Designer Cynthia Rowley Accepted an Award at SCAD for Her Major Contributions to the Fashion Industry

CFDA-award winning fashion designer Cynthia Rowley was only seven years old when she began sewing and created her first garment. “I laid some fabric on the floor, laid on top of it and traced around myself like a crime scene and then cut it out and sewed it together,” she joked while in conversation with Kimberly Rabanal, professor of Fashion Marketing and Management at Savannah College of Art and Design, minutes after accepting the university’s prestigious Étoile Award at SCAD’s Atlanta campus — an accolade awarded every year to “the biggest and brightest stars of the fashion, style and design realms” according to the university’s website. Previous winners include Jason Wu and Carolina Herrera.

Years after her first creation, Rowley developed a collection that was full of “big furry mohair sweaters”, which were ideal for the local climate since she was studying fashion design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After that, she explained, “I found a guy who was like, ‘if you buy me a plane ticket, I’ll take your collection to New York and I’ll sell it for you.’” To her surprise, the man came back a few days later having sold around 400 pieces to big stores such as Bendel’s and other smaller downtown boutiques.

From there, the designer made a habit of following her instincts and various curiosities, explaining, “my early career was always based on like, ‘okay, that sounds like a good idea. I’ll do that.’’ It has been this carefree attitude, she believes, that has prevented her from focusing too much on the follow through of her creations, or being scared about the future. Since launching her eponymous label in the 1980s, fashion has remained a vehicle for her own creative exploration.

For example, it was later in life that Rowley became deeply interested in surfing. “It was meditative and I loved everything about it,” she told the audience. However, she disliked wearing a men’s wetsuit in the water and thus, decided to create her own. Still, it took time for people to catch on since she had been previously known for making “pretty, frilly and girly dresses” while in contrast the wetsuits made her look like a “superhero”. That didn’t stop Rowley from making them, and nowadays she’s considered the pioneer of a trend called “surf-leisure” — a concept that incorporates the adventure and empowerment inherent in water sports and other physical activities, which is an aesthetic the designer says is now reflected in everything she creates.

Recently, Rowley designed a custom burkini wetsuit for Halima Aden, a Muslim model and activist who was the cover star for the 2019 swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. Featuring long sleeves, a hood, and a skirt that falls above the knee, the item is now for sale via the brand’s website, thereby making the product accessible to the masses. Regarding the design, Rowley expressed, “I think for a lot of Muslim women, they weren’t able to even go in the water and now this is giving them the freedom to do that.” The designer hopes the wetsuits will help inspire more people to spend time in the water, try water sports, and feel comfortable and secure doing so.

Furthermore, taking risks remains a hallmark of Rowley’s career, “I just think if you have an idea, you have to do it,” she reiterated. “I like to experiment and push the boundaries and really just have fun.” Last September, Rowley debuted her Spring/Summer 2019 collection working with 20 professional female roller skaters who were casted via flyers posted all around New York City. Skating and rolling down a street in the West Village, the models showed how the brand’s clothing could be worn for all kinds of real activities, while also nodding to the empowerment inherent in women’s roller skating. Rowley, who calls herself a “pathological optimist” says she is “game for anything” and that her motto is “say yes to everything.” Note: Cynthia Rowley branded roller skates will soon be available for purchase.

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