Happy Endings Rena Rowan's Life Is An Astonishing Story, Carrying Her From Refugee To Riches, From Sickness To Health. She Is Sharing Her Good Fortune, Too: A Gala Tonight Will Benefit Her Residence For The Formerly Homeless.

Posted: September 20, 1995

If her life were fiction, it would read like an overwrought romantic novel.

* Polish child, exiled to Siberia with her mother and sister during World War II, flees to Tashkent, in central Asia, and later back to Europe. The little refugee's only clothes are those given to her by the Red Cross. She grows up to become a wealthy fashion designer, her name sewn into jackets and skirts and dresses worn by thousands of women all over the country. But she never forgets the days when she had nothing to wear.

* Young war bride marries an American officer, travels to the United States, has four children, then finds herself divorced and broke. Hard work and the kindness of her landlady help her to feed the kids and keep a roof over their heads. She goes on to become one of the highest-paid women in corporate America, owner of not one but four luxurious homes - in Philadelphia; Manhattan; Margate, N.J.; and Palm Beach, Fla. But she never

forgets how tough it is to be a single mother.

* Just when she seems to have it all, super-successful businesswoman who fought her way up from poverty finds she has a lump in her breast. She is among the lucky ones, however; a lumpectomy and follow-up treatments eradicate the cancer. But she cannot forget that for many women in the world it is still a death sentence.

Over the top? For a novel, perhaps. But no editor's blue pencil can erase these scenes: Rena Rowan lived them.

And - though it may sound like romantic cliche - the young refugee who grew up to be cofounder of a major apparel company hasn't forgotten.

She'll prove that again tonight when she hosts a cocktail reception and fashion show of her Jones New York fall line at Strawbridge & Clothier's Center City store. The clothes will all bear one of the Jones New York labels; the money raised from the $20 admission will help fund Rowan House, a transitional residence being established in West Philadelphia for formerly homeless women and their children.

Rowan House is Rena Rowan's newest project.

"It's like I've started another business," Rowan said as she wound up yet another early-morning meeting on Rowan House one recent Friday. "It's very time-consuming."

Although she is executive vice president for design at the Bristol-based Jones Apparel Group, big chunks of her time are taken up by her nonprofit work. She has assumed responsibility for raising a total of $1.5 million for Rowan House, and figures she spends one full day and several evenings a week working on it.

After tonight's fashion show, which is open to the public and largely organized by Strawbridge, there will be next month's huge fund-raising gala at 30th Street Station for maybe 600 invited guests.

"We need to raise about another half a million," Rowan says, ticking off the numbers. "We got a $2.4 million grant from HUD, and I've raised a million," which includes the $500,000 pledge she made when she launched the proposal last year.

Rowan House is the first undertaking of Hope for Philadelphia Homeless, a mostly volunteer organization set up by Rowan. When the fully renovated Saunders Park building opens next year, it will house about 20 families and provide a full range of support services and training programs. In a collaborative effort, the home will be operated by People's Emergency Center, a respected agency that has worked with families in need since 1972.

Rowan makes no secret of her motivation.

"I can never forget how it felt to be cold and hungry, without a family home," she said at the launch last year. "Now it is my time to help others."

*

When she was 12, Rowan, her mother and sister were exiled during the Soviets' World War II invasion of Poland. Her father was deported. After three years in Siberia doing forced farm labor, the women escaped through Tashkent, in central Asia. Later, in what is now Iran, Rowan's father was reunited briefly with the family before he was killed in a car accident.

The teenage Rowan ended up in England, where she married a U.S. military officer. That marriage brought her to Philadelphia. It also brought her four children and a divorce that left her their sole support.

That was when she first put her design skills to work, sewing clothes for friends and neighbors (including her landlady) to support the children. Inevitably, it led Rowan into the fashion world, as a designer first for Gustave Tassell of Philadelphia, and later for other area companies.

In 1970, she and businessman-philanthropist Sidney Kimmel - her partner in life as well as in business - founded Jones Apparel Group, with Rowan as head designer. The company went public in 1991, and Working Woman magazine subsequently listed Rowan as one of the highest-paid women in corporate America.

Rowan's children are grown, and she is a grandmother, but she's still sewing. Well, sort of.

"I do all the fittings for all the labels for the company," she says, ''because if the clothes don't fit, nobody will wear them." Design, fabric and fit are the three ingredients she regards as most important for the 12 million garments the company produces each year.

She usually wears clothes right from the line, and rarely dons anything by another designer.

"Armani evening clothes on occasion," she allows. "But I haven't lately."

During an interview at her elegant Rittenhouse Square apartment, with its spectacular view west across the city, Rowan seems less than comfortable answering questions about herself, responding in a soft, rather formal voice. She becomes most animated when she talks about Rowan House; about the modern art on her walls and the Picasso over the fireplace that Kimmel loves but she doesn't really; and about the charitable activities of her friends.

"I had lunch the other day with Kathie Lee Gifford," she says, leaning forward and speaking intensely, "and she has two homes that take care of babies born with the HIV virus. . . . I think it is extraordinary what she is doing."

Kathie Lee and her husband, Frank Gifford, have become involved as cochairs in Rowan House fund-raising. So, too, has another friend Rowan admires for her commitment to helping people in need - Evelyn Lauder of the famed cosmetics family, who raises money for breast cancer research.

"I feel that mothers and children are the backbone of this country, and I don't think enough people are focusing on that," Rowan says.

Though Rowan House may be her biggest project yet, the homeless aren't the only group she wants to help. Not surprisingly, most of her causes have links to her own life.

When the Soviet Union imposed martial law on Poland in 1980, for instance, she organized a clothing drive throughout the garment industry to help Poles. She recently began working for the Red Cross, something she had meant for many years to do, "because during the war the Red Cross helped us a lot. They gave us clothes when we had none." And the Rena Rowan Foundation helps finance breast cancer research, "something I got much more involved in when I got it myself," she adds.

Her involvement in causes, though, has increasingly put her where she says she hates to be - in the spotlight.

"I prefer to be in the back room," she says. "A lot of designers today seek publicity; I never did."

Last year, when she was honored by the City of Philadelphia during the inaugural Phashion Phest, Rowan spoke to nearly 1,500 people about the importance of breast cancer research. Then she took many in the audience by surprise by disclosing that she had had a lumpectomy.

Did she surprise herself with the revelation?

Not entirely.

"I hate to speak in front of people," she says. "I had thought about this a little, whether I would, but I wasn't sure. . . . Then it came out.

"I got a lot of letters from women after that. I think they just appreciated that I came out openly with it."

She's fine now, she says as she raps her knuckles against the coffee table for luck. "Two years ago I finished treatments."

The fairy-tale quality of her life isn't lost on Rowan. Over the years many people have told her she should write a book, including at least one who should know a good story when he hears it.

"In June, I met with Steven Spielberg," she says. "His people approached me because he's doing a Holocaust documentary, because of Schindler's List, and he wanted me to do a tape of my experiences during the war. He said, 'You should write a book.' I had started one five years ago, and now I'm starting again.

"I'm writing in longhand on any paper that's to hand. I said to Sidney, 'This is no way to write a book,' and he said, 'Gone With the Wind was written that way.' "

She laughs. "I have to learn the word processor."

FOR MORE INFORMATION

* Some seats ($20) are available for tonight's fashion benefit. Call 215-629-6529. .

* For information on Rowan House, call 215-785-3777.

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