Carolyn Roehm can dress you for 'less' from her catalog

April 12, 1993|By Jill Gerston | Jill Gerston,Contributing Writer

New York -- Folded gracefully behind a table in her East Side office, Carolyn Roehm looks serene and demure in gray flannel trousers and a pink cashmere sweater that complements her ivory skin and dark brown hair.

It's not the stiffly coiffed, bejeweled Ms. Roehm once featured in fashion magazines that rhapsodized about the glamorous designer/socialite whose let-them-eat-cake lifestyle came to epitomize the unembarrassed extravagance of the '80s.

The image you expect is of a very expensive, chilled bottle of champagne; what you get is more like warm camomile tea in a fragile china cup.

"I'm happier now," Ms. Roehm, 41, says, pushing back her hair with a hand whose only jewelry is a slender gold wedding band. "If we had 12 hours, I could go on about how my life has changed. But basically, I'm happier now than I was on Seventh Avenue."

Eighteen months ago Ms. Roehm's privileged world came, in her words, "completely crashing down."

Harrison Kravis, the 19-year-old son of her husband, Henry, the millionaire Wall Street dealer, died in a car accident. She abruptly closed her 6-year-old fashion house and quietly retreated from the nouvelle society social whirl.

"Shutting the business was the most painful decision of my life," she says. "But something just snapped inside me. I thought, this business is too tough, too mean and there is too little joy coming from all the hard work."

Ms. Roehm may no longer be a member of Seventh Avenue's snippy sewing circle, but she still has her hand in the rag trade. Last month, she introduced a mail-order catalog of clothing and home accessories she designed.

It's filled with classic sportswear like blazers, French-cuff shirts and trousers; a smattering of evening pieces; jewelry (including a copy of her own charm bracelet); and such amusing what-nots as a dog bowl and a breakfast tray. It can be ordered by calling (800) 669-0787.

The clothes are all in red, white and navy blue, a traditional combination that was inspired, Ms. Roehm says, by last year's presidential election.

In fact, Ms. Roehm's new venture couldn't be more timely now that downscaling has become chic. Vogue's April issue is devoted to "dressing for less," and designers like Giorgio Armani are putting their imprimaturs on lower-priced lines.

Maybe Ms. Roehm's beribboned, lushly photographed catalog with its $95 cotton T-shirts and $725 pantsuits isn't the answer to a Sears shopper's prayers, but to the designer's upper-crust clientele, it's practically cheap chic.

"My customer is now a value shopper," Ms. Roehm proclaims.

The fabrics include Italian wool and French leather, and the styling is sleek and classic, without any nod to short-lived trends like grunge. "A woman of style keeps her clothes," she says pointedly.

The designer also provides the little touches her platinum-card customers expect, like extra tissue paper stuffing the sleeves of a $425 organza blouse. And for Ms. Roehm wannabees, there's the obligatory photo of the willowy, size-4 designer frolicking with her dog, Pookie, at her Connecticut country house.

So far, the response to a 50,000 catalog mailing has been, according to Ms. Roehm "unbelievable." Orders are pouring in for items like the $475 navy blazer, the $125 satin cummerbund and the $45 coin earrings; only the $75 teddy bear hasn't sold.

"Our consultants told us the best we could expect was $250 an average order. We're getting $500," she says. "And we've already exceeded $1 million in sales." (One Roehm devotee placed a $14,000 order.)

The designer plans to issue three catalogs a year; the next edition will feature cashmere sweaters and Christmas gifts.

A catalog-industry insider who declined to be identified says of Ms. Roehm's venture: "She's providing the executive woman with key wardrobe pieces at not outrageous prices, which is what launched Donna Karan. It's an intriguing idea and it's beautifully executed."

Despite all the buzz about her catalog, none of Seventh Avenue's royals, except close chums Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, have called to offer congratulations.

"It doesn't matter," she says with a shrug. "I recently walked into 550 [the Seventh Avenue building where Ms. Roehm had her headquarters] for the first time since I left and I felt no pangs of regret. Not a flicker."

Although Ms. Roehm and her husband are no longer party-hounds, they still show up at all the A-list wingdings. However, they declined to attend last month's premiere of "Barbarian at the Gate," the HBO production of the RJR Nabisco take-over Mr. Kravis masterminded and in which Ms. Roehm is reportedly portrayed as a chic socialite who allowed herself "one Oreo, as a reward for starving all day."

"There are things that are written about me that are just not true," Ms. Roehm sighs. "Once I sat behind a two-way mirror at a focus group of New York professional women to find out what they thought about the idea of a Carolyn Roehm catalog. They just ripped me to pieces.

"I was in tears, but I went out there and confronted them," she continues. "I wanted to embarrass them, but I also wanted to explain that I wasn't the person they thought I was. A few days later, I got a letter from a woman who was one of my fiercest detractors. She said she was wrong about me and apologized.

"And guess what?" Ms. Roehm adds triumphantly. "She asked me to send her a catalog."

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