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Fetter Out at St. John

Bruce Fetter, an operations whiz who played a leading role at Irvine-based St. John Knits International Inc. in the past three years, is leaving the women’s clothier.

The move comes after a series of recent management changes that saw Fetter go from co-chief executive to chief operating officer reporting to a new vice president of operations.

Fetter plans to stay at St. John “in a special projects capacity” through the end of the month, the company said. He’s set to give up his board seat.

The move isn’t surprising given recent changes at St. John.

Chief Executive Richard Cohen, former head of the U.S. arm of Italy’s Gruppo Ermenegildo Zegna, joined St. John in August.

Since then, Cohen has brought a big fashion feel to the apparel maker. His biggest move was to hire four vice presidents, all from large apparel companies.

Among them is former Calvin Klein Inc. executive Max Weinstein, who joined as vice president of operations.

Fetter joined St. John in 1997 as vice president of distribution. Before that, he spent 17 years in distribution at what’s now Mervyn’s LLC.

Along with Kelly Gray, daughter of company founders Robert and Marie Gray, Fetter served as co-president and then co-chief executive from 2002 until November.

St. John is closely associated with the Grays. Kelly Gray is the company’s signature model and heads up marketing. Marie Gray is chief designer. Robert Gray ran the company from its 1962 founding until his retirement a few years ago.

Fetter proved a fit with the family-dominated business and has been well liked by workers. He oversaw a streamlining of operations in the past few years as the company’s costs grew amid a retail push.

But now Cohen,along with private equity firm and 80% owner Vestar Capital Partners,are calling the shots.

The company, known for its knit suits worn by celebrities and top executives, is opening and expanding its own stores and is looking to get more sales from hats, wallets, purses and other accessories.

St. John counts yearly sales of $400 million.

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