The patron saint of tailored attire, St. John Knits International has clothed some of the nation's most couture-worthy women, including Hillary Rodham Clinton and Diane Sawyer. The company designs colorful, classically styled sportswear, career separates, and evening wear under the St. John name, as well as jewelry, shoes, handbags, and belts. St. John Knits sells its apparel and accessories through more than 25 company-operated boutiques in the US and Canada and via its e-commerce site. The St. John brand is also sold in high-end department stores in more than 25 countries. Vestar/Gray Investors, a partnership between the founding Gray family and Vestar Capital Partners, owns a majority of the company.
Affluent women of a certain age make up St. John Knits' loyal clientele. Yet the company's efforts to woo younger shoppers through more image-conscious advertisements in recent years have been a bit of a bust. The brand was originally represented by Kelly Gray, the daughter of founders Robert and Marie Gray. She was later replaced by model Gisele Bundchen in 2005, actress Angelina Jolie from 2006 to 2009, and model (and wife of White Stripes' Jack White) Karen Elson in 2010. The company decided not to renew Jolie's contract beyond 2009 over rumbles that her popularity overshadowed the brand. St. John Knits tapped Elson, known for her porcelain complexion and crimson-red locks, to undertake a more fashion-forward ad campaign.
Along with Jolie being dropped as a brand ambassador, St. John Knits in 2009 also discontinued its youth-oriented casual apparel brand SoCa. The SoCa label was launched in 2008, but it was crippled as shoppers cut their spending amid the US's descent into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Still, the company said it received so much positive feedback about SoCa's styling from St. John Knits' core customers, that the company added more casual pieces to its namesake brand. This strategy enables St. John Knits to promote its eponymous label's diversity, in a bid to gain new customers, while continuing to offer the traditional styles appreciated by its longtime fans.
As the US recuperates from the recession, demand at the upscale department stores -- including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and Nordstrom -- that account for a large portion of St. John's sales picked up in 2010. The recovery couldn't come soon enough, however. Plummeting sales in earlier years hurt St. John Knits' business and prompted the company to shutter a manufacturing center in Irvine, where about 130 workers were laid off. Despite the closure, St. John Knits still manufactures most of its apparel in Southern California. – less