Boundless creativity

CYNTHIA ROWLEY

For more than three decades, Cynthia Rowley has delighted women worldwide with fashion that seeks to empower and inspire. 

“I never do anything just because ‘that’s the way it’s supposed to be,’” says Cynthia Rowley. If I’m inviting people to a runway show, I want to entertain them. For me, that means fearless risk-taking and really wanting to have fun.

Cynthia’s creations are indeed the antithesis of conformist and ordinary. Her iconic ready-to-wear clothing collections have become synonymous with vivacity and freedom of spirit. Most of all, they are a celebration of femininity, effortlessly combining the likes of optimistic colors, artistic prints and ethereal airs.

Since its foundation in New York City, Cynthia Rowley’s label has delighted and flourished. Critical acclaim, industry honors and, above all, millions of exuberant wearers around the world bear testament to its success. 

Cynthia’s prodigious creativity started early. At the age of seven, she was already a maven of the needle and thread. Throughout her youth, she lovingly made clothes for herself and friends, experimenting with new styles and constantly defying conventions. Not only did she make what she lacked, she conjured up what hadn’t existed.

When I was growing up, I often found I didn’t have the things that all the other girls at my high school seemed to own multiple versions of, recalls Cynthia. But I would tell myself I didn’t need that fancy turtleneck or whatever and that I’d just make something myself that was more interesting. So, I evolved into a way of thinking that anything is possible.

This can-do spirit extends far beyond her design studio. A self-confessed adrenaline junkie, Cynthia is a passionate surfer. And it was during a session on her board in the sea by her beloved Montauk, New York, that led to one of her many eye-catching innovations. 

I was in the water and got talking with one of the head guys from Quiksilver Roxy, says Cynthia. He was like, ‘oh, you’re that designer – and you surf! You should design something for us.’ We teamed up almost immediately after that to work on a new wetsuit collection.

Cynthia’s vision was for a wetsuit that was not merely functional but also fashionable. I was coming at the project with a designer’s eye, she observes. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with what they were already doing; I just saw different possibilities. But the factories couldn’t see a way to realize my idea.

I’ve never felt there were limits when rethinking physical objects, experiences or businesses.

The manufacturers’ skepticism did not dishearten Cynthia. Determined to create a wetsuit that not only provided insulation but also radiated allure, she set about learning the intricacies of their design and build. The solution was to take away the outer layers to be printed artistically in Como, Italy. The printed skins could then be grafted onto the wetsuits. We blew people’s minds because they had never seen anything like it before, says Cynthia.

Wetsuits have become a prized staple of every Cynthia Rowley collection. Despite her love of riding the waves, Cynthia didn’t want her invention to be confined to her fellow surfers. It’s great how people who’ve never been on a surfboard buy our wetsuits, says Cynthia. It’s fine just to love the look and use them for swimming in a cold pool or lake – sometimes, that’s what I do. And if owning the wetsuit encourages them to take a surfing lesson, maybe that’ll end up changing their lives, as it did for me. 

Instead of providing women with looks for them to aspire to, Cynthia’s philosophy is to empower and inspire. She balks at the notion of creating an ideal female. Having women saying ‘ooh, I want to be her,’ is not what we’re about, she says. What I want them to say is ‘I want to do that. I want to experience that.’ So that’s what our stuff is aiming to do – getting women to create their own experiences. That could be getting on a snowboard or skis, picking up a golf club for the first time or having the experiences they do when they wear a certain dress.

The relentless drive to reimagine the ordinary has taken Cynthia well beyond the realm of clothing. Adhesive bandages, rugs, fragrance and Timex x Cynthia Rowley water-resistant watches are just a few of the items to which she has lent her inimitable touch over the years.

 

You should always have beauty, whatever it is, she says with a smile. I always asked myself why I couldn’t do bathroom fixtures, or a mattress printed almost like a canvas.

The latest extension is wallpaper, a move that Cynthia sees as a no-brainer given her flair for beautiful prints. Where might her creative adventure take her thereafter? I am constantly exploring things that are overlooked and taken for granted, she replies. I’ve never felt there were limits when rethinking physical objects, experiences or businesses. It’s a kind of ‘boundless creativity,’ if you like. So, stay tuned – we guarantee to surprise!

 

The enthusiastic embrace of change has been a defining feature of Cynthia’s label throughout its three-and-a-half-decade existence.

The eruption of the COVID pandemic prompted a much less welcome variety of rethink for Cynthia, as for many other creatives and entrepreneurs. With the world lurching toward shutdown in mid-March 2020, she wondered whether there would be any future for the business she had devoted much of her life to building. I said to myself on the Friday, ‘well, that was a nice career I had there.’ But by Monday morning, I was like, ‘figure this out, Cynthia. Reimagine the entire way we work, start from scratch and let’s totally kill this.’

Gathering with a handful of her team members, Cynthia conceived a plan to become leaner and nimbler. This meant retaining only the label’s best brick and mortar stores and those where she owned the real estate. From then on, they would also work just three months out at a time, making small quantities as quickly as possible, and using data and analytics to decide when to replenish each line.

Leaner has also proved to be greener. We’ve stopped overproducing, says Cynthia of her new approach. By making only small quantities and doubling down on our marketing, we do much more full-price selling with no waste whatsoever. There is no longer excess inventory piled up in some giant warehouse somewhere, which is going to end up getting dumped in landfill.

Sustainability has long been a cause dear to Cynthia’s heart. Her label’s surf and swimwear had always been produced with green technology at every stage to lessen the environmental impact. This included using earthmined limestone neoprene and recycled materials instead of petro-chemicals, thus conserving water resources and shrinking the company’s carbon footprint. The enthusiastic embrace of change has been a defining feature of Cynthia’s label throughout its three-and-a-half-decade existence. She describes herself as excited by everything new and averse to nostalgia. The way we work now is so beautiful and streamlined. The world is so much more interconnected thanks to content and global supply chains. When I started out, it was all very fragmented, with no social media. Sometimes I wonder how I ever found anything without the internet. It was like herding cats the whole time.

Likewise, Cynthia finds herself inspired by her industry’s new generation, in whom she sees fearlessness but little ego. The younger designers of today can do things smaller: testing an idea,learning from it, growing their audience and then maybe doing something completely different. They take inspiration and execute quickly, which is exactly what an entrepreneur should do. It’s a balance of art and commerce, of the left and right brain.  

I’m incredibly grateful for how things have worked out, she says. I always tell my team how lucky we are to be in a position where we can get an idea and we have a vocabulary to communicate that idea. I’d say that is the never-ending best part of my job: having an idea and then making it into a reality.

Cynthia’s realities – and the experiences they help create – continue to delight millions of women around the world every day.

Cynthia Rowley: My life

I was born and raised in Barrington, Illinois, as one of three children. My mother is an artist and my father was a science teacher. I feel I was very lucky to grow up in an artistic household. In fact, I wasn’t even aware there was any other way of life. We didn’t have much in the material sense, but our parents were highly creative with what they gave us. Rather than buying stuff, we would make birthday cards and gifts for each other. In the summer, we’d go camping. We always focused on what we could do for each other rather than what we didn’t have.

I almost took it for granted that I was going to study painting. I went to the Art Institute in Chicago, and while I was there, I did an internship at one of the art studios. One of the realizations I had was that painting is typically a very solitary endeavor. But I really love working as a team, as I thrive on the social aspect. Having sewed since the age of seven and made clothes for myself and others throughout my youth, I decided to switch from studying art to fashion. And it was amazing. They encouraged pure creativity without commercial considerations.

I’m proud to describe myself as a citizen of the world.

I think it was one Friday during my senior year at the Institute, I was wearing this crazy jacket on the L-train in Chicago. A woman asked me where I’d got it and I told her it was my own creation. Although I must have looked like I was 12, she gave me her card and invited me to her office with my collection on the Monday. I sewed like mad that whole weekend to create five pieces, which I took with me. She loved them and placed an order, which I priced ridiculously cheap. It sold immediately and she came back to me for more. 

I’ve always had a very optimistic outlook. That might come from having grown up in a loving environment, which makes you more positive about the world. But that’s not to say it’s always been easy for me, either. I remember I’d got word I’d been awarded Best New Designer by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. And the next day, my accountant called saying things weren’t really working out, that they didn’t see this going for the long haul: ‘Maybe you should just, like, quit now.’

Doing the Ageless podcast with my daughter Kit has been incredible fun. It started just as a way for us to spend more time together. The pandemic saw us switch from a studio to home, which enabled us to be ourselves more, just sitting there talking. We explore fashion, business, wellness and motherhood through the lens of our adventures around the world. We have an unusual but wonderful relationship. She’s very measured. She’s the one who’ll always say ‘Mommy, we have to leave now,’ but I’m like, ‘oh, we’re just having so much fun.’ We also collect art together, mostly women artists.

I’m proud to describe myself as a citizen of the world. My global citizenship is rooted in being curious about life. It means constantly showing curiosity, gratitude and a sense of adventure. My sustainability mission falls into that. I think that sums up everything.

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