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Q&A with Sanibel resident and designer Carolyn Fell

By Staff | Aug 27, 2009

Carolyln Fell is an effervescent happy soul. Her and her husband Derek moved to Sanibel this year. A designer by trade she finds her creative juices flowing on the islands.

Where did you spend your childhood?

I was born on a farm in Seville, Ohio, a small hamlet in the North central part of the state. I was the third of four siblings – 20 years apart- two older sisters, me, and a younger brother. We all helped on the farm – I fed the chickens, gathered the eggs and slopped the hogs.

In summer, my older sisters were allowed to drive the tractor assisting my mother and father in the fields. As the farm was agricultural, there was not much time for a dreaming young girl to find pleasure in the picking of beautiful blossoms – but I did, and every day searched endlessly for the best wildflowers, enveloped in the joy of color combinations. My world was complete.

What brought you to Sanibel?

Two years ago my youngest step-daughter, Victoria, was determined to have a destination wedding. They pondered many locations, but her father suggested Sanibel Island. It was beyond perfect! I have traveled all over the world to many of the most magical countries, but the weekend of her wedding was beyond a dream. As I prepared her wedding bouquet I knew I had found my new home.

Where did you live before coming to Sanibel?

I have had the great fortune to have lived in many beautiful locations, but the latest (for the last 15 years) has been in Bucks County, Penn., on a 20-acre farm where my husband and I cultivate a display garden we occasionally open to the public.

What do you enjoy most about island


The every day question of how much time I can spend on the beach, how far can I walk or cycle, how many Ibis can I photograph, which color to add to a painting waiting on the drawing board, which plants will be added to the garden, and how many guests can I entertain in the evening.

What do you do for a career?

Most recently I have begun to focus on garden design, but other forms of design interest me. Once clearly understood, artistic design skills are adaptable to many fields. Presently I am enjoying the creation and implementation of gardens both here on Sanibel Island and several locations in the Pennsylvania and New York.

We heard you are a fashion designer. Can you share what that is like?

Fashion is as swift as the wind — it is changing every moment and we can easily be caught up in the drama and glamour of it – or simply turn a blind eye to it! Good design demands pushing the envelope – creating outside of the box. It is demanding but exhilarating. For me, whether creating a beautiful garden or a color combination for a new fabric, it is the love of the creative process that is the most rewarding.

What famous fashion designers did you work with? Word on the street is that you worked for Calvin Klein – what is he like?

Calvin was one of my critics when I studied fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York City. He was soft spoken but very specific in his direction and taught “less is more”. To this day I reflect upon his comments no matter what I am designing – floral, interior or gardens. I was most fortunate to be the creative force in the development of Calvin Klein Boys. I also started Pierre Cardin Boys, Munsingwear Boys etc. Most think a woman should design women’s clothes. However, as I sold shirts and ties at Barney’s Mens Store in NYC to support my tuition, I became engulfed with the continuity in men’s clothing design. Although my first design position was to develop Gant for Women, I quickly turned my focus to the creation of men’s wear for Alan Flusser, Robert Peritz, Manhattan, Henry Grethel ‘Equipment’, Munsingwear and Robert Bruce.

What is your favorite piece that you created?

Pierre Cardin men’s underwear!

How hard is it to get into the fashion designer world?

Receiving my BFA in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design truly launched me into the fashion world. It was three years of very intense work, but I know I would not have enjoyed the extent of my career without this introduction to the industry. Since New York city is the hub of fashion, it is imperative to be based there. I lived in New York for 20 years and traveled the world for product development.

What one piece of advice would you give to people as far as being fashionable?

Maintain a point of view. Don’t be afraid to express your individuality! Avoid looking like you are wearing a “label” – mix and match products to create a look that is your own fashion statement.

Aside from your fashion career we also heard you spent some time in the Washington D.C. political arena. Can you tell us a little bit about what you did and what your experience was like?

Wow! I went to Washington to work as a congressional aid to John Tunney (boxer Gene Tunney’s son) then a freshman congressman from California. This lead me to meeting many congressmen and senators such as Senator Ted Kennedy who was a collage roommate of Mr. Tunney and a close family friend. Later I was recruited to be the military liaison officer for Congressman Sam Gibbons of Tampa. It was from there that I found my self interviewed by the FBI who thought I might have been involved in the Watergate scandal. Although they thought I might have handled some sensitive papers I was cleared after some intense interrogation. It was a dramatic moment and helped me decide to give up on my goals to be a congresswoman, and instead travel the world and make pretty clothes. I applied to Parsons and was accepted, so that ended my political ambitions.

Any other pursuits aside from fashion and politics?

I love to lecture and work as a stylist. I design garden sets for the QVC television shopping channel, special private commissions such as weddings.

Do you have any

hobbies or pastimes?

Many, but the most challenging and enjoyable for me is to paint. Water color, wet on wet is my first choice, pencil sketching is next.

What is your family life like?

Great. I have three beautiful (full grown) step children. Tina is a fashion designer; Derek Jr. is the manager of a large Japanese restaurant, and Victoria (the reason I found Sanibel !!) is a graphic designer. My husband, Derek, in addition to being the cartoonist for the Islander, is a world renowned garden photographer and author of books on travel and gardening.

What are your long/short-term goals?

Although my fashion design career was men’s wear I am in the development stages of creating a line of women’s beach wear fabricated in eco-friendly cloth made from soy and bamboo. The designs are inspired by my Sanibel Island paintings and photography.

Any words of wisdom for living a happy life? How can people copy your cheery smile?

Be enthusiastic about your work and seek new directions to grow. Enjoy meeting people, and most of all live on Sanibel.