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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Princess Christina Oxenberg

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-11-14

The scarves, gloves, and hats that Princess Christina Oxenberg of Serbia-Montenegro sells at Barney's and Bloomingdale's are produced in Peru. But the fine wool that she uses has its provenance variously in Australia, the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes, and Patagonia. Artisans in Italy fine-comb her products before they make their way to stores in New York and elsewhere via her living room in Aspen, Colorado.

Living room?

"I'm giving the phrase 'hand-made' a new meaning," Princess Christina said. "I'm such a stickler for detail that I label and imprint every item personally in my living room. I pack the goods personally exactly the way I want. I drive the crates to the courier. And I'm on the phone until I know for sure that my goods have arrived in the stores."

Isn't that stressful, not to mention a tad undignified for a woman with blue blood?

"I see myself more as a global businesswoman," Princess Christina said. "I've never warmed up to the royalty circuit."

That circuit winds its way through Manhattan, London, Paris, St. Moritz, Geneva, and West Palm Beach, Florida, as defrocked members of European royalty - including Christina's mother, Princess Elizabeth of the erstwhile Yugoslavia; father, Howard Oxenberg, an American businessman; and older sister Catherine, who starred in "Dynasty," the TV hit series - gambol with members of the American social aristocracy.

Princess Christina's own circuit these days consists of buyers at department stores, and suppliers of materiel for her two lines, "Christina Oxenberg," and "Ox." It also involves relentless marketing in America, Canada, Japan and Britain - where her products are sold currently - with the assistance of her Peruvian business partner Fernando Alvarez, who lives in Canada.

And it often involves responding to questions about a novel that the princess wrote a few years ago, "Royal Blue," that's still talked about among a certain social set. The novel was widely seen as a roman a clef and, let it be known, did not fetch Princess Christina particularly warm reviews from members of that set. She also gets asked about rumors that President Kennedy was her real father.

Was he?

"I just don't discuss that," Princess Christina said.

But she acknowledges that the rumors might make for a good plot for another novel.

"I'm still a writer at heart," she said. "I see stories all around me. But I'm a highly laconic, skeptical person, and I can't stand the hypocrisy of those running around claiming to be blue-blood types or other high-borns. I'm a person who's very much grounded in my daily realities."

Those realities hadn't seemed particularly pleasant until not so long ago. After attending 14 schools in various countries, including America, Britain and Spain, she decided it was time decelerate her colorful lifestyle.

"I wanted to gain control of my life," Princess Christina said. "My friends and I were actors in a play. But there really was no play. It was all fun, adventure and make-believe. So I decided to get married."

But domesticity brought unanticipated disappointments.

Her first marriage, to an artist, ended after her husband chose painting landscapes in Marrakech, Morocco, over conjugal life with the princess. Her next marriage collapsed after Colombian guerrillas seized a mountaintop house that she and her second husband built. The spouse, she said with a smile, made his exit after that, perhaps chagrined over the fact that Christina hadn't brought him the dowry he might have expected from a princess.

"He realized that I had no palaces, no royal staff - he was quite depressed about that," Princess Christina said.

It was a chance meeting with Mr. Alvarez in Canada that led to her new avatar as a businesswoman.

"What did I know about doing business?" Princess Christina said. "But I did know a thing or two about animals."

She knew, for instance, that wool from merlino sheep in Australia was high grade, and durable. She knew that the hair of the Andean suri - a miniature camel of which only 40,000 are left in the world - was so fine that shawls and scarves made from it were practically weightless. She knew, too, that wool from the guanaco of Patagonia - a creature akin to a llama - was similarly fine. And she knew that musk ox from Banks Island near the North Pole yielded exquisite wool.

She and Mr. Alvarez decided to go into business together. He brought seed capital - around $100,000 - and together they sought people who harvested the wool from the aforementioned animals. They also hired Italian artisans who combed the wool in a special manner so that it did not shred. Mr. Alvarez found craftsmen in his native Peru who transformed that wool into the items that Princess Christina now sells at Barney's and Bloomingdale's.

That she gained entree to Bloomingdale's was also because of serendipity, just like her chance encounter with Mr. Alvarez. While skiing in Aspen last February, she met Terry Lundgren, chairman and CEO of Federated Department Stores, which owns Bloomingdale's.

Princess Christina said that Mr. Lundgren - who's said to have a keen eye for things that sell well - in turn called colleagues at Bloomingdale's in New York. That call resulted in a prominent display for Princess Christina's lines.

The items in those lines can cost anywhere from $65 to $1,000, prices that the princess feels are within the reach of the urban middle class.

Those items call feature an attractive woman languidly reclining with one of Princess Christina's handmade products. Another princess, perhaps?

"In a way," she said. "It's my youngest sister Ashley. She's a senior at a California university, and she's dazzlingly smart. I asked her to model for me because - why not? It's good to keep a small business all in the family. Besides, she personifies what I'm trying to sell - silent luxury."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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