By Dave Barton
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Photos by Tenaya HillsThe real reason more than 500 people paid $125 per plate to attend the 10th Annual Guilds of the Orange County Performing Arts Center's fashion show and luncheon—showcasing St. John Knits Cruise/Spring 2005 line—wasn't the free mimosas at 10:30 a.m., the chance to debut one's own Spring 2005 wardrobe among one's social betters, or to glimpse St. John co-founder/chief designer Marie Gray talking to the Henry Segerstroms. It wasn't even the opportunity to support charity by seeing the St. John line up close and personal.
It was the dream to live, as Joe Strummer once said, "as theydo in the movies." For a few brief hours Friday, everyone could wear hats and oversized sunglasses indoors, sapphire cocktail rings, vivid neckties, spectator pumps, pinstriped suits, fur-trimmed everything else—and be a star.
St. John Knits makes one a star, thanks to a series of increasingly youthful collections and jazzy separates that have dragged its starting age down around 35—and thanks to thirtysomething spokesmodel Kelly Gray, who wears them well. Very, very well. St. John prices are still stratospheric, but what they're selling no longer belongs solely to people Nancy Reagan's age; the company advertisements and its image, with Kelly always center stage, have a hint of Everywoman that's irresistible.
You knew just watching a slender Asian model do her hippy walk in a spangly fitted evening jacket over a white evening bikini top that you couldn't afford even her top. The woman sitting next to me had the moxie to say it out loud: "I can't afford any of this." It didn't matter; neither did the Orange County locale—the Hyatt Regency Irvine—the audience demographic (still mostly women over 40) or the obviousness of the song that began the whole show (Gwen Stefani's "Rich Girl").
Once the lights went down and a string of young models ankled out in a succession of colorful, flowy, fitted jackets, girly, flirty tops, slinky evening dresses with a mermaid's sheen to them, and flippy, ruffled skirts with asymmetrical hems, we were all one. (As might have been expected, the most dramatic items—bold, plaid bikinis, form-fitting floor-length gowns—drew the most applause.) And Marie Gray's vague earlier characterization of the St. John woman as a nomad: someone "modern, active, living a fast-paced lifestyle" somewhere nonspecific made sense.
Gray focused attention on Orange County and her roots here by attending; she wasn't at St. John's previous Guilds show two years ago. But the new cruise/spring line winks at St. John's earlier image, its remaining vestiges of suburban conservatism and any possibility that this is justfor Orange County with accessories like oversize, droopy floral label pins, bold metallic belts and massive butterfly-shaped belt buckles. These baubles easily take its trademark suits over the top; and it's clear that there's room for everyone in these relaxed separates that transfer so seamlessly from day to night, poolside to nightclub, party to party.
You probably still can't afford them—but dedicated fashion followers also know St. John's most accessible styles already are being knocked off and will be coming soon to a Chico's near you.