Knitting across sunnier shores

Updated: 2017-02-10 08:51

By Duan Ting(HK Edition)

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Top-end fashion chain St. John Knits International wants to be a key player in the Chinese mainland market, giving online sales a shot in the arm, CEO Bruce Fetter tells Duan Ting.

Upscale US fashion house St. John Knits International, which has amassed a global name for itself with its quintessential wool and rayon yarn garments, is upping the ante in taking on its challengers in the vast Chinese mainland marketplace, convinced that upgrading its consumption base and services would bring in hearty sales.

The Irvine, California-based group, founded more than half a century ago by model Marie St. John and her husband Robert Gray, took its stores tally on the Chinese mainland to seven late last year with the opening of their newest outlet in Beijing, but humbly admits it's still way behind its rivals number wise in this part of the world.

"We see great growth potential there (Chinese mainland). We're still definitely under-developed on the mainland, while many of our competitors have a lot more stores there," Bruce Fetter, chief executive officer of St. John, tells China Daily.

The group is constantly scouting for suitable sites to get more stores off the ground in first-tier mainland cities but, for the lower-rung cities, it'll be a toss-up between starting new self-owned stores and striking up partnerships with others.

Another thrust is on working out e-commerce solutions for online sales on the mainland, cashing in on the huge potential on offer via online platforms.

Fetter reckons that technology has had a great impact on the fashion industry. "Online sales are one of the most exciting things for our company".

According to Fetter, St. John's overall online sales worldwide had been convincing last year. The group sees a whopping 50-percent growth in revenue in the coming year, and its US online store is expected to be the group's biggest revenue spinner over the next 18 months.

"We started our online sales platform in the US last year and we're currently testing the platforms in Canada and Australia. Then, we plan to move the pattern to other countries and see how we'll manage that," he says.

St. John's business links with the Chinese mainland are not something out of the blue, having built up the guanxi (relationship) there over the years through its tie-up with Shanghai-based, Hong Kong-listed Fosun Group - the mainland's largest private conglomerate - which acquired a 33.3-percent stake in the former in 2013 for $55 million.

Having a 'great partner'

The deal came to fruition, reportedly, after intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering by top executives from both sides since 2009. Fosun's Chief Executive Officer Liang Xinjun had visited St. John's stores and factories in Houston, Los Angeles and New York, followed by similar trips to the US by then Fosun Group Chairman Guo Guangchang and President Wang Qunbin.

"Fosun has been a great partner," reminisces Fetter, explaining that Fosun has been able to play a useful role in the operation not only because of its investment, but also its local knowledge of the market and, for the first time, St. John has the people who do understand China and the business.

"Having them aboard makes things a lot more easier."

Fosun, he notes, has been skillfully soliciting clients and espousing its other businesses, such as celebrity dressing in the movie industry, and St. John is able to leverage some of its partner's businesses as well.

"We always focus on our domestic business. We feel that if we do it right there, it'll do well, and then we'll get exposure to the rest of the world," says Fetter, adding that clients from all over Asia have traveled to New York, London, Beverly Hills and so forth.

As the largest women's knitwear producer in North America, St. John has been one of the largest suppliers to the three largest and most successful specialty stores in the continent for many years, according to Fetter, although as a private company, he couldn't talk about the exact market share of their business in the domestic market.

Dramatic changes

Currently, St. John has four stores in Hong Kong, with another slated to open soon. Worldwide, it launched new stores in South Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom and the Middle East last year.

In terms of retail and distribution stores, the group has more than 240 stores globally, 40 of which are self-owned. According to Fetter, 80 percent of St. John's business is generated in the domestic market and 20 percent overseas, while retailing and wholesale take up 60 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

Fetter notes that the way people shop today is changing dramatically and the model of the fashion houses building beautiful stores, having great salespeople and presenting products is changing too.

"Nowadays, what everybody wants is having mobile devices to view and buy various products whenever and wherever they are," he says. Customers come to shop at the stores with their research homework done in advance. Fashion houses just need to present the products in line with customers' expectations and they won't be disappointed."

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(HK Edition 02/10/2017 page9)