By Kathleen Nicholson Webber
Originally posted in the Philadelphia Style Magazine on August 26, 2013.
Fashion designer Joi Denenberg has never had her name on one of her labels. In three decades in the business, she is as comfortable with her anonymity as some designers are with their fame. So modest is she about her place in the fashion food chain, when she was invited to Christian Dior’s Spring 1992 show in Paris (she had been working on licensed collections for the house) and saw her name on a front-row seat, she was so excited she cried. “That made me feel so important,” she says, “that I almost forgot that I wasn’t.”
Manufacturers and retailers beg to differ. Philadelphia native Sidney Kimmel—founder of The Jones Group (originally Jones Apparel), a leading global designer, marketer, and wholesaler—named Denenberg the designer of the clothing his company produced for the labels Lauren by Ralph Lauren and Ralph Ralph Lauren. “I have always loved Ralph Lauren’s clothes,” Denenberg says, “so this was so fun to work on. We would design whole collections based on imagery. They would say something like, ‘It’s 1922 on an ocean liner. You’re getting off the boat, and the wind is blowing your coat open.’ I knew what they were talking about.”
Opportunity knocked again last summer when a friend and former boss called about designing a juniors collection for Macy’s based on Marilyn Monroe. To design her boards, Denenberg watched Monroe’s movies, pored over books about and photos of the starlet, and studied vintage pieces in her own closet. The collection debuted in select Macy’s stores this past spring and was such a success, it will be shown to other stores next spring. The project’s pace is dizzying, even for a seasoned sartorial pro. There are new style groupings to create each month, trips to Asia every three months, and “testing” of new styles with her teen granddaughters.
“It has been one of the most fun lines to do,” Denenberg says. “Our Fall line is adorable. Our inspiration was a photo of Marilyn in tartan plaid high-waisted skinny capri pants. Then we mixed printed houndstooth, some colorful conversational prints, bomber jackets, and sexy bustiers together with dresses and fabulous sweaters, and graphic T-shirts! Everything is cute, sweet, and sexy, but ‘mom-approved.’ Just like Marilyn Monroe would be today—a touch of vintage, and a lot of modern.”
While she works in New York, Denenberg’s love for Philly runs deep. She graduated from Northeast High School and attended Moore College of Art & Design to study fashion illustration and later fashion design. When she was a junior, designer Emil DeJohn, now a professor at The Art Institute of Philadelphia, presented her with a fashion critics’ award, and a friendship was born. “Joi’s work was so beyond everyone else’s,” says DeJohn. “It was extraordinary and she didn’t realize it.” Denenberg worked a summer job at Villager/Ladybug (where she first met Kimmel and local designer Rena Rowan) and decided to stay, leaving school early. But it was reconnecting with Rowan years later—through a chance phone call with a mutual friend—that changed her course. Rowan, then at Jones New York, offered Denenberg a job. For nearly 21 years she helped invigorate lines The Jones Group bought or secured a license for. As executive VP of design, she and her team created collections for Anne Klein, AKAK, Evan-Picone, Christian Dior, Ralph Lauren, and Jones New York. While there, she remained close to DeJohn, donating funds to the fashion department of each school he worked for. “She is like a fairy godmother to the students in Philadelphia,” he says.
Every morning, Monday to Thursday, Denenberg leaves her Society Hill home for 30th Street Station, where she boards the train for her 12-hour day in New York’s Fashion District. Although she has an apartment in Soho, she prefers coming home to her three cats and her partner of 20 years, Tom Murphy, whom she met on a flight from London. “He’s a scientist and I’m a designer, so we both travel a lot for business, but usually in opposite directions, and rarely together,” she says. “When home, we like to go to neighborhood restaurants for dinner with friends, or just hang out. I love spending a lot of time with my daughters, Corey and Meegan, and my five irresistible grandchildren.” She calls her hometown “a big neighborhood. I love it. We walk everywhere and we know people in the restaurants we go to in Society Hill.” Of her business, Denenberg adds, “I really have a lot of fun doing what I’m doing. I think to myself all the time, I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”