Cynthia Rowley famously crested the fashion wave early, approached, as an 18-year-old art school student on an el train in Chicago, by a fashion buyer interested in the jacket she was wearing. Invited to show up the following Monday with her “collection,” she promptly went home and sewed one up, as she recounted in a low, clear, pleasantly self-deprecating voice Tuesday at a small talk at Charlotte shop Capitol’s “beach week.” Rowley followed that sale with quick national acclaim from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and has developed an international brand, designing everything from apparel and eyewear to furniture and (partnering with her 16-year-old daughter) upcoming “kook boards”: foam surfboards named for the kind of surfer no one wants to be, but aimed at making them, part of her beloved sport, cool.
Some thoughts from her (edited for brevity and clarity, but retaining her unmistakably youthful enthusiasm):
On that jacket that led to her first break: I still have it. ... It’s baaaad. I priced it so low for all the work that went into it that it was like minimum wage, and it just flew out of the store. I was really clueless in having gone to an art school versus going to a fashion school. I didn’t understand why people wouldn’t buy these swimsuits with wings, or silver hats. It was all art and no commerce.
On what’s worked: The MO of the company is that we try to always do things that maybe haven’t been designed before: Wetsuits and Band Aids, things that people really haven’t done before. That’s the greatest reward: to be able to have an idea and be able to make it a reality. No matter how far flung or crazy it may seem. I have a patent on our flask bangle that I used to joke about: “Oh, I wish I had my flask bangle at the school play (pretending to sip from a bracelet) or at this PTA meeting” – and then one day I was like “Wait a second. I should just make those.”
On surfing: My favorite thing is we surf as a family and we surf with all our friends. It’s exhilarating. It’s such a positive energy: You’re cheering people on, you’re watching your kids do it, you’re watching your friends do it, you teach new people. It’s totally, 100 percent positive experience: There’s no technology. You’re in nature. You’re in something bigger than you, as a small part of something that you can’t control. You just have to be absorbed by it and feel the energy.
On work/life balance: My job is so mental, I can’t even think about anything except work when I’m at work. And I work long hours. Then, basically I turn a switch, when drool is coming out, and say: “OK, I’m gonna go surfing now.”
On energy and the “yes”: We’re a sporty family. People come to stay with us for the weekend and they’re like “Oh my God, I’m exhausted.” I just like the energy of family… and being positive in every part of your life. There’s so many things in life that are maybe – not. When I started my career, I spent 10 years with everybody saying no to everything that I wanted to do. People were just: Nope, nope, nope. So now, when people ask me to do stuff, I always say yes. I read somewhere that that was Andy Warhol’s thing: Say yes to everything. I think in life, saying yes to things, whether it’s scary, or new, or different, or uncomfortable: Just say yes. Just do it. It’s only going to bring good things to your life. If you say no, that’s the end. If you say yes, it might be bad – or it might be amazing.
On work and passions: I think you have to integrate work into your life. I don’t think it’s a modern way to think, that “I’m doing my work now.” You shouldn’t be thinking about what you do like that, as work. You should be thinking of something that you love to do, and then something else you love to do. Does that make sense? That’s what I hope to do.
On what’s new: I’m really excited about the (new) fitness line. It was really crazy being in the airport this morning. This lady in Starbucks, she had a suitcase and sneakers and cropped leggings and a T-shirt. I was like “Are you on your way to the gym? Are you flying to the gym?” People really dress like that. I’m of the thinking that when you are working out you should try to look amazing, and then when you’re not working out, you should not look like you’re working out.
About presentation: For a long time, I’ve been trying to reinvent the runway concept. I always thought, “You’re a fashion designer. You should be always forward-thinking – so why do people show their collections in the exact same way it’s always been done?” What’s the end product? That’s the photography. So why would you basically spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and tell the models to run past the photographers and hope to get a good shot? So we did some things with photography and interactive presentations, and recently we’ve been making these little films. For this collection, we had the idea that we were going to go to Montauk and build this 200-foot mirrored runway and have it on the beach and shoot the girls with drones, and have a runway show on the beach. Sounds … reasonable. Maybe a little far-fetched. (She recalls the successful-in-the-end venture, with a tale that includes beach permitting, tsunamis, boat captains and boys’ underwear.)
On Fashion Weeks, runway shows and the way seasons are presented collectively now: It’s such a chaotic thing, the way it’s done now. It’s so crazy, it doesn’t make it easy for anyone. I think it’s exciting if somebody says, “I’m having a show next week.” I’m like: “Cool! I’m not busy! I can squeeze it in!” I do think big shows are super-exciting. So maybe if (designers) want to do it, and then not do it, that’d be OK, too. (People now) can just see the clothes on Vogue.com or Refinery29. By the time stuff gets into the stores, people are tired of it. That’s the thing about doing a big show and putting it out there – then it just sits there. (The process can) make it more exciting to shop for more under-the-radar designers.
On the wisdom of youth: My fifth-grade daughter and two of her friends at a sleepover totally raided my closet. They put on everything and I was like: “Whoa. That looks – amazing!” They had leggings and my shoes and a hat and all these layers on. I was like: I want to dress like that! It’s a way more exciting and personal way (to dress), and it doesn’t make you self-conscious: “Does this work with this?” Everything works! Just put it on!