Eran Cohen already had his work cut out for him assuming the top spot two years ago at Irvine luxury house St. John Knits International Inc. He’s spent that time steering the nearly 60-year-old brand—known globally for its line of sophisticated knitwear sold at specialty, high-end retailers—through a corporate reinvention.
Now, the global pandemic is again testing the firm and its relatively new CEO and even newer creative director Zoe Turner, who was hired late last year.
“If you asked a year ago, no one ever would have anticipated the world would be in the state it is and these kinds of [stay-at-home] orders would exist across the world,” Cohen recently told the Business Journal.
“It’s been challenging and certainly eye opening. I would tell you that being a non-essential retail company with the closure of stores and offices—clearly the focus of the company has been [on] how to survive and make it through this, to emerge, with any luck, stronger and faster and more thoughtful.”
The quick pivot for one of OC’s most iconic fashion lines, and the charitable focus of its recent work, landed Cohen a spot on this week’s OC 50 list of the area’s most influential, philanthropic and forward-looking businesspeople during the pandemic.
PPE Focus, Realignment
St. John, not unlike other businesses, navigated the conversion of its workforce to working from home, and then later turned to the task of revamping its production line to produce personal protective equipment.
Cohen applauded Turner, who he said recognized the PPE shortfall early on, while much of the company was still focused on work-from-home strategies and the broader implications of what the shelter-in-place order meant.
The shift required a full alignment of everyone from HR to design, sourcing and production, Cohen said.
Safety protocols had to be put in place, along with organized breaks, provision of masks and gloves and sanitizing stations.
About 35 sewers were brought back on for PPE, in addition to cutters, pressers and packers at the company’s Irvine base.
More recently, the company’s facility in Baja, Mexico reopened after a 30-day closure, with about 100 sewers returning there, representing about 50% of the facility’s capacity.
St. John production is currently focused solely on PPE and nothing for the regular business.
The company says it can now make as many as 85,000 masks or 11,000 gowns for healthcare-related uses per week.
Another New Chapter
Resuming production for the normal collections is dependent on state and local guidelines, Cohen said.
Still, each morning St. John has some 23 people hop onto a call to talk about the future business and other plans.
With Turner—whose résumé includes time at Dior and more recently consulting for Max Mara Fashion Group—the company pre-pandemic had focused on a ramp in influencer marketing beginning in late November.
The campaign for a new capsule collection involved more than 100 influencers, and was seen as the entry point into a refresh of the brand, one that has perennially been attached to the knit house featuring the tailored suiting and glamorous gowns made famous by founders and husband-and-wife duo Bob and Marie Gray. Marie now runs the Irvine luxury label Grayse with her daughter Kelly Gray.
Turner said at the time of her appointment she looked “forward to creating a new chapter in the story of a great American brand.”
While that goal is still there, clearly the focus had to shift the past two months.
‘Help the World Win’
A large chunk of the PPE being produced by the company is being donated, alongside N95 masks to front-line workers.
More recently, the company in conjunction with parent Fosun Fashion Group’s Fosun Foundation last week donated 10,000 N95s to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, St. John’s Well Child and Family Center in Los Angeles and St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood.
Fosun International Chair Guo Guangchang said in an emailed statement, “As a globalized company, we hope to help the world win this coronavirus fight as soon as possible.”
St. John’s also thought ahead for the standardization of masks among the general public. It has launched a line it’s calling a “back-to-work,” non-medical grade mask for sale through its online shop with a $40 starting price.
“Clearly, there has been a shift in how people think about masks,” Cohen said, “and I think it’s going to take root.”
Virtual Sales, Specialists
Other strategies erected in response to COVID-19 will also likely take hold in the longer term.
A virtual sales tool for boutique associates to continue a similar level of service as in the physical stores for clients launched as shelter-in-place orders rolled out.
An email-focused virtual closet correspondence service with a wardrobe specialist has also helped, along with phone and FaceTime styling sessions.
“Absolutely we’ll continue with the virtual selling tools,” Cohen said of the post-pandemic world.
“We’re not an extraordinarily large company. We’re a bit of a jewel and we have boutiques scattered across the country, but certainly we don’t serve every area of the country equally and so this gives an opportunity for someone who’s traveling or someone who may not be where there is a [St. John] boutique conveniently located for them to work directly with an associate and get a very deep level of customer experience and service.”
High unemployment and a continuation of a sustainability theme, wrapped up in the movement of buying less the past few years in fashion, could be helpful for brands positioned around quality. The industry saw a rash of digital brands crop up in more recent years that seized on the concept of buying fewer, but more quality pieces at businesses such as Reformation, Everlane and Cuyana.
Does the current environment help luxury? It’s hard to say, Cohen said.
“I wish I had a crystal ball and could answer that in a definitive manner,” he said. “I just really can’t. I believe people who make quality product that has a need and a longevity associated with it will fare better or will fare maybe slightly better than those who don’t. But, honestly, it’s going to be very difficult to tell.”
Cohen is also transparent on what the pandemic has meant for the St. John business and broader industry.
“I would say we’re going to learn,” he said.
“Clearly, it’s had a negative impact on mostly everybody’s business,” he said. “It’s really impossible to have been closed for two months and not have some sort of negative impact, and the impact is not simply our business-to-consumer business, but we have [retail] partners out there who we’ve been working with for many years and their challenges become our challenges.
“There will be a shifting of consumer values and needs. One of the things I think is really encouraging for us is we’ve always been a company based on a need-based kind of fashion. We’re not fast fashion. And as you think about purchasing, buying less and better, we have a history. We have a DNA of producing quality, durable, chic, timeless goods.
“Those are all things that I think will play out well in the future.”