Cynthia Rowley: Traveling Through Fashion and Creativity


March 4, 2022

Aida Toro

Photography by Nigel Barker

“When I come to work everyday, it is a highlight for me,” said New York based Fashion Designer, Cynthia Rowley. 

With New York Fashion Week on the horizon, designers are launching their new collections left and right. Rowley, a designer and trailblazer in the fashion industry, has walked the fashion landscape in her own unique direction. Many of you may have seen Rowley strolling the streets or riding her bike on the picturesque streets of the West Village and TribeCa, with a pop in her outfit, ready to tackle her day at her studio.

“Coming to New York was my dream, so I packed a U-Haul and drove here myself after being discovered,” said Rowley. “I started my company and really didn’t know anything about fashion…I was really naive at the time.”

Rowley is originally from Illinois and the daughter of an artist and science teacher. She was attending the Art Institute of Chicago, so naturally, she thought she’d become a painter; little did she know she’d find herself becoming a famed fashion designer. Painting and sewing were true passions for her during her time at school. Sewing turned out to play a key role to her discovery by a buyer who worked for a major retail store in Chicago. Rowley was on her way to school sporting a jacket she made when the buyer approached her and asked her to stop by the office due to her interest in viewing her collection.

“I didn’t have a collection and didn’t even know what a collection was, so I sewed five things over the weekend and brought them into her office,” she said. “She asked me about one of the pieces and thought it was cute.”

Rowley detailed that the buyer ordered pieces of the collection, noting that they sold immediately in the department store. Nowadays, her experiences with selling her collections are similar to her first ever sale. Rowley considers fashion design and business as common sense and the same basic process in a most rudimentary form.

“What’s hard about fashion is staying original, relevant, excited, curious, and working really hard for a really long time,” she said. 

Rowley has developed her name into a leading global lifestyle brand, created successfully on the philosophy where fashion should be an adventure. The brand has always been known for launching the season’s best dresses for every occasion, ready to wear items, accessories, and home decor. Most recently, surf and snow collections have been incorporated. The intersection between the dresses, ready to wear pieces, surf, and snow collections, is where the originality of the brand arrives from, Rowley comments.

Sustainability also plays a key role in Rowley’s brand production process by paying close attention to not over producing, selling out, and reproducing, since small amounts of product are created. During the pandemic, the brand didn’t experience much of a hardship, as the team adapted by doubling down on direct consumer business, truncating delivery times, and producing smaller quantities of product. She created desire within the limit. 

“People know that if you want something, it may not be there tomorrow because stuff sells out fast,” she said. “As a team, we started really just doing what was right for the brand as well as for our audience, and that was creating optimistic and colorful pieces that made people happy, which was an important pivot for us as a brand to not listen to trends.”

Even though a variety of Rowley’s pieces are on trend, she believes having a successful brand is based on listening to the audience rather than being distracted by industry influences. With activities such as skiing and surfing being in high demand, Rowley’s collections for both activities have been a hit. The surf collection was recognized as the pioneer of “surf-leisure” by Vogue, as the brand’s signature wetsuits and neoprene swimwear are manufactured utilizing recycled materials and green technology for a softer and more sustainable environmental impact. Surfing has been an activity near and dear to Rowley’s heart as she recognized the activity changed her life in a plethora of ways, from conquering her fears, savoring mother nature, meditating and more; She even launched surf camps four years ago as a passion project.

“It’s scary as hell, but very fun for me,” she said about surfing. “I like to be a little scared rather than complacent with things.”

Rowley began surfing in Montauk, New York and recently surfed at the American Dream Mall in Rutherford, New Jersey alongside her daughters and professional big wave surfer and extreme waterman Garrett ‘GMAC’ McNamara. Most importantly, surfing has provided Rowley with the gift of more family time. 

“I wanted to introduce women to surfing because it changed my life and I wanted people to experience that joy without having to be a shredder,” expressed Rowley. “I encourage people to go out there and have fun and anyone can do it.”

Family time has taken a priority in her life, evident in the fact that Rowley now hosts a podcast with her daughter Kit Keenan titled “Ageless”. The podcast explores conversations surrounding fashion, business, wellness, and motherhood through the lens of the duo’s adventures around the world. 

“It’s really fun and it started with Kit and I just sharing ideas and talking,” said Rowley. “I love podcasts because I consider them great multitasking friends to have because it feels like you have somebody there with you.”

For the upcoming fashion week, Rowley decided to hold off until March due to COVID, however, the brand has something great planned. Rowley mentioned she and her team continue to work on products as they are closer to the season. Therefore, the brand drops items once or twice a week, luring us all in with the tease as  something to look forward to.

“This time we are showing some things that’ll be the next thing people are talking about,” she said, “Things will ship from March to June and will only try to work three months out because that gives us the ability to really listen, learn as we go, and see what is working and reimagine it.”

As for recent projects, she recently partnered with the W Aspen, a high end ski-in ski out hotel, located at the base of the world-renowned Aspen Mountain. The boutique has been open to the public since December and will run until the end of April. The partnership transpired after the release of Rowley’s skiwear collaboration with activewear brand, ROXY/QUIKSILVER, which was worn by Olympic snowboarding gold medalist, Chloe Kim, for the photoshoot.

“I always felt that Aspen was a perfect market for my ‘pretty-meets-sporty’ brand, and with the launch of ski wear it was a no-brainer,” said Rowley.  “My recent trip was amazing and filled with excitement and the store crafts an atmosphere that communicates the brand’s versatility.”

Rowley looks forward to creating and being original every single day with an authenticity that she has maintained and is an inspiration to all. For her, it is an ultimate gift to be able to cultivate ideas and make them a reality. 

To keep up with Rowley, her upcoming collections, and more, follow her on Instagram over @cynthiarowley. You can also listen to her podcast “Ageless” on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.