Carolyne Roehm Recalls the CFDA ‘At Its Best’

Carolyne Roehm and Oscar de la

Decades have passed since Carolyne Roehm succeeded Oscar de la Renta as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, but from her viewpoint, the inaugural 7th on Sale remains the organization’s crowning moment.

Following a unanimous vote by the board in a special election in January 1989, her appointment required finishing the 14 months of his term. De la Renta, whom she worked for earlier in her career, had already served for three years in the lead post and agreed to serve as vice president of the board. But he wanted other designers to have the chance to serve as president.

At that time, Roehm told WWD that it was all so new to her that she didn’t have immediate plans and that her philosophy was to “learn the ropes first and then act.” Annual dues for new members then cost $400 and rookies included Isaac Mizrahi, Steve Fabricant, Leon Max and Kazuyoshi Hino, among others.

Reached in Colorado in August, Roehm said her friends and mentors de la Renta and Bill Blass wanted her to take the president post, as they each had. “They had their own particular reasons and I didn’t get it. Maybe they thought that because they could control me. I was the kid. I don’t know,” Roehm said with a laugh.

Regardless, she had already been “very frustrated” as a member by the speed of the CFDA’s actions. “I’m from Missouri and we have this expression, ‘Talk is cheap. It’s actions that prove.’ We’d go to those [CFDA] meetings and everyone would yak, yak, yak,” Roehm said. “And everybody always talked over everybody else until you finally wanted to shake them to say, ‘Stop that.’”

By the late ’80s, the AIDS crisis had taken hold in New York City, and it afflicted many designers and creatives in the fashion industry. “Several of us were [based] in 550 Seventh Avenue. We’d see one another on the elevators. It was really shocking the first time that you saw a young man with lesions on his face and you knew what it was. It was just very, very sad.”

The death of Perry Ellis in May 1986 increased the growing concern and made the CFDA become more intent about taking action. It was later revealed that Ellis died of an HIV-related illness. In March 1990, the death of Halston, who had tested positive for HIV two years prior, was another major loss for the industry.

Before agreeing to considering the presidency, Roehm said she had told Blass and de la Renta that the one condition was that they would support her dictum for an AIDS benefit. When the idea was broached, Donna Karan and Isaac Mizrahi wholeheartedly agreed and suggested 7th on Sale.

Allowing that “everyone’s heart was in the right place” in that the CFDA knew it had to do something collectively, Roehm said “somehow they got caught up in the next collection or whatever it was.” Subsequently, when a board meeting was held about the event with Karan, Mary McFadden and others, it seemed to be going nowhere, Roehm said she had burst into tears. “I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “I said, ‘I can’t believe that after we’ve said we’re going to do this, we’re still discussing it as if it wasn’t signed, sealed and delivered.’ Later that day I got a call from Mary and a couple of others, who said, ‘No, no, no, we’re going to support you on this. We’re going to do it.’”

Karan and Roehm paid a visit to Ed Finkelstein at Macy’s to explain what the CFDA wanted to do as an organization and the concept and venue for the sale. “He paused and said, ‘First of all, I’ve got to say this — I don’t believe a designer should be selling clothes. Stores should be selling clothes,’” Roehm recalled. “That kind of stopped us. But then he said, ‘Having said that and gotten that off my chest, Macy’s will do anything to help.’ And that’s how it started.”

A WWD article prompted Vogue’s Anna Wintour to reach out, according to Roehm. Securing the support of “the biggies,” as in Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, was essential, so she took them to lunch at the Four Seasons restaurant to convince them, she said. Lauren’s team helped with such logistics as setting up the cash registers at the sale and Macy’s pitched in with mannequins and the merchandising of each designer’s booth. Wintour recruited event planner Robert Isabell to design the set for the event, which was held at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue at East 26th Street.

The opening night gala reeled in a bevy of American designers and other luminaries like Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, David Bowie, Iman and the actor Gerard Depardieu. A large circular section in the center of the main hall had been cordoned off with a curtain. Roehm said, “After we had had cocktails and had given our little rah-rah speeches — Anna [Wintour], Donna [Karan] and me — Robert did the most dramatic thing, where the curtain in the middle of the room went up and that was the [seating for] dinner.”

Individual shops for each designer were set up. Roehm said, “I think it must have been Donna, who got Patti LaBelle to sing. You had goosebumps. The patrons of all of the designers’ clothes were there because they were going to be buying the clothes. The designers didn’t need to buy clothes. We had enough of our own. It was just a magical moment. It was CFDA at its best,” Roehm said.

Hordes of shoppers — including some like Muffie Potter — had the foresight to wear leotards to expedite multiple try-ons of the designer goods that had been marked down to entice shoppers. The line to enter nearly snaked around the entire building and many attendees waited as long as 100 minutes to pay for their purchases. The CFDA and Vogue-sponsored event racked up more than $4.2 million for the New York City AIDS Fund to benefit research and support groups.

Despite the sale’s rousing success and having been one of the CFDA’s most effective leaders at that point in time, Roehm decided to resign after 18 months at the helm. The time had come to focus on her independent designer business. “Younger people were coming in. I mean, I was young back then,” Roehm said with a laugh. “I just knew it was time. To be fair to my salespeople, I needed to get back into my business.”

She told WWD as much in December 1990, explaining that she needed to devote more time to her business and that she “didn’t have the kind of support you really need to keep doing this.”

Having a small business might have been a factor in her democratic approach to the CFDA. Recalling the rivalries and alliances of some of the designers, Roehm said de la Renta and Blass always created a partnership despite running two very different companies. “But they didn’t love Geoffrey Beene and Geoffrey Beene didn’t love them. I don’t know why, but I didn’t investigate that. It didn’t concern me so I stayed out of it,” she said. “The most verbal people were Isaac and Donna. That does not mean they were against each other.”

After leaving the CFDA to focus on her signature label, Roehm’s plans changed due to a family loss. In July 1991, her stepson Harrison Kravis was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 19 in Colorado. Roehm said, “I felt that I had to focus my time on my [second] husband [Henry Kravis] because he was in great grief. I was getting ready to take my business and work with a manufacturer in Paris. I just realized that I couldn’t do that to this human being, who had gone through so much. That’s when I shut the business down [in September 1991].”

After six years of running her own company, the stylish designer, whose fashion sense defined the high-flying ’80s, for some, found another creative outlet. “Of course, I needed something to do so my other love in life is interiors and gardens. I went off to Paris and ended up learning things in France, which was following through what I was going to be doing, but in a different way. I went to work in a flower shop,” she said. “When I came back and my marriage was falling apart, as they often do when there’s a death of a child…I didn’t want that to be the case, but it happened. Working in the flower shop got me really interested in my own gardens, so I threw myself into that.”

Her horticultural skills led to publishing her first book about flowers and a career in book publishing. That first book, “A Passion for Flowers,” sold more copies than any other flower book “that the publishing world had had at that moment,” she said. “I just realized that the natural colors of flowers and all of that was something that I truly, truly loved.”

Returning to fashion is of no interest. “Not at this age. It’s for the young and I am very traditional. My clothes were classic. I wasn’t interested in making shocking or avant-garde things. As a woman, I thought it was injustice to women to create clothes that became obsolete in a season or two, just to be in fashion. I was never that popular among the press because I didn’t think it was the right thing to do for me. So I made classic clothes. They were pretty, maybe not all of them. Of course, some of them were good-looking clothes. They were beautifully made by a wonderful group of seamstresses and tailors…I didn’t want the clothes to be obsolete in a season. We owed women more than that.”

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