By  on April 21, 2014

LOS ANGELES — WWD dubbed Sidney Kimmel “A Quiet Giant” in 1988, 18 years after he founded the Jones New York label. Kimmel subsequently served as chief executive officer, chairman and, most recently, non-executive chairman of The Jones Group Inc. He relinquished that role earlier this month when Sycamore Partners bought Jones for about $2.2 billion, thus closing a chapter in fashion history.

While Kimmel has been winding down his fashion career the past decade, he’s been gearing up in Hollywood, pursuing a second career as a movie producer. He’s chairman of Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, a Los Angeles company he founded in 2004, and has produced about 40 feature films, including “9 1/2 Weeks” and “Moneyball.”

Rarely one to give interviews, Kimmel has been exceedingly quiet in recent years about the turmoil that went on at Jones as its fortunes slid and it was ultimately sold. Now that the deal has been completed, Kimmel has some things he’d like to say.

WWD sat down with Kimmel, 86, at his 10,000-square-foot Malibu, Calif., home, which was previously owned by Johnny Carson. Kimmel, who has been married to his wife Caroline for 15 years, appears to be enjoying the fruits of his labor, which include his own plane, swimming pool, chef and chauffeur. Sculptures by Alberto Giacometti, Auguste Rodin, Joan Miró and Henry Moore adorn his house and property, which is nestled on the Pacific Ocean, with neighbors such as Julia Roberts, Barbra Streisand and Matthew McConaughey. Kimmel also owns two acres across the street that house a tennis court and gym pavilion.

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Under his day-to-day leadership, Jones reached $4.3 billion in revenues, and the company became one of the most admired on Seventh Avenue. Known as a tough negotiator, he made several strategic deals to build Jones, including buying Nine West and Sun Apparel (which then licensed Polo Jeans) and licensing Lauren Ralph Lauren. The company went public in 1991, and the stock rose rapidly, splitting at least four times and making him a very wealthy man. Forbes has estimated his wealth at $1.3 billion. A major philanthropist, Kimmel has thus far donated more than $700 million to charitable causes. His goal is to give all his money away during his lifetime, except to provide for his wife.

Kimmel has established the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University; the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, and the Kimmel Scholars Program. Other philanthropic contributions have gone to Stand Up to Cancer; the National Museum of American Jewish History; the Sidney Kimmel Center for Prostate and Urologic Cancers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; the Kimmel Cancer Center and the Sidney Kimmel Laboratory for Preventive Cardiology at Thomas Jefferson University, and the Rena Rowan Breast Center Fund. Kimmel is also a part owner of the Miami Heat.

Even as he has built a second career in film and philanthropy, Jones remains a topic close to Kimmel’s heart. He doesn’t hide his disenchantment with the way the business has been run the past several years. As the company’s flagship brand, Jones New York, slipped in prestige and volume, Kimmel said he had suggestions on how to stem the decline, but no one was really interested in hearing them. He never met the Sycamore executives, and they never called him to talk about the company.

Here, Kimmel talks about building Jones, what he thinks went wrong at the company and what he would have done differently.

WWD: What do you attribute your success in the fashion business to?

Sidney Kimmel: For one thing, luck and hard work. I used to work a minimum of 10 hours a day, six days a week. I was involved in everything in the beginning. Today it’s a different world. I learned over the earlier years that I had a knack for something that I didn’t know I had. I basically was a merchandiser and editor. That was my biggest asset I developed over the years. I was a product guy. I used to examine cost sheets and figured out what niche. Remember, Jones is a generic name. I could have called it Smith New York. I named it after a friend of mine who let me use his knitting mill when I first got started, and his name was Curtis Jones. He had attempted to do a men’s wear line and it was not doing well, and he called it Jones and put on the bottom “New York.” I took that idea and made it one name, Jones New York. For the first five years, I used to have to correct people because they used to call it Jones of New York. I would say, “This is not Koret of California, this is Jones New York.”

WWD: As a kid, did you aspire to be in the fashion business, or to be in the movie business?

S.K.: I aspired to make a living. I was born in poverty in South Philadelphia.

WWD: How did you get your start in business?

S.K.: I went to Temple University. I was in the Army twice and worked in the State Department as a cryptographer. I went to take a test, thinking if I had a job in the State Department, I wouldn’t get drafted. I had an aptitude for it. I was trained for deciphering codes. The draft board said, “We’re drafting you.” They offered me a captaincy to go to the front lines in Korea where they were killing people every day. I went back in as a private. I spent two years there and started working. In 1960, I started at The Villager with one sweater. It was a ribbon-front Shetland cardigan. Max Raab [who owned The Villager] said to me, “Before I hire you, I want to see if you can make this sweater.” We had nine good years together, and then Jonathan Logan boughtThe Villager.

I started Jones in January of 1970. It was a division of W.R. Grace. I agreed to work for John Meyer of Norwich. He had sold his company to W.R. Grace. They had two bad years in a row and didn’t know what to do with it. They hired me to fix John Meyer, and I agreed to work there, with the provision that they would allow me to set up a separate label, which I called Jones New York, with the idea that if they ever sold the business, I’d have first crack at it. Five years later, they came to me and said, “We want out of the apparel business, it’s too risky.” They gave it to us. We had no money. My partner at the time was a guy named Jerry Rubin. We each put in about $6,000.

We were doing about $100 million and pledged all receivables, and we managed to keep it alive.

In 1983, Jerry heard as a sideline I was going to make a movie. He was an accountant and he depended on me. He was an old-time employee of W.R. Grace and he engineered the deal out. Rubin didn’t have the confidence that I could continue to run the company, and he was afraid I would take my eye off the ball and make movies. My first movie, “Blame It on Rio,” was a hit, and I figured I was in the wrong business. Jerry said he wanted $9 million for his half of the [Jones] business. I didn’t have the $9 million, but my factors lent me the $9 million to buy him out. I haven’t seen him since. It was a dream of mine to own my own business.

WWD: Who was the Jones customer in the early days?

S.K.: I had a vision that my customer was a 26-year-old hip girl, who was being kept by a 45-year-old man so she could afford my clothes. In the Seventies, one of my competitors was a company you never hear about anymore, Cacharel Paris. The American companies I felt were not hip, like Jonathan Logan and Leslie Fay.

WWD: Talk about the early days of building the business.

S.K.: When I started the company, I knew that I had to get a niche, so I wouldn’t have a lot of competition. I’d look at certain lines like Cacharel. They were not edgy, but a little bit removed from dumb clothes. As a matter of fact, I took my first ad out in April 1970 in the New York Times Sunday Magazine section. The line I used was “Jones New York, No Wonder Everyone’s Trying to Keep Up With Us.” I hadn’t shipped my first product yet. It was April, and I wasn’t shipping my first line until May or June, and people were calling me up and saying, “Boy, you’ve got chutzpah.”

I learned after three or four seasons we were cutting our clothes a little too close to the body for the American woman. The French woman at that time was way ahead of the American customer. The American woman had an average size of 10 or 12, and in Europe, the average size was a 2 or a 4. So we would ship clothes and we would get calls. I remember the first line that we shipped. I got a call from a buyer at Bonwit Teller at the time, who said, “Your clothes are too tight. I want to reorder 36 pieces, but I want to reorder them all in larger sizes.” It took me two or three years to catch on that I had to ease up on my fit. If you ease up on your fit too much, it becomes dumb, sloppy. I learned how to ease up a little bit, and our sales doubled. I was attracting more customers. I was offering a slightly more generous fit. I was appealing to a mother and a daughter.


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