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Rena’s Reality

Since retiring from Jones Apparel Group in 2000, ex-designer Rena Rowan Damone has embarked on a new lifestyle. But she has a bone to pick.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Is there life after Jones?

Since retiring from the Jones Apparel Group in September 2000, Rena Rowan Damone, the former executive vice president of design, has embarked on an entirely new lifestyle. Married to crooner Vic Damone since 1998, she spends most of her time at her Palm Beach estate, working with a personal trainer and doing yoga three times a week, taking walks, organizing fund-raisers and working on behalf of her charities, writing her memoirs and cooking and entertaining at home.

But she has a bone to pick.

Thirty-three years after establishing Jones New York with Sidney Kimmel, the company’s 76-year-old chairman, it irks her that she’s not credited with co-founding the company. The Jones Web site, in fact, features a time line that lists Kimmel as the sole founder of Jones New York in 1970, and Damone feels she played an equal role in that. Furthermore, Damone remains dismayed by the way she was treated when she retired three years ago, and though she is clearly well-off financially, she admits to several financial missteps over the years.

For most of the 30 years that she was head designer at Jones, Damone was Kimmel’s steady companion and live-in girlfriend. They broke up in fall 1996.

During her 50-hour work weeks, Damone used to shuttle back and forth between Jones headquarters in Bristol, Pa., and New York City, where she headed up the design team for all the company’s products and supervised pattern-making and fittings. In the early Nineties, Damone was earning a phenomenal $6 million a year in salary and was cited by Working Woman magazine in 1993 as the second-highest-paid woman in corporate America, after Turi Josefsen, executive vice president of U.S. Surgical Corp., who earned $23.6 million because of stock options. Damone was one spot ahead of Linda Wachner.

Damone, 75, told WWD that after announcing her retirement from Jones in late 1999, she received a nasty letter from Jackwyn Nemerov, then president of Jones Apparel Group, telling her that the company had eliminated her position as vice president of design, and she was no longer on the company’s payroll as of Feb. 29, 2000. The letter said she was no longer permitted on the company’s premises, her belongings would be sent to her Palm Beach home and that if she wanted to transact any business relating to the company, she needed written authorization from its general counsel, Ira Dansky. In addition, she was told that she would receive monthly payments of $54,166.67, or a payout of $650,000 a year.

“This is the thank-you I received after I retired,” said Damone, who believes they tried to rob her of her dignity. “It came out of the clear blue sky, and when I originally received the fax, I thought it was a joke. My knees got weak. This comes after 30 years of slavery, where I had no life and often felt not that I was neglecting my children, that I would have liked to have spent more time with them.”

Damone said she contested the monthly payments and received a flat settlement from Jones, which she declined to disclose. When she went back to get her belongings and clean out her office, she didn’t contact anyone and just showed up. “I was welcomed with open arms from everyone,” she said. But the letter still bothers her to this day.

“Can you imagine Liz Claiborne asking Ira Dansky if she could come on the premises?” asked Damone.

Damone doesn’t know what precipitated such a cruel farewell and called Kimmel to discuss it, but he claimed that he wasn’t aware of that letter. To this day, she finds that hard to believe. Not much goes by Kimmel without his knowing about it, according to Damone.

Sources have suggested that what may have instigated the letter was Damone’s bad-mouthing of Kimmel’s new wife, Caroline, and Nemerov may then have been told by Kimmel to get her off the premises.

Told of that accusation, Damone replied, “I hardly know her at all.”

Anita Britt, executive vice president of finance for Jones Apparel Group, said the company had no comment about the letter.

Turning to how the company began and what part she played in it, Damone explained her version of the events.

Born in Poland, Damone was exiled with her mother and sister to Siberia during World War II, and emigrated to the U.S. at 17 years old. She married in Philadelphia, but later divorced her husband, Jim Rowan, when her four children were young and supported her family by making custom clothes for people.

“I got tired of pleasing all these women and called Oleg Cassini. He took the call and I went to New York. I set up a design room, and I would make original garments for him. He’d give me sketches and fabrics and I’d make the pattern.” After working a full day, she attended the Museum School of Art in Philadelphia for two years at night. She later took a job at Youtheme Lingerie in Wilmington, designing lingerie. From 1960 to 1966, she designed little girls’ dresses for Cinderella Dresses in Philadelphia.

“After I designed children’s wear, I always wanted to do sportswear. I saw an ad for a designer for Villager,” said Damone. At the time, Villager was owned by Max and Norman Raab, and Kimmel was running the knitwear division. She said she didn’t get the job she applied for because they told her she didn’t have enough knitwear experience. After the interview, Kimmel asked her out on a date.

Two weeks later, Villager called her back and offered her a job designing lingerie and sleepwear, which they needed in five weeks.

“I got the job, but I really wanted to do sportswear,” recalled Damone. “The lingerie was a great success. Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor were fighting over it.” She recalled that Frank Sinatra went to Bloomingdale’s and bought it for Mia Farrow.

She found out that the knitwear designer wasn’t doing very well, and Damone was eager to take over that position. “I asked for knitwear and told them, ‘If I don’t do well, I’ll leave.’ My assistant did the sleepwear.”

The dresses and sportswear did very well, with Allied buying 1,500 pieces of one dress. “I stayed four years until Jonathan Logan bought Villager,” she said. Kimmel was her boss at Villager, and just before Jonathan Logan came in, they promoted Kimmel to president.

Around that time, Damone got a call from John Meyer, who asked if she would leave Villager and work for John Meyer of Norwich, a fashion division of W.R. Grace, the New York chemical conglomerate.

“I met John Meyer and his production man at Sardi’s. He offered me the job. I took it and I had to commute to Norwich [Conn.] from Philadelphia.” Perry Ellis, in fact, was Damone’s boss at John Meyer.

Damone recalled that she asked Kimmel to join her for dinner with Arlene and John Meyer at Joe & Rose in New York in early fall 1969, and John Meyer offered Kimmel a job working for him. “He said, ‘No, I can’t do it,’” she recalled, because Kimmel already had taken the position of president of Villager.

“I was already hired. I was going to work for them, and John Meyer said he would set up a design room for me in Philadelphia,” she said. “While we were having dinner, I mentioned Curtis Jones, who was a builder in Philadelphia,” she said. Curtis Jones also had a knitting mill in Lumberton, N.C., where he made men’s underwear and T-shirts. Having heard that Curtis Jones was having problems, Arlene and John Meyer suggested they buy the business and let Damone design it. Damone suggested that Kimmel then come in to manage the new company.

Curtis Jones was in debt, and W.R. Grace gave Curtis Jones $350,000 for the Jones name for ladies’ wear in the late fall of 1969, according to Damone.

“We made it Jones New York,” said Damone, who hired people away from Villager and started working on the Jones line that December, designing from home. On Jan. 11, 1970, she got a place on Walnut Street in Philadelphia for the design room, and the new owners took over the Curtis Jones showroom at 1407 Broadway. That month, Kimmel came in to run Jones and Damone handled the creative end. Kimmel hired two salesmen, one for all points north of Washington, D.C., and one for all points south of Washington.

“Sidney and I were co-founders of Jones New York,” she insisted. “We couldn’t have done it without W.R. Grace and John Meyer. We bought the label for ladies’, not men’s.”

Jones’ Britt told WWD that Kimmel had no comment about Damone’s claims that she was a co-founder. She referred this reporter to the company’s Web site, where it lists Kimmel as the sole founder of Jones New York.

In 1975, W.R. Grace wanted to get out of the apparel business. Gerard Rubin, an attorney for W.R. Grace, brought it to Kimmel’s attention. That year, Kimmel and Rubin bought Jones New York from W.R. Grace for what sources said was $10,000.

“At that time, I should have been a third partner,” said Damone. “Sidney said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll always take care of you.’”

Damone said she argued that “we are not married, and we’re three individuals.” However, Rubin was worried that if she had an equal stake in the business, she and Kimmel would own more than Rubin, and it wouldn’t be a 50-50 partnership, said Damone.

Through 1984, Jones was very profitable, but beginning in 1985 and running through 1987, it had net losses.

Damone believes some of the problems stemmed from taking over the Gloria Vanderbilt business in the early Eighties, which drained the company. “Gerry bought Gloria Vanderbilt from Murjani, and that’s when we started to go down. The jeans were so stiff and the clothes were horrible.” The company apparently overestimated Vanderbilt’s appeal and was left with huge inventories that had to be disposed of.

A subsequent turnaround was successful, and Jones returned to profitability in 1988. The following year, Kimmel bought out Rubin’s share in the business for $7 million, according to sources, and Rubin embarked on other business ventures. On May 15, 1991, Jones became a public company with a listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

“This is where I made another mistake. Sidney and I worked together to build the company. I did the creative part and Sidney did the business part. When we went public, he took 19 million shares, and he gave me one million shares. When I questioned him, he said, ‘That’s what Merrill Lynch said to do,’” recalled Damone.

As the years went on, Damone wanted to make her live-in relationship with Kimmel official.

“When my children were small, I didn’t want to get married. When they were grown, I wanted to get married. I said to Sidney, ‘If we don’t get married on our 30th anniversary, I’m out of here,’’’ she recalled. She told him in October 1995 that she’d give him until July 13, 1996, to make their union official, because she was planning to throw a big 30th anniversary party in Margate, N.J. But there was a horrible rainstorm and they had to cancel the party. “The week before, Sidney said he would marry me, but it was too late. He said he would marry me, but I would have to sign a prenuptial agreement. If I wasn’t sure it was over, now I was positive,” said Damone. They broke up that fall.

The previous spring, she had met Vic Damone when she was throwing a party for her homeless charity, and the charity wanted to hire him to perform. They met several times to talk about the fundraiser.

Damone said she had a thing for Vic Damone ever since she came to the U.S. She recalled when she first arrived in in this country, all her friends loved Frank Sinatra. “But I said, ‘Forget Frank Sinatra, give me Vic Damone.’”

After Kimmel and Damone broke up, she continued working at Jones.

“When I did less designing and more fittings and administrative work, [Damone and Kimmel] didn’t have to come into contact with each other. But then in 2000, I said, ‘I’m leaving,’’’ said Damone, and she sold her namesake collection, Rena Rowan, to Jones. The Rena Rowan line is similar to Jones, but less expensive. Asked how much she sold it for, Damone replied, “Enough.”

While at Jones, Damone never designed clothes that were trendy, but rather apparel that appealed to the growing legions of working women. She said when she first started designing Jones New York in 1970, “American clothes were dowdy. I wanted something a woman could wear to work. It was more contemporary than what they were wearing. I did a tighter fit. We did the HotPants and minis, but we were never really trendy.”

“We kept growing in that niche,” said Damone. “There were good quality fabrics and workmanship, and the taste level was good.” She said she never harbored any dreams to do a top designer collection.

Clearly disappointed that she didn’t get more stock when the company went public, Damone said she has more than enough money to live. She sold some stock when the company initially went public at $14 and sold some more at $40. After Damone announced her retirement on Sept. 5, 2000, she sold 511,000 shares of Jones, which would have netted her approximately $14 million. Jones, which last year generated $4.34 billion in sales, closed Wednesday at $28.52, down 23 cents or 0.8 percent on the New York Stock Exchange.

“I’m happy with what I have,” she said. “Life here is pretty casual. When I first got the one million shares, it really bothered me. Andy Grossman [president of Jones in the Nineties] got the same amount. I had four kids, and Sidney and I built the business together and it was even harder for me. He’s getting 19 million shares, and said ‘I will give her anything she wants.’ We went to a psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Millman, who said, ‘She doesn’t want you to give her anything. She wants what she earned.’”

Damone received both a personal and professional financial settlement from Kimmel and Jones, respectively, and signed a noncompete clause. She said she doubts she’d ever return to the industry. “I do miss a certain excitement that was there, and I do miss the people,” she said.

Now, instead of fashion types, she spends her time with Damone’s cronies, such as Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, Jerry Vale and Jack Jones. “I met Milton Berle. He helped Vic before he became known. Vic was 17 years old and was on Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts. ‘Hey kid,’ Berle said, ‘If you win this, I’m going to help you.’ He sang, “Prisoner of Love,” and Berle got him a manager at William Morris.”

Rena Rowan Damone has become a major philanthropic presence in Philadelphia. She serves on the American Cancer Society Foundation’s board of trustees and has endowed the Rena and Vic Damone-American Cancer Society Fellowship with a commitment of $500,000 for breast cancer research. She has also founded the Rena Rowan Breast Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, which opened in 2000. She has also established the Rena Rowan Foundation for the Homeless and the Rowan House, which consists of 26 apartments. In the past two years, she has opened 40 Rowan Homes to help homeless people become self-sufficient, with plans to open 35 more next year. In February 2001, Damone had a private audience with Pope John Paul II because she is redoing a home in which Polish people can stay while they visit Rome.

Kimmel, a billionaire, still lives in Philadelphia, where he is a major philanthropic presence. His charities include the Sidney Kimmel Foundation, which so far has given away $400 million, including the creation of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia and four separate cancer-research centers in Philadelphia, New York, San Diego and Baltimore.

Damone seems to have adjusted very well to her new life. One of her friends recently told her that Kimmel did her “a huge favor” by not marrying her. “I think God has sent Vic to me. He’s the most caring, giving man and just the best,” she said.

Another distinct advantage of Damone’s new lifestyle is her upgraded wardrobe.

“I still wear some Jones and some Lauren. I wear some Armani and some Max Mara. I really love Malo knits. I wore Jones all the time when I was there.”

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