popular with the twentysomething set (the company's failed bids to woo them have included hiring Angelina Jolie as a brand ambassador, and launching a short-lived second line called SoCa, which is being discontinued after this fall), that audience is too mercurial anyway.

At the St. John spring runway show Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, there were loyal fans of every stripe -- grandmothers and career women, interior designers, management consultants and, yes, housewives. They wore St. John's sexy black corset-laced suits, tribal-looking black-and-white woven sheath dresses, ocean blue elastic-waist knit pants and matching camisoles, and they accessorized them with purses by Hermes, Valentino, Chanel, Coach and Dior.

St. John has always presented its runway shows locally for customers, instead of in New York for the fashion elite. But there were editors in the front row, too, including one from Vogue. (These days, glossy mags can't afford to turn up their noses at $400-million businesses.)

Maybe someday the St. John suit will become an ironic fashion statement, like Ferragamo bow-front pumps. But for now, designer George Sharp is banking on mix 'n' match separates, sporty to ladylike, that are meant to be worn, not just photographed.

Watching the clothes on the runway, the words that kept coming to mind were "versatility" and "ease." A curve-clinging, black knit fishtail evening skirt with enough give to get in and out of a car; cuffed brown shorts with gold button details as comfy as your knock-around-the-house sweats; a long, sequined blazer that's structured, but soft enough to ball up in the bottom of a suitcase and still look great.

There were silks and cottons and, obviously, a lot of lightweight, seasonless knits, which started me thinking about how St. John fits in with California's design heritage -- with Rudi Gernreich, who took boning out of bodices in the 1950s and also worked in knit, and with Juicy Couture's Gela Nash-Taylor and Pamela Skaist-Levy, who elevated casual hoodies and sweats to stylish items.

Even if you haven't been a fan, this wearable luxury brand in our own backyard deserves another look. St. John has never really been in fashion, and, finally, that may be a good thing.


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