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Carolyne Roehm hasn’t been around much lately. And not just in the social sense — though the last time she got really gussied up for a major to-do, George W. Bush was starting his second term.
Over the past 12 months, the interior decorator, author and former charity-circuit regular has had to turn down lunch dates and dinner plans because she’s been in Florence, Aspen, Colo., and her house in Connecticut. “I think I spent 35 days in New York last year,” says Roehm, sitting in her exquisitely appointed 57th Street apartment, just days before a month-long trip to Egypt and Turkey. Afterward, she has an eight-plus-city tour for her latest title, “A Passion for Interiors.” (Roehm has published 10 home and entertaining books. Past passions include flowers, parties and the colors blue and white.) With all that jet-setting, who has time to write?
“I have a lot of energy. And I’m obsessive,” she says. “I’ll work and work and work and work, and then I’ll go somewhere and come back and work and work and work.”
The writing — and jet-setting for that matter — is something of Roehm’s third act. Her first was fashion designer, a dream that was born in St. Louis, where she grew up, the daughter of educators. “All I did from a little girl on was play dress up and make dolls’ clothes,” she says. “At the age of 13 I knew [being a designer] was what I wanted to do.” She attended Washington University in St. Louis, and when Seventh Avenue garmento Victor Costa visited the school, he offered her a job in New York City after graduation. So she packed five suitcases and $600 and moved to Manhattan. As it happened, Costa didn’t make good on his promise, but Roehm did land a gig at Kellwood, designing “misses’ polyester sportswear for Sears.” At 23, she landed an interview with Oscar de la Renta for an assistant’s position. She stayed with the house for 10 years.
But Roehm still harbored the ambition to start her own collection. Toward the end of her tenure with de la Renta, she was assigned to the lower-priced, licensed Miss O line. That, she says, “gave me the confidence and desire to want to make affordable dresses that I would want to wear.” In 1985 she launched her eponymous label. WWD praised her fall 1988 collection for having some of the “season’s best skirtpants.” And in 1989, Roehm, then 37, was unanimously elected president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, where she organized the first Seventh-on-Sale gala benefitting AIDS organizations.
Simultaneously, she was building the foundation for her second act: interior designer-cum-society fixture. She was married to billionaire Henry Kravis and was having a ball decorating their homes. “When we got Weatherstone [their 18th-century stone house in Sharon, Conn.],” she says, “I really got involved with interiors.”
The couple was also becoming a major presence on the charity circuit, with Roehm appearing on committees for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet and the antiques shows, among others. “It was almost like a club,” she says of the Eighties social scene. “People were making money and…it was kind of like playing dress up. It was almost innocent compared to the scale of money and everything now.”
Needless to say, those days are long behind both New York and Roehm herself. In 1991, she shuttered her rtw business and, two years later, she and Kravis split. And thus began her third act: intellectually curious world traveler.
After the divorce, Roehm enrolled in summer courses at Oxford to study Shakespearian tragedy. “I thought I was a tragedy so I wanted to understand what the Bard was talking about,” she says lightly. Then she went to Paris, where she worked at a florist and penned her first book, “A Passion for Flowers.”
Learning and traveling are a theme for Roehm in times of hardship. For instance, during the economic collapse in 2008, she fled to Florence for a 12-week course in the Renaissance (probably not how most people dealt with losing their fortunes). “I said, ‘What can I do that will make me feel comfortable in this very uneasy time?’” she recalls. “I’ve always returned to school, that’s my comfort zone. I had parents who brought me up that way.”
As the world became her classroom, life in New York naturally retreated. The Yves Saint Laurent and Dior couture took a backseat to purchases from J. Crew, Zara and Ann Taylor. “I don’t have the desire to go to the places where I have to get dressed up,” Roehm says. “I think it’s just part of the aging process.”
Next year, she’ll turn 60, and she’s been thinking a lot about the Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman romp “The Bucket List.” “Hopefully, I’m not kicking the bucket, but I have the health and the financial comfort to go and see some of the things I’ve never seen in my life,” she says. “That’s why I’m leaving for Egypt.” What’s left to check off? “I haven’t been to Machu Picchu, I would still love to see that. I haven’t been to Botswana, and I’d like to do that. I’ve always wanted to do the Romería del Rocío [a spring festival in Spain],” she says. “That, I think, would be amazing.” And no doubt a book — or books — will follow.