Though her name may be most commonly associated with her edgy-yet-accessible women’s wear designs and signature floral prints, there’s actually not much in the way of apparel and lifestyle essentials that fashion designer and local mom-of-two Cynthia Rowley hasn’t put her chic-meets-sporty style stamp on since incorporating her business in 1988. “If I made really ratty, ripped-up jeans and cut-offs, then I would never need to shop for anything [outside my brand],” Rowley says with a laugh when asked about how much her own personal style is reflected in her brand. “Otherwise, everything else—wetsuits, swimsuits, fitness, dresses—we make!”
A passion for making and creating—manifested in designs that are at once fresh and innovative, as well as beautifully consistent—is a quality that’s at the heart of both the Cynthia Rowley brand and Rowley’s own approach to work and life. “There’s a certain amount of un-knowing that makes the creative process exciting,” she explains, as we chat in her new downtown show-room (a short distance from her whimsical West Village store-front) on an August morning punctuated by summer rain storms. “Like, if you’re too organized about everything, you’re not taking any chances.”
Some notable examples of Rowley’s chance-taking that have paid off, as of late, include her fairytale-worthy West Village candy store and private party space, CuRious Candy, and a line of office and school supplies for Staples (in stores now). And her latest aesthetic adventure? A fitness line called ROWLEY, which hit stores with its first full collection (for fall/winter 2015) last month, following the success of a spring/summer 2015 capsule collection. ROWLEY invites shoppers to get physical in the coolest way with high-performance tops, leggings, athletic socks, puffy jackets and vests, and athletic bags, all imbued with the signature CR combo of soft, floral femininity and tough-girl grit (as evidenced in the look she wears here and on our cover).
For Rowley, an Illinois native and alum of the Art Institute of Chicago, the foray into athletic apparel is not only a natural progression of popular picks from her ready-to-wear and swim collections—like eye-catching leggings and unique surfer-chic wetsuits—but also a reflection on her own lifestyle. Outside of the fashion realm, Rowley is an active and enthusiastic mom, who loves surfing, traveling, and playing sports with her daughters (16-year-old Kit and 10-year-old Gigi) and husband (gallery owner, editor, and writer Bill Powers, whom Rowley is partners with in the contemporary art retail platform Exhibition A). “For me, there are two things that I love: I love the people I work with and I love hanging out with my family,” she says. “And everything else is just in between.”
How would you describe the aesthetic of the Cynthia Rowley brand?
It’s sort of two different things—sporty and pretty. It was always incorporated into one collection, and now we actually split it into two. The Collection itself is more pretty and a little bit sporty, but the new fitness collection, [ROWLEY], is sporty with a little bit of pretty.
Did you have an interest in fashion at a young age?
I had an interest in making things. I had an interest in creating things, but I didn’t really think about it as fashion. I used to sew and draw and make doll clothes and make clothes for myself and make all kinds of things. I used to make things and it didn’t really seem like it was about fashion, it was more about the creative process.
You originally intended to become a painter when studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, and then you changed your focus. How did that come about?
I started in fine art…and the main thing is that I thought it would be easier to make a living in fashion, which is like the craziest idea of all! I figured I’d be able to pay my rent and it didn’t really seem that different to me—making art and making clothes—at the time. The commerce part of it was something that I learned much later. At the time, when I made the decision to go from fine art into fashion, it seemed like the same thing, just fabric versus paint. I didn’t know anything about business. [The two fields] seemed equally artistic.
Tell us about ROWLEY—your new fitness line which just launched its first full collection for fall.
I approach the design of it the same way that I approach the design of the Collection. It works together as a collection, it incorporates all of our original prints, and all of those artistic elements—and then it has all the function of a normal fitness collection. All of the fabrics are technical fabrics… I think it looks really different from anything else that’s out there. For me, I wanted to do a fitness collection because we’ve been doing the wetsuits for five or six years now, and we’ve been doing leggings, so it sort of organically grew.
Was there anything about working on ROWLEY that you particularly enjoyed or that was different from other design experiences you’ve had?
In any creative endeavor, I think having certain restrictions gives you a discipline that makes it more of a challenge and makes it so you need to be more creative when designing. So, that’s what I like about the fitness collection: Everything must have 100 percent function. You really have to, first and foremost, incorporate that, and then, [think about] how can you embellish that, design-wise and visually. I like that it has those restrictions. And also, I feel like fitness is a new category that a lot of designers haven’t really done. A lot of [designers] are doing it and there’s a lot of fantastically beautiful, great stuff out there, but I like that it’s kind of a new thing. That’s why I love doing wetsuits, because nobody really does that. Anytime you can be the big fish in a small pond, it’s always good. I guess I’m really a small fish in a small pond, in [terms of] fitness, but it’s also sort of a community…people talk about the designers who are doing fitness as a little group, which I think is nice.
The Cynthia Rowley fall/winter 2015 ready-to-wear collection will be in stores soon as well—tell us about the mood of these looks.
I’m actually really excited about fall because there’s tons of lace, which is so pretty and sexy—that goes into the “pretty” side of [my brand]. There’s lace, embellishment, and sequins. [Editor’s note: Scroll down to see the Cynthia Rowley Fall 2015 Digital Runway video]
Fashion Week is coming up in mid-September—can you give us any insider insight into what it’s like preparing for that?
Well, it’s always stressful, no matter how many times you do it… [But] I have worked with the same team forever and we really have a ton of fun together. Everybody, creatively, has different points of view and very individual input, which I love… Over the last month it’s been a cacophony of ideas, and it’s interesting to see what filters out and what the final end product from all of those ideas is—what edits down and what rises to the top. It really doesn’t happen until literally days before [Fashion Week]. You just have to put it all out there…and never say “never” to anything and just say “yes” to everything… Every day, the collection evolves, and we really make things. I feel like it’s a lot like how a painter looks at a painting. We put down a foundation…and everything that layers on top is left to chance, which is what makes it fun.
Your brand offers women’s wear, swimwear, wetsuits, handbags, eyewear, legwear, color cosmetics, fragrance, and fitness, as well as many other ventures—including CuRious Candy, office products for Staples, and a home furnishings line. What draws you to expand to new projects?
Going way back to [my collaboration with] Target, people said it would be the end of my career, but I really believed that that’s the way people shopped. You would invest in great clothing, but you’d also want some disposable things. And now, it’s become the paradigm for every designer to do something like that… It’s also exciting and fun to do something that’s never been done before—like Band-Aids or wetsuits or the desktop and office supplies. I try to think about it in terms of one big world.
How does being a mother influence your professional life?
I always thought it was easier to incorporate my family into my work life than to incorporate work into my family. So, I’ve always lived and worked nearby so my family comes to visit [me at work]… When I’m at home, I don’t really work. When I’m with my kids and my family, and weekends especially—our weekend house doesn’t even have TV or WiFi or anything, and people say to my kids: “What do you guys do?” And they’re like: “We talk to each other! We play games, we draw, all kinds of stuff”—I try to have time to
just totally deactivate and focus on family and on fun.
What have been some of the biggest joys of motherhood for you?
I always say that [motherhood] is the thing I’m the most proud of… I have a little gold disc necklace that says “mom” on it, and I always say that, in case anything happens to me, I want people to be able to identify me as “mom,” because that’s all that matters… I always hear people ask: “How many kids do you have?” And I say: “Two,” and they go: “Ohh, that must be hard.” And I say: “No! It’s twice the fun!”
Is there anything that you particularly love or find challenging about parenting in NYC?
Well it’s totally different from how I grew up—I grew up in a really small town where, in the mornings in the summers, we’d be like: “Bye mom!” And my brothers and I would disappear for the entire day, and she’d be like: “Be home before dark!” We were 10 and we were out running around and riding our bikes—and now it’s a different situation… But there’s so much stuff to do [in the city]. We like to go to a lot of galleries and museums… There’s just a million things you can do—the parks, [riding] bikes everywhere…you could just never run out of activities.
What kinds of things does your family like to do together? Are you a close family?
We’re super tight. We all surf together, which is our thing—and my 16-year-old, she shreds, she’s really good… We’re a very sporty family, so we do lots of family trips that are focused on sports or activities, like skiing and surfing. I think when you have the same interests—and we sort of created the same interests as a family—you’ll always have that… In the summer we really can’t get enough of Montauk, and the rest of the year, any time we can, we like to travel.
Do you have any philosophies about balancing motherhood and your professional life?
This morning I was saying to Gigi, my little one: “Come over, because I found all this stuff for you to make necklaces with at work.” And a lot of people [who work here] bring their kids and we have a little activity area [for them]…so if they can come and hang out, they see their parents working and they see that hard work pays off and that this is what it takes to live the life that [they] live. Also, I’m lucky that I have the freedom to show my kids that you can be creative in your career—whether you’re creative in business or creative in other endeavors. There are no rules and you can create your own world and your own destiny… And [my kids] do love the candy store! It’s funny because my older daughter loves all the fitness and surf and swim, and then the little one is all about the candy.
Mia Weber is the deputy editor of New York Family.