NEW YORK — Even before its deal to acquire Anne Klein’s parent company, Kasper A.S.L., is complete, Jones Apparel Group apparently has a successor in mind for its new crown jewel: Christian Francis Roth, the Nineties designer best known for his crayon dresses.

Jones officials have been playing down the impact of the surprise resignation of Anne Klein designer Michael Smaldone last Wednesday, the day after he presented a widely drubbed collection of oversexed white blouses and molested utility skirts, but that could be because there are now indications that both Jones and Smaldone already had Plan Bs in the works.

This story first appeared in the September 25, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Sources at the company and those close to Roth said the designer, who had most recently been working for labels like Esprit and Tommy Bahama, is currently involved in planning the future of the Anne Klein New York collection with Jones officials, even though Jones’ deal to buy Kasper out of bankruptcy court for $215.5 million is not expected to close for another few weeks.

“They’re already sourcing and designing the fall collection,” said one source, noting that Roth’s role has not yet been finalized.

Bad reviews aside, the timing of Smaldone’s departure also exposed some potential transitional issues between Jones and the Kasper-Anne Klein organizations. Smaldone, who had been with the company only a year and was promoted from the better-priced AK Anne Klein division last season, was named senior vice president of design for Ann Taylor Stores last week, officially joining that company last Friday and replacing Mark Eisen, who had resigned for personal reasons.

Smaldone reportedly had a contract offer from Ann Taylor several weeks ago, and “he saw the writing on the wall” when Jones landed the company during a heated auction with Kellwood Co. this summer, one source said.

A spokeswoman for Anne Klein said earlier this week that the company would not likely name a successor to Smaldone in the near future, saying only that the existing design team in place could handle the transition and that the company was treating the situation as “business as usual.” She wouldn’t say when the company first learned of Smaldone’s plans to leave, but other employees said it was not until after the show that he announced his move to Ann Taylor.

Asked about Roth on Wednesday, she said, “I don’t have any comment on any rumors.”

Roth, who is 34, made a big splash at an early age with dresses that featured graphic prints of money or colorful crayons, but he has had a star-crossed career. After he won the Perry Ellis Award for new design talent in 1990, he subsequently failed at several attempts to maintain a signature business, including an ex-partnership with Sloan Lindemann’s family, using her management and financing from her father, the cellular phone magnate George Lindemann.

A subsequent bridge venture called CFR with Equals Four Co. never took off after retailers deemed it too whimsical. Roth even got sued by Crayola over his most famous design, the crayon-inspired Rothola dress. He’s been consulting for several brands in recent years, including Esprit, and tried a collection for QVC in 1999.

If his role at Anne Klein is formalized, Roth would be at least the ninth designer to take on the helm of the fabled sportswear house, which has had as many bizarre exits as entrances, since Anne Klein’s death in 1974. Smaldone’s day-after-the-catwalk departure ranks among the more unusual resignations for the brand, but perhaps not so much as that of his predecessor, Charles Nolan. After moving to Anne Klein from bridge rival Ellen Tracy in February 2001, Nolan left this April, saying he’d had enough of the fashion business and wanted to campaign for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.

Before Nolan, there was the designing team of Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco, who were canned when Kasper bought the company, and Patrick Robinson preceded them.

Richard Tyler, Louis Dell’Olio and Donna Karan each had their day behind the brand, and even Bill Blass got an early job there, before Klein fired him.

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