St. John names Kate Winslet as new face and brand ambassador

Marking the first time the actress has fronted a fashion label, Kate Winslet has been chosen as the latest face for St. John Knits, having inked a one-year agreement to promote the label’s collections.

The sequence of events: St. John, after initially bandying about the idea to Winslet’s stylist Jessica Diehl, inquired after Winslet’s agents. Winslet, a fan of the label, assented: “Absolutely, yes! I have worn several of their pieces over the years.” Diehl wound up responsible for dressing Winslet on the set, selecting a white cowl halter-neck blouse and wide-leg black pants.

In an effort to shoot Winslet in an authentic environment, the crew chose to snap the photos in an old movie theater in Jersey City.

“They want to keep it looking like me and not have it look like me pretending to be a model wearing these clothes,” Winslet said to WWD. “I’m obviously not a model. I’m not the size of a model. I don’t have the face of a model or the shape of a model.”

The campaign marks a departure from the company’s history with Kelly Gray, the daughter of St. John founders Marie and Robert Gray, who was St. John’s previous face. In contrast to the vintage theater and Winslet’s subtle look, Gray was often pictured with bare-chested men or wild animals.

“St. John was a company that was built on imagery that was two things. One, it was consistent, and two, it was a real woman,” Trey Laird, from Laird+Partners, who has been working with St. John, told WWD. “There was a real consistency [with Kelly Gray] and it told a story over time. So that customer connected to her.”

Along the way, the company has learned some hard lessons. A few years ago, St. John saw a drop in sales and stature, going from frontlining stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom to clearance racks as its new CEO attempted to remake the brand to appeal to the younger and trendier.

“When you’re a big, successful company, you have to be careful as you evolve,” St. John Knits CEO Glenn McMahon said.

Most famous for its knit suits, the house required a new type of customer. Former CEO Richard Cohen attempted to attract new blood by remaking the clothes into slimmer, more severe designs, but this proved to be too radical. New and current CEO McMahon is now in charge of the makeover.

“Let’s get the product right,” he said. “Let’s make it relevant and modern and have it address the way women live today.”

As George Sharp, St. John’s creative director, noted: “The days of the cookie-cutter bright knit suits are gone.”

And the results may be in. The brand’s fall collection showcased a range of looks, including one-shouldered silk gowns, leopard print coats and white blouses. In what McMahon terms a risky move, the house introduced woven pants, now a significant component of the collection, as well as costume jewelry.

“Well, the business was so successful,” he said to WWD. “Certain brands fill certain niches in the market, and I think this one was known for X product or Y product.” The company is also eyeing fragrance and eyewear.

Industry sources estimate St. John’s sales at about $400 million, which was likely its figure for 2007, after suffering at hit in the poor economy of 2009 and then rebounding to where it is today, now offered in 400 doors around the globe. McMahon claimed things are on track.

The CEO calls the house a “brand on the move.”

“We feel that we need to tell the story now, which is why we’re ramping up our total marketing,” McMahon said. “… We really believe that our future success will be in our ability to capture the daughters of our current customer.”

St. John is currently considering expanding its presence in China, where the company’s single biggest market lies. Also on the books for the company is a new social media strategy and an e-commerce launch, plus giving a physical makeover to its stores.

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Purple Neon/LadyLUX via WWD

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