Liquid black satin “jog” pants with a self-tie waist, a black-and-sand tweed mini dress with a tough-looking gold beaded collar, and a cashmere cardigan covered in metal studs.
This isn’t your mother’s St. John.
That’s the message the $300 million Irvine, Calif.-based luxury brand hopes will finally sink in with the opening of a concept store on one of Los Angeles’ upscale shopping thoroughfares, Melrose Place. Just in time for awards show season, it’s intended to be a showcase for St. John as curated by the label’s creative director George Sharp.
During the almost three years he’s been in charge, Sharp has breathed new life into the brand. And yet, St. John has never been embraced by the fashion elite — stylists, editors and the like. That’s largely an image problem. Despite a broad range of understated new styles, St. John is still associated in many minds with the kind of brightly colored, matchy-matchy suits favored by the Capitol Hill set. Department store buyers reinforce that image by stocking their selling floors with the most conservative looks.
“I had always been concerned about the way the collection was displayed and merchandised,” says the British-born Sharp, who previously designed for Escada and Ellen Tracy, and splits his time between New York and a 1950s modern house in Corona del Mar, Calif. “A lot of people were not getting that there had been a change.”
One way to change the perception was to change the venue, taking the clothes out of the context of department stores and St. John’s own boutiques. So Sharp leased the light-filled space strategically located next door to the highly trafficked Frederic Fekkai salon and filled it with his favorite pieces.
The store will be open for four months. And since it opened Dec. 10, it has been attracting the crowd Sharp wants. Celebrity stylist Jessica Paster stopped in before the paint was dry. A star-studded official opening party is being planned.
Inside the front room, shoppers are greeted by an installation of mannequins dressed in St. John finery, an idea Sharp gleaned from visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s costume exhibitions.
The most striking thing is the absence of the typical St. John palette of bubblegum pink, navy blue and lipstick red. In fact, the entire store is awash in neutral black, beige and cream, with touches of gold.
“For so long, St. John was like Crayola,” says Chief Executive Glenn McMahon.
Brand reinvention has been a challenge for St. John, which was criticized by some fans for ousting founder Marie Gray and her daughter Kelly Gray in 2006 in an effort to woo a younger customer. (Marie Gray still sits on the board of directors.) St. John made headlines again in 2007 when Angelina Jolie was cast as the face of the brand. Sharp joined in 2008, and brought cool girl Karen Elson in to model for this year’s advertising campaigns.
Concept St. John is the next step in realizing his vision, offering a tightly edited selection of sophisticated styles. There’s a “pants bar” displaying St. John’s extensive range of pants, including pleated crops and sleek black cargos with gold buttons. (Pants represent 20 percent of the business.) There is also a sampling from the resort collection, including a black, eyelash-like knit jacket with ribbon fastenings ($1,395), and that studded cashmere cardigan ($1,395).
In back is everything needed to get red-carpet-ready, from little black dresses to a black organza trench coat, and black satin evening jacket in a balloon silhouette. On a mannequin, a seashell-colored liquid satin skirt ($995) is belted over a white satin blouse ($695). It’s a great look (very Tilda Swinton), and spot on with the coming long-skirt trend.
The spring collection, which can be preordered, is Sharp’s biggest design departure yet, with a creamy suede wrap jacket ($1,595) that hits mid-thigh and an embroidered bamboo leaf silk jacquard shift dress ($1,295). Spring also marks the debut collection from new jewelry design director Neville Ward. (Previously design director for Lee Angel, he has also designed for J. Crew, Oscar de la Renta and Anthropologie.
Is the store a sign of things to come for St. John? “I’d like to think so,” Sharp says. “As soon as I saw it finished, I thought: When can we do that with the rest of our stores?”