Let me reintroduce you to St. John. Sure, it’s 60 years old, but pre-fall 2023 marks a shift for the American brand. Since 2019, the label has been in an experimental phase under the creative direction of Zoe Turner, who offered five-pocket tweed pants, bustiers, and catsuits from the company that had always been synonymous with sensibility. Turner departed earlier this year, and pre-fall is the first collection from executive vice president of design Enrico Chiarparin, and Karla Welch, creative consultant for the brand.
Welch’s appointment is an exciting development as the collection turns back towards the practical suits and sophisticated evening wear that has made it popular with, as Chiarparin puts it, “a woman of a certain age.” Known for her work with stars including Justin Bieber and Tracee Ellis Ross, Welch is a master of contemporary, eclectic styling. She describes her role as “[Chiarparin] driving the car and me helping,” and adds that the label’s high-glam ads featuring Kelly Gray were some of her first treasured fashion images. “The St. John woman is actually very irreverent and joyful.”
The duo are not shy about their goals for the brand. They don’t want to compete with the runway designers of the world. “It’s a collection to give to this woman of a certain age, and a certain taste—very specific. She’s not a fashion victim,” Chiarparin says. “She’s a woman who knows what JW Anderson or Phoebe [Philo] is doing, but she’s not following the trends. We are not trying to shock her.”
While St. John’s most iconic pieces are tweeds and knit dresses, that’s not what stands out from this collection. Rather, it’s the tailoring. A key silhouette is the kick-flare Karla pant (named for Welch), which is particularly enticing in a sumptuous icy pink satin paired with a matching cinched blazer. The riffs on the tuxedo are also compelling. A cropped boxy jacket accompanied by a maxi skirt with a long slit looks modern and combines the two decades that inspired Chiarparin and Welch—the 1960s and the 1990s. The star, though, is undeniably the camel suede knee-length skirt with gold hardware at the waist (all the buttons for this collection were pulled from the archives) worn with a coordinating oversized jacket. It’s rich.
These clothes are not meant to live on screens or in two-dimensions; they’re made to fit into wardrobes. “I know what’s missing in the marketplace,” Welch says. “We want to sell clothes. We saw where the space is for St. John to have a good footprint in business as well.”
It seems that Chiarparin is primarily focused on refining the offerings for an older, established clientele rather than trying to chase after a younger demographic. Meanwhile, Welch is optimistic about the intergenerational appeal. “I think you could have an 80 year old in that pink suit but also have a 25 year old, one of my customers, in it.”