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Public eye still on Diana gowns, less on owner

From the moment she learned of Princess Diana's death in 1997, Tampa businesswoman Maureen Rorech knew what she must do with the 13 gowns she had bought at Christie's auction.

Quickly, she established the non-profit People's Princess Charitable Foundation and created "Dresses for Humanity." She also paid for elaborate display cases and a highly sophisticated graphic chronology of where and when Diana wore the gowns and decided to underwrite the cost of transporting and exhibiting them.

At the time, Rorech was the single mother of three young sons. For 10 years, she was an executive at Romac International, a temporary help and executive search company. She and a partner had bought the company and took it public in August 1995. With her earnings from the stock, she was able to invest in M, a trio of high-end women's clothing stores, and a landmark house in south Tampa, where former U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons and his wife, Martha, were married.

In addition, she had enough to bid on and buy almost $1-million worth of Diana's dresses at the auction. Originally, Rorech saw the collection as a great way to promote M. The night of Diana's fatal crash, she was working late, writing the introduction for the M catalog.

Then Diana died, and "I saw this tremendous outpouring of grief," Rorech says.

Buying the gowns put Rorech in the public eye. The collection has been on tour for nearly two years, from Tampa to St. Petersburg to the governor's mansion in Frankfort, Ky., Washington, D.C., and Vancouver, British Columbia, where it is now on display.

Soon, the gowns _ including the famous blue velvet dress Diana wore to the White House when she danced with actor John Travolta, and the long dinner dress and tailcoat of burgundy velvet she wore to the premiere of Steel Magnolias in 1990 and on her state visit to Korea in 1992 _ return to England.

They will take their place alongside the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace State Apartments at a special exhibit scheduled Oct. 1 through March 31.

The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, which reopened in May 1998, includes displays of court dress from the 16th century to the present. "These stunning gowns will add a new dimension to the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection," says Nigel Arch, director of Kensington Palace and curator of the collection. "Visitors will see the evolution of royal style and Princess Diana's role in its development."

To date, the gowns have raised some $3-million for various charities.

Rorech, who recently married Tampa business executive David Dunkel, isn't sure whether she will be in London for the opening of the collection. These days, she's keeping a low profile and working on melding their two families.