Cynthia Rowley - Fashion Designer Encyclopedia

American designer

Born: Barrington, Illinois, 29 July 1958. Education: Studied art at Arizona State University, graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago, 1981. Family: Married Tom Sullivan, 1988 (died, 1994). Career:

Cynthia Rowley, spring 2001 collection: ensembled called "String Fever." © AP/Wide World Photos.
Cynthia Rowley, spring 2001 collection: ensembled called "String Fever."
© AP/Wide World Photos.
Senior at the Art Institute when she sold an 18-piece collection to Marshall Fields; moved to New York, 1983, incorporated business, 1988; designed costumes for dance troupes and films (including Three of Hearts and Dream Lover ); produced shoes, ready-to-wear, sportswear, dresses; introduced line of girl's dresses, 1991; taught at Parsons School of Design, New York, 1992-93; critic, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1992-94, and Marist College, New York, 1994; coauthored Swell: A Girl's Guide to the Good Life, 1995; opened Chicago store, 1995; opened Los Angeles store, 1996; signed licensing deal with Cheil Industries for Asia, 1996; introduced menswear, 1997; teamed up with Keds for shoe line, 1998; announced partnership with Pegasus Apparel Group, 2000. Exhibitions: Objects of Their Appreciation, Interart Center, New York, 1993; linen exhibition, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1993; Dupont/Lycra exhibition, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1994. Collections: Metropolitan Museum of Art Fashion Video Library, New York; Fashion Institute of Technology Permanent Collection, New York; Fashion Resource Center, Chicago Art Institute. Awards: New York Finalist, Entrepreneur of the Year, Forbes magazine, 1994; Council of Fashion Designers Perry Ellis award for New Fashion Talent, 1994. Address: 550 Seventh Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, NY, USA.




Swell: A Girl's Guide to the Good Life, with Ilene Rosenzweig, New York, 1999.



McBride, Mary, Wedding Dress, New York, 1993.

Bartlett, L., Feast for Life, Chicago, 1994.

Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York, 1996.


Finkelstein, Anita J., "Rowley Revs Up," in WWD, 6 January 1992.

"Cynthia Rowley Rises and Shines," in Mademoiselle, March 1992.

Goodman, Wendy, "Living with Style," in HG (New York), May 1992.

Levine, Lisbeth, "A Sense of Whimsy," in the Chicago Sun-Times, 3 May 1992.

Goodman, Wendy, "Fashion Designer Cynthia Rowley Serves Up 1940s Tablecloths…," in HG, May 1993.

Spindler, Amy M., "Fresh Talents Dish Up Tasty Design," in the New York Times, 5 November 1993.

Cawley, Janet, "Designer Makes Splash in New York," in the Chicago Tribune, January 1994.

Infantino, Vivian, "Rowley's Big Adventure," in Footwear News (New York), January 1994.

Trebay, Guy, "FTV," in Harper's Bazaar, August 1994.

Glusac, Elaine, "Rowley's Retail Homecoming," in WWD, 7 June 1995.

Ingrassia, Michele, "Dress for Success," in Newsweek, 13 November 1995.

Shae, Dan, "A Designer Original: Fashion Designer Cynthia Rowley," in Working Woman, March 1996.

Pogoda, Dianne M., "Rowley Expands in Asia," in WWD, 9 July 1996.

Anniss, Elisa, "Design Champion: Keds and Cynthia Rowley…," in Footwear News, 25 August 1997.

"Cynthia Rowley" in DNR, 3 August 1998.

Wilson, Eric, "Rowley's Aim for the Good Life" in WWD, 17 May 2001.


The underlying thing about my clothing is that I always think about a woman's shape. Sometimes it is a basic shape that everyone understands, but I try to make it a bit more fun. I definitely have a sense of whimsy with everything. I like clothes that are very feminine, but with an added twist. I also think a woman shouldn't have to spend a lot for great clothes; maybe it's my Midwestern practicality coming through, but I feel there's always a need for great dresses at good prices.

Cynthia Rowley, fall 2001 collection. © AP/Wide World Photos.
Cynthia Rowley, fall 2001 collection.
© AP/Wide World Photos.

For me, inspiration is very personal. A lot of what I design is inspired by where I grew up. I often do a play on the classics: tiny crop twin sets, mixed-match plaids, and polo dresses. Like everyone growing up in the suburbs, television was my link to fashion coolness— it's where I got my first sense of glamor. My clothing reflects these classics but with wit and originality.

—Cynthia Rowley


Cynthia Rowley does not think clothes should be taken too seriously; nor does she believe style and individuality must necessarily go hand in hand with a high price tag. Rowley is known for a line of dresses that are charming, easily affordable, and utterly distinctive. This winning combination enabled her sales to double twice within three years during the mid-1990s while some of her better-known colleagues had to retrench.

Rowley's clothes reflect her well-developed sense of play. Drawing on shared and familiar elements of popular American culture, she elevates the mundane, rethinking and transforming the cliché to produce garments that arrest and amuse. Yet she is careful not to push a joke too far—her clothes, though with a sense of humor for daily use, are not novelty items to be quickly discarded. Instances of her quirky style include a long, snap-fronted sleeveless dress of quilted rayon and acetate satin worn over a matching ribbed cotton turtleneck for fall 1992, with a reference to the classic hunter's vest simultaneously reinforced and subverted by a six-pack of Budweiser slung low on the model's hip.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the bottle cap, Rowley scattered them across the front of a sleeveless cotton sweater, one half of a twin set with an eye-catching twist. Her spring 1993 collection included sundresses of classic red and white tablecloth checks, supported by straps made from plastic fruits and vegetables. "I definitely like to have a little sense of whimsy with everything," she said in a 1992 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

Rowley's more traditional dresses also incorporate styling elements not often seen at her end of the market. A halter dress becomes suitable for the office when cut from classic pinstripes and paired with a white shirt. She understands that the basics need not bore and that an imaginative dialogue between cut and fabric can produce distinctive clothing in any price range. She captured renewed attention in 1995, dubbed The Year of the Dress, for her feminine, fun to wear dresses. The Council of Fashion Designers awarded her the Perry Ellis award for New Fashion Talent in 1994, even though she had been in the business for 12 years.

Rowley's approachable collections move from down-to-earth casual to fanciful fun. In 2001, Rowley explored the popular interest in denim by presenting new shapes in puffed-sleeve dresses and also mixed jeans with dressier pieces. In her fall 2001 show, she produced a circus complete with mimes and jugglers and showed two-tone skirts and mismatched stockings. While always comfortable, Rowley's clothes can also be more sophisticated, like coordinated tailored jackets, skirts, and trousers or linen suits in 1998. Rowley designs dresses and sportswear and holds licensing arrangements for lingerie, coats, shoes, handbags, and other accessories. Her lines are sold in five company-owned stores in the U.S., department stores, and in-store boutiques in Japan.

For years, Rowley has been designing clothes for a woman with a carefree life loaded with style and bravado. In 1995 Rowley and friend Ilene Rosenzweig, a New York Times writer, packaged this ideal woman in their book Swell: A Girl's Guide to the Good Life. The popular book went through five printings and was translated into five languages. Rowley and Rosenzweig were preparing two sequels and making plans for a television spin-off. Rowley, of course, welcomes the opportunity to design the television wardrobes.

—Whitney Blausen;

updated by Janette Goff Dixon

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