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How Carolyne Roehm Was Rebuilt : Retreat doesn't mean defeat to once-extravagant designer. She fled the Seventh Avenue grind, but returns with her own upscale catalogue.

March 23, 1993|JILL GERSTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Folded gracefully behind a table in her East Side office, Carolyne Roehm looks serene and demure in gray flannel trousers and a pink cashmere sweater that complements her ivory skin and loose dark brown hair.

It's not the impeccably coiffed, bejeweled Roehm about whom fashion magazines once rhapsodized, not the glamorous designer-socialite whose let-them-eat-cake lifestyle epitomized the embarrassing extravagance of the '80s.

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

"I'm happier now," Roehm 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, 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 deal-maker, died in a car accident. She abruptly closed her 6-year-old fashion house and quietly retreated from the nouvelle-society 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."

Roehm, 41, may no longer be a member of Seventh Avenue's sewing circle, but she still has her hand in the rag trade. Last month she introduced a mail-order catalogue of clothing and home accessories she designed.

"I'm a catalogue junkie. I love J. Crew, Williams-Sonoma and Chambers," she says between sips of Evian. "Maybe it's because I'm doing so many houses (she and Kravis own seven)--to be able to order my sheets from Chambers so I don't have to troop into a store means everything to me."

Her catalogue is 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 whatnots as a dog bowl and a breakfast tray.

All the clothes are red, white and navy blue, a traditional combination inspired by the presidential election, Roehm says. She supported Clinton, despite her husband being a major Republican fund-raiser.

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

Maybe Roehm's beribboned, lushly photographed catalogue, 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," Roehm proclaims. "And though the clothes in the catalogue aren't couture quality, they're the very best that you can get at those prices."

The fabrics include Italian wool and French leather, and the styling is sleek and classic, without any nod to five-second 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 Roehm wanna-bes, the obligatory photo of the willowy, Size 4 designer frolicking with her dog, Pookie, on the tapestry rug of her country house.

So far, the response to a 250,000-catalogue mailing has been, Roehm says, "unbelievable." Orders are pouring in for 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 devotee placed a $14,000 order.)

The designer plans to issue three catalogues each year. The next edition will feature cashmere sweaters, Christmas gifts and a more extensive color range including gray and beige.

A catalogue-industry insider who requested anonymity says of 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, the only Seventh Avenue royals to offer congratulations have been her close friends, Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass.

Roehm says she has cut back on her frantic schedule, rising at 7:30 instead of 5:30 and walking five blocks to her cozy office in an East Side townhouse. She still puts in 12-hour days, but Roehm says learning the catalogue trade is more fun than designing $3,000 suits for the ladies-who-lunch bunch.

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