A few years ago, I found myself at a fashion-show luncheon sponsored by Neiman Marcus in a Houston hotel ballroom. This isn't the kind of thing I do often, but in this case it was just an hour at midday, a favor for a friend, and so I went. The models were the usual post-pubescent sylphs, and the clothes were appropriate to their age: whiskered jeans and leather pants adorned with chain-link belts; tight, opulent faux-fur jackets over tight blouses that left little to the imagination. The spectacle had the earmarks of Tom Ford, but it was, strangely, a fashion show for St. John knits. Most of the women in the audience were of a certain age, coiffed, powdered, and encased in those venerable boxy, jewel-toned suits with the faceted, braided, beaded, queen-of-someplace buttons. As the models flounced down the catwalk in increasingly challenging outfits, the crowd picked at their poached chicken and looked, in equal parts, appalled and dismayed. It wasn't hard to understand why: If St. John went the way of Gucci, what the hell were they going to wear for the rest of their lives?
The only person who didn't seem worried was a tall, toned, beaming blonde in the back of the room: Kelly Gray, the middle-aged CEO of St. John, who was then trying to update the company's look and image. She was someone who could convincingly assert that 50 was the new 40 and that her clientele didn't have to cover themselves in the sturdy, stuffy Chanel homages her mother and father, Robert and Marie Gray, had been turning out since 1962. Gray was also starring in company ads that appeared in all the best magazines; in these, she was surrounded by panting Lotharios in various stages of undress. "This isn't my father's St. John," Gray seemed to be promising. As Gray dusted off the family business, she seemed to be on the verge of dusting off middle age itself.
Alas, Gray was only partially successful. Manhattan-based Vestar Capital Partners Inc. bought St. John six years ago, and Gray left the company earlier this year. Her attempts to remake St. John with a flashier update of her parents' look—one-shouldered evening gowns, knit jackets with fox collars—must not have met with the approval of Vestar, who last year replaced her with a significantly younger model, Gisele Bundchen, and set to work not just incrementally revamping but completely overhauling the clothes. So far, Gisele has been appearing in what seems to be an intermediate upgrade: somewhat conservative suits that look even less conservative on one of today's sexiest models. But in September 2006, even Gisele will be replaced; the new model will be Angelina Jolie—"mother, actress, and a philanthropist," to quote St. John's CEO, Richard Cohen.
The idea, obviously, is that St. John hopes to build itself into an international luxury brand, like Gucci, Burberry, and, of course, Chanel. As the Wall Street Journal's Teri Agins pointed out in September, this is risky for St. John, because it is an extremely successful company going into its makeover. In an age when the retail business has foundered, its sales were up 7 percent as of October 2004, to $395.6 million, and its customers are loyal. The question is: Can St. John keep its classic customer base—average age 55—and continue to thrive while it skews younger and hipper? And might St. John actually offer the compromise I have lately been looking for: clothing for the middle-aged that is sexy and stylish but age-appropriate—no belly-button or upper-arm exposure—and priced somewhat less than the gross national product of a Third World country?
If your age hovers anywhere between 40 and 60 and you have tried to take care of yourself, you understand the dilemma of which I speak. The pickings for middle-aged women are, well, slim. For mall rats—that is, women who can't get to or can't afford boutiques in Manhattan or Los Angeles—they range from the shapeless, Earth Mother shrouds of J. Jill to the boldly hued shrouds of Chico's. In other words, American retailers think my sartorial role models should be either Mia Farrow or Phyllis Diller. (The Gap has entered this market with Forth & Towne but so far has not seen fit to establish a beachhead in Texas, even in fashion-obsessed Dallas.) There was a brief, halcyon period in the 1980s when Donna Karan made clothes that fit and even enhanced women's curves, but those days are gone.
And so, St. John. At the store in my local luxury mall, I surveyed the racks with a sinking feeling. There they were, the same old knits I remembered, though jazzed up with last year's faux-fur necklines and lots of zippers and beads. The jackets also seemed to be designed with the word "forgiving" in mind—cut a distance from the body, stretchy but not tight. And in colors and prints that evoke either the Fourth of July or Kenyan safaris. (Who really wears animal prints, besides African tour guides and septuagenarian movie stars?) There has always been something patently American about St. John: the unsubtle palette, the democratic cut. It's true that almost any woman can wear these clothes, but, as I considered my own aging issues and sense of style, I had to ask: Gisele or Angelina aside, did I want to?
The now customary upscale immigrant saleswoman—mine was from "Persia"—presented me with some ensembles appropriate for political conventions, while I searched for the stuff Gisele wore in the ads. Finally, I found a short-sleeved knit top with a nice cowl neck and a long black matching skirt. I put it on, studied myself in the dressing-room mirror, and tried to figure out what was wrong. Then it hit me: Though both pieces were my usual size—8 on top and 10 on bottom—they were too big. Clever, those folks at St. John: downsizing, so to speak, to shore up the sagging self-images of the rapidly aging. By the time I got through experimenting, I was a 4, something that has not happened since I was, well, 4.
Feeling newly svelte, I tried on another outfit—a sable-colored wrap sweater and matching skirt with an asymmetrical hem. It looked … OK. But I soon fled. If the clothes at Banana Republic and J. Crew don't fit the over-40 set because they are cut too severely, the clothes at St. John are cut far too generously. If you're going to forgo second helpings and put yourself through boot camp at the gym, you want the world to know. St. John concealed what I needed to conceal—but also much more, thus adding years to my rear. No, thanks.
What about all those glittery evening clothes that looked so glam in the fall catalog? The satiny tuxedo pants and skirts, the sequined sheaths? Where were they? "We don't stock many of those," the saleswoman told me apologetically when I returned the next day.
Confused by the disconnect between the clothes in the ads, the clothes in the catalog, and the clothes in my local store, I put in a call to St. John to discuss. Several calls, in fact. "No one will talk to you," a confoundingly unhelpful publicist named Pearl told me, after failing to return calls for about 10 days. Apparently, the only person allowed to speak on behalf of St. John is the company's CEO, Richard Cohen, and he wasn't talking. Pearl finally agreed to send me shots of the latest runway show, which premiered recently at Los Angeles' fashion week.
If hope springs eternal, even among middle-aged women, St. John's latest collection may explain why. Cohen, formerly head of Ermenegildo Zegna in the United States, brought in Tim Gardner, the recently departed creative director of Calvin Klein, to consult on the designs. The changes are profound: a subtle palette of grays, browns, and blues; sharp, high-collared raincoats; cropped jackets and pants; and a sexy, knit chemise with that sleek boat neck Klein used to revive every few seasons. The updated lines of the suits make them elegant instead of dowdy. And, as the LA Times pointed out, there wasn't "a gold button or cardinal red stitch in sight."
This is what shapely, sophisticated middle-aged women want to wear, I thought. But can they? All will be revealed when the clothes hit the stores this spring. The new line, though gorgeous, looks less forgiving, and so begs more than a few questions: Will the traditional St. John customer—the one who loved the jewel tones and boxy knits—buy these clothes? Or is St. John throwing them over for younger women, who would rather evoke Calvin Klein than Kelly Gray? How big a gamble is the company taking? Pearl still hasn't gotten back to me on that.