Last August, The RealReal released its annual Luxury Resale Report, compiled with various figures and stats reflecting purchasing trends in real-time. In it, six brands were identified as “Defining the Cultural Zeitgeist”: Valentino, Loro Piana, Miu Miu, Ferragamo, and—yes—St. John. And to back their claim, they cited that queries for St. John’s classic suits and sets were up 32% year over year. If St. John’s billing in a list of blue-chip Italian luxury brands seems surprising, well, you haven’t been paying attention.
Last year, the old money aesthetic (which, let’s say it, is in desperate need of a rebrand) was at its peak. A new generation was re-discovering blazers without Zoot Suit proportions (boxy silhouettes reigned in post-pandemic fashion), and suddenly, fitted collarless tweed jackets topped wishlists. For some, following this heritage-fueled trend meant unironically buying Zara tweeds; for the dedicated, it meant shopping St. John, whether vintage or new, because few brands can truly back up their old M claims, quite like St. John.
In 1962, the label was founded by Robert and Marie Gray, a husband and wife team who launched the brand after Marie knit a two-piece set—a straight knee-length skirt and a matching short-sleeve shell. Yugoslavian-born Marie née Hermann was modeling (using St. John as her surname), had an eye for fashion, and convinced her husband, then a sportswear salesman, to present her designs to Bullock’s Wilshire department store in Los Angeles. It didn’t take long to get retail buyers and customers on board with the brand—St. John did $92,000 in sales in its first year.
From their sunny HQ in Irvine, California, St. John helped fling the American sportswear category into international view. The original St. John look—A-line swing dresses, cardigans with playful-sized buttons—was certainly informed by what happened at Europe’s fashion maisons, but it never abandoned its sense of quintessentially American ease. If Chanel’s tweeds are gorgeously structured woven jackets, St. John’s are knitted with springy boulcé threads that almost bind to the body—movement (of the fabric and the wearer) is key. The craftsmanship was top-notch (knits were linked and never cut and sewn), crochet trims played up their knitter’s artisanal prowess, buttons were gold plated, and nearly all elements of production were in-house.
As the ’60s jetted into the ’70s, the American woman needed clothes for her hard work and play-hard lifestyle, and St. John delivered. By the ’80s and ’90s, it became a label that dressed politicians’ wives and then, as more women entered the sphere, politicians themselves.